Tuesday, August 11, 2015

True Detective season 2 episode 8 - "Omega Station"


This True Detective viewing diary is being written while the new series airs. As such, future readers need not worry: there are no spoilers for upcoming episodes.

The first season of True Detective used the hook of its plot to lure viewers into what was essentially a character study. The finale - despite many loose ends - essentially maintained this facade, hinging its climax around the discovery and confrontation with the killer whose gruesome crime opened the series. We lingered with the characters after this climax passed, allowing the season to close on their personal rather than professional resolutions but Pizzolatto maintained a balance between resolving the mystery and emphasizing the narrative arc of the heroes. The second season of True Detective, whose plot has been far more byzantine, tips this balance emphatically toward the characters: rather than lead us further into the intrigue, they essentially become its focal point. This is achieved by dumping answers early in the episode but also by the general, diffuse nature of the conspiracy so that it eventually seems less important for itself than for the threat it provides to our three remaining protagonists. The result is a satisfying, fast-paced, and fairly engrossing ninety minutes - flawed to be sure, but correct in its priorities.

As we solve the mystery, we quickly realize how little it ever mattered. Unlike season 1, which introduced Dora Lange's disturbingly posed body at the start of the pilot, season 2 took its sweet time discovering the mutilated corpse of Ben Caspere. The investigation into his murder provided the (often lumbering) plot momentum for the first half of the series, but by episode 5 it was clear that the detectives' (and Semyon's) concern was less to figure out who offed the corrupt city official than to expose the powerful machinery that had chewed them up and spit them out. Pizzolatto throws the audience a bone by confirming that Caspere's secretary and her brother (whom several astute viewers correctly predicted would be the movie set photographer) killed Caspere, but the revelation glides past us casually. There's a pinch of satisfaction when we see that raven's mask again but it's fleeting; by this point the show has made it abundantly clear that "Who killed Ben Caspere?" was only the barest whisper of a MacGuffin. Velcoro and Bezzerides don't really care, and neither do we. Not long after that, the killers themselves have been dispensed with and the show keeps chugging along - if Rust Cohle described the victim as "chum in the water" in season 1, this time it's the killers who serve that role.

What's far more surprising, however, is how little the bigger picture matters - before long, the accumulated evidence of statewide corruption, Holloway's admission that he worked for Tony Chessani, Frank's vendetta against Osip, the lurking bad cop who is the closest thing to season 2's Big Bad (but whose name I can't even remember!), all slip into the shadows. Having assembled these pieces for eight episodes, Pizzolatto now uses them as an effectively dramatic backdrop. If Caspere's death was an excuse to reveal the corruption, then the corruption itself is an excuse to provide a struggle for the characters: MacGuffins all the way down. There was an uncertainty in season 1 whether Cohle and Hart were our guides into a meditation on the evils of religious fanaticism, elite power, and sexual exploitation, or if the themes served as a compelling backdrop against which to examine these two twisted yet ultimately honorable detectives. But there is no such confusion this time, especially after Velcoro and Semyon waste most of their opponents in a woodland massacre. We still have half of the episode to go at that point, and while the broader conspiracy remains the characters are free to escape, mission accomplished. That they don't and that it isn't has less to do with what they're up against than with who they are inside.

The finale tips its hand immediately with its two slow burning, intimate opening scenes. The first reveals Velcoro and Bezzerides post-coitus, as they each discuss their painful traumas (continuing the trend from episode 6, Bezzerides' abuse is handled respectfully and compellingly, as she confesses her feelings of confusion and neediness as a lonely child, and how these were manipulated by the man who took her into the woods). Though I wasn't particularly pleased to see them hook up at the end of episode 7, this finale goes a long way toward making me believe their love. The show was wise to establish their mutual respect before capitalizing on their attraction, and it gives their relationship a strong core. The second scene unites Semyon and his wife Jordan one last time; with some occasional lapses, their marital bond has probably been one of the stronger elements of his storyline throughout the season. Somehow the actors sell us on the gritty devotion these characters share (an analog, in a way, to Velcoro's and Bezzerides' grim, pained bond). But when Semyon plans a rendezvous in Venezuala, complete with a white suit and a rose in his lapel, we just know he won't make it.

I'm not sure when I was certain Velcoro would die too, although it's been a distinct possibility all along. Something about his farewell to Semyon signals his fate, and sure enough on the way back to Bezzerides he succumbs to paternal temptation and drives past his son's school to pay a visit. When he returns to the car he notices a tracking device and before long we discover the show's biggest spoiler was embedded in the series itself: just as Velcoro's father predicted way back in that near-death dream, he is chased and executed amongst tall trees. Semyon meanwhile is undone by the Mexican gangsters, whose leader has been the most consistently threatening villain since he was introduced in episode 5. And so the two characters march into their inevitable demise: Velcoro in the forest, Semyon in the desert, with the second half of the episode devoted to their long death rattle. It makes for surprisingly gripping television - surprising because it flirts with cliche, convenience, and portentous self-importance at every turn, and also because the season had so much trouble investing us in these characters (Woodrugh, for example, barely registers as a memory after getting plugged last time). But it works.

Credit is at least partly due to the performers; Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn really dug their heels in to carve deeply-felt individuals out of the silly dialogue and aimless plots that often encumbered them. Reading more about season 1, it becomes clear that Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson (and the ally they had in director Fukunaga) resisted the suffocatingly somber tone set by Pizzolatto and elevated his material by adding new dimensions to it. Farrell and Vaughn, operating under Pizzolatto as unquestioned showrunner, couldn't go in that direction and maybe they didn't want to. Instead they fully commit to the grim, humorless, self-pitying tone inherent in the material and dignify the characters through the intensity of this commitment and the grace that comes with embracing rather than resisting their burden. However, this is important too: the characters don't just work in spite of Pizzolatto, they also work because of him.

I've been pretty rough on his work this season, and with good reason. Going into a show that was not guided by one director, I expected the inconsistency and flatness of a less cinematic production, but I did not expect the storytelling to be so uneven. This was essentially a four or five episode show stretched out to eight, but maybe more than that it was a novelistic conception upon which the serialized format felt forced. I didn't buy the story beats, which often felt like echoes of season 1 (ok, fourth episode, time for a climactic action sequence; fifth episode needs the investigation to reboot) rather than organic developments. And unlike season 1, with its palpable Southern Gothic atmosphere, season 2's stylistic ambitions - whether genuflecting toward Michael Mann, David Lynch, or a more general neo-noir ambience - always seemed just out of reach. Again, that comes down to direction (with the only real exception being the masterfully-handled episode 6) - whose disappointments Pizzolatto was responsible for, as self-designated showrunner. But this also comes down to his inelegant plotting which simply couldn't provide any true surprises. Mixing all of these shortcomings with the author's typically humorless, morbid sensibility was a recipe for dissatisfaction.

And yet. I think Pizzolatto's greatest strength is his deep-seated belief in his characters, his interest in them, and his completely unironic attachment to sensitively representing - and respecting - their worldview. Semyon should by all means have been a goofy gangster "type," especially with the unusually-cast Vaughn playing the part. In a story often sharply attuned to moral ambiguity and unsentimental violence, here was the quintessential thief with honor, seemingly wandered into this semi-realistic world from an old B-movie. But you know who believes in this character? Frank Semyon himself, and therefore Pizzolatto believes in him too, and so do we. For all the familiar conventions Pizzolatto utilizes to portray Semyon's downfall, at the core is a character he cares about, whose emotional crisis is not just a narrative device but a deeply-felt principle, vulnerability, and determination communicated, however imperfectly, from the creator to the audience.

Likewise with Velcoro, the well-meaning but deadbeat dad we've all seen before, who nonetheless feels like a fully-fleshed human being as his travails are charted over nearly nine hours. And finally, Bezzerides (whom I'll address further in a moment), whose vulnerability was only matched by her stridency, a chip-on-her-shoulder stubbornness that at times felt like the writer's most confessional touch. Pizzolatto wears his heart on his sleeve, and frustrating as his attachment to certain types and tropes can be, I'll take the sincerity of that attachment over a more polished but cynical approach any day.

I really enjoyed this episode (second only to episode 6), especially the second half as the series honed in on what clearly concerns Pizzolatto the most and probably should have remained his focus throughout: the almost self-fulfilling yet noble doom of these two exhausted, encumbered, but ultimately honest men. The touches that worked for me: Velcoro's MacMurphy-at-the-hospital-window indecisiveness as he turns off the highway to visit his son; surprisingly, that last salute to the boy, a moment as potentially corny as anything in the series yet handled with subtle applomb by the actors and director, earned against all odds; Semyon's downfall due not to the elites who've always disrespected him, but to striving up-and-comers as hungry as he himself once was; the suit being one step too far, the last assault on Semyon's dignity that he simply won't take; the unapologetic bravado of his deadly trek, no nonsense and no self-pity, buzzards patiently waddling in his blood behind him; the effectively blunt, boldly obvious gesture of having a vision of his wife tell him he died several feet back, with a Twilight Zone-esque frisson (though I could have done without the ambiguity-shattering shot of him collapsing at the end, as if to ensure us that we hadn't been shown anything actually supernatural); and all the quieter moments leading up to this point, the slowly-dawning close-ups and trapped-in-the-emptiness long shots of the two doomed souls, who know they are doomed, whom we know are doomed, but who for this moment are still alive and able to ponder their fates.

The episode is directed by John Crowley, whose work on episode 5 I was very ambivalent about. I felt he handled visual sequences really well (and sure enough, he astutely paces "Omega Station"'s quieter stretches), but that the performances in that episode were the worst of the season. There are still some awkward, clunky moments here but he now has a much stronger grasp on what these performers can and should do with these roles. His use of a back-and-forth crosscutting chronology for Bezzerides' and Velcoro's bedroom confessions (an approach whose most obvious precedent is Don't Look Now's fractured lovemaking) is an unusually bold flourish for True Detective and if it feels slightly forced at times, it also effectively conveys a disoriented mood which sets the right one for the episode. The next scene, with the Semyons, is far more straightforward and feels if anything too theatrical (several conversations in this episode, and in this season, have that stilted stand-and-recite quality) but it glides by on the integrity of the actors and benefits from the intriguing rhythmic contrast with its predecessor. Elsewhere, Crowley has a deft handle on suspense and action, with the train station's fucked-up shootout being a particular highlight.

My biggest complaint about episode 8 is Ani Bezzerides, or rather the lack thereof, and I probably won't be alone in this. There has been an uneasiness in her characterization all season - on the one hand (as I mentioned above) there are times when Pizzolatto seems to be deeply invested in her story, in which she almost seems like the most personal character for him because her emotional scars and desperation are allowed to show in a way the other characters' are not (wounded machismo can be as much a disguise as an expression of a male author's sensibility). On the other hand, she's shadowed by the recognition that Pizzolatto was criticized in season 1 for mostly ignoring female perspectives. As a result, she has sometimes felt like an obligation, even a burden, for the writer. The show seems to breathe a little easier when it allows itself to sideline her and focus almost entirely on Semyon's and Velcoro's archetypal antiheroism, weaving a grand tragedy of two male martyrs to their own codes of honor.

But this is also unfair to Bezzerides, whose backstory is as compelling as theirs, whose needs are just as demanding, and whose capabilities and determination are possibly even greater. McAdams sells Bezzerides' demure acceptance of Velcoro's chivalry, as she sold everything she was asked to sell this season, but she and the character deserved better. If Pizzolatto is going to allow more women into his morbid men's club in the future (and maybe he shouldn't if it feels so unnatural for him) he's going to have to accept them as equals in their own distinct way, and he's going to have to truly care about their stories the way he clearly cares about Semyon and Velcoro (Woodrugh is another story, and I still can't figure out why he wasn't written out of an earlier draft). It really shouldn't be that tough, considering how the last few episodes - after some hesitant, withdrawn characterization - truly invested in Bezzerides as a rich, resonant person, not just a self-conscious sop for feminist complaints. She's a step in the right direction, but also a stumble, and her triumphal exit as the bearer of the flame is a tad condescending - I suspect a lot of her fans are going to feel burnt by this treatment.

Going into tonight's episode, and even to a certain extent coming out, I presumed that I would not be in any rush to see season 3. I'm very glad I watched this season as it unfolded - it was fun to participate in this kind of live-viewing phenomenon, something unusual for me as I mostly catch up with TV shows after the fact. But I don't have a burning desire to rewatch the season and it's not an experience I feel much need to repeat next year. Nonetheless, writing down my reactions to season 2 of True Detective, analyzing its flaws and strengths, I realize that I'm more appreciative of Pizzolatto's vision than I thought, even if he does mangle the execution. I've often bemoaned the lack of a strong collaborator, but maybe what he really needs is to work these issues out for himself, to figure out how to better balance his excesses and push himself harder to find better solutions (this season really feels like an early draft rushed into production, which could have benefited from several more rewrites). Or maybe it's just in his nature to stubbornly trek on alone into noble failure, like Frank Semyon in the desert, drawing strength from the birds of prey nipping at his heels and embracing the dawning realization that he's never going to reach that horizon but that he's gonna decide how he goes. Even as I shake my head, I can kind of salute that.



9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this viewing diary of True Detective's second season.
I found it quite enjoyable and appreciated your openness, respect and fair treatment of this, in the end, very weak season.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks - glad you encouraged me to do it! Presuming this is the same "Anonymous" ;).

Anonymous said...

It is, it is...
Well, "see you in 25 months" (or thereabout...) I guess, for your Twin Peaks viewing diary. I'm positive you'll need no encouragement to do this one. ;)

Steve Morgan said...

Thanks for the viewing diary - I looked forward to reading it every week.
I enjoyed your comments and I was glad that you were able to find positives within most of the episodes, unlike other commentators who seemingly decided to hate it from the outset.
I liked the season despite its flaws, and I would rather watch something be ambitious and fall short than the competent mediocrity that comprises most dramatic television.
I think True Detective is a series where creating the right overall mood is more important than other considerations, and they got this right most of the time, particularly in the second half of the season.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks Steve. While I obviously felt ambivalent about the season, the criticism became a bit of a pile-on especially with the finale. Calling it an unmitigated disaster is just too over-the-top. Probably around the time of season 3 I will probably personally rewatch seasons 1 & 2. I'm thinking I might also post something next week about the show as a whole so far. I feel in some ways that while season 1 had a far superior execution, in some ways I have a bit more respect for what season 2 was attempting, at least near the end. Gonna mull some of this over & see what I have to say about it.

R. said...

Thanks for diary, Joel! I still enjoyed S2, even though not as much as S1. My biggest complain is about choice of bunch different directors for the show, not about writing. Lets hope that mostly negative feedback will push Pizzollatto to change his mind and hire one competent person for entire show, based on suitability for material talent, not on famous name...and give him/her some freedom. TD as a one long movie should more about mood and continuity within the season. Yes, it will probaly steal limelight from showrunner, but it could elevate things from "good" to "great".

Joel Bocko said...

Yup, agreed. While I do have issues with Pizzolatto's writing this season, a lot of that could have been improved with execution (like in ep. 6, where Sapochnik redeems some potentially cliched, overdone moments). Apparently in season 1 Fukunaga, Harrelson, and McConaughey tweaked a lot of moments, adding humor where tere wasn't any with pacing, delivery, and reactions.

Most importantly, is that feeling you describe if one long movie with a unified texture and atmosphere. Some show can get by with a more episodic, uneven feel but True Detective isn't one of them.

I also think Pizzolatto needs a stronger structural conceit to focus him. Season 1 had the 2012 investigation, which did wonders. This year felt aimless by comparison, and very stretched out.

Anonymous said...

The question is, is it not asking too much for anyone to go back to Season 1 levels of greatness with only one year to write, run, shoot the show??
I mean, even geniuses the likes of Scorsese, Lynch, [insert name of director you think of as a genius] don't work that fast and they're not making 8 hour films either!
Not everybody can work at Allen or Miike speed...

Joel Bocko said...

I hope HBO gives Pizzolatto more time before the next season...more importantly, I hope he WANTS more time.