By Jacob Wampfler
“This is my least favorite life…”
Singer/songwriter Lera Lynn, in my estimation, serves as both microcosm and interpreter within True Detective Season Two. The lyrics of her hauntingly beautiful songs embedded in the show speak of lost love, unknown identity, and self-loathing, among other truly depressing topics. Lynn actually sang some of these bitter lullabies in the show, from the stage of a seedy dive-bar as a strung out, disheveled musician, likely with more than a few demons of her own. She serves as a microcosm within this mind-boggling season of television because almost every character in the show knows or shares her pain. She serves as interpreter because she gives voice to just how terrible this world (both the one on screen and our own) can truly be.
I will always contest that True Detective, at least for its first two seasons, is a show focused on form over and above content. In Season One, viewers were left with many unanswered questions, chief among those being “Who is the Yellow King?!” Season Two, in many ways, also left us with unanswered questions. And the questions the show DID answer were pay-offs to plot points barely remembered from earlier in the season. As such, True Detective remains more interested in its deeply disturbed characters than developing a concise, easy-to-follow plot. Form over content.
I certainly won’t champion this type of storytelling and writing as a virtue. However, it was the characters that kept me coming back to this show, week after week throughout the summer. Frank Semyon’s (Vince Vaughn) brutality and desperation, as he watched his empire of organized crime crumble around him. Ani Bezzerides’ (Rachel McAdams) determination and sheer will-power comprising some of the most startling scenes of television in recent memory. Ray Velcoro’s (Colin Farrell) booze and drug fueled spiral into what can only be described as absolute rock-bottom. And Paul Woodrugh’s (Taylor Kitsch) entire tortured existence, only set aside when he calmly and mercilessly carried out his mission when the bullets started to fly.
All of the characters in this season of TV (and almost all other supporting characters) have a fatal flaw. They are evil, cruel, and grotesque at one time or another. I can’t help but think that famed writers like Fyodor Dostoyevsky, champion of literary realism, would have marveled at just how BAD these characters truly appear. For most of them, there are almost no redeeming qualities. I honestly couldn’t look away.
And the acting! Vince Vaughn conveyed a true sense of range by playing against type in ways that reminded me of Tom Cruise in Collateral. Taylor Kitsch’s eyes showed post-war trauma and unspeakable sorrow…and one would be hard-pressed to find a better depiction of combat experience in film or TV. Rachel McAdams brought gravitas to Ani’s character, despite some questionable scripting choices. And Colin Farrell. While perhaps indicative of his previous roles (and even his personal life, perhaps?), Farrell does more than a good job of showing viewers a character who has lived in despair for much of his adult life. If for no other reason, True Detective Season Two is worthwhile viewing simply to watch these actors inhabit the roles of the broken, tormented characters they play.
With a shaky beginning, stronger middle, and dissatisfying end for some (myself excluded), True Detective Season Two remains a solid, truly unique season of television that I will surely revisit. In fact, I would love to go back and watch the first and second seasons straight through, viewing the entire body of work as one massive, existential nightmare. True Detective Season Two isn’t fun. It’s not even easy to watch. It will never be looked upon as a masterpiece. But what this season of television does offer makes it essential viewing, in my mind: complex characters with stories that beg to be allowed the time to unfold.