This article contains spoilers for “True Detective” Season 2. Agree with the writer’s defense? Couldn’t disagree more? Let us know in the comments.
The first season of HBO’s “True Detective,” which aired in 2014, ended with Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) looking up at the night sky, lamenting the darkness.
Still, Rust was optimistic: “You ask me, the light’s winning,” he said.
Season 2 upended that optimism by transporting the series from Louisiana to Los Angeles, a place where the stars are smothered by smog. People hated it, complaining in particular about convoluted plotting, questionable casting and an unrelentingly bleak tone. The season was so widely considered a failure, that the fate of “True Detective” seemed to hang in the balance for almost two years before a third outing was confirmed. It debuts Sunday on HBO.
But was Season 2 really that bad? This suspect was wrongfully convicted.
The show was a victim of its own success
With the third season already receiving positive buzz, Season 2 of “True Detective” is likely to disappear into the history books of prestige TV. But it doesn’t deserve that fate. It was ambitious, complex television, anchored by strong performances and expert direction. (You heard right.) And its tableau of political corruption feels even more relevant today than it did in 2015.
Season 2 stars Colin Farrell as Ray Velcoro, a cop in a fictional California city named Vinci (modeled after Vernon). Ray has close ties to the career criminal Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), and their lives are upended by the murder of a double-dealing city manager named Ben Caspere — a case that also ensnares the highway patrol officer Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) and criminal investigator Antigone Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) within a tangled web that also involved a high-speed rail boondoggle, a deadly shootout at a meth lab and secret sex parties of the political elite.
Assessing the show’s second season is easier if you put aside the expectations set by the first. It is, first of all, wildly, ambitiously different: While it once again explores the failures of modern masculinity, it does so through a different lens, de-emphasizing the murder-mystery conventions in favor of a multicharacter urban drama.
The first season is driven by two strong protagonists — a pair of unforgettable detectives obsessed with the same case. Season 2 supplants that relationship with a broader portrait of a corrupted city, as seen through the eyes of four characters who in some cases barely interact. By the time Caspere’s murder was solved, most viewers had lost the plot and no longer cared, unwilling to accept that the season was never really about who killed Ben Caspere.
But in hindsight, it is clear that the central mystery in Season 2 was always just a backdrop for the show’s thematic undercurrents.
[Read The Times’s original review of Season 2 of “True Detective.”]
Trauma was the main character
For the second season, the series’s creator, Nic Pizzolatto, presented viewers with a world in which everyone is shaped by trauma: Semyon’s childhood, Woodrugh’s combat experiences, Bezzerides’s dark past, Velcoro’s murder of his wife’s rapist. Much of the criticism aimed at Season 2 was focused on the lack of a compelling mystery, but Pizzolatto was attempting something more ambitious than a straightforward whodunit.
Season 2 is full of gorgeous overhead shots of Los Angeles freeways, but those freeways aren’t so much linking people meaningfully as spreading poison. It’s a vision of Los Angeles in which pain and desperation are everywhere, pressing people until they break, and the murder of Caspere is merely a catalyst. Loyalties are fleeting, the dots don’t always connect, and justice is often deferred, if it comes at all.
The acting was better than it got credit for
Vaughn’s clenched-jaw performance received the most ridicule, much of it unearned. He embraces the pulpy tone of Pizzolatto’s dialogue, and his scenes with Farrell are some of the series’s best. Both characters are incapable of escaping their pasts, especially as their futures become increasingly dire. They are men with less and less to hold onto, and Vaughn and Farrell become avatars of the crumbling masculinity central to much of Pizzolatto’s work.
Woodrugh could have been defined purely by his issues — post-traumatic stress, closeted homosexuality, a false accusation — but Kitsch finds subtlety in his body language. The tension in his jaw and body shows a man forcing himself to be outwardly strong in order to hide what he perceives as internal weakness.
Bezzerides demands to be perceived in the same tough manner as her male colleagues, a defense mechanism against her trauma. But as admittedly clichéd as the “overcompensating female cop” role can be, McAdams elevates it into something heartbreakingly genuine. She finds the truth in it by refusing to succumb to type, adding depth to her line readings and subtlety to her physical performance that reveal instead the emotional core her character over-protects.
The production quality was overlooked
The technical achievements of Season 2 got lost in the bad press as well. Yes, gone was the singular voice of Cary Joji Fukunaga, who directed all of Season 1. But he was replaced by a murderer’s row of film and television directors — including Justin Lin, John Crowley and Miguel Sapochnik — all of whom brought undeniable craftsmanship, enhanced by sharp editing and a pulsing score by Haxan Cloak. Almost every critic simply dismissed those qualities, obsessed with the ways in which Season 2 differed from Season 1.
And sure, Season 1 was better. But the second season wasn’t bad — it just couldn’t escape the long shadow of the first. Like its characters, it got trapped in the darkness.