This season of True Detective has – to say the least – not lived up to the high standards set by the gripping first season. Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey are hard acts to follow, so perhaps the expectations were too high. But the real Achilles heel of this season has been its plot, which was so convoluted that I had to consult a lengthy summary before watching the finale. As we all learned from the most recent season of a certain beloved comedy, TV shouldn’t be that hard to follow and I still can’t remember all of the main characters names.
But if you managed to follow all of the loose threads to know mostly what was going on, the finale was most likely (spoilers!) a bit of a disappointment. I know I was holding out until the end in the hopes that all of it would come together in a climactic reveal that would justify the hours I had invested so far. Instead, the end came and went without much fanfare. Sure, in two major characters died in two acts of genuine sacrifice and most of our questions were answered. Yet the deaths of Ray and Frank were to be expected after their massive heist went off without a hitch. And it was a huge letdown to find out that Caspere was killed (accidentally?!?) by a vengeful orphan from years back. Caspere’s gruesome death is what began all of the meandering events of this season and it promised yet another dive into the underside of American society. That his death had absolutely nothing to do with the events that followed is far too pedestrian, far too normal.
I should say that the finale wasn’t an entire loss. Perhaps because he’s the most well-adjusted character in the entire show, but I’ve been rooting for Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) since about episode three. Every time he’s on the screen, that season one magic is rekindled. By his own admission, the demons he’s already faced have made him a better man and in the finale these demons are finally shown during Frank’s psychedelic death march. Sure, the judgmental father and ridicule from his peers isn’t that original or surprising, but watching him trying to fight both death and his past as he walks toward his love is one of the more heart-wrenching scenes of the show so far. It also happens to be a perfect microcosm of the theme of the season as a whole.
While season one struggled with grand questions of existence and the cosmic war between good and evil, the one theme that has been running through this season is the more common, human reality of honesty, confession and absolution. In a season cloaked (obfuscated!) by the shadow of organized crime that must keep its activity hidden from view, everything hinges on to what extent the secrets of ourselves and our pasts can be brought to light, faced, and absolved.
Each of our trio of protagonists from this season has deep issues and truths they vehemently deny and repress. Ray Velcoro’s life fundamentally changed when his wife was raped by an unknown assailant. Wishing to play the hero, Ray (Colin Farrell) takes matters into his own hands and kills the man he thought was guilty. But instead of becoming the hero, this act turns Ray into a compromised cop at the mercy of a gangster. Ray never tells anyone about this and the unspoken secret (drown in a lot of alcohol) gnaws away at Velcoro, his job performance, and particularly his marriage. The same goes for Ana Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), whose life changed when she was kidnapped as a child and sexually abused. Unlike Velcoro, this was not a crime of volition, but the internalized guilt of that event makes Bezzerides cold to the world, mistrusting every man she meets. That Bezzerides actually enjoyed this terrible encounter is the secret guilt she only tells to Velcoro in the penultimate episode, as they reveal to each other their darkest selves. This mutual vulnerability and acceptance is the first hopeful scene in the entire season. In the glow of this mutual absolution, Velcoro and Bezzerides begin to actually love for the first time in years. The hardened cops even smile.
By contrast, Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) cannot and will not face the perceived shame of his sexuality. When he finds that his girlfriend is pregnant he quickly proposes in the hopes that he had finally found a solution to his love for his fellow soldier. Woodrugh has fooled everyone for so long that he will do anything to keep his secret safe. He does not die fighting crime, but trying to stay in the closet. It’s not an accident that he dies the very same night that Velcoro and Bezzerides fall in love.
But back to Caspere’s death; perhaps its mundane nature coheres with the above outlook and vision for life. While it does not explain everything that happens after, it too is an example of failure to come to terms with the past. Caspere himself confessed, albeit too late. He paid the ultimate penalty for the sin he tried to bury and the subsequent the cover-up by the Vinci police department creates further havoc as it sacrifices so many officers’ lives to keep this original sin hidden. The villains will do anything to ensure that the robbery and murder during the LA riots remains a secret. Like our flawed protagonists, they too cannot confess what they have done. In the end, we discover all will be brought to light eventually and there will be no (earthly) absolution for their crimes.
If season one of True Detective was asking about whether there is a moral order to the universe and if this order is bent toward justice and goodness (is time only a flat circle?), season two asks the more real and personal question of what to do with the moral ordering of our own lives (Do we get only get what we deserve?). How is it that we are to live amid a broken world? If there is hope (season one), then how can we find the light that breaks through in this life before the darkness overcomes us (season two)? The answer, it seems, lies in facing the darkness with clear-eyed honesty. And having confessed the darkest part of ourselves we might find a love and absolution that carries us beyond the darkness–maybe even into the arms of the Virgin Mary.
The truth about ourselves cannot be so easily be ignored, nor is possible to create an alternate reality where the past never happened. Try as we might to forget it (Bezzerides), or drown it in alcohol (Velcoro), or keep it locked away, hidden (Woodrugh), the demons we live with can only ever be faced head on (Frank), confessed and absolved.