Well, that happened. The season finale of True Detective did not manage to make sense of the seven episodes that preceded it. The story wrapped up rather tidily, but somehow didn’t manage to connect to any deeper meaning for either the main characters, the audience, or anything else.
Burris and Caspere and the the police chief stole some diamonds a long time ago, and they would have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids! The two young children who were orphaned when Burris et al looted those blue diamonds back during the 1992 riots somehow grew up, coincidentally met Caspere, somehow figured out who he was, got a job working for him, and killed him. What does this have to do with Frank Semyon’s $10 million and the rail corridor land grab? Nothing, apparently! Just a coincidence.
For the culprit in a noir story like this to be more or less meaningless is kind of par for the course; more important is what it meant for the main characters, right? Well, Paul Woodrugh is dead, and it’s not clear if his babymama and mamamama are still waiting for him in the motel. Bezzerides and Velcoro resolve to avenge his death by solving the crime, despite the fact that they’re both wanted. And, of course, they are suddenly in love. They have a very depressing heart-to-heart where Velcoro reveals what he did to his wife’s supposed attacker, and Bezzerides reveals that the guy who abducted her for four days didn’t really abduct her – she went willingly, and was proud to be chosen. Not sure what that really clears up.
Anyway, Velcoro goes to see his son one last time before skipping town and finds a transponder on his car, so he leads the bad guys out to the woods, and they kill him; Bezzerides ends up boarding a boat to Venezuela (they couldn’t get a flight?) with only a freshly fertilized egg in her womb to keep her company.
As for Frank, he enlists Velcoro to help him rob back his money and is soon held up by the Mexicans who muscled in on his club. Frank offers $5 million to let bygones be bygones, but balks when they ask for his suit – maybe because it’s got diamonds in the pocket. He loses the fight, takes an eight-inch blade in the ribs, and dies talking to the ghosts of the people who wronged him.
In the end, Bezzerides has hooked up with Jordan – Frank’s wife – and, for some reason, they are raising Ray’s baby together in Venezuela. Bezzerides gives all the information on the corruption they’ve uncovered to the same reporter that Ray roughed up early in the season. So justice is done, kind of? Except that Tony Chessani, the maestro of the hooker parties, is now mayor of Vinci.
At least I think that’s what happened. This show did not make it easy.
The A.V. Club’s Emily L. Stephens liked the finale:
Season two of True Detective is a dark fairy tale with a simple moral: A person who denies their nature and their past poisons everything in their life. Paul Woodrugh’s self-denial made him miserable during his life, and his susceptibility to blackmail walked him into his own execution. Ray Velcoro spent his son’s life fretting over the child’s parentage, using that uncertainty as a blind for all the resentments and rages roiling inside him. Ani Bezzerides kept the lifelong secret—even from herself—that she was looking for an excuse to kill a man, any man, who “put his hands on me wrong.” “Trees. A little place in the rock, in the trees,” Ani intones over the episode’s opening. “A cave, that’s how I remember it. It’s like a fairy tale.” She’s describing her scant memories of her childhood trauma, but she’s also describing their hideout, the dim little room of wood, blanketed with florals… and unwittingly, she’s also describing Ray’s last moments as he flees through a redwood forest, Burris’ commandos at his heels. More than any other character, Frank Semyon reveals the numbness of rejecting his true self, and the vitality that returns when he embraces it. As Erik Adams points out, Vince Vaughn’s stiffness is actually Frank’s stiffness. It’s the artificiality of a man playing a role. Now that Frank’s given up all hope of going straight, now that he’s returned to being a pure gangster—now that he’s going to war—Frank sparks with vitality.
Grantland’s Chris Ryan tries to connect the dots for the season as a whole:
Here’s my case for the second season of True Detective. It was essentially about four people who were swallowed up by the world. They were neglected, abandoned, or abused children; kids whose only crime was being born. They grew up to be damaged, lonely, and occasionally cruel adults. They were brought together for what they thought, briefly, was a higher purpose — the pursuit of justice, which meant different things to each of them. Maybe they all saw this quest as a way of starting over or making up for what they had done, or what had been done to them. They had their reasons. But their union was really just another cosmic prank. They were all doomed, and in the end, the world — the desert, the forest, the ocean, the dark places underground — swallowed them back up. It was done with them, if it ever noticed them at all. This season was about a closeted ex-soldier trying to outrun his past and the truth about himself, an abused little girl who becomes a knife-wielding sheriff’s deputy nearly incapable of receiving or giving human affection, an abandoned little boy who becomes a vice kingpin, and a good man corrupted by a terrible crime who becomes a criminal to cope with it. They all dreamed of escape: of getting back on a motorcycle, of raising children, despite what had been done to them in childhood; of boarding a boat and going to Venezuela; of escaping with a pocket full of diamonds; of meeting a woman in white, in a park, somewhere far away; of piecing everything together, uncovering a vast conspiracy, bringing guilty parties to justice, and clearing their own names. They dreamed of getting clear of it all. These are the dreams of people who don’t know any better — the kind that never come true. When you’ve gone through trauma, your fantasies have to match the extremity of the pain with hope. Moving two towns over isn’t enough. It’s got to be somewhere far away. And of course it didn’t work. The light at the end of the tunnel is just the world on fire. The truth is, their whole life was a dream: a dream they had inside of a locked room, of being a person. Most of them died trying to escape that room, trying to wake up from that dream. Even the ones that got away will never be the same.
Vulture’s Kenny Herzog sums up the season’s message in six words:
This season of True Detective, like any spectacular parable, was an SOS to Joe Public that, as Frank puts it, “Everything’s ending. Time to wake up.” Even gloomy Lera Lynn got the message, having kicked out the legs from her stool to play a raging stand-up number before stridently departing the bar. Upstairs, Frank was laying out his arsenal and future plans for Felicia, Ray, and Ani. It wasn’t pretty, but few things are. Felicia understands this, having pledged loyalty to the sensitive mobster and compromised cop who helped rescue her from the men who tried making her ugly. Frank’s not exactly the sort of guy Ani sizes up and makes for a friend, but with enemies like hers, an ally will do. Ray, renewed with purpose, knows there’s no way he’s shaking the murder rap at his feet without one last extraordinary act of violence. The irony of his predicament isn’t lost on him, and it’s why he eventually leaves one last heartbreaking voice memo for Chad, assuring the boy we later discover is his legitimate son, “You’re better than me.” So much of season two had to do with fathers and sons, women and men, resurrection and redemption, self-inflicted scars and cyclical abuse. But it was also about fantasy and fact. Frank and Jordan shared daydreams about meeting at El Obelisco in their Sunday best, but they both knew the truth that Frank was a stubborn son of a b—- who’d die putting his daddy issues to rest. Ani and Ray got carried away with their true connection, until it dawned on him first and her next that others had already determined their fate. Paul was so busy trying to be everyone else’s hero that he never fully grasped how easily he could be exploited, even in death. And this iteration of True Detective as a whole oriented, disoriented, and then reoriented us to its environment and ethos with lurid detours into genre storytelling and sobering cause and effect on real lives. It wasn’t always coherent, and it could be unintentionally comical, but it’s hard not to walk away having received the message (as presidential campaigns gear up, no less) that if we don’t want more Vincis to take root and prosper, it is indeed time to wake up.
Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson praises Rachel McAdams' performance by way or wondering why there wasn’t more of it in the finale:
The best thing going this season was Rachel McAdams. And though her character Ani Bezzerides gets both the first (“Trees”) and final (“You O.K.?”) words of the episode, she spends most of the finale on the bench. After rescuing Ray’s bacon again in the confused shoot-out at the train station, Ani gets shut out of the action. Ray and Frank raid the cabin in the woods while Ani discovers Dr. Pitlor’s body. And then she is relegated to that action-film cliche: the worried girlfriend on the other end of the phone. The extra 30 minutes of the 90-minute finale are dedicated to protracted death scenes and heroic come-to-Jesus moments for Frank and Ray, while Ani is shuffled off on a boat to Venezuela where she feels (psychically? emotionally? intuitively?) the exact moment when Ray bites the big one in a picturesque redwood forest up North. It was encouraging this season when True Detective, seemingly in response to the lack of female agency in Season 1, gave us Ani Bezzerides. And for all her flaws (did she actually say in this episode that she felt proud, as a child, of being pretty enough to attract a molester?), the character often rose above the macho, pulpy confusion to give viewers someone to latch onto and root for. But the show tipped its hand at its masculine agenda when it placed more emphasis on Ray’s virility (he fathered two sons, don’t you know!) than it did the resolution of Ani’s journey. So, True Detective Season 2, for the moments of greatness you gave us this year, we salute you.
And Alan Sepinwall of HitFix considers the likelihood of a True Detective season 3:
This season was a mess — a mess that had moments, and some good performances, but still a mess — yet I doubt it’ll be the last we see of True Detective. The ratings have remained strong for HBO, and Michael Lombardo said he’d like another installment if Nic Pizzolatto wants to do one. If it happens, I would hope Pizzolatto recognizes that he bit off way more than he could chew this season, and also that he’d do well to take on some more collaborators, whether a strong directorial voice like Fukunaga’s or a full writer’s room to help him figure out which story points are working and which aren’t coming across clearly enough. The total creative freedom Pizzolatto had this season is a great idea in theory, and some of the best dramas of our time have come from creators like David Milch and Matthew Weiner who had relative autonomy. But for this season, at least, Pizzolatto very badly needed someone to tell him to go back to the beginning and either streamline the narrative or find a much better way to establish the players and the moves, to write material that played to his actors' strengths, to give the audience reason to care about why any of this was happening, and perhaps to find a few intentionally light moments so that the whole thing didn’t come off as funnier than he wanted it to be.