Well, here we are. The final episode in True Detective’s second season. Fans of the show can’t wait to see how Pizzolatto brings it all together. Detractors of the show – somehow still watching on a weekly basis – can’t wait to watch Pizzolatto fail. And in keeping with the up-and-down nature of season two, both audiences likely saw enough in “Omega Station” to justify their long-held opinions.
In my reviews of True Detective, I’ve mostly shied away from addressing the crowds of people who hate-watch the show. The volume of negativity makes sense; Twitter is designed to reward brevity and wit and most people do not talk about the things they love in a punchy shorthand. I can certainly sympathize with fans of the show who scroll down every Sunday to see a deluge of negativity, but as a general rule of thumb, unless you cannot differentiate between criticizing a work of art and insulting its fans, you are more than welcome to engage in whatever manner you seem fit.
What does surprise me – and at times frustrate me – is how quickly these people gave up on the show altogether. I am a fan of True Detective’s second season; I would also be one of the first to argue that it has serious (possibly crippling) problems with dialogue and gender. Part of what makes it so much fun to write about is the difficulty in neatly categorizing it among great or terrible television. Pizzolatto and his cast can make both brilliant and terrible decisions – often in the same episode, sometimes even in the same scene – and audiences are then required to do the math and see if the end result is greater than the sum of its parts. I always feel like I get more out of something when I can read wildly varying reviews, and while a better season two of True Detective might have seen more people writing down their praise, it would also be considerably less fun to read about the day after. Criticism exists for the countless films and television shows that exist somewhere between terrible and great. There’s nothing wrong with an opinion that doesn’t fit easily into 140 characters.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about “Omega Station.”
With one season of True Detective under our belt, we should already know that Nic Pizzolatto’s finishing moves are to ask more questions than he answers and to have his lead characters solve only the smallest piece of the puzzle. Even at an extended ninety minutes, there were too many storylines for True Detective to ever possibly tie up, and many characters and subplots found themselves exorcised from the finale. Woodrugh’s family shows up for only a few brief seconds at the end of the episode; Bezzerides’s family and ex-partner are nowhere to be found. Those hoping that Pizzolatto would further reveal the identity of the man Velcoro killed were sadly mistaken. People who wanted the Panticapaeum Institute to be revealed as a major player were also out of luck. Much like in the first season, Pizzolatto used these small mysteries as Rorschach tests for his detectives, abstract storylines that only take on meaning in how a character reacts to them.
One storyline that is addressed by Pizzolatto, however, is the growing relationship between Bezzerides and Velcoro. Although last week’s episode ended with the two characters in bed, with only a few terse interactions alone during the season, it was difficult to view their relationship as anything more than a last-night-on-earth fling. Here, though, Pizzolatto and director John Crowley are able to build the emotional core that had been missing in only a few minutes. The time between the two characters moves in fragments; Bezzerides and Velcoro bare themselves to their partner, explaining the underlying trauma that has guided their actions, and the episode begins with jumbled shots of one or the other out of bed. This stretches their one night together into days or even weeks. By the time the two emerge from the hotel room together, there is a lightness to the interactions between McAdams and Farrell that is new to both performances.
From here, despite the myriad of subplots that will be discarded along the way, there is still Ben Caspere’s murder to resolve. Fans or non-fans who read Willa Paskin’s excruciatingly detailed plot recap at Slate were given a helpful reminder of the connections between the ongoing conspiracy and the Vinci police investigation back in 1992. In “Omega Station,” we finally meet the young man who shot Ray Velcoro and killed Ben Caspere. The revelation that Caspere’s murderer was the young photographer on the movie set gives that scene a bit more importance – making it seem less like a direct assault on season one director Cary Fukunaga – and setting up one of the show’s most fun action sequences in the Los Angeles bus terminal. One of the pleasures of the season finale is watching the various ways in which Farrell tries and fails to incriminate either Holloway or Burris through legal channels. As potential witnesses get themselves shot to death and tape recorders are crushed underfoot, it becomes increasingly obvious that Velcoro and Semyon will only survive by shooting their way out.
The first forty minutes of the show belongs to the plot; the last forty belong to the characters. Even if you did not explicitly stop the episode to check the amount of time remaining, a part of you must have known that things had gone too well too early for everyone involved. Velcoro and Semyon’s victory celebration came with a sense of dread and anxiety that only intensified as each character tried to wrap up his loose ends. For all the criticism that people choose to bring against Pizzolatto, in True Detective’s final minutes, I wasn’t the only person who was a nervous wreck over what might happen to my favorite characters.
After Velcoro was shot, birth.movies.death writer Phil Nobile, Jr. was quick to point out the connection to Velcoro’s dream sequence way back in the show’s third episode. Fred Ward’s character, who spoke to his son in a Conway Twitty fueled fever dream, prophesized Velcoro’s death coming amidst tall trees and at the hands of men who shoot him to pieces. One could argue that Velcoro’s decision to drive into the middle of the redwoods made no sense outside of fulfilling this prophecy; Velcoro could just as easily have not gotten into the car or driven to a more populated area (or, hell, driven to the state troopers’ office and turned himself in). Certainly valid points, but also largely irrelevant to the story that True Detective is trying to tell. There is a thread of destiny running through this season, and if you accept the fact that Velcoro was always going to end up in these woods being chased by these men, his entire death scene will go down a little smoother. Accepting the internal logic of a television show or movie should not be confused with making excuses for its writer.
Semyon’s death, on the other hand, requires no such equivocation. It really never made any sense to think that Semyon would survive, but Vaughn had done such great work with the character that I found myself hoping that he would crawl his way out of the salt flats anyways. I have often described Vaughn in these recaps as an actor working against his own material; here, fittingly, it is Vaughn who sells the power of Semyon’s death scene. Watching the character trail blood as the ghosts of his enemies taunt him is a nice (if not a bit contrived) sequence, but the horror of Semyon’s death belongs to the moment that the character realizes he has already given up. The fear and sadness on Vaughn’s face as he turns back to the empty horizon – the mirage of his wife having disappeared – may be the best bit of pure acting Vaughn has delivered in the last decade. And just like that, Semyon collapses, and another light goes out in the True Detective universe.
In pairing Semyon and Velcoro in death, True Detective underlines the notion that this relationship was always the focal point of the season. The evidence for this is present throughout the finale; first Velcoro defends Semyon’s reputation to Bezzerides by describing him as “actually not a bad guy,” then Semyon returns the favor by giving Bezzerides his speech on relationships. Both men agree to stay behind and raid the cabin as revenge on Osip and the Catalyst executive. Both men also don’t know when to walk away. The corrupt cop and the gangster move in the same world of violence and corruption, but what separates them – what identifies Ray Velcoro as a man whose actions may have some shot at redemption – are the very things that lead to their demises. Semyon is stabbed because he is unwilling to walk away from the $3.5 million dollars sewn into the lining of his jacket. Velcoro is shot because he gambles on seeing his son one last time before he leaves forever. While both men are marked by the inability to walk away when it matters most, the hills they quite literally choose to die on could not be any different.
And this focus on Semyon and Velcoro is what ultimately makes the disappearance of Bezzerides a bit more palatable. The fact that she shows up at the end of the episode with a new Baby Ray in tow – what my fiancée angrily referred to as True Detective’s “healing power of motherhood” cliché – is the last in a long line of thudding character notes for Bezzerides. The idea that we could love someone so much that we would let them go – send them out of harm’s way even if it meant we could never see them again – is a powerful concept, but also a diminishing one. Both Bezzerides and Jordan Semyon are essentially banished from the show’s final act as a way of defining the growth and commitment of the male characters in the show. Once is choppy but forgivable; twice is hard to stomach. Writing powerful characters, regardless of gender, includes giving them the power to fight for the things they care about. Pizzolatto may have had the best of intentions or he may just not have cared, but either way, the choice to kick the show’s two female characters to the sidelines diminishes its impact. The turnaround in the end with the reporter is a nice touch; too little a bit too late.
And there it is, your season two of True Detective. One of the common storylines throughout the season was the difficulty in analyzing a show like True Detective in a serial approach; that the show was really meant to be watched from start to finish as a complete single narrative. While few are ready to dive back into the series immediately after completing it, I do offer this one recommendation: find someone who was waiting for the season to end so they could watch it all in a single sitting. Compare notes after they finish. See which storylines cease to be confusing when there is no delay between episodes. And, if you happen to be someone who writes about film, share those notes so the rest of us can enjoy. My only real argument regarding True Detective is we’ll never really know how we feel about it without a bit of distance and reevaluation. And with the season finally over, it’s either that or start crowdsourcing casting rumors for season three.