'True Detective' Recap: The Buckshot Stops Here

A surprise plot twist leaves this season more tangled up than ever

Christopher James Baker and Vince Vaughn in 'True Detective.' Credit: Lacey Terrell/HBO

Well, it looks like True Detective itself put it best: "Rejoice! Death is not the end!" Last week's episode concluded with a proverbial feast for crows, as a black bird–masked gunman emptied a shotgun into Ray Velcoro not once but twice. Was Nic Pizzolatto really sending Colin Farrell to the Sean Bean Memorial Home for Murdered Main Characters? After a week of speculation, dulled somewhat by extensive promotional material that strongly hinted as to the outcome, we got our answer in tonight's installment, titled "Maybe Tomorrow": Ray is risen. Sing hallelujah if you must, but the fact is that by failing to gun down Farrell for real, this series committed a cardinal sin.

From the very beginning, HBO's show has always depended on keeping the trust of its audience — the better to keep them happily immersed in its primordial soup of noir nihilism and metaphysical puzzle-solving. The slow-cooked crime investigations, the hardboiled and/or highfalutin' dialogue, the tightly-wound performances and shadowy cinematography: Together they form a kind of emotional bubble in which both seasons of the show have floated so far. When it works, it genuinely works (see the first season's bravura tracking shot from the "Who Goes There?" episode).

But as the critical backlash this year makes clear, that fragile membrane is easy to pop with the slightest misstep, let alone a crass fakeout like this. Pretending to kill Ray only to resurrect him mere minutes of screen time later feels cheap, and kills what little good will the second season has accumulated but good.

And for what? At best, we've just witnessed a zany pastiche of Black Lodge cast-offs from David Lynch and Mark Frost's Twin Peaks, with a dive bar in place of the Red Room, a Conway Twitty impersonator standing in for the dancing dwarf, and Fred Ward (playing Ray's dad, who's no more dead than he is) filling in for Sheryl Lee's Laura Palmer. At worst, the show has shot its wad on a cliffhanger moment that won't even matter once the season makes its transition to binge-able form. The decision to do this is a mystery more baffling than any the detectives have faced.

Of course, this isn't the first time True Detective has lacked the courage of its convictions. Rust Cohle spent the first season spouting the bleakest arguments about life and death ever advanced by a primetime drama, only to see the light and put his pessimism aside in its final minutes. The show could have broken important ground, depicting a person who believes the worst about the world yet still does good in it, with neither feature canceling out the other. (Faith in humanity is not required to be a decent human being.) Instead, Rust played the hero and got a hero's reward, psychologically anyway.

Reviving Ray leaves similarly challenging and exciting territory unexplored. The idea of a good-cop/bad-cop narrative forced to live on past the death of its bad cop is an intriguing one indeed. For starters, it would have shaken up the story's seen-it-all-before structure. It could also have been an opportunity for Pizzolatto and company to examine the toxic masculinity the show alternately (and perhaps unwittingly) critiques and embodies. Dodging an entire seasons' worth of comparisons between the Harrelson/McConaughey and Farrell/Vaughn stunt castings wouldn't have hurt, either.

And while we're playing the What If game: If Velcoro were gone, maybe there'd be room to signify the psychological hang-ups of the other characters outside of bedroom-related problems. Take the trio that rounds out the core cast: Ani Bezzerides' sexual assertiveness, Frank Semyon's failure to perform at the fertility clinic, and Paul Woodrugh's physical rejection of a romantic overture are used to advertise their overall dysfunction like a neon sign. Pimps and prostitutes are everywhere, each one a more leering stereotype than the last. Hollywood types talk about risqué parties like middle-schoolers who just looked up the word "orgy" on wiktionary.com for the first time. The evil mayor has a house full of hustlers and harlots, including his son and wife. The murder victim himself is a garden-variety perv. Factor in Marty Hart's philandering, his teen daughter's promiscuity, and his wife's weaponized seduction of Rust back in Season One, and it's as if True Detective believes anything short of having seamless, zipless sexual experiences is a signal that your life is about to fall apart.

But while love has never been this series' strong suit, violence sure has, which makes this episode's half-assed action sequences even tougher to stomach. Frank's fistfight with a portly, gold-toothed associate, designed to keep his truculent organization in line following a second murder, looks like it'd be at home in a Vince Vaughn comedy, not a drama. Elsewhere, Bezzerides and Velcoro pursue a masked arsonist through a shantytown in a chase scene flatter than Ray's feet. Watching them stumble through this poorly edited, suspense-free sequence, it's hard to believe this is the same show that gave us that six-minute shootout when Rust went undercover last year. But this time around, that kind of dark magic, like Ray and Ani's suspect, continues to evade capture.

Previously: To Live and Die in L.A.