The series heads into its 90-minute finale Sunday with none of the intense anticipation that preceded the conclusion of season 1 in March 2014. Dissatisfaction with this sprawling but tepid L.A. noir – set not in Los Angeles proper but a scummy neighboring municipality called Vinci – has been voiced so clearly, HBO's programming president recently assured the conference of the Television Critics Association that TD2's conclusion will be very satisfying.
However, a bright silk bow isn't much good when it's tied around an old cardboard shoebox.
As has been observed elsewhere, TD2 has gotten better as the story has finally begun to coalesce around the central figure of a nasty and perverse city official named Ben Caspar. (His eyeless corpse was discovered, seated upright and outdoors, in the first episode.) But the show was wobbly from the get-go, despite a fine cast that includes Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams and Taylor Kitsch. Kitsch, suffering from a death wish and a number of other personal problems, was saddled with a particularly ludicrous scene, gunning his motorcycle with the lights out. The wind flattened the planes of his chiseled face into something that looked like the killer's mask from Scream.
And the show has wobbled ever since, never building enough momentum to warrant eight episodes, let alone:
1. One of the longest shoot-outs in TV history. It seemed to waste more ammo than the entire run of Law & Order.
2. The banding together, disbanding and then banding together again of the three detective amigos. As narrative strategy for a thriller, this is a time waster, more appropriate for a team of Marvel superheroes.
3. An orgy, both sinister and somnambulant, that owed a lot to the one from Tom Cruise's 1999 movie Eyes Wide Shut. The eyes glaze over.
4. Occasional appearances by the world's most melancholy lounge singer (Lera Lynn). Her voice, trawling through the deep sorrows of existence, could make a fresh cantaloupe rot.
A good, even terrific conclusion probably won't be enough to repair the collateral damage – just as season 1, an instant classic, still sticks in the brain despite a preposterous finale. ("You wanna make flahrs today?") That mystery wasn't even fully resolved, but it nonetheless was of a piece with Matthew McConaughey's tortured but woolly meditations on time, space and evil.
TD2, on the other hand, has never escaped the very familiar roots of this particular form of noir, from old Philip Marlowe through Chinatown, Mulholland Drive and even last year's Joaquin Phoenix movie, the eccentric Inherent Vice. Kinkiness, real estate, high-level conspiracy, movie sets, mental institutions and phony zen priests, booze and other abusable substances, the underlying notion of a now depraved Eden: These elements are irresistible – there's a reason we don't have a Delaware or Connecticut noir – but they're also a trap, a too-convenient shorthand for the storyteller.
But who knows? Maybe the finale will be the best finale in the history of finales.
The good news is that, should we get a third True Detective, the anthology format will allow for a whole new set of characters. So, here's to a wilder, scarier, more inventive TD3. The show can always bring back the boys from season 1. Or hire Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen: They can play one detective, but Ashley can be filmed from the left and Mary-Kate from the right.
And set it in Delaware.
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True Detective's second season ends Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.