If there is one overarching theme to True Detective, I would say it is that as human beings, we are nothing but the stories we live and die by — so you’d better be careful what stories you tell yourself.
–Nic Pizzolatto, 2014 (Stepinwall)
Many critics hate it when True Detective uses cliches, and they’re not alone; the characters hate it too. Recalling his past, Frank complains, “It’s like everything’s papier-mache” (2×2), and later, he and Ani note how their life has felt like a “fairy tale” (2×8). True Detective is “fictional truth versus documentarian realism,” explains showrunner Nic Pizzolatto (1×4 commentary). The show doesn’t always disguise the fact that this story isn’t real.
Vicki Hyman calls the finale “a veritable cascade of coincidence-abetted investigative subplots that tie together in impossible ways” (“Forget it, Jake. It’s True Detective”). Every plot twist in “Omega Station” feels ridiculously contrived, as when we see the remaining villains gathered together for a photo shoot. Throughout both seasons, the stories we’re told become increasingly implausible. “Everything in True Detective is composed of questionable narratives, inner and outer,” explains the creator (Jensen). We’re given the perspective of broken men and women who are losing their minds, so by the end of their story, everything feels surreal.
“I pronounce the detective story a complete bust,” writes Hyman (“Forget it”)—and so do the characters. “This is fucked,” Ray mutters when flipping through the maps on Caspere’s desk (2×1). “We should let the bosses know,” advises Dixon. “You sure they don’t know already?” replies his partner. Ray suspects that the bosses have already been through Caspere’s mansion to secure the evidence of their collusion—so why did they leave incriminating evidence (showing Ray the route they used to poison the farmland) spread out in plain sight?
Like many viewers, the detectives are often baffled and frustrated by how easily they obtain evidence. When Ani’s father shows her his only photo of Dr. Pitlor, she’s surprised to find the Vinci mayor standing next to the psychiatrist (2×4). “Jesus that’s some fucking coincidence,” she notes, perplexed by how conveniently the photo proves an occult connection between the two suspects she’s interrogated.
After their minds are fractured by trauma (as when Frank finds Stan’s body in 2×3 and Ani, Ray, and Paul witness the Vinci Massacre in 2×4), the perspective of each lead character loses all reliability. The season “winds up being hard to swallow,” writes Sara Smith. In the second half, the case is so unrealistic that “it can only be embraced as camp” (“The Very Worst of this Season of ‘True Detective’”).
“I’m gonna start listening to that hot feeling I got in the back of my neck,” Frank tells Ray. “I want you to tail Blake” (2×5), and when he does, Ray witnesses a coincidence twice as unlikely as the one Ani remarked on in the prior episode (when inspecting her father’s photo). Ray not only finds evidence proving Frank’s suspicions—that Blake and Osip have been running hookers behind his back—he discovers that Blake and Osip have also been colluding with Pitlor and Tony—two primary suspects from Ani, Ray, and Paul’s investigation who, up until this point, have had no apparent connection to Frank’s gangster colleagues.
“All of your life– all of your love, all your hate, all your memory and all your pain, it was all the same thing—it was all the same dream,” explains Cohle (1×3), commenting on the show’s uncanny level of interconnectivity. Before their paths collide at the end of the season 2 premiere, each lead character’s story feels unrelated. Ani’s missing person (who she randomly hears about when delivering a foreclosure notice) doesn’t have any conceivable connection to Frank and Osip’s rail corridor partnership—until later. After she surmises, “maybe those parties are where the collusions get sealed” (in the beginning of 2×6), Ani finds her missing person attending the party where Osip seals a new partnership with McCandless (at the end of 2×6). By the end of the season, every disparate subplot has been interwoven into a single, overarching nightmare—an ultimate tale of fate where the horror stories the detectives imagine are invariably made manifest.
Realm of the unreal
In the title of his analysis, Jeff Jensen asks, “Is everything in True Detective season 2 really just a dream?” Drawing comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shot (1999: a film defined by its dreamlike atmosphere), Jensen advises us to “abandon all hope of reliable narration.” Pizzolatto calls True Detective “a fever dream of the uncanny” (1×4 commentary). It’s a journey into the deranged mind of a killer akin to Apocalypse Now (1979), The Shining (1980), and Twin Peaks (1990-91). Cohle believes life is “a dream that you had inside a locked room” (1×3), so the case he builds inside his storage unit can be interpreted as a product of his artistic imagination (as his strange methods, Marty notes, always involve conjecture). When Marty follows his partner into the darkness (left-side frame), he crosses over from one sphere of consciousness to another, ushering us into Cohle’s waking nightmare (1×7).
After locking the door, Cohle narrates his insane story about a state-wide conspiracy of psychopaths. Playing the videotape of Marie Fontenot’s ritual murder, he forces his partner to witness yet another child’s death. The horrific sight scars Marty’s mind—a mind that’s already been broken (after finding Dora Lang’s body, the children in Reggie’s trailer, and the baby in the microwave in 1×1, 1×5, and 1×7)—warping his perception of reality. Thereafter, the case loses all believability.
“Form and Void” (1×8) caused an uproar with its over-the-top use of serial killer genre codes. How could a premiere that felt so authentic lead to a finale that feels so artificial? Because this universe is constantly changing. “It’s like you’ve been alone too long,” Marty tells his friend (inside the storage unit), “like, maybe, you told yourself this story and kept drinking it until you believed it” (1×7). He’s not wrong. Cohle is building this case inside his head—and that’s where the show takes place: in an uncanny reality constructed by unstable minds. “There are no rules, you see?” Veronica Chessani tells Ray and Ani. “That’s how it’s always been” (2×4). However, there is an underlying order to the chaos.
In the final two episodes of season 1, many critics bemoaned the loss of the nonlinear plotline that, in the first half of the season, had obstinately refused to advance the investigation. In the first two episodes, none of the interviewees know anything about Dora Lang’s killer. But in the final two hours, everyone Cohle and Marty interview—Toby, Jimmy, Mrs. Lorris, and Mrs. Hill—has seen the man with the scars—an incredible coincidence made all the more implausible by the fact that each of them describes Errol the same way (dramatically brushing their hand across their chin), vividly recalling this man they had only met once decades earlier. When the nightmare takes over, the unreal becomes ordinary.
True Detective explores Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence by chronicling the detectives’ inevitable return to familiar scenarios we’ve seen countless times in other shows and genre films (like the “cascading betrayals” and “open murder” Ani observes in the final scene of season 2). “How many times have we had this conversation, detectives?” Cohle asks Papania and Gilbough, suspecting that they’ve played these roles before. “Who knows? I mean, you can’t remember your lives. You can’t – change your lives” (1×5). The cliches are part of the script. Most of the characters are too dense (or intoxicated) to notice them, but at times, the lead detectives recognize the contrivance, as when Frank comments on the ridiculous nature of his bad luck (having been betrayed by his surrogate son Blake, his surrogate father Ossip, and his best friend Stan). “You bring someone up, invest time, emotional attachment – and for what? Parody?” (2×7) Often, the show explores how real life can feel stranger than fiction.
True Detective can be thought of as a hyperrealistic dream shared by the lead characters, or an alternate reality that follows a form of dream logic. The show “isn’t docu-reality,” insists season 1 director Carey Fukunaga; “it’s heightened reality” (Kiang). In cinema, heightened reality (also called “magical realism”) is an expressionist form (embraced by obsessive directors like Kubrick, David Lynch, and Wes Anderson) that creates an ethereal tone in an otherwise realistic or mundane setting. This surrealist effect is commonly achieved with a stylized palette, outlandish sets, smooth, elaborate camerawork, hypnotic sound, absurd dialogue, and cinematography that frames each setting as a stage. Traditional dramas avoid a heightened depiction, as it can easily disrupt escapism and remind us that what we’re watching is fiction. But in True Detective, this is an essential part of the narrative experience.
Season 2’s barrage of near-impossible coincidences involve phenomena we commonly experience in dreams, like finding (or being found by) acquaintances in bizarre situations we would never expect to occur in real life. Miguel (the soldier Paul served and slept with in the Middle East) is the last side character we’d expect to find working for Catalyst (which we learn in 2×7), but that’s the nature of season 2’s plot-twists—they’re so absurd as to make the viewer (and, to a degree, the detectives) recognize the artifice.
When he finds a costumed man giving a blow-job in “Maybe Tomorrow” (2×3; lower frame). Paul experiences déjà vu, as he had espied two homosexuals dressed as angels in the prior episode (upper frame). Like the world of a nightmare, this universe haunts the detectives with the secrets they suppress.
Like Ray, Frank dies with the (symbolic) realization of his dream. In “The Western Book of the Dead” (2×1; left column), we see his plans to construct a high-speed rail through the desert (which would involve stealing funds from impoverished communities), and in “Omega Station” (2×8), Frank draws a similar path with his blood.
In the season 1 finale, production designer Alex DiGerlando wanted Cohle and Marty to “experience the chase inside Errol’s art rather than merely running past it” (Martin). Just as Frank traces the route from his blueprint (note the red line cutting through the white rectangle on the map of California), Cohle and Marty trace the cult’s spiral (see my S1 analysis of the artwork for a detailed explanation).
“To your right, little priest,” directs Errol. He doesn’t want to simply kill the detectives; he seems more interested in showing them something. At every corner of the spiral, they encounter a traumatic image from their past. A mummified infant reminds Cohle of his daughter’s death, and a pile of tiny dresses and pink shoes (presumably ripped from the bodies of missing children) reminds Marty of the daughters he neglected to raise (leaving them vulnerable to sexual predators).
“We made a nice bed for you,” taunts the nameless Santa Muerte leader. “Lie down, Frank.” Why didn’t the Mexicans bury Frank’s body? Why dig a grave then neglect to fill it back up with dirt? Like the cult from season 1, Santa Muerte forces their victims to experience horrible memories. The grave serves no apparent purpose other than to remind Frank of the basement his father had locked him in (or the box Stan is buried in), ushering him into a nightmare of the past.
In True Detective, the villains lack rational motivations. When discussing the church mural (which recreates the Dora Lang crime scene), Cohle tells Marty, “He wanted us to find it, like he was showing off. The cane fields are his stage” (1×3). Throughout the series, the killers set up their crime scenes like art exhibitions and invite the detectives to the show.
In spite of his advanced security (note the outside camera), Len doesn’t bother locking the backyard gate (which is broken, swinging the opposite direction when Ray tries to latch it) or the porch door, and he leaves the Venetian blinds open to let the bird mask welcome his guests.
Frank’s investigation of the mayor’s house follows a similar trajectory. A broken gate leads him to the backyard, where he finds Austin Chessani’s body, then the wide-open porch doors lead him inside. Each room has been staged with an excessive display of evidence (like the land deal maps that no one has bothered to clean up since Ani found them in 2×3). When Frank finds the open box of invitations to the lodge, we don’t learn anything new about the case. Since the third episode, we’ve known that Tony has been organizing the parties (as he tells Ani).
True Detective goes out of its way to disappoint viewers who are only interested in the who-done-it storyline. In the second half of each season, the discovery of evidence is never surprising, and the answers we’re given are always unsatisfying. What makes the show interesting is how the evidence is discovered—how the crime scenes make the detectives suspect, “We were always set up” (Ani, 2×7).
It’s unclear whether Pitlor actually killed himself, but one thing is certain: his corpse has been moved. The blood from his wrists has covered his hands, which means his arms could not have been in a horizontal position while he bled out. Clearly, the two puddles on the floor were staged—and they have yet to dry. Note how the blood reflects the light, just as the blood (bottom-left shot) Ray finds in Caspere’s house (which should’ve dried days earlier) glistens brightly (E2). Not only are these crime scenes fake; they were set up recently, as if the culprit knew when the detectives would arrive.
Each crime scene contains several inexplicable connections to unrelated scenes, suggesting that a single, omniscient force has engineered the entire case. Both Caspere (who suffered abrasions from the harness straps, the coroner tells us in 2×2) and Pitlor incurred injuries on their wrists and ankles, then their bodies were balanced upright in a grotesque pose. In order to bend his feet at that unnatural angle, Pitlor’s legs must have been snapped—not unlike Stan’s. Caspere’s harness, Pitlor and Stans’ broken bodies, and Austin’s suspended corpse resemble marionettes. Cohle believes that humans are “nothing more than biological puppets” (1×3), and season 2 continues to explore the truth about being a person: In this universe, free will is an illusion. Vinci* controls everyone.
*Considering how Vinci’s leaders control the Southern California transportation system, own the properties the detectives visit, and run the secret factions they investigate (Black Mountain, the Good People, Santa Muerte, etc.), I’ll use the name of the city to refer to the mechanized world of the story—an unknowable force that (the show never proves but strongly suggests) has been setting up every fake crime scene, pulling the strings of every villain. “There is some ethereal sensibility that there are greater forces at play than what you see taking place before you,” explains Collin Farrell (“Making of True Detective”). Vinci is the killer that can never be caught. It’s “a carnivorous universe in which you’re food” (Pizzolatto, qtd. in Jensen).
Crucifixion under the bridge
Emphasizing the scale and interconnectivity of the Southern California transportation system, the landscape portraits characterize Vinci as a vast machine controlling the movement of its citizens (see my analysis “Lost Freeway” for more on the aerial shots). “Citizens who rely on public transit are protesting a shortage of bus routes and maintenance in order to subsidize a rail system that does not service their communities,” announces the broadcaster (2×4). In the background of the Vinci massacre, a colossal bridge stands in for the central rail line. A metaphor for tyranny, the same bridge fractures the photograph of Len and Laura (taken after the death of their parents) during a dissolve.
Recalling the massacre, Ray notes, “Nothing went down right that day” (2×5)—like the fact that we don’t hear any sirens for eight minutes after the first two cops are killed. The arrival of the back-up feels coordinated. What are the odds that the helicopter and the four nearest squad cars would arrive at the same time?
Furthermore, Amarillo’s gang doesn’t seem that interested in escaping or killing the lead characters. Instead of shooting at Paul and Ray while using the civilian as a human shield, Amarillo takes out his hostage and allows his own execution (as if he, like Ray, knows how and when he’ll die). We’re later told that Amarillo had been working for unnamed cops (according to his girlfriend and Holloway), presumably paid to assassinate Paul, Ray, and Ani. But if it was all a hit, why did only one Mexican ambush the squad? The other three are hidden until the first is shot down, then they seemingly try to escape up the alley—but if escape was their goal, why did they wait three minutes (plus the unknown time that’s passed since they received the tip about the raid) to leave?
Santa Muerte takes its orders from unseen forces, and we never learn the true identities of the puppeteers. Eventually, we’re told that Tony has been running the whole show, but this second-hand information sounds like a lie. Tony is a cipher, and considering how this insane junkie lives an endless party—and considering how easily his powerful friends are killed—it’s safe to assume that he’ll follow in his father’s stumbling footsteps. “The dangerous psychopaths who engineered the tragedy in Vinci” (Geldof names them in 2×5) have many faces, but these men are merely dispensable puppets for a more powerful force that can never be caught. The puppet master is the world itself, “and at the end of the day, you don’t beat the world,” (Pizzolatto, qtd. in Bradigan).
On the first season’s Louisianan wilderness, the creator explains “the landscape is literally the third lead of the show” (Arkham), and season 2 is set in an even “more complex world” (Q&A). Like the human leads whom it reflects, this character is cruel. Vinci doesn’t want to simply kill the detectives. It wants to make them suffer.
The lowest shot faces the opposite direction of the top two shots.
Why is there a bus pulling into a dead end? First (top of column), we see the bus crossing the intersection, heading toward the end of the road. In the second shot, the Mexicans pull into the wrong lane and play chicken with the bus, which swerves left. In the third shot, the bus has already crossed the intersection—and it’s only turned (roughly) 45 degrees. (The force of the collision turns the bus another 90° to the left, as shown in the overhead shot.)
Why wasn’t the bus driver turning left to begin with? There’s no visible bus stop, so why was he driving straight into a crowd of protesters and reporters? If he had been on an actual route, the accident would’ve been avoided.
This breach of realism could simply be the result of lazy production design. Many critics have noted how the second season’s direction feels rushed and ill-conceived. But considering how the filmmakers were given a larger budget and longer production (to shoot less footage) than almost every other serialized drama, we should consider the possibility that they were aware of the flaws we can so easily find.
Like the show’s cynics, the detectives continually observe how the case feels broken. “The investigation—I don’t think it’s supposed to work,” Ray warns Ani (2×2). However, there is an underlying logic connecting the plot holes, and these complex patterns can be deciphered when we consider how the artifice functions as part of the narrative.
In the “secondary language” of the script, “the notion of cosmic horror becomes a very real part of the environment” (Pizzolatto, qtd. in Jensen). Throughout this insane reality, Vinci manifests evidence that validates Frank’s deepest, irrational fear: that his story isn’t real—it’s a fairy tale endlessly retold. “And that is the secret and horrible fate of all life: you’re trapped.” To Cohle, life is “a nightmare you keep waking up into” (1×5).
So in the surrealist, secondary language, the bus driver’s maniacal maneuvre actually makes sense: it effectively traps the psychopaths in the alley with the cops and bystanders, thereby prolonging the detectives’ suffering.
I think it’s safe to say the bus driver wasn’t in on it. Or perhaps he, like Dixon, is another expendable pawn who helped engineer the massacre. Or maybe he’s just a really bad driver. Obviously, there’s no plausible answer.
The main aim of my analysis is to find the mysteries that cannot be explained with rational logic. In every scene there’s (near or entirely) impossible phenomena that can only be reconciled with dream logic. Though they know it’s impossible, Ray, Ani, Paul, and Frank can’t shake the suspicion that their entire world is conspiring against them, imprisoning them in an endless carnival of carnage.
The unlikely accident demonstrates the show’s sadistic irony. In spite of the shortages, the protesters are indirectly killed by the metro bus they rely on. Technically, they did get what they asked for (by holding signs imprinted with the bus stop symbol). Most critics have complained about a lack of humor this season, but I find all the absurdity hilarious.
I love how AK-74 Mexican strolls out into the open and starts gunning down civilians, too busy racking up kills to find cover. Black Mountain murdered an unknown number of civilians (presumably to steal money, like the $20,000 Paul brought back), and the massacre returns Paul to the most horrific experience of his life.
The crime scenes force the detectives to run a gauntlet. At each corner is a hideous sight that scars them with guilt. Turning into the alley, Ani finds the bodies of the two men she had ordered to “cut through, cover the back.” Gunning them down moments before she arrives, it’s almost as if the gang wanted her to hear their last words: “Stop! Police—”
Why does Noh-man (also known as Len and Birdman) torch Caspere’s car outside the driver’s house? First, he plants the evidence, then he tries to get rid of it at the most inopportune moment imaginable. If he wanted to destroy the Cadillac, why’d he park it there in the first place? He’s almost asking to be chased.
As Ray approaches the burning wreck, we can make out Noh-man’s white mask and motionless figure across the street (top of column). It takes Ray ten seconds to spot him, and the killer doesn’t turn to run (in the lower shot) until Ray yells “Police!” (2×3)
Like Errol, Noh-man is patient, standing still as a statue until his pursuers find him. Escape is only part of his plan. First, he wants to show them something.
Leading them through the maze of tents, Noh-man proceeds to terrorize the refugees. None of his victims actually get in his way—he goes out of his way to hurt them, as when tackling a lady (top of column) whom he could’ve easily run past and stopping to set a fire that, like the car bomb, helps the detectives find him.
Upending shopping carts and burning down tents, Noh-man is doing what his pursuers are paid to do: he’s uprooting immigrants from their temporary home (as when Ani and Ray deliver eviction notices in 2×1 and 2×5). Like his Season 1 predecessors, Len likes to put on a show (as when recording Ray’s investigation of Caspere’s house; see my 2×2 review for an explanation of the metanarrative). His only clear motivations: to remind his victims of their sins and show them the terrible world they’ve created.
After Noh-man crosses the street and leaps over the guard rail, he turns around and freezes (top of column). We see Ani setting up her shot and Ray saving her from the truck, then we see Noh-man again—and he hasn’t moved. For some reason, he sticks around to watch their near-death experience before vanishing into the night.
The truck driver doesn’t hit the breaks, change lanes, or even honk until he’s driven past Ani (even though he has several seconds to react), so it almost seems like he’s trying to hit her. Vinci controls every element of the transportation system, and throughout the season, its motorways lead the detectives to their (narrowly escaped or actual) demise.
The eyes of Vinci
On the first season, Pizzolatto explains, “There are signs literally littering the landscape that bear the mark of man they’re looking for” (“Inside Episode 2”). Cohle and Marty find the Marsh cult’s spiral everywhere they go, and in season 2, the eyes of Vinci haunt the detectives all along the coast of Southern California. Throughout the sets, abstract images of eyes underscore the show’s theme of ubiquitous surveillance.
In the Ventura club, the strange appearance of the two water rings (second row from top) recalls the unknown origin of the water stain (top left) that watches over Frank’s bed (2×2). The gangster seems to detect the return of this motif, covering up the marks with his saucer after a reaction shot frames his nervous frown (2×4). Playing the same electronic gasp during both these shots (as well as the shots in third row), composer T Bone Burnett’s ambient score connects the disparate locations with a single, menacing voice—a voyeuristic presence pervading the show’s atmosphere.
After Ray walks up to the school to say goodbye to Chad, the camera lingers behind to show us a previously hidden SUV pull up to his Charger (2×8). So when Ray returns to his car, there’s nothing surprising about his discovery of the tracer—unless we consider how he discovers it (for instance, how the road signs only give him one direction to choose; see my analysis “Lost Freeway” for an explanation on how the environment conveys cosmic dread).
When Burnett breaks the silence with a ghastly inhalation, a crow (easy to discern in motion) swoops over the Charger (top of column) and perches on a telephone line across the street. As we grow nearer, we find a large puddle beneath the car. We have yet to see it rain at any point in the show, so its appearance is rather strange. In “Night Finds You,” Frank asks, “How’d that water stain get there? It rained maybe twice last year” (2×2), and when Ray finds the reflection of the lurid red eyes staring up at him, he also suspects foul play.
When Frank gazes into the water stain, he receives an ineffably disturbing vision. “Somethin’s tryin’ to tell me that uh– it’s all papier-mache… like I’m not real. Like I’m only dreamin’” (2×2). “When you see only with God’s eyes,” explains Elliot, “you see only the truth, and you recognize a meaningless universe” (2×1). In “Omega Station,” Ray receives such an extrasensory vision. Why doesn’t he try to remove the transponder with his knife (retracting the blade right after he draws it) or attempt to lose his tail? He realizes that running would be pointless. No one escapes the eyes of Vinci. Their uncanny appearance reminds Ray that this is all a dream—and he knows exactly how his nightmare will end.
“If they got eyes on me, it won’t matter what I do with the tracker,” Ray tells Ani, who is rendered speechless by his irrational explanation. The scene recalls Paul’s final conversation with Ray. “I think I might be walking into something,” the soldier tells his friend. “So don’t,” urges Ray (2×7). Unfortunately, Paul doesn’t feel like he has a choice.
While he’s looking up information on the robbery at the police archives, Miguel watches him from behind a bookshelf (2×7). Later, Paul regroups with Ray and Ani at the motel, where his blackmailer invites him to the Hall of Records. Then at the meeting, Holloway demands to know, “Velcoro, Bezzerides– where are they?”
This is one of the season’s biggest plot holes. If Catalyst’s elite security team (Aeries, formerly known as Black Mountain) was able to find Paul at the archives, why didn’t they follow him back to the motel? Perhaps they did follow him, and perhaps the cliche interrogation scene has another more sinister purpose. After all, the show’s villains always seem more interested in tormenting the detectives than simply getting rid of them.
I’ve cropped each frame to show only the lower third. The top and lower frame are from the scene’s first and last shots.
Early in the episode when Ray discovers Davis’ body, a close inspection of the background reveals that he is also being watched. In the establishing shot, we can see a golf cart in the bottom-right corner of the frame. When Ray drives away, the cart drives alongside him.
“Maybe they were watching from the school yard, I dunno,” Ray tells Ani after finding the tracker. She tells him to “dump it,” but he insists, “I can’t! They could’ve already had eyes on me, you see?” (2×8) Even though he doesn’t justify his suspicion with words, there’s plenty of evidence validating his paranoia.
When Ray and Frank return from the Catalyst cabin massacre, an establishing shot positions us next to a CCTV apparatus which, like the empty tripod in Caspere’s house, has had the camera removed (perhaps to hide the fact that they’re being watched). Nonetheless, the vantage reminds us of the threat of surveillance. Later (in the desert scene), we learn that the Armenians had been working with the Mexicans, who had been working with Tony, and because Frank bought the cars from the Armenians, we can assume Ray’s suspicion is accurate. The Charger is probably being traced before he even drives it.
So why don’t the Mexicans and cops ambush Ray and Frank in this wide-open parking lot (or outside the school, the Armenians’ baker, etc.)? “You’re public enemy number one,” Holloway reminds Ray, “don’t even need a reason to vaporize you” (2×8), but clearly, that isn’t their primary motivation. When the Santa Muerte leader meets Frank in the desert, the gangster (like the viewer) is taken back by the unlikelihood of the scenario. “You? What the fuck is this?” (2×8) And like Reggie—who stares at Cohle in silence when he asks, “Why the antlers?” (1×5)—the Mexican doesn’t offer an explanation for his ritualistic practices.
After returning from Caspere’s Hollywood house, Ray tells Frank, “There was some fucked up psychology going on in that place, before it was a murder scene” (2×3). And what do we know about Caspere’s psyche? According to his therapist, he’s “passive, not aggressive,” directing sadomasochistic events without participating in the violence. And according to the role-playing prostitutes he had hired (who Frank and Paul interview in 2×2 and 2×3), “he likes to watch.” The other villains display the same voyeuristic behavior. In “Black Maps and Motel Rooms,” Davis’ killers let Ray drive away from her murder scene, and in “Night Finds You,” Birdman (who we can assume is in the house after seeing his car parked outside) watches Ray investigate Caspere’s murder scene, then when Ray loses the duel, he gives the cop another shot at catching him.
When Paul lifts his head above the stairwell, Miguel is staring directly at him. This unnerving first-person address demonstrates how the villains seem able to predict the direction and time of the detectives’ arrival. “You’ve got eyes all over you,” Miguel tells Paul, recycling a generic line we’ve heard countless times in spy movies. Like all the show’s cliches, this image has much more significance outside the plot. In the metaphysical subtext, the detectives’ suspect that they’ve always had eyes over them.
This deceptive universe is designed to set the detectives up. Even though the coincidence doesn’t seem possible (given that Dixon happened to be photographing Paul from an ideal vantage on the only two nights Paul and Miguel got together), Holloway claims that Dixon was not working with Miguel. During the rodeo (top frame) and their one-night stand, Paul was being spied on by two separate agencies: Black Mountain (who ordered Miguel to monitor Paul) and the alcoholic PI. “The pictures of you two were a happy coincidence we came across when clearing Detective Dixon’s apartment,” explains Holloway (2×7), but Paul perceives it as something more.
“My picture’s gonna be everywhere,” he predicts after being assaulted by the paparazzi in “Down Will Come” (2×4). The soldier is constantly chased by men (Dixon, Black Mountain, Catalyst, the press, and internal affairs) working to destroy his reputation by exposing his scars. In a sense, the villains are working for the viewers, as we’re driven by a desire to learn more about the characters’ dark past (especially in season 1).
Finding the eye in the sky
The film noir canon is filled with silent footage of detectives spying on their targets (like a PI paid to photograph a scandal). In True Detective, there’s always someone (or something) else watching the spies, and the gaze of this unseen, insidious force is articulated by the camera following them in the sky.
The manifold aerial shots portray the supremacy of Vinci’s surveillance. In today’s age of privacy invasion, drone-strike warfare, and terrorist attacks from above, the vantage-point of a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) can feel quite unnerving. By strapping us to a drone (the vehicle used to shoot all the aerial shots this season), the show offers us the perspective of the predators that are intruding on the lives of the civilians below.
Cinematographer Nigel Bluck shoots most of the aerials from an exceptionally high altitude of 1,000 feet where we can’t identify the detectives’ vehicle. Separating us from the characters, the camera carries us over an unfamiliar landscape without telling us where we are, where we’re going, or what details we’re suppose to be looking at. It’s understandable why so many people hate this show; it’s designed to baffle the viewer.
We’re given a god’s-eye-view, but unlike Vinci, we don’t have the eyes of a hawk. Our enormous field of vision displays a vast system of motorways running across the land owned by the collusion. When the camera tilts up to frame the freeway fading into the horizon, we see that there’s no end in sight. These abstract backdrops represent the endless sprawl of Vinci’s corruption. Because we can’t possibly process all the details in the shot, we experience the labyrinthine uncertainty the detectives feel when navigating the show’s insanely complex web of subplots.
We’re never close enough to find the detectives’ vehicle—except when they’re about to make a major discovery, as when Paul finds Caspere (top of column; 2×1), Ani and Ray find the mine tails (and learn about Catalyst’s plan to force the farmers off the land by poisoning it; 2×4), Ani finds a way into the party (note the bus in the third shot; 2×6), and when Ray discovers the forest from his dream (2×8).
By the climax of “Omega Station,” the aerial cam has nearly landed. First, it frames the setting that’s been waiting for him since before his story had begun—then Ray enters the stage. Towards the end, the plot becomes incredibly predictable. Nonetheless, the execution of the climax is undeniably original. How many other shows tell us how the main character will die in the third episode and show us where it will happen in the opening credits?
The staccato drumbeat, roaring synthesizer, and trilling violins build into a mystical chorus of dread that signals the fulfillment of a prophesy. Personally, I’ve never experienced a more powerful expression of cosmic horror in a TV show. When we see the giant redwoods, the show confirms once and for all that the nightmare has taken over.
How did Ray end up on that secluded forest road? A minute earlier we had seen him on a busy freeway. The show’s cynics have noted how this abrupt transition feels contrived and sloppily edited, as if the filmmakers didn’t have enough time or intelligence to devise a plausible way for him to get to the climax they had planned. But why should there be continuity? In a dream, we often find ourselves in a strange environment without knowing how we got there. In “Church in Ruins,” Ani is carried back into the fairy tale forest from her childhood, and in “Omega Station,” Ray finds himself surrounded by the giants from his father’s dream.
At the end of his story, Ray looks up at the camera that’s been following him (just as he had found Caspere’s camera recording his first death scene; see my 2×2 review). Technically, he isn’t breaking the fourth wall (because there’s no verbal acknowledgement of the spectator’s existence), but when he stares directly at the viewer, it feels like we’ve been discovered. Ray has found Vinci’s eye in the sky, and because the audience shares the perspective of this voyeuristic force, the first-person address feels like an indictment. True Detective often reminds the audience of our culpability. After all, we’re the ones demanding that these characters suffer for our entertainment.
The Secret Corridor
Given that the show keeps reminding us that it’s all a dream, I’m not sure why so many viewers still expect formal realism. When Marty asks Cohle, “You still see things ever?” his friend confesses, “It never stops, not really. What happened to my head’s not something that gets better” (1×8). So when the narrative is framed from Cohle’s perspective, we never know what’s an hallucination and what’s real. Thus, we should interpret everything as equally unreal, even when the scene feels entirely naturalistic.
According to Pizzolatto, Cohle can sense the presence of his audience. We are the nameless “them” whose perspective he describes in his famous monologue on string theory (1×5).
“Aren’t we the creatures of that higher dimension—the creatures who can see the totality of his world?” asks the creator. “After all, we get to see all eight episodes of his life. On a flat screen” (Romano). We also view his world on a circular track, spinning around the characters during (season 1 director) Carey Fukunaga’s numerous pans and crane shots (as shown in the column below). Though he normally remains silent (to avoid the ridicule of his incredulous colleagues), Cohle occasionally struggles to articulate his awareness of an invisible audience, asking Marty if he “believes in ghosts” (1×1) and naming abstract entities like “Eternity looking down on us,” and “Death” who “creates time to grow the things that it will kill” (1×5)—not unlike the viewer, who creates the illusion of time when turning on the mechanism projecting his story. “The alligators are swimmin’ around us, and we don’t even know that they’re there. You know why?” asks Cohle, while his partner and sergeant silently question his sanity. “It’s cuz we don’t see them” (1×6).
Throughout the case, Cohle is searching for both the human killers and the higher-dimensional force that controls them. This abstract evil can be interpreted as “his creator or the audience that compels his creator to make him suffer for their entertainment” (Pizzolatto, qtd. in 1×5 commentary). Just as Ray finds the eye that’s been floating over him, Cohle eventually finds the lens (during his final vision) that’s been circling around him (see my S1 analysis for a full explanation).
Both seasons narrate a physical and a metaphysical investigation. In the metanarrative, the characters are searching for the truth of their fictional existence. “While there’s nothing occult in this season,” explains the creator, “I think there’s a disconcerting psychology to this world, and its characters have other kinds of uncanny reality with which to contend” (Q&A).
Vinci is a maze without exits. “Where is this?” Ray asks his father at the end of his Black Rose nightmare. “I don’t know,” answers the old man. “You were here first” (2×3). I find Ray’s question peculiar, because he’s in the most frequently used set of the season—yet there’s something eerily different about its architecture.
In the opening shot of “Maybe Tomorrow” (top of column) we find ourselves in an open space with no visible walls. The booming echo of the singer’s voice suggests we’re in an auditorium. As the Conway Twitty impersonator performs “The Rose,” we’re transported to the familiar setting of the Black Rose (second frame), but the stage is still unfamiliar, stretching much further back than the stage Laura Lynn performs on.
After Ray finds the hole in his chest, the singer turns to exit the stage by some offscreen egress (third frame), and the scene’s final shot tilts up to frame the blue stage light we had seen hovering over the auditorium in the opening shot. The bulb is no longer aiming down at the stage; it’s now turned toward the audience.
When we return to the bar (in the same episode), we find Ray fixating on the stage. The soundtrack’s galloping pulse expresses his anxiety. What is it that frightens him? Perhaps it’s the blue light that shouldn’t be there (as we never see a hidden backlight in any other episode).
Because its unseen source (shown at the end of the dream) is located behind and above the visible stage lights (note how it reflects off the side of the middle light), the appearance of the mysterious hue suggests a space above the ceiling. Ray’s impression of a hidden backstage is accentuated by the sound of Frank opening the bar’s front door (which we hear during the lower shot).
“That Black Rose is kind of magical,” observes Rachael McAdams. “You think it’s just a set and these walls that have been built, but they take on this—I don’t know—this energy” (“About True Detective”). Here, the Black Rose begins to manifest the dream that will eventually supplant Ray’s reality.
When Felicia reveals the stairwell behind the walk-in refrigerator (2×8), the scene recalls Ray’s dream of the shifting stage (both sets linked by their stained walls and blue lighting). Like the Twitty impersonator, Frank exits the bar through a hidden doorway, and when he ascends the stairs, he reaches a spiritual plain of enlightenment akin to the fourth-dimensional perspective attained by Cohle during his visions (which depict the circular, two-dimensional nature of his spacetime). Here, Frank remembers that he’s dreaming. “Everything’s ending,” he tells Felicia. “Time to wake up.” Then as he throws down the grenade launcher, we hear the first chords of Laura Lynn’s final song “Lately.” When Frank hears her playing at this unlikely time of day (when the bar is closed) in this unfamiliar setting, the theatrical cue hypnotizes him, and once again, he fixates on the nameless performer who had enraptured him and Ray on so many nights before.
The surreal atmosphere is accentuated by Burnett’s ambient score. During each of Lynn’s songs, digital sound effects echo the chords of her guitar (like the agonized growl playing over Lynn’s mystical lyrics while Ray contemplates suicide), blending the diegetic and nondiegetic sound. Thus, we’re unable to separate the real from the artificial.
“Contributing to the season’s unreal vibe are the explicit and implicit meta-textual bits of business,” writes Jensen. When we find the characters watching a performance (on television or on the stage), “they remind us we’re watching a show, a fiction, the same way we’re often aware that we’re dreaming while we’re dreaming” (“Everything in True Detective”).
Much of the show is about the act of looking (as demonstrated by the second episode’s title “Seeing Things”). When they watch the stage, Ray and Frank become spectators of a show-within-the-show. The action seems to impart them with a sort of metacinematic awareness, because when they turn back from the stage, they’re staring at the camera, addressing both their interlocutor and the viewer with whom they’ve established an ontological connection.
The attic window is positioned directly over the booth the two friends always use. During his dream, the camera frames an impossible perspective of Ray and his father—shooting them from behind a wall that we’re somehow able to see through—and when Frank attains a higher vantage, another window is opened to show us a new perspective of the stage.
In the secret attic, something imparts Frank with a preternatural knowledge of his fate (as if he’s reached a higher-dimensional perspective of his reality). The message he gives Ani (to give Jordan) makes it clear that, like Ray, he realizes he can never escape Vinci. “Tell her I wanted to be there. And that story we told [where they’re reunited in the park]– it’s still true.” Frank realizes his life is fiction, so to him, an imaginary story feels as real as a first-hand experience.
The opening of a hidden window or doorway represents consciousness expansion. When Cohle opens Tuttle’s secret safe, he finds the videotape of Marie Fontenot’s ritual murder and learns the extent of the cult’s corruption (1×7). Similarly, Ray learns about the collusion’s voyeuristic depravity when he discovers the camera behind the one-way mirror (2×2). These discoveries have metacinematic implications. Ray and Frank are each looking for Caspere’s collection of films, and their discoveries teach them something about the film they exist in. For instance, when Ray steps behind the mirror, breaking through a wall of the labyrinth, he gains the perspective of a filmmaker and recognizes his life as a show.
In the opening shot of “Night Finds You,” when we’re looking out the porch windows (a set reused in a later scene shown in the right-side frame), something isn’t right: the sliding door is wide open. Frank and Jordan have yet to rise from bed, so who opened it? There’s no apparent answer, just as there’s no way to account for the appearance of the water stain (a fact Frank observes during this scene).
There’s no light in the foreground, so the surrounding plants merge into a single silhouette that looms on the threshold. As the shot slowly fades in, Burnett’s crescendoing drone compliments the ominous tone and suggests an approaching threat. Frank is terrified of farming (he reveals at the end of 2×5), and the Gothic backdrop conveys his fear of things that grow. “You always wanted lots of land,” his wife reminds him. “None of it’s really yours,” he replies (2×2), and this unsettling image of encroaching nature articulates his suspicion that something else has dominion over his estate. “Somethin’s tryin’ to tell me to wake up,” and once Frank becomes conscious of the nightmare, we’re able to recognize its trickery.
The endless role-playing game
While Errol watches North by Northwest (1959), the camera frames his television to show Cary Grant saying, “With such expert play-acting you make this very room a theater” (1×8). The man with the scars takes this line very seriously. Constantly cycling through personas, practicing “fantasy enactment” (Cohle describes his methods in 1×1) when setting up the crime scenes, Errol makes his very world a theater. Sure, he’s insane, but Pizzolatto prefers to call his madness “deranged enlightenment” (Jensen). Errol and his “acolytes” (he names Reggie, Duwall, and Cohle in 1×8) see what others cannot; they realize their world is a stage.
True Detective is littered with self-references that promote a metacinematic interpretation. Early on, the LA Times article (investigating Vinci’s corruption) makes an obvious allusion to the show’s anthology format. “What the fuck? An ‘eight-part series?’” reads Frank (2×1). The description recalls the prison scene from “The Secret Fate of All Life.” Describing the security tape of Francis’ suicide, the prison guard also describes the first season: “Three hours of nothin’—until you see the blood” (1×5). The first three episodes contained a notable lack of bloodshed (“days with nothin’,” narrates Cohle in 1×2)—then the fourth episode shocked everyone with the gangland massacre. Voicing the complaints of impatient viewers who found the first three hours boring, the guard’s comical description of the film-within-the-film provides one of the show’s numerous meta-textual moments that make the script seem self-aware.
In each episode of the second season, we find characters watching (the production or screening of) a film that parallels the show’s plot. In “Maybe tomorrow,” Ray’s father is watching Detective Story (1951) and in “Omega Station,” he’s watching a news report telling a false story about the detectives (claiming that Ray murdered Paul). When Emily watches Splendor in the Grass (1961; a tragic romance about sexual repression and unrequited love) in her motel room, the end of the film coincides with the end of the episode (2×7). After the soldier is shot in the back, the intercutting brings us back to the motel, where the final scene’s depiction of a mother raising a child on her own brings tears to Emily’s eyes. Like many of the season’s uncanny coincidences, the symbolic interconnectivity of this fictional and actual event makes the viewer recognize the show as a fabrication.
Referring to its “pastiche of pulp influences,” Jensen calls True Detective “some clever-clever, self-aware A.I.” (“Dream”)—a metacinematic, virtual system that simulates scenarios from detective serials, Westerns and other pulp traditions. “Constantly, the show keeps telling you that everything is as story” (Pizzolatto, qtd. in Stepinwall). Even during authentic scenes of social realism, the show reminds us that what we’re watching is fiction. Often, characters criticize each other (or themselves) for putting on an unconvincing performance.
• Jordan tells her husband, “Don’t put on airs. You don’t need to fake anything” (2×1), which is ironically true. Vinci’s citizens are too blind (from alcohol, pepperspray, blood in the eyes, etc.) to notice the fact that Frank doesn’t feel like himself when he’s playing a gangster.
• “I don’t want to be some fucking gangster’s wife,” Jordan tells Frank (2×5), but that’s the only role she’s allowed to play. At the end of the season, she reflects, “That was never our story,” and Lynn articulates the couple’s identity crisis when singing, “Lately I’m not feeling like myself. When I look into the glass I see someone else” (2×8).
In a dream, we’re often forced to assume a role that’s nothing like our real identity. In True Detective, the characters feel like they’re dreaming whenever they suspect that they’re living someone else’s life—a role that’s been chosen for them.
• “You can’t act for shit,” Jordan reminds Frank when he pretends to not care about her (2×8). Telling him, “You’re not convincing,” Jordan echoes the many critics who complained about Vince Vaughn’s inept portrayal of a crime boss. However, the actor’s performance becomes incomparably more convincing whenever Frank sheds his hardboiled facade and expresses honest emotions like fear (as during his masterful expression of paranoid madness in the water stain monologue), sadness (as when expressing legitimate concern for his friend’s suicidal urges at the end of 2×2 and beginning of 2×6), and fascination (mesmerized by Lynn’s performance in 2×1, 2×4, and 2×8). I think it’s safe to assume that Vaughn was never trying to authentically portray the life of a career criminal. During the gangster scenes, he’s playing the role of someone struggling to play a role.
• Realizing that Ray doesn’t feel comfortable playing a dirty cop, Pitlor tells him, “Your projection of menace is a guarantor of its lack, and it says volumes about the depths of your misperceptions.” True Detective is about seeing things (as described by the second episode’s title)—things about the case and, more importantly, things about character. Eventually, the detectives learn that identity is an illusion. Everyone wears a (metaphorical or literal) mask.
• Throughout his life, authoritarian forces (like the US military, with their “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and his mother, who encourages him to be a “rake” in 2×2) have prevented Paul from being himself. In “Maybe Tomorrow,” the gay hooker mocks Paul’s poor attempt to hide his desire, noting the transparency of “this angsty, cop drama you’re rollin’” (2×3).
• “What you scribblin’ over there?” Ray asks the court-appointed supervisor (who refuses to answer). “There some high drama happenin’ that I don’t see?” (2×6) During his penultimate meeting with Chad, Ray’s frustration recalls the dread that often overwhelms Cohle—the fear that he’s a character performing for an uncaring, unreachable audience.
• “I don’t want to live this fantasy about Chad with you anymore,” Gena tells her husband. “This fake story where we made a family has to end” (2×5). “Ray Velcoro’s relationship to fatherhood is analogous to Paul’s relationship to heterosexual sexual identity: It’s a selfish, self-destructive redemption scheme that he executes poorly” (Jensen, qtd. in “Dream”).
But ironically, the fake story turns out to be true. Despite the timid resistance he displays in each prior scene (as when refusing to build the model of a bomber because “it kills people;” 2×5), Chad eventually embraces his father’s militaristic identity, proudly displaying the police badge worn by his grandfather, sending his father a farewell salute. And against all odds, the paternity test confirms with 99.99% probability that Ray is in fact the father (2×8). Like every other sub-plot, the Velcoro family drama is tied up with twists so implausible that they almost feel like fantasy.
• “That sounds like bullshit,” Emily tells Paul when he makes up an excuse for not spending the night with her (claiming that he has to help out a friend in 2×1). Like Vaughn, Taylor Kitsch is playing a bad actor, and he never disguises his character’s lies. When Paul attempts to convince Emily that he loves her with a pathetically unconvincing projection of confidence, there’s more despair than relief in her reply: “I guess I love you too” (2×4). She realizes that this love story is fake, but an extremely unlikely circumstance (getting pregnant in spite of the birth control) has forced her to continue participating in the farce.
• Commander Heschmeyer makes fun of Ani for “adopting a position of righteous indignation” (2×4). When she plays the familiar feminist card and claims, “This would not be happening to a man,” he explains, “If a complaint were lodged against them [by the Vinci mayor], you bet it would. They just wouldn’t be able to use that line” (2×4).
• Elliot warns Ani not to “make up problems for yourself. You’re angry at the entire world, and men in particular, out of a false sense of entitlement for something you never received. Your entire personality is an extended criticism of my values… Do you even like what you do?” (2×1). Seeing right through her self-righteous facade, Elliot realizes his daughter hates her job. Because she never received protection as a girl, Ani has developed a false sense of duty to protect other women. The sheriff claims to be the only one who cares about her missing person (in 2×5), but in “Black Maps and Motel Rooms” (where Ani threatens to have Vera killed), we discover that her supposed heroism has been a lie (as she had only wanted to use the girl to get information).
• “I ain’t ever exactly been Colombo,” Ray confesses, then later, Holloway tells him, “Honestly, Ray, no one had any idea that you were this competent” (2×8). The bosses (presumably) put Ray and Dixon (the “wet-brain alchy,” Ray calls him in 2×5) on the case because they’re always drunk, and they’re not supposed to solve it.
But in this masquerade, characters can change personalities overnight. When he gives up booze and cocaine after his near-death experience in “Night Finds You,” Ray starts a new life (his “sober issue,” Frank calls it in 2×4) as a dangerous renegade on a crusade against the forces pulling his strings.
• Like Errol (who cycles through accents and practices movie lines), Tony performs “different roles for different events” to suit the tastes of his primitive friends (2×3). We know nothing of his true identity. In Episode 2, his father characterizes Tony as a clumsy, insane coke-head who “can’t handle the deep trip.” In Episodes 7 and 8, he’s characterized as a criminal mastermind, but this persona (which we only hear about through unreliable backstory) doesn’t seem any more authentic than the role he performs in Episode 3. When Ani mocks his fake accent, she forces him to say, “I admit, it’s a total put-on,” and when Holloway tells us that Tony is the leader of the collusion (in 2×8), it still feels like we’re being misled.
• In his third appearance (on the set of Vinci’s movie in 2×3), Len derides the show and predicts the response critics would have to his neurotic persona. “What’s this thing about?” asks Ray. “About two tons of shit,” explains the set photographer. “Some uh, collapse of civilization revenge flick. Outta make it a silent picture the way the guy does his lines.”
Birdman was a lot more interesting when he wasn’t talking. When he defines himself as a caricature with a simple motivation (revenge)—“I am the blade, and the bullet!”—Ray is taken aback, eyebrows raised in silent disbelief (with an expression that says, “Okaaay”). Like the viewer, Ray has a hard time believing that this nervous wreck is the elusive genius who’s been spreading chaos across Southern California. Len shares nothing in common with the patient, dexterous villain who had shotgunned him earlier. We can only reconcile this discrepancy by assuming that in each scene, Len is pretending to be someone he isn’t—or that he’s simply forgotten his past life.
What are the odds that Ray would discover Caspere’s killer on the same day that he decides to exact his revenge on Burris and Holloway? Sixty-six days pass between Episodes 4 and 5 (a news reporter tells us at the start of 2×5), and “Caspere was confessing everything” about the jewelry store robbery (Laura tells us in 2×8) before the events of Episode 1. So if he’s known the identities of his parents’ killers for more than two months, why would Len wait so long to confront them? “That’s some luck on you,” Frank tells his friend after he survives his first encounter with Birdman (2×3), and Ray’s perfect timing at the train station (arriving after Len and before Holloway) could also be considered prodigious luck—or it could be interpreted as part of Vinci’s grand design. Considering how, in prior scenes, Len allows the detectives to find him—waiting for Ray to turn around before he pulls the trigger (2×2), then waiting for the detectives to arrive at the driver’s house before torching the Cadillac (2×3)—we can assume that he’s been waiting for them to discover Birdman’s identity.
The script refuses to explain the villains’ bizarre behavior. “He [Len] put him [Caspere] out there on the road—why?” asks Ani, and Laura only offers us vague conjecture. “I don’t know. I think. . . he thought it was funny” (2×8). By dumping the corpse on a state-patrolled highway in Ventura County, Len turns the case into a state-wide, televized spectacle where elite forces vie for control over the rail corridor. Each of the show’s villains remains an enigma, but we do learn one thing about their strange intentions: they love to put on a violent show.
Responding to the backlash against the first season (specifically, the accusations of misogyny), the showrunner caused an historic uproar (that has yet to quell) by calling it “stupid criticism.” The wave of negativity began with the famous Washington Post article “Cool Story, Bro.” Responding to the predictable, adulterous plot twist at the end of episode 6, Emily Nussbaum complained about the show’s lack of rounded female characters. Though her opinions are misguided (a fact she freely admits, confessing that she shouldn’t judge a season before it’s finished), most of Nussbaum’s analysis is accurate and exceptionally prescient. Before the finale had materialized the Childress’ life-size doll-house, Nussbaum recognized the side characters as lifeless playthings without identity. “Every live woman they meet is paper-thin,” she writes, going on to note how “Everyone around these cops, male or female, is a dark-drama cliché, from the coked-up dealers and the sinister preachers to that curvy corpse in her antlers.”
Is True Detective misogynistic? Sure, it features misogyny. After all, the first season (and most of the second season) is about bad men. Is portraying the objectification of women inherently problematic? In “A Conversation With Nic Pizzolatto and T Bone Burnett,” the writer responds to the complaints about the first season’s under-developed female characters: “If that’s a deficiency in the show, I can only say that that deficiency is inherent in its form. Because the form of this show is a closed point of view.” With the exception of a few scenes, the entire season portrays the perspective of two men with unsound minds. One of them views women as toys or pieces of art that exist for his pleasure. Marty is constantly haunted by his carnal instincts, so half the time, the show portrays women as prey. “You philandering fucking asshole!” yells Lisa after their rough breakup (during which Marty trashed her apartment and threatened to kill her new lover). “Hey!” snaps Marty. “There is no pageant to perform. Okay? You’re disappointment is irrelevant” (1×4). The creator explains, “My serial killer’s personal pathology is wrapped in very culturally relevant symbols that may not be immediately apparent. Not just hunting, but the idea of woman as a trophy to be stuffed and displayed” (Romano). Most of the female characters (in both seasons) are as lifelike as the dolls and figurines that litter the sets. Mayor Chessani even displays a life-size cardboard replica of his bikini-clad wife in his office (2×3). He’s not trying to hide the fact that she’s nothing more than a trophy.
Naussbaum’s critique is equally (if not more) relevant to the second season. The Santa Muerte gangsters Frank deals with are as flat as the silhouettes in the opening credits. Despite their pivotal role (appearing in 2×4, 2×6, and 2×8), we’re never told anything about their gang—save that “it’s not a gang like you thinkin’” (Amarillo’s friend tells Frank in 2×6). We don’t even learn their names. Frank simply refers to them as “the Mexicans,” and he calls the shorter one “Cisco Kid” (a fictional outlaw from comics, movies, and TV shows), recognizing him as a caricature without a real identity (in 2×4).
True Detective’s title is ironic. The writer isn’t trying to emulate the documentarian authenticity of HBO’s other great dramas (like The Wire). The show is truthful in that it doesn’t disguise the fiction. “It’s easy to make something avant garde,” explains Fukunaga. “To do something in the traditional way is much more brave in the sense that your technique is so much more exposed” (Hart). The show has always been highly invested in genre. Marty’s opening monologue serves as a metacinematic confessional. It feels like the writer is warning us that this show won’t be anything more than a formulaic buddy-cop comedy. “You know I’ve seen all the different types,” Marty tells Papania and Gilbough, enumerating the roles he and Cohle will cycle through. “We all fit a certain category: the bully, the charmer, the surrogate dad, the man possessed by ungovernable rage, the brain” (1×1). The truth about being a person, Cohle explains, is that “everybody is nobody” (1×1). To him, people are nothing more than “biological puppets” (1×3). Thus, the side characters always feel overtly familiar.
In a season 2 interview, T Bone Burnett explains, “I’ve heard criticisms of the show, and almost all of them are ‘This is all cliches, and I can’t understand anything that’s going on,’ which is a beautiful dichotomy” (Bienstock). Sure, season 2 (and, to a slightly lesser degree, season 1) is filled with kitsch elements. Nonetheless, the cliches are arranged in a structured and (for the most part) meaningful way. Like Twin Peaks—David Lynch’s surreal manhunt about a detective who solves the case by finding answers in his dreams—True Detective blends art-house realism with pulp storytelling to create a unique, bizarre atmosphere.
Just because a show is populated with archetypes doesn’t mean that these characters are inherently uninteresting. He has no personality, yet I’d argue that Cisco Kid is an exceptional side character. The fact that he never speaks a word (in his four scenes) makes him more interesting than your average cookie-cutter villain. Why does he stare at Frank with such intense loathing? There’s no answer, and that’s what I find unnerving (and hilarious).
The leads are complex and layered. Thus, the generic side characters feel oddly out-of-place. When Ani gets on the bus in “Church in Ruins,” it feels like she’s been transported from an art-house drama to a spy B-movie. The brutish Russian henchmen are hilariously generic. I personally love their thick accents and broken English. When Ani holds back her purse, the gangster grunts, “You get back tomorrow. Do not be arguing bitch!” Though comical, the villains still feel intimidating. Inside the bus, we get a particularly striking wide shot of the gangster walking down the aisle collecting purses. Assisted by the campy score—which features a female choir singing a dreadful chord—the theatrical mise-en-scene builds a haunting tone, lighting the hookers with a fill light while hiding the gangster’s face in darkness. His featureless, black mask recalls the abstract images from the credits that erase facial features, suggesting a lack of identity. Throughout the case, the villains’ disturbing anonymity accentuates the lead characters’ alienation.
While True Detective season 1 will be remembered as a masterpiece, season 2 will be remembered as a cult classic. I’ll freely admit, many scenes can feel tedious, irrelevant, and discursive. HBO president Michael Lombardo has admitted that he didn’t give Pizzolatto enough time to write the sophomore season, which suffered from a rushed production. But in spite of its abysmal score of 31% on Rotten Tomatoes, Pizzolatto defends “Omega Station,” claiming that the ending had been planned out from the start. “Honestly, the finale is really loaded with a lot of my personally favorite stuff from either season” (HBO Connect).
At any rate, season 2 can certainly be classified as “so bad it’s good.” Regardless of whether the inaccuracies were intentional, the script’s plethora of implausible (or impossible) coincidences are incredibly structured. Why does Caspere have a statue of Santa Muerte (the ornate statue that Ray observes) in his mansion? He doesn’t have any known connection to Amarillo or the other gang members. If we start connecting the convoluted plot points, we’ll uncover an endlessly and impossibly interwoven web of conspiracies. These inexplicable connections could be the result of sloppy filmmaking—or they could be interpreted as hidden, nightmarish clues indicative of the filmmakers’ attention to detail. I find the latter assumption more productive. Recall Cohle’s advice in the pilot: “Yeah, of course I’ve always taken a lot of notes. I mean you never know what the thing’s gonna be, do you? The little detail, somewhere way down the line, makes you go—ha—breaks the case.”
On the set design for season 2, Alex DiGerlando explains, “It’s all about the details. Even if the viewer can’t process every single thing that’s in a frame, the sum of all the parts still registers” (HBO Connect). They’re designed to affect the spectator at a subconscious level, so we might not notice the uncanny details. But occasionally, the viewer might feel the nightmarish suspicion that something is happening that should not be. “There is some ethereal sensibility that there are greater forces at play than what you see taking place before you,” explains Collin Farrell (“Making of True Detective”). At times, it feels like the show has been lying to us. It’s as if every part of this universe is controlled by some unknowable, sadistic, and omnipotent machine.