So it was the set photographer, Lenny Osterman, who killed Caspere! He had popped up only once earlier this season, and was revealed in the finale to be one of the orphans whose parents were killed in the 1992 diamond heist for which Caspere was partly responsible. I greeted this news in the same perfunctory way that Ray and Ani solved the case: cool. This season of “True Detective” never really was about its plot.
Perhaps the best example of this, and the best revelation from the finale, was that Lenny placed Caspere’s mutilated corpse on the roadside near a bird mask in the first episode just because it amused him. What at first appeared to be symbolic — ravens can be a lazy storytelling device to connote death — or hint at some occult Vinci underbelly, was just a crass joke, a far cry from the obsessive, mythologically inspired murders in season one.
In fact, this entire second season can be seen as the complete opposite of the first. As opposed to intelligible dialogue, we endured awkward exchanges; visual cohesion and a propulsive mystery gave way to a ponderous structure; a sense of humor was replaced with a dour mood.
Which is to say that I liked it, even though you could just as easily cite those characteristics to argue against this season’s quality. I especially liked the pervasive dour mood. Its presence, thick with smoke and a boozy electric guitar in dark rooms, turned out to be more than just a requirement of the noir genre; it became a form of foreshadowing, as if to say, in a place as bleak as Vinci, no one gets out alive, and nothing good is born.
Ray, Frank and Paul — all burdened by the things they had brought, or hoped to bring into the world — were doomed from the start. That Ray’s child with Ani will likely prosper because the boy will grow up in Venezuela wasn’t an argument that one way of life is better than another, or that one place is more susceptible to corruption than someplace else. It was just another acknowledgement of the fact, iterated so many times this season, that we are inevitably shaped by our environments and parents, for better or worse.
This environmental influence was literalized by the finale’s towering trees which dwarfed Ray in the redwood forest, sealing his fate as he failed to get one last voice message off to his son, failed to leave him one last story. Legacies, a key theme this season, are nothing more than stories, narratives about ourselves that we pass on to another generation. They can be embodied in a police badge, such as the one Ray gave Chad, or in commercial developments on a rail corridor that Frank had hoped to one day leave to a child. These stories can also take the form of the written word. In a show full of symbolic resurrections, my new favorite was the return of the newspaper reporter whom Ray had once beaten to a pulp for exposing corruption in Vinci. Print journalism is dead, long live print journalism!
Our childhood experiences also stay with us, haunt us, forever. Frank may have overcome his father’s abuse, but he never forgot it. The old man’s ghost appeared to Frank in his hallucinatory final moments alive and called him a lanky loudmouth. Frank was even accosted by the apparitions of his schoolyard bullies, who, amusingly, also mocked his stature by referencing Larry Bird, that giant, NBA Hall of Famer. These moments, though overblown, were still effective. They were about character, and had nothing to do with any larger conspiracy.
If this season had a chief flaw — though not a fatal one — it was that writer Nic Pizzolatto failed to convince his audience not to take the show’s murky, convoluted plot so seriously. It didn’t help that the plot was, well, murky and convoluted, drawing so much attention to itself that it was hard at times to focus on the genuine moments of pathos and artistry: those close-ups of Ray in the premiere, the Lynchian dream sequence of episode three, Ani’s disorienting escape from the brothel, Ray’s ultimate zen-like embrace of death.
On the other hand, if a TV show is constantly reminding you of its incomprehensible plot, that’s a good sign that plot is not one of its priorities. Lenny kicked off this whole investigation, and yet he got limited screen time in the finale. That’s because his actions — the things that advanced the plot — didn’t matter as much as the fact that he was another lost soul whose fate was inextricably linked with his parents.’ His biological father, we learned from Chief Holloway, was Caspere, who had wanted nothing to do with him.
Here we go again, more daddy issues, you might have said to yourself when this detail was revealed. But you have to give a show some credit for picking a topic and interrogating it from every angle imaginable. This season of “True Detective” was exactly what it intended to be. We should criticize it for that, not for what it wasn’t.
A version of this review appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on August 13, 2015.