One might have hoped that the second season of True Detective would end up being something more than it appeared to be at the outset. Not just that the overall story would improve or that the episode-by-episode characterizations would gradually become more palatable — many hoped that the end of the sophomore outing would shine a light back on the beginning in such a way that a second viewing might be more rewarding than the first. This kind of retroactive structuring isn’t impossible, but it is pretty damn rare. The example I always use is Lost (yeah, I use Lost as a barometer for pretty much everything) which had an ending that might not have pleased everyone but managed to turn back and gracefully incorporate disparate elements from the first few seasons.
Did True Detective do that? The answer’s probably more No than Yes, and although the one major Yes is worth discussing the Nos just seem to pile atop one another immediately after watching the finale. Spoilers follow for “Omega Station”.
Starting with the first episode “The Western Book of the Dead”, True Detective had an issue with setting. The City of Vinci was fairly well-developed, and it was an interesting move to create a city solely for the purposes of the story. But the scene-by-scene stuff felt jarring on the bookends of the season — the premiere and the finale — for a variety of reasons. With a large cast of characters a familiar setting goes a long way to orienting the viewer, especially in the first episode.
With this last one, we had a different sort of issue. After hours of sandy brown city streets and underlit bars and overlit casinos, our four protagonists end up in places we’ve never seen before. There’s Ray’s forest, Ani’s ocean, Frank’s desert; there’s Paul’s subterranean tunnels from the penultimate episode “Black Maps and Motel Rooms“. Director John Crowley, who also directed the fifth episode “Other Lives“, films these locales beautifully — but they still feel out of place. Part of the reason for this may be the pacing of the show, which seemed to plod through the aforementioned California streets and hover over the highways for hours on end before cramming forests and deserts and oceans into the last half-hour (in an extended 90-minute episode, no less). Did Carcosa feel out of place in “Form and Void“, the finale of the first season? Not at all, because that’s the direction we were always headed.
By that same token, though, the true end of “Omega Station” is also the direction we were always headed. Ray and Frank are almost literally consumed by the earth, and more than that: their legacies, the thing both of them care about above all, evaporate like handfuls of dust. This happens to Paul and Ani to a degree, also, but Ray and Frank have always best represented that obsession with what they pass on, with how they’re remembered. The entirety of our “Down Will Come” review centered on fatherhood and legacy, and “Omega Station” did circle back to collect a few themes from that fourth episode. Ray’s father’s badge is a primary example, which his son Chad inexplicably brings to his Dungeons and Dragons games. When Ray shows up to salute him the kid seems visibly torn, as if he only wants to remember his father and not actually see him.
And he gets his wish. Ray dies in the redwood forest and his final message to his son fails to send (frickin’ 3G, amirite?); his public legacy is the only thing that matters now, and it’s a tattered and false depiction of him as a criminal. It’s not clear whether Ray’s father is disgusted by the fact that lies are being told about his son or disgusted by the fact that it all might be true. Ray dies shorn of all of this, his son, his father, his wife, his legacy. Ani represents the only hope that some good part of him might live on. Ditto for Frank, who dies without even the wedding ring on his finger — he’s lost his empire, his right-hand man, and now even his wife. In this respect the oddly-placed settings actually work quite well, suggesting that the forest and the desert are where Ray and Frank were always destined to end up.
For all the talk of fathers and sons and legacies and histories, it’s the mothers that carry the real legacy at the end of “Omega Station”. This is partially what Ray and especially Frank never understood, hoping that their names would essentially carry on automatically. Ani and Jordan have the next generation in their hands, and for a while they’ll control the power that generation has. But eventually it will become a thing of its own — one of Frank’s life-splitting events will occur, turning a good kid into something else — and after that there’s no telling what will happen.
Overall the second season of True Detective didn’t deliver the punch it should have. The revelation of the identity of The Raven, who we surmised with confidence in our review of “Night Finds You” to be one bad dude, fell flat; he’s not a very bad dude at all, just an angry kid who takes things too far. Even Ani’s relaying of the whole story to a newspaper reporter at the end of the finale just seemed devoid of anything resembling a fist-pumping feeling of justice. I enjoyed the season overall, despite more than a few weak points, but for all of the time spent here looking back I’m sure a similar forward-looking sentiment is being mulled over by most people who loved this show from the beginning: Season 3, anyone?