True Detective Season Two Review: A Big Swing


When HBO confirmed that True Detective would return for a second season, it sent many fans into a speculation frenzy. Names like Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender and Cate Blanchett circled the rumor mill for months, and Nic Pizzolatto’s conversation with HitFix in March 2014 only served to chum the waters further: “I’ll tell you (it’s about) hard women, bad men and the secret occult history of the United States transportation system.”

It sounded like we were in for more of what made the first season of True Detective such captivating television, but all guesswork was laid to rest with the premiere of season two. The first few episodes received fairly positive reviews as critics withheld their baser desires to lash out at what seemed a lesser effort, but they didn’t hold out for long. By episode four the sheer density of the plot weighed so heavily on the minds of critics and viewers alike that few could keep their heads above water.

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And that, in this reviewer’s opinion, is the biggest complication of season two. I’m all for television that demands the viewer’s full attention, but only if it leads to a satisfying end.

Most of the loose ends were tied up, sure, but not in a way that justified our efforts.

There is a term commonly used in the detective story, and writing in general, called “revelation,” a moment of heightened understanding when all these little pieces of story magically snap into place and take on new meaning in the mind. If done right, it can be a hugely rewarding experience that makes the audience feel all the more intelligent for keeping track of the many clues that were scattered throughout the story. If done wrong, it can be hugely disappointing.

True Detective season two was full to the gills with potential plot points. For weeks on end we kept a record of names like “Catalyst” and “Pitlor” and “Stan,” blue diamonds and Birdmen, all in hopes that some grand revelation waited for us at the end, some new insight that would align these elements into something that made sense. That revelation never came. Most of the loose ends were tied up, sure, but not in a way that justified our efforts. Not in a way that satisfied.

The sophomore run was not without its merits. Nic Pizzolatto brings a very unique sense of humor to the television landscape, one that is so underplayed by the pure earnestness and deadpan delivery of the actors that it often gets overlooked. We also witnessed some fantastic performances from an unlikely cast, and despite an ever-shifting roster of directors, the show managed to maintain a relatively singular voice throughout. The differences were there, but not overpowering.

Two of Nic Pizzolatto’s central aims going into this season were that he didn’t want to repeat himself and that he didn’t want to write toward an expectation. The first season was beset by allegations of plagiarism and criticisms of the show’s depiction of women, specifically their lack of agency.

While Pizzolatto certainly tried to ignore these comments and dismiss them as tenuous, they manifest in season two. We see it in the profusion of overtly strong female characters, in the absence of literary allusion, in the attempt at something wholly original, beholden to nothing. He may have said that the criticisms of “someone with a Wi-Fi connection” are insubstantial, but they clearly weighed on him.

During this year’s TCA tour HBO Programming President Michael Lombardo praised True Detective season two, saying that Nic Pizzolatto “takes a big swing.” I agree with him. It just so happens that this time at bat, Pizzolatto’s eyes were trained on the grand stands instead of the ball.

Next: Read Matt's take on True Detective season two.