True Detective finale: The Light’s Not Winning

TD cover

At the end of season one Rust Cohle looks up to the stars and pronounces, “the light’s winning.” It was a sentence that crystallized Cohle’s experience and catharsis in that season, and that even though they there was still rampant corruption, they’d gotten their man. The light had won; good had prevailed. In season two, the light lost.

heavy shit

In truth, I had been worried about this eventuality from the beginning. There were a ton of characters to follow, a murder investigation, a web of antagonists, and the recurrent theme of “you can’t fight city hall.” This had been a lesser theme in season one, but it had only just been touched on. In season two they fully embraced the idea of a corrupt system, and in the end you can only fight the system for so long. Season two was a troubled, uneven season, and all the troubling storytelling choices this season were double-downed on in the finale. In short, it was garbage, and here’s why.

I’m not going to waste your time with a recap, but needless to say, spoilers are below.

The Characters

From next week's preview
From next week’s preview

I was willing to give them a try. I really, really tried to like them. I kept thinking, there’s so many of them, how can I get to know them? Therefore I assumed that by the end of the season they’d become fully developed people with their own motivations and issues to overcome, but the problem with this season was each character was defined by a singular event in their past and that was it. Frank’s father was an abusive drunk. He’d grown up in poverty (both emotional, spiritual, and financial), and was determined to never return to that. He mentally never left that cellar his father had locked in him. The whole season his empire, his body if you will, was eaten away by vermin, and his whole arc was about trying to fight them off. Velcoro couldn’t get past the fact he’d murdered a guy, and that had apparently turned him into a monster. I wish there was something deep and profound about it, but all season they kept trying to make him this edgy good guy gone bad who was trying to be the opposite of who he was. Woodrugh was a gay man who couldn’t accept it. Bezzerides was a victim of sexual assault and let that define her. None of these characters really ascended past a caricature of what their backstories made them. It felt like there was a good story to be told with these personal woes, and maybe given more time they would have paid off, but given the limited screen time each got, it just exposed how pointlessly grim the show was.

The Mystery

Remember this guy?
Remember this guy?

For a show about detective work, this season had a very dull murder mystery that was hard to follow, full of red herrings and misdirection, and never quite could decide what type it wanted to be. Was it a story about corrupt city officials? Kind of. Was this about a corrupt land deal at the highest levels of local/state government? A little bit. By the time the plot found the killer we’d been dragged through so many aspects of this intractably corrupt system that it was hard to tell how the story would end.

Basically, the central mystery of the season was irrelevant. It was the mechanism by which the plot moved through the various set pieces and grim subtext about the nature of government. There was never a central antagonist of the season, no Yellow King. That exposed the weakness in the characters.

The Tone

You get the point.
You get the point.

The season was pointlessly grim. There was no humor, and there were several times watching the last few episodes where I laughed out loud because of how awkward and strange the camera would linger on the scowling faces of the protagonists. Even when Bezzerides and Velcoro finally hook up, the scene was so awkward and mired in such a grim filter that nothing pleasant could come from it. No character at any point in time ever seemed happy. Frank had fleeting moments, but only for a second or so each episode. The only punch lines in the season are when Velcoro is threatening to take someones skin off with a cheese-grater or beating up a twelve year old’s father. Marty Hart in season one is funny. He makes jokes. He lightens the mood. This season was so pretentous and insistent on being grim that it sucked all the joy out of watching it. It was doubly true of the finale when we watch three of our four protagonists brutally murdered for no reason. Frank is stabbed to death basically by the equivalent of a cardboard cut out. Those mexicans had no development and were there solely for the purpose of murdering him.


The show was too grim. There was no hope. The antagonists were shadows of characters. The characters were barely better themselves, and the mystery was meh. I’d have rather spent my Sundays rewatching season one than this garbage.

Rating: 3 out of 10.

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