Because time is a flat circle and humanity is doomed to repeat its greatest failures, True Detective lives on. The third season of writer Nic Pizzolato‘s surly crime anthology, now starring Mahershala Ali, is set to debut January 13, and with a whole pizzo-lot-o’ intrigue in the air, I revisited all eight episodes of the much-maligned season 2, to see if we judged it too harshly back in those halcyon days of 2015. Reader, I was shocked to discover that…no, it’s still pretty bad, occasionally on an embarrassing level, but in a much, much more fascinating way than I remember. The many missteps of True Detective season 2 might boil down to the best definition of what True Detective even is and demonstrate the ways we might have misunderstood it from the start.
But first, some context.
Do you remember where you were when you first watched True Detective season 2? I certainly do. I had been given physical screeners back before the Great Game of Thrones Leak made HBO abolish such primitive things. I was reviewing Pizzolatto’s highly-anticipated follow-up to the phenom first season for the New York Observer, which isn’t even a newspaper anymore. For reasons I can’t quite recall, I watched those first few screeners in my childhood bedroom while my parents threw a party. When the credits rolled on those first few episodes, I trudged downstairs to join the gathering, and I’ll never forget the genuinely concerned voice of a family member asking, as I emerged, “Oh my God, are you okay?”
Folks, I was not okay. The first season of HBO’s True Detective was an unholy witches’ brew that perfectly combined a writer’s taste for grand philosophy (Pizzolatto), a director’s singular flair for the beautifully unclean (Cary Joji Fukunaga), and two dynamite leading men in Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey going for absolute broke as the drunken straight-man and his backwoods mystic partner. It was a critical hit and internet sensation that basically launched McConaughey toward his Oscar win that same year and gave Pizzolatto an almost literary auteur aura. Season 2—which would swap the swamp for Los Angeles and replace season 1’s two-handed star power with the A-list crew of Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Vince Vaughn, and Taylor Kitsch—debuted aboard an out-of-control hype train headed straight for anticipation station. It was…terrible. The first episode was terrible. And then the second episode was terrible. Eventually, the hope that season 2 would be anything other than terrible went the way of its main victim, Ben Caspere (Who? Exactly.), lost amid an incomprehensible plot, countless side-characters, rejected first-year MFA dialogue, an overestimation of how much we’d care about a crime boss’ impotence, and Colin Farrell comparing an e-cigarette to a robot’s dick.
True Detective season 2 is ostensibly about the murder of city councilman Ben Caspere, his eyes burned out with acid and crotch blown off with a shotgun. But the discovery of Caspere’s corpse spirals out into an immensely tangled web of corruption at every government level, cover-ups on cover-ups involving stolen diamonds, secret sex parties, crooked cops, and gangsters gone straight. Make no mistake, Pizzolatto does a horrible job weaving these strands together; each scene introduces a new supporting player named, like, “Lieutenant Richardson” who we won’t see for another five episodes but who will be vital to the plot. There is a moment in episode 7, “Black Maps and Motel Rooms”, when Police Chief Holloway (Afemo Omilami) emerges from the shadows in a big reveal and I said “who?” so loudly a goddamn owl crashed through my window.
But upon rewatch, it’s striking just how much that narrative mumble-jumble actually seems purposeful. There’s a reason this particular plot is set in Los Angeles, one of the most sprawling, overwhelming states in the country, a reason why the entire season is interspersed with shots of California’s endlessly crowded freeways running through and over each other like a massive snake eating its own tail. So much of True Detective season 2 is about being trapped under something impossibly large, something much larger than yourself. It’s why every major set piece of the season feels like a maze of some sort. A dream-like, Lynchian horrorshow in episode 6, “Church In Ruins”, sees McAdams’ Ani Bezzerides’ escape from a Hollywood Hills mansion that seems to be nothing but rooms, doors, and fleshy bodies, like a madman’s funhouse. Kitsch’s Paul Woodrugh meets his demise only after an exiting an underground labyrinth straight out of a Greek myth, only to meet the monster at the end: James Frain‘s ghoulish Lieutenant Kevin Burris. Farrell’s Ray Velcoro also dies in the open air during the finale, “Omega Station”, but director John Crowley paints the surrounding redwood trees as endless, a Grimm fairy tale forest from which there is no escape.
Again, the season is still a whole-ass mess for a host of reasons. Ray Velcoro tells a child he will “butt-fuck your father with your mother’s headless corpse” in the first episode and the overtly macho dialogue gets worse from there. Making famously motor-mouthed actor Vince Vaughn use the word “apoplectic” isn’t going to work out for anyone, in any scenario. “You ain’t that thing no more, what you used to was,” is somehow a line spoken by a character not having a stroke. Pizzollatto did this season’s reputation zero favors with his whiskey-as-character-development dialogue that’s delivered with such dreary, noir-parody self-seriousness you develop a cocaine habit just listening to it. I don’t think that was intentional.
But that sprawling, impenetrable plot that eventually leads nowhere? I do think that was, on some level, purposeful and for a very specific reason. True Detective, from the beginning, has never primarily been about the crime committed; it’s about the broken men and women on the case. It truly does not matter who killed Ben Caspere, or who is involved in a corrupt rail line development, or who the fuck Stan is. We should’ve known this from the moment season 1’s occult-tinged plotline didn’t end in a supernatural trip to Carcosa or the arrival of a Lovecraftian beast from beyond, but with two men in a hospital room simply finding solace in humanity. Season 2 piles on the plot points because it’s about people so far up shit’s creek that they’d feel redeemed if they could chop just one head off the Hydra, get one win in a life full of losses. It harkens back, again, to the end of season 1; Rust and Marty didn’t uncover or stop a grand conspiracy, but they did get their man. We just didn’t notice the similarities because McConaughey had monologued us into a trance while Fukunaga kept us inside a visual whirlwind.
So really, True Detective season 2 is still a hot mess, but it’s a misunderstood mess. People wanted Easter Eggs and got only broken shells. There’s no denying that the entire journey is infuriating—like me, you’ll come away from a rewatch feeling mighty apoplectic yourself—but I can at least respect that it’s interested in something more human than background clues and hidden numbers. That’s not nearly as fun, but, as the title suggests, it’s a lot truer. Give it another go. You might find it ain’t that thing no more, what it used to was.
God, that’s a terrible line.