The second episode of True Detective ended on a massive cliffhanger, making much of last week interminably frustrating for addicts like me. Fans were able to stop holding their breath last night when things finally played themselves out last night in the third episode. But it wasn’t an easy resolution.
Warning: MASSIVE spoilers ahead.
Episode two ended with Colin Farrel’s character, the perpetually dour Detective Ray Velcoro, being shot twice by a shotgun-wielding man wearing what looked like a giant crow mask. Here’s how I described it last week:
The scene takes place in a dimly lit sex dungeon of sorts—the house that we found out earlier in the episode was used by the victim discovered at the end of the first episode after his eyes and genitals had already been removed. Velcoro went there alone late at night to scope the place out, and, for some unfathomable reason, chose to holster his gun after he saw a pool of blood on the floor. While he was busy combing over the place for clues and doing other normal detective things, the crow man surprised him with a first shot that knocks him onto the ground. Then in a striking final image to close out the night’s calamitous events, we see the masked crow man walk over to Velcoro as he writhes around on the ground, casually take aim with the shotgun, and shoot him again—this time in the gut.
Is he dead? We all wondered as the screen faded to black and the credits popped up. Did they really just do that? Did they kill off a main character—the seemingly essential hard-boiled detective with a drinking problem, no friends, and an ex-wife and son who don’t love him archetype that sustains gritty crime shows like this—at the end of the SECOND FUCKING EPISODE?
Did they really just do that? Was the question for all of last week. It sure seemed like Velcoro was still alive based on all the evidence True Detective fans were able to pull together. But still. At the very least, the show entertained the possibility of doing something incredibly brash. And gutsy. Because what show really has the courage to do something as ridiculous as murdering one of its headlining stars so soon?
Not True Detective, we learned last night. Episode three opened to Velcoro speaking cryptically with a man we eventually learn is his dad. The two of them talk in a David Lynch-style dream sequence that takes place at the shabby bar Velcoro seems to spend a lot of time in. It’s the place he left to go scope out the sex dungeon in episode two, after all. No doubt at this point in the show that dude has a drinking problem—even in his wounded dream state, the man imagines himself at a bar.
And that’s the whole problem with Colin Farrel’s character, the thing that (I think) has been frustrating fans of True Detective’s stellar debut. Compared to Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s characters last season, Farrel’s Velcoro seems like an uninspired archetype pulled from the film noire playbook. He’s surly with his colleagues, drinks a lot, has an ex-wife who hates him and a son who doesn’t want to see him. Oh, and daddy issues. The ending of episode 2 posed an interesting possibility, then: would the show take a huge leap of faith and kill of its most predictable character type, therefore refocusing the show on other, possibly more interesting characters?
Nope. After the brief dream sequence, Velcoro sputtered back to consciousness on the floor we left him on in episode two. Turns out it was just rubber bullets.
Cliffhangers like the one in episode two are manipulative things to use on an audience. That doesn’t necessarily make them a bad thing. The last few episodes of Breaking Bad were like a nonstop emotional roller-coaster that often left me trembling and exasperated. And that show always loved to rely on cliffhangers before, during, and after episodes.
But there’s a key difference between Breaking Bad and True Detective, one that makes the latter show’s use of such an extreme maneuver seem cheap in comparison. Stuff actually happens in every episode of Breaking Bad. A lot of stuff. As I said last week, season 2 of True Detective has moved at a peculiarly meandering pace so far. Entire episodes have been dedicated to premise-setting and character development—giving us a lot of context to understand things that still haven’t actually happened.
Episode three started to pick things up, but only in very small ways. We met another character from Taylor Kitsch’s character’s murky past. Velcoro had another conversation with his ex-wife about the custody of their child. Then he had another conversation with a doctor who asked him point-blank: “Do you want to live?”
Again: all scene-setting, all character building. The only guy who really seemed to do much of anything in the episode was Frank Semyon, the trying-to-become-reformed criminal played by Vince Vaughn. We got to see him first attempt (unsuccessfully) to get a blowjob from his wife, only to discover the strain he’s under has made him feel impotent in more ways than one. Then we got to see him rally all of his fellow crime lords like an even sleazier-looking version of the gathering from The Godfather, and ultimately punish one of them for questioning his authority by beating him up and wrenching out his top row of teeth. Not coincidentally, Frank Semyon also became the most interesting character in the show last night.
Narrative events seem to be happening in reverse in True Detective: we get backstory after backstory to the point where we hunger for any trace of anything that smells like forward-thinking plot momentum. Episode 2’s cliffhanger cast this peculiar facet of the show into sharp relief: yes, it was a cliffhanger, but a very odd one. There was so little plot to propel us forward that the metaphorical cliff wasn’t all that steep to begin with. It just seemed that way, because a star’s life was on the line.
Critics of season two have described it as boring or unimaginative. I’ve continued to watch because I find the show intriguing, but I’ve had a harder and harder time thinking up reasons for why I like it. Right now, the only one I’ve really got is faith. Faith from the first season that makes me think the writers and producers and directors here must know what they’re doing, that there’s something akin to the big revelation that came in episode four last season, that there’s some greater reason for why the audience is being strung along right now.
I hope there is one.