One writer I enjoy reading and rereading is Don DeLillo, author of Underworld and White Noise — arguably his most famous works — and my personal favorite Libra. I rambled about him in relation to Birdman in this article. His relation to True Detective? Negligible, mostly, except for the fact that the sheer volume of characters in play during the second season of the HBO series has frequently recalled the densely-populated neighborhoods of DeLillo’s books. This dude packs characters into his stories, and if it gets out of control at times it’s still a very intentional and graspable phenomenon wherein the primary characters both stand out from the pack and blend into it. They get sort of out of control, these chessboards of intermingled personalities, and in the case of the 800+ page Underworld things get downright daunting; but it’s all controllable and palatable at the same time, somehow, in the way that all of the disparate colors in a kaleidoscope can still be explained as part of a single device made of cheap plastic.
True Detective is, I hope, more akin to that kind of a story than we’re able to grasp with the final episode (which will be an extended 90-minute finale) still to go. At the moment, one would be forgiven for wondering what in the heck it is we’re even rooting for here. Caspere’s killer? Maybe. That’s the event that kicked the season off, and it’s definitely still “unsolved”. But there are more loose threads in this season than there are loose threads on David Morse’s drug rug, so let’s get down to detecting some truth. Spoilers follow for the seventh episode “Black Maps and Motel Rooms”.
To be fair, the detectives finally touched bottom on more than one front in their multifaceted investigation. Ani found her missing girl Vera at the end of the last episode “Church in Ruins“, reuniting her with her sister here in the penultimate hour. She also garnered a peek at the true depth of the corruption infecting the city of Vinci, and Paul’s snatch-and-grab of signed contract confirms just how deep into the police department the corruption has run. The pair and Ray then discover that the mousey city manager’s assistant encountered in episodes one and three is actually Laura, a victim of a crime from 1992 involving the blue diamonds that would eventually connect back to Caspere.
Elsewhere, after Frank’s received the news that — surprise! — everyone he thinks he owns has been bought out by the Russians, his interrogation of his soon-to-be-former right-hand man Blake bears fruit in the investigation of Stan’s death. Blake more or less copped to killing Stan and making it look like Caspere’s murder by plucking the guy’s eyes out. At this point in “Black Maps and Motel Rooms” one thing is starting to become pretty clear, and by episode’s end it’s purely inescapable: everyone who’s not one of the four main characters is in on it.
In on what, you ask? What are we fighting for here? Again, the number of characters is huge — in Frank’s storyline alone theres Frank and his posse, his wife, his financial contacts throughout the season, the bereaved family of one of his dead posse, the Mexican thugs he encounters, their posse, Osip the Russian, his posse…you get the idea. Everyone seems to have an unlimited supply of faceless henchmen in this story, except they’re only faceless until True Detective asks you to remember who they are. That happened with Stan, the dead guy from Frank’s posse, who turned out to be of far greater significance to us in death than he was in life.
“…to us…”; that’s what matters, right? At the end of “Black Maps” Paul emerges unscathed from a subterranean shootout with his old army buddy (he’s involved somehow!), Vinci P.D. Captain Holloway (he’s involved somehow!) and a few faceless henchmen that die a few minutes after their introduction (we loved you so, So-and-So). But as Paul climbs topside a faceless someone emerges behind him — we recognize that he’s Lieutenant Burris, one of those guys who…yeah, you know — and guns him down. Maybe pop up like Ray did in “Maybe Tomorrow” after being shot, but that looks doubtful. Paul’s gone.
He was arguably the weakest of the bunch (battling for that particular prestige with Frank; the two never got to have a proper brood-off) but his arc did improve as the seasons progressed. We got to know him a little better, and he was at the very least more likable than he was at the start. And that means he was more likable than Caspere, the dead guy who we never saw alive and yet provided the impetus for the entire season. So with one hour to go, what are we rooting for? Do we want to catch Caspere’s killer, or is Paul’s killer more important? Is Burris one and the same? The mysterious Laura had a brother, so will he end up having revenge-killed Caspere for that traumatic past? And while we’re asking questions that no one can answer in a satisfying manner: will we end up caring?
Not to say I don’t care about anything or everything that’s happened this season — but for all that was resolved this week, fewer emotional punches found the mark than one might expect. It turns out that most of those one-off scenes with random people talking to our protagonists were important because those one-off randoms were in on something, whether it’s corruption or murder or what have you. I’m reminded of DeLillo’s Underworld, massive and chock full of characters, and a line that succinctly states: “there is a world beneath the world”. That’s certainly true here in the second season of True Detective, and the question is whether our sense of that hidden world will be any greater than it is now. After all, maybe the odd feeling that no one gives a shit about Caspere’s murder is well-placed — maybe they simply won’t solve it, managing instead to uncover everybody else.
As long as it ends as neatly and satisfyingly as the first season, we’re good: