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True Detective Season 2 Finale Review: Never Big on Running

True Detective S02E08: "Omega Station"

After eight weeks of frustrating, erroneously plotted, and occasionally evocative TV, True Detective Season 2 is over. For those Twitter eggs out there in the universe who suggested that we needed to see the entire season before making any substantial judgments on the story, the mystery, and character arcs, we've now seen it all. We've now seen presumably everything an unchecked Nic Pizzolatto wanted his Very Important Show to be. And having seen all eight-and-a-half hours, I feel very confident in the following statement: This show was bad. No qualifications, no considerations of Season 1, no bullshit; It was absolutely not good. This season finale in particular was one of the most lifeless, lumbersome, bloated pieces of try-hard TV that I've seen in recent years.

Well, maybe I should give the show and "Omega Station" come credit. The finale began not with any kind of intense pick-up in the aftermath of Paul's death, but back-to-back ponderous and repetitive scenes between the show's two big couples: Ray and Ani and then Frank and Jordan. While these sequences technically offered new information that moved the story along—Ani wasn't assaulted in the traditional sense but instead chose to go out in the woods with the Manson-looking fellow, Frank revealed his plan to Jordan, etc.—they moved at such a glacial pace, and featured overly-methodical line deliveries from the actors to signify seriousness. They were bad and a sign of things to come in what turned out to be an overlong finale that featured a couple of moderately thrilling and culminating sequences and then a lot of people repeating names and information in dark rooms. But in this regard, the show stayed true to itself this season, assuming that poorly constructed or weakly developed relationships were the selling point of the story.

It's always difficult to watch shows that fail to—or simply choose not to— course correct over their duration, but it's most difficult to experience them at the finale stage, when badly conceived beats and arcs coalescence into moments that are treated as special and important and ultimately fall flat. Though I wrote about that with regards to last week's answer-heavy penultimate episode, it was even more of a problem in "Omega Station" because it quickly became apparent that there wasn't much left of the story to tell, and yet somehow we had to trek through a feature-length amount of sludge.

Once Ani and Ray did indeed learn about Paul's death, they came to the revelation that the weird set photographer from "Night Finds You" was likely Leonard, the other orphaned child from the 1992 robbery-homicide that set this entire train of corruption in motion. They came to this not really through any kind of detective work, but because they just figured it out. There are a million ways to conceive of a serial procedural story, but moving from one beat to another, or determining the hows and whys and whos of a case serve an important function in making that story successful. Pivoting toward a conclusion via Ray's sudden epiphany—particularly after a season's worth of already weak investigation-related stories that mostly revolved around Paul looking at a computer screen and then walking files into rooms—was shoddy at best and embarrassing at worst.

And it only got worse from there. The trip to the set photographer's place divulged a few key pieces of information—he was the one who shot Ray, as his rage over discovering what sister Laura/Erica had been doing to frame Caspere sent him into a murderous rage—and from there, the difficult men and Pizzolatto of it all took over, with Ray and Frank handling much of the action while their respective women took direction with the primary intent of staying safe.

The sequence at the rail station, with Ray confronting Leonard and then trying to lure Holloway and Burris into a tricky situation, featured flashes of tension and excitement, as did Frank and Ray's mowing down of Osip and the Catalyst crew up north. Yet, both sequences were surrounded by some numbing action. The power of the last 20-25 minutes required the audience to give a crap about Ray and his son, Ray and Ani's new relationship, and Frank's internal struggle with pride and survival. Unfortunately, as I discussed last week, the show never really successfully developed any of those stories or relationships in such a way that made me feel like the time spent on them was actually worthwhile.

That's not on the actors, by the way. For all the chatter about what Vince Vaughn could or could not do in the Frank role, he figured some things out in the back half of the season here and probably ended up my favorite part of the show. The last-second return of the Santa Muerte dudes was not necessarily unexpected but, again, one of those elements that never gained traction before the finale, so couldn't really pack a punch in the final episode. But Vaughn did a really fine job in playing out Frank's string. That parade of past sins and reprieves could have gone so poorly, but Vaughn made it work (with help from director John Crowley and Nigel Buck's cinematography).

Rachel McAdams had her big moment with the orgy episode a few weeks back and was saddled with some less successful stuff here, but she turned in the most consistent performance of the season and made the most interesting choices to produce a relatively coherent character. Colin Farrell, my man, kind of lost his mojo as the show stripped away Ray into a puddle of stern faces and grave whispers. You would have hoped that a couple of showdowns and shootouts would have brought back some zip in Farrell's performance, but it just didn't happen. Nice cowboy hat, though.

The end of the story was fine, given everything else that came before it. That Ani and Jordan (and Nails!) made their way to Venezuela to become a quasi-family—complete with Ray and Ani's lovechild!—and attempt to take down the remaining folks affiliated with Catalyst, the rail corridor, Vinci, and the conspiracy by bringing in the L.A. Times reporter Ray beat up all the back in the premiere, made sense given the story that Pizzolatto chose to tell. The same goes for the idea that many of the evil men involved in the conspiracy got away unscathed; Tony Chesani got his wish and became mayor of Vinci, the attorney general didn't face much blowback, and the railway project moved forward. People will compare this to Season 1's "the light is winning" speech and think there's a bleakness to it, and while that's true, it's only partially so. A lot of bad people were never fully implicated and/or caught during Season 1's investigation, too. That's the genre in which Pizzolatto is playing.

Speaking of the genre conventions, when I think about what went so wrong with Season 2 of True Detective, it's not that it traded in clichés and formulas that we've seen dozens and dozens of times. It's that it did such a poor job of executing those clichés and formulas that it was never entirely possible to simply go along for the ride in a fun genre exercise.

Even more so, I keep thinking about some of the weirdness that was sprinkled among those first couple of episodes and how almost none of that remained in the show from the fourth episode onward. Ray's wild side, the bird mask, the oddly grizzly way in which Caspere was killed, the Conway Twitty dream sequence at the gates of hell (or something), Dr. Pitlor, Mayor Chesani's family, the history of the free or alternative thought groups—none of that REALLY mattered by the time we got to "Omega Station" and Ray was trying to upload a voice memo to his son in the middle of a shootout. Those flourishes, be they little character tics created by Piz or stylistic bursts brought forth by directors, cinematographers, and editors, rapidly disappeared from the True D equation, and all that was left was a sloppily executed exercise in genre storytelling.

Maybe Pizzolatto simply had too many ideas for this season and ran out of storytelling real estate. Or maybe HBO should have never let him have full reign over this anticipated next installment of the franchise when it was clear other factors made Season 1 pretty great. And maybe they all shouldn't have rushed into a Season 2 if everything wasn't in place. All those things are probably true. But you know what else is true? This was not good.


CASE NOTES


– Seriously though, that the Chesani family was positioned as so integral, and ultimately WAS, yet we rarely spent time with any of them is a significant crime against these last few episodes. Austin ended up dead, the son was kind of the big bad and yet appeared in like three episodes, and the daughter played by Emily freaking Rios, was around for a week. What in the blue hell happened there?

– I appreciate that Piz believes a young teenage boy who has already had trouble with bullies could carry around his grandfather's old badge in a box and somehow not get FURTHER bullied. Sure man, sure.

– Frank was literally stabbed in the diamonds. And he said that Stan's kid was made of gold. SYMBOLISM? I have no idea. Shout out to Stan though. What a dude, you know?

– So is Nails just going to stick it out with Jordan and Ani forever? It's approximately 10-11 months later and he's surely not being paid anymore. That's commitment he absolutely learned from Stan, right?

What did you think of the True Detective finale?

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