In a previous post, I’ve argued that no one should call a show good or bad until the end is known. Which means, now that the end is known, we can decide if True Detective‘s second season was good or bad.
People love complaining about how confusing the plot of this season was. And I won’t disagree. The show’s storylines sprawled and overlapped, losing its audience. Some moments lingered, while other plotlines appeared and disappeared without explanation.
But why is this a bad thing? Are we supposed to understand all the media we consume? Do things have to make immediate sense in order to be good?
TD’s second season and its response reminds me of a famous anecdote about William Faulkner and Raymond Chandler. Faulkner had adapted Chandler’s novel The Big Sleep into a film, and during filming he and director Howard Hawks realized there was something they didn’t understand. Had a certain character committed suicide or was he murdered and, if murdered, who did the murdering? And the best part, the part that makes it an anecdote worth repeating, is that Chandler couldn’t figure out the answer either. Chandler didn’t understand the plot of his own novel.
Faulkner is no stranger to incomprehensible plots. Some of his best novels are things that no one can understand, at least not on first attempts. And he’s not the only one: how many other great pieces of literature are confusing and elliptical and frustrating? James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Virginia Woolf. I could go on.
Is it fair to evoke highly-regarded literature in the defense of True Detective? Maybe, maybe not. But consider what David Simon set out to do with The Wire: create “a novel for television.” As George Pelecanos, a writer for The Wire, said: “That struck home, because if it’s not about something more than the mystery, the thriller part, I’m not going to do it. Life’s too short.” And is it not accurate to say that True Detective is a continuation of The Wire’s legacy?
What I liked about the first season of True Detective is the same thing I like about the second season: the plot doesn’t matter. It’s the characters that matter. We watch not to find out who did it, but to watch the relationships between the characters. I cared far more about Ray’s dynamic with Chad than I cared about some stolen diamonds or an unsolved murder. Just as in the first season, it did not matter that many of the killers and conspirators were still out in society at the end. What mattered was that Marty’s family visited him in the hospital room and that Rust dreamt of his daughter and his father. Frank’s journey through the desert mattered far more than the plotlines that brought him there. To dwell on the confusing plot is to miss the point of True Detective.
I liked this season of True Detective. But I also think that the best season of The Wire is its second season, and that Tim Burton’s Batman is the worst Batman ever. So we might have to agree to disagree.
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