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Warning: light spoilers ahead.
The main thing that people seem to remember from the first season of True Detective is the aphorism "Time is a flat circle." This line, delivered by Matthew 's wizened Rust Cohle in a Louisiana interrogation room, essentially posits that in the context of the greater universe, everything that will ever happen to us has already happened, and we're just perceiving it in a linear fashion. In real life, this idea is useless to us. Regardless of the alinearity of time, we perceive it as moving in one direction.
In storytelling, however, the reminder that we as viewers perceive stories in the way they're presented to us is of paramount importance. When you read a book, the story is only going to turn out one way, and that's the way that the author has determined the story will go.
However, you can jump to any point in the book, and experience the story's events in any order you'd like. Scenes such as this one, in which Cohle almost seems to be aware that he's a character with a pre-determined arc and he's about to put the kibosh on the entire show and start yelling at showrunner Nic Pizzolatto to let him out of his cage, are why the first season of True Detective was such a brilliant deconstruction of the standard-issue cop procedural. Rust might have not been able to control his case, but you got the sense that that didn't matter to him: Why care about the case when you've got an intimate understanding of the fabric of the universe in which you reside?
If I had to guess, this was a ploy on the showrunner Pizzolatto's part to establish his characters as complex, tortured souls with deep-seated motivations that would inevitably drive them towards some sort of dynamic resolution. However, as True Detective's second season wears on, very little is actually accomplished in solving the actual mystery. By episode six, we found out that Ben Caspere, a powerful city official, was killed because he was involved with a West Coast Illuminati sex-party ring, and that the entire fictional town of Vinci was creepy and corrupt. All this stuff, or at least a very general version of it, seems inevitable to pretty much anybody who's watched True Detective, participated in cultural conversations surrounding True Detective, or even heard the words true and detective in close proximity to one another.
A good murder mystery essentially asks the question, 'What happens when someone is forcibly removed from society, and what about this society mandated that this person had to be removed from it?'
This season's central mystery more or less falls in line with both the show's first season, as well as The Killing, an AMC show whose first season Pizzolatto helped write and is one of TD's spiritual forebears. That season involved a murder that served as a MacGuffin for exploring all of the crazy shit going on in its home city, including high-class prostitutes, crooked city officials, and a general sense the evil had infected an entire municipality. That show featured two detectives—one, Joel Kinnaman's Stephen Holder, was particularly True: a weird, philosophical recovering meth addict who smoked pot with teens and was probably in love with his partner Sarah. He was the show's proto-Rust Cohle, a fundamentally good person who seemed crushed by his horrible understanding of the nature of man.
This season's basic plot also contains slivers of Alan Moore's From Hell, in which a bunch of Freemasons get together to kill a group of prostitutes who possibly might have squealed on a member of the royal family for frequenting a fancy prostitute house vis-à-vis one of them having his kid. From Hell's central character John Gull, in addition to being generally creepy and terrifying, has a Rustian sense of temporality—whenever he commits a murder, he disassociates and suddenly understands that he's simply moving through time as he perceives it, and that the totality of human history has already happened.
While it's a weird bit of clarity for an Illuminati-sanctioned killer of women to have, it goes a long way in terms of plainly laying out the fact that in lots and lots of murder mysteries, the actual murder isn't all that interesting. Instead, it's the stuff swirling around the murder that's often so fascinating—a good murder mystery essentially asks the question, "What happens when someone is forcibly removed from society, and what about this society mandated that this person had to be removed from it?" Some people benefit from it, some get screwed over. Some people aren't affected at all.
This, the idea that the "what" of a story is less important than the greater "why's" surrounding it, remains True Detective's guiding theme. Which is fortunate, because as the show's second season has unfolded, it's become both increasingly harder to follow along with the show's actual plot, as well as sort of boring. Until last week's episode, the season's sixth, TD had settled into something of a holding pattern, involving tense conversations between characters, vaguely ominous shots of Los Angeles's labyrinthine highway system, and the occasional image of some sort of fruit tree just to really hammer home the fact that this is a California Noir we're dealing with here, punctuated by bursts of brutal, delicious violence.
While viewers were waiting for the show to progress in the "solving the mystery" department, lots of fun, horrible stuff happened in the personal lives of the show's principles. Vince Vaughn's Frank Semyon was slowly dragged back into the role of "generic underworld guy" after he found out the dead rich guy stole his money. Rachel McAdams's Ani Bezzerides got flagged for sexual harassment in the workplace. Colin Farrell's Ray Velcoro lost his kid, his career, and his mustache. Taylor Kitsch's Paul Woodrugh got his girlfriend pregnant, but also had sex with one of his old military buddies, who was a man. Meanwhile, these True Detectives (plus Vaughn, who is definitely True, and despite being a criminal, is trying to solve the mystery) hadn't really made much headway in the whole "solving the mystery" thing. It turns out that in addition to being sad, helpless people rendered semi-shitty by the brutal world around them, none of them are particularly great at solving crimes.
In the past two episodes of the show, however, all of the show's painful, semi-boring exposition has finally started to pay off. Vaughn, who at first felt like a black hole of suck from which nothing of quality could ever escape, is a lot more interesting now that he's regularly acting like a murderous psychopath, breaking glasses over people's faces and burning buildings down by spilling liquor everywhere and then setting stuff on fire. It turns out that Vaughn's total blankness throughout the entire season was serving the greater purpose of establishing that Frank Semyon was at his heart, a guy who was really adept at management, and he just so happened to have ended up being the manager of a criminal organization. It's chilling to watch what he's willing to do, simply as an extension of his devotion to his self-perceived station in life.
Meanwhile, now that the show's spent a few hours punching Ray Velcoro in the metaphorical dick, it's a lot easier to understand why he acts how he does. If he plays the character as a mumbler, it's because Ray's life seems to be nothing more than a series of perpetual rock-bottoms. Much like Tom Hardy's portrayal of Mad Max, Ray's been so shell-shocked by life that he seems almost confused at the sound of his own voice. What once seemed goofy and superfluous now seems essential to his character. He's emerged as something of a mentor to Ani and Paul, and through the power of teamwork, the trio's finally gotten a big scoop! Ani went undercover as a prostitute at a weird drug-and-sex party while Paul broke into said weird drug-and-sex party and stole some documents from a desk. Not to be outdone, Ani stabbed some guy a bazillion times and then rescued one of the prostitutes, whose information promises to blow the case wide open. Except, well, she doesn't want to testify. And now all the powerful people who were at the party are mad because Ani killed some generic tycoon. At this point, the True Detectives have ensconced themselves in a cabin somewhere while they try to figure out exactly what the hell is going on. But, in perhaps the billionth plot twist in the episode, Paul gets drawn back into the arms of the Blackwater-esque security organization he used to work for, who have since changed their name and started working solely for the organization that throws the weird orgies. Also, a bunch of diamonds appear to have suddenly started to play some sort of significant role.
I don't want to spoil the episode's ending if you haven't seen it, but let's just say that in the world of True Detective, life is hard, and if you want to survive you've got to smoke the cigarette of life down to the filter of mortality. And once the filter of mortality is bare, bare like the ass of a baby when it's born into the cold and unloving shit factory we call life, you smoke the filter of mortality down to nothingness. Which is to say that in the last ten minutes of this season's penultimate episode, every True Detective either fucks, dies, or kills someone in a dramatic and spectacular fashion.
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As the show's final hovers over us like a gray cloud that happens to rain extraneous plot details, True Detective has left us with more questions than it can possibly answer. Who killed Ben Caspere? What the hell's going on with the diamonds? Why did Ray shave his mustache? Who was the Rasputin-looking guy from Ani's childhood? Who was that guy wearing the bird mask back in episode two, and why? Are humans inherently evil, or has, through the fault of no one in particular, society morphed into a construct that makes us evil? And wouldn't spraying liquid MDMA into your mouth get you less high than if you just did it the normal way?
It might be that I'm actually a bad viewer and these questions have already been answered, and it's very possible that Nic Pizzolatto has a four-hour season finale that will answer all these questions and more, and tie the whole show up with a nice bow. Or, and this is what seems most likely to me, it might be that many of these questions were never meant to be answered. The actual mystery of the show is why these four characters, once they've had every last sad and intimate detail of their private lives laid bare to us, have acted the way they did throughout the entire season. We know how True Detective will end: The case will be solved in some form or another. But it's the people in the show's universe, slowly getting hip to the fact that they're being manipulated by forces larger than themselves, who serve as True Detective's ultimate mystery.
True Detective airs Sunday nights at 9 PM on HBO.
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