The second season of True Detective has been an unending struggle to care. About the main characters and their individual, designated shades of personal torment. About a needlessly labyrinthine conspiracy plot that kept chucking more and more meat into the pot to detract from its rote ordinariness. About a show manifestly at a loss for how to maintain the energy and vitality that once propelled it into the zeitgeist. We in the audience want to continue to be invested in True Detective, captivated by the qualities that made it a bright-burning phenomenon, but the show has taken to thwarting these efforts at every turn.
“Omega Station,” the second season finale, is, easily, the strongest episode True Detective has offered us this year, due in no small part to disrupting what has been the season’s lethargic status quo. Too much of this season has toiled in a repetitive holding pattern, of Frank talking a big, awkwardly poetic game; of the task force cycling through an exhaustive laundry list of players that have little meaning to us; of unsavory Mr. Bigs wallowing in their own venal decadence. “Omega Station” amends the problem by tapering back the conspiracy fairly early on, jettisoning the info-dump morass of a narrative to streamline the focus into what will become of the three characters still left standing. It finally makes us care about Frank, Velcoro and Bezzerides, even if it does so in a fairly calculated way.
Velcoro and Bezzerides are still in hiding, having bared their souls and respective traumas to one another and becoming, it would seem, battle-scarred soulmates as a result. Upon learning of Woodrugh’s death, the two become more determined to knock the corrupt house of cards to the floor, identifying the Osterman siblings, orphaned during the 1992 riots as collateral damage of the conspiracy, as the vengeful catalysts behind the case. After finding Laura, our heroes learn that her brother Lenny was Caspere’s killer and has plans in motion to kill corrupt cop Holloway at a train-station rendezvous. Velcoro and Bezzerides intercept Lenny and plan to use the opportunity to obtain recorded evidence of the conspiracy from Holloway via a wire. When the plan goes violently sideways, Velcoro and Bezzerides are left with no other option but to retreat into hiding permanently, hooking up with the also-on-the-run Frank, where they plan a big score to fund their retirements by robbing a secluded money-drop location maintained by some of the conspiracy’s central players. They succeed and make off with millions, including those fabled diamonds, the initial theft of which was what started this whole mess off in the first place.
As in so many heist stories, the getaway proves much more difficult than the actual job itself, and it’s here where True Detective finally, belated, becomes captivating, even if it does so via manipulation and obvious telegraphing. The team plans to take their cuts of the loot and hightail it off to Venezuela, but the fact that Frank tells his wife early on to leave on her own and he’ll meet her there later immediately makes anyone who’s seen a lot of movies wary about his chances. Similarly, now that the show has pulled the Joss Whedon move of establishing Velcoro and Bezzerides as wounded lovebirds who can redeem each other, we immediately begin waiting for that shoe of tragedy to drop, and Velcoro unwittingly seals their fates the second he tells Bezzerides on the phone that he’s 40 minutes out from meeting up with her with the cash, prompting rare, doomsaying smiles from these perpetual sourpusses. By the time Velcoro makes the decision to exit the freeway to have one last look at his beloved son, we intrinsically realize that Venezuela is no longer in the cards for him. And when the Mexican gangsters confront Frank about how the burned-down clubs will affect the deal he struck for them to conduct business there – firebombings that Frank actually is responsible for, even if these guys don’t know that – his future becomes even less rosy.
From this point on, “Omega Station” commits itself to becoming a slow-moving tragedy, with Velcoro trying to shake the corrupt cops on his tail, quickly realizing that his goal has become to ensure Bezzerides’ exit strategy while staying alive just long enough for a goodbye voicemail to his son to be transmitted despite minimal cell reception. Frank’s position is even grimmer. He’s hauled out to the middle of the desert and takes a knife deep into his abdomen, shuffling along futilely while leaving a trail of blood and hallucinating visions of people who have caused him adversity in his life. And while it’s gripping material (even if Frank’s visions do cause the eyes to roll a bit), it’s hampered by how evident the strings are being pulled. We root for Velcoro to figure out a way to get to Bezzerides for that happy ending that they both could really use, but the show only decided that these two were each other’s salvation about 40 minutes prior. Same thing with Frank and his wife, the tenderness present between them standing as a relatively new development, far from the default state of their complicated relationship. At one point, Frank asks Velcoro if Woodrugh was his friend, prompting the honest response that he technically barely knew him, and that is the root of the problem. The show demands our hearts break for characters it’s only just now gotten around to asking us to care about. While the show manages to squeeze a good deal of pathos out of the characters’ predicaments, stepping back to look at the big picture, none of it has been truly earned.
True Detective’s commitment to ending on a downer also stands as predictable in a manner that the first season cast off defiantly. That season also seemed to point toward a tragic conclusion, if not just because of the thick air of portent hanging over everything, then definitely due to Rust outright declaring that he had no expectation nor desire to walk away from this alive. When he and Marty take on severe battle damage, we have already steeled ourselves for the worst, making their survival and the unexpectedly optimistic ending a pleasant surprise. Here, we know well before the characters do that they aren’t getting away clean and are left watching their downfalls transpire in slow-motion, their inevitability never called into question. The experience of watching everything fall apart remains captivatingly grueling, but ultimately unsatisfying. And a coda with Bezzerides continuing to fight the good fight from afar, having joined forces with the widow Jordan Semyon while raising Velcoro’s love child, doesn’t seem triumphant so much as awkward and ill-conceived, even if it does add a grace note of female empowerment to such a pungently masculine show.
Despite having a finale with some successful elements, it’s impossible to look back on the entirety of True Detective’s sophomore effort as anything other than a failure. Series creator Nick Pizzolatto had clearly come to believe his hype wholeheartedly and proceeded under the misapprehension that anything he came up with next would be compelling simply by having emerged from his pen. It wasn’t, and the takeaway seems to be that Pizzolatto didn’t fully grasp what it was that made his initial season such a resounding success. The losses of both Matthew McConaughey and director Cary Fukunaga were handicaps, to be certain, but True Detective had other strengths beyond those two pivotal players that made it such a memorable and haunting experience, and Pizzolatto was either unwilling or unable to recreate those qualities, leaving us with four dead-weight characters (at least one too many) and a storyline too laborious, unwieldy and just plain uninteresting to bother scrutinizing. Hopefully the season’s chilly reception with both audiences and critics will lead to Pizzolatto giving serious consideration toward how to right the ship for the third season, rather than simply ignoring the criticism outright and pressing ahead undeterred. Or just bring back Rust and Marty. There would be no better, easier way to gain an “all is forgiven” than that.
Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Brandon Wolfe at @BrandonTheWolfe.