[This article discusses specific details of True Detective season 2. There will be SPOILERS.]
True Detective has been kind of mess in season 2. The plot is incredibly dense and slow moving, and outside a pair of terrific performances by Colin Farrell and Rachel McAdams, it’s been difficult to become engaged with anyone else in the cast. And what a cast of characters the show has had.
Along with the roadmap needed to navigate the byzantine storyline, each episode could have benefitted from a second screen experience, wherein, on their smartphones, laptops, or tablets, the audience is given all the pertinent information when one of the many essentially one-and-done performers (i.e., Stan, Ivar, Tony Chessani, Irina, Vera, etc.) appears onscreen. But the main problem hasn’t so much been the cumbersome size of the series’ ancillary cast – or that entire episodes were spent tending to the many spinning plates that aren’t given a chance to matter (the $20,000 Paul had stashed away in his mother’s trailer and didn’t reveal until episode 5, anyone?); the problem has been that the show has struggled to give the audience – and most of its characters for that matter – a reason to be invested in what is actually going on.
There have been so many concurrent storylines running through season 2 that the important ones – you know, like the murder of Ben Caspere by the fella in a crow mask – have at one time or another been shoved aside in order for the series to stretch a relatively simple murder/land-grab conspiracy investigation into eight hours of staring at water stains, dad-punching antics, Lynchian appearances by Conway Twitty (which I loved, actually), and near heart-stopping coke binges that Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro recovered from faster than most people do after eating two pieces of pie on Thanksgiving.
The thing is: many of these additions have weighed down the cast and, more importantly, weighed down what otherwise would have been a nimble crime story, if only it was given the appropriate time to marinate and develop. But True Detective season 2 didn’t have time for that, and seeing all these potentially riveting storylines basically go unused is, if I may quote the water stain-reading poet known as Frank Semyon, “like having blue balls in your heart.”
Let’s take a look at some of True Detective‘s most promising yet underserved storylines introduced in season 2.
The Railway Expansion and Frank’s Land Pollution
Strange as it sounds, this is actually one of the more fascinating aspects of True Detective‘s storyline. Real estate, land grabs, and willful pollution for profit make for a compelling mystery to follow (just take a look at Chinatown, one of the clear inspirations for this season’s storyline), because it almost always involves an exclusive brand of seemingly untouchable criminal in order to be pulled off. And in today’s political climate, that sort of ultra-wealthy, morally corrupt, politically influential yet felonious individual is likely of particular interest to the audience.
Just the details of the government’s planned high-speed rail and what men like Osip Argonov (Timothy V. Murphy), Austin Chessani (Ritchie Coster), Ben Caspere, the Catalyst Group – and, as was revealed in ‘Black Maps and Motel Rooms,’ Tony Chessani (Vinicius Machado), the mayor’s tanned son – were up to an effort to not only secure the land at a low price (which would then be sold to the government at a premium), but also to screw Frank out of the deal (and his clubs). It makes for a depressing storyline about the vastness of corporate and governmental corruption, but a gripping one nonetheless.
Perhaps, then, this story should have been investigated further and its details and ramifications shown, instead of having them simply told by Blake (Christopher James Baker) in an enormous info dump before a belly full of lead caused him to unleash something similar on the floor of Frank’s office.
Ben Caspere’s Murder
Yes, the murder of Vinci’s city manager Ben Caspere was essentially solved in the penultimate episode, but that doesn’t change the fact that, for much of the season, the entire reason for Ray, Ani, and Paul to become a not-so-super group – and for Frank to be tangentially involved – felt more like an afterthought than the true catalyst to the story.
For one thing, the way Caspere’s ticket was punched was especially gruesome, and that alone seemed worthy of greater exploration. With his eyes burned out by acid and his genitals removed via a close-range shotgun blast, Caspere’s death wasn’t merely the result of some nefarious types looking to do away with the middleman; it was personal – or at least it should have been investigated from that understanding.
In crime fiction of this sort, the manner in which someone is killed typically reveals a great deal about the character and his or her killer. From Caspere’s unique taste in home décor to his sordid, sound-proofed sex pad (complete with an adjacent room housing a camera and narratively relevant hard drive) it’s clear the killer(s) took from Caspere that which he used most often – i.e., his peepers and his little true detective. Yet very little of Caspere’s character has ever been explored, much less why his killers felt it necessary to make such a personal and public statement with his demise.
Perhaps the latter question will be revealed in the finale, but by then it will likely be too late for it to matter.
The Blessing and the Burden of Parenthood
Although many of the storylines seem discordant at times, there is one concurrent theme running between the four major characters. It is the idea of paternity, and the enormous emotional responsibility that comes from being (or the desire to become) a parent. And in keeping with True Detective‘s pessimistic heart, there isn’t a parent-child relationship not corrupted or fouled in some way or another.
The most obvious is Ray’s relationship with his son Chad (Trevor Larcom). To its credit, the series made it clear from the get-go (the kid’s red hair being either a red flag or a red herring) that there were questions about Chad’s parentage. It’s all tied to the decision Ray made that effectively ruined his life, after being sold bad intel on the man who raped his then-wife, Gena (Abigail Spencer). All that is fascinating and tragic in a “how did this guy end up thinking bolo ties were a legitimate wardrobe accessory kind of way,” but as with the other paternal avenues, the importance of it has been largely remanded to the sidelines.
Season 2 is certainly not wanting for opportunities to explore issues related to parenthood. There’s Frank and Jordan’s inability to conceive, the lax parenting of Ani’s father Eliot (David Morse) that led to the sexual abuse she suffered as a child, and the emotionally destructive, possibly at one time inappropriate relationship between Paul Woodrugh and his mother Cynthia (Lolita Davidovich) – not to mention the child he has on the way with Emily (Adria Arjona). But even though all of this is presented to the audience in a surprisingly upfront manner, the issue of having a child, raising a child, or being a child never quite feels grounded in who these characters actually are; it just sort of floats there, waiting for a point to be made from it.
What’s weird is how much a single Rust Cohle-esque monologue about the onus of life being on the child for having been conceived in the first place could have tied it all together in distinct True Detective fashion. Instead, we get five minutes of Frank getting lost in a water stain.
Dr. Pitlor and The Panticapaeum Institute
The only thing True Detective loves more than presenting fringe elements is leaving them on the margins. Nic Pizzolatto is constantly pointing out the strange, seedy world that exists beyond what most people are aware of – the places where monsters hide. But the only time we get to go inside them is when Rust and Marty are running around a “haunted house” at the end of the first season. Aside from weird sex parties and killers with a penchant for bird masks, season 2 boasts an enormous criminal conspiracy, existing on the periphery and hinting at the systemic corruption of various institutions.
That is essentially the season’s overarching narrative, but because Osip and Tony Chessani’s true intentions were only discovered a week before the finale, season 2 presented the failings of two other institutions to help create that through-line; namely, the inherent weirdness of Dr. Pitlor’s one-stop cosmetic surgery/psychoanalysis enclave, and the Panticapaeum Institute, where Ani’s father can sometimes be found.
The thing is, Pitlor (played by Rick Springfield with help from what looks like some leftover Rob Lowe makeup from Behind the Candelabra), for all his eccentricity and potential to serve as the gatekeeper to the darker weirdness being hinted at by the plot (for instance, turning the women at the sex parties from an “8 to a 10”), turned out to be little more than an exposition machine. After answering some questions early on, the good doctor was later transformed into punching bag for Velcoro and a way for the story to present its current list of hot topics as a series of bullet points, via the low growl of Farrell’s line delivery.
Now you might not think that a man who named his daughters Antigone and Athena would be prone to making questionable choices. But, as it turns out, Eliot Bezzerides’ role in the Panticapaeum Institute – wherein he lectures on things like “the last days of man,” – might have contributed not only to his eldest daughter’s abuse at the hands of a much older man, but also may have played a role in introducing Chessani to Pitlor, through his commune called The Good People.
Maybe Pitlor and Eliot Bezzerides were interesting because of their weirdness and ability to spot a “huge aura,” but there’s something interesting about the institutions they have aligned themselves with, and the brief investigation of both during the season simply didn’t allow for a proper exploration of those characters or the institutions.
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