And so it all came to this. One of the most talked about, maligned, high-profile crime dramas of recent years headed into its finale with the critics erring on the side of negativity, and with its viewership thoroughly divided. Throughout its heavily layered, slowish pace and unrelenting gloominess, it lost people I knew who had been watching it. But for me there was enough – brief flickers of brilliance – to keep me sticking with it, through thick and thin. In sickness and in health. And thank goodness I did, because this was a superb ending to a story that has frustrated more than it has thrilled.
All throughout this 90-minute finale there was sense of foreboding; of characters manoeuvering themselves into position for one last hurrah. We started with a superbly edited scene in which a post-coital Bezzerides and Velcoro discussed the demons from their pasts that had somehow designed to bring them together. Bezzerides revealed the full nature of the abusive experience of her childhood (and how she willingly went with her abuser into the woods because he told her she was pretty), while Velcoro told her about the man he took out in revenge for raping his wife.
You just knew this nascent, fragile relationship wouldn’t last.
With the fate of Paul Woodrugh quickly confirmed (he was zipped up in a body bag), attention switched to gangster Frank Semyon and his wife Jordan. Semyon had been putting into place a plan to spirit himself and his wife out of the country, which was started by torching his club at the end of the previous episode and making deals with fellow gangsters to recoup enough money to set Team Semyon up for the next part of their lives. Jordan was adamant she wanted to stay by his side telling her husband he, “couldn’t act for shit” when she picked apart his ‘look, just go, I’ve never loved you so get out and leave me alone’ ruse. Vince Vaughn’s detractors will no doubt have a field day with this line in the weeks and months to come. Anyway, Semyon persuaded her to leave and that he would be joining her in two weeks, if not sooner.
You also knew this probably wasn’t going to be the case. Especially as he revealed to her that his plan involved taking out Osip and his gang.
It was the first of two male/female scenes where the male character assumed the role of protector/martyr, pleading with the female part of the relationship that things would get too dangerous for them. A pretty old-fashioned, chauvinistic take on things, but we we’re dealing with True Detective here, let’s not forget.
The Caspere murder was tied up within 45 minutes. Velcoro and Bezzerides had quickly (and conveniently, perhaps) determined that Laura/Erica had a brother and that they had met him on the movie lot back in a previous episode. They managed to track down Laura/Erica, who had been chained to the fireplace by her brother. Upon being freed she told them the whole story – how she, since her parents had been murdered by Holloway, Burris and Caspere, had taken to life on the streets, had met Caspere at one of his parties and how her brother Leonard, who she been reunited with, had sworn vengeance upon him.
Next for Velcoro was to stop Leonard taking out Holloway or, at least, do it on his terms. This set up the first big set piece, with Velcoro, in his disguise of a cowboy hat and shades, making his way to the train station to not only negotiate with Leonard but also bargain with Holloway for his safe passage out of the country and for his name to be cleared. When the corrupt policeman told Velcoro that Caspere was the father of both Laura and Leonard, Leonard, within earshot, went nuts. Out sprung Burris shooting Leonard dead and Leanard stabbing Holloway dead.
Unlike the big Mexican shoot-out in episode four, this set piece was efficient and succinct. Over in a few minutes with a minimum of fuss. That side of the story had been sorted.
Then it was all back to Felicia’s. The scarred Hispanic barmaid had been a bit-part player up until this point, but now she readied herself for a pivotal role. I had a soft spot for her, not least because she had obviously had had quite a life and had always shown Velcoro compassion, so it was nice to see her step up and become a full formed character. When she showed Semyon up to a secret room behind the cold storage room, it was revealed that she normally used it for hiding illegal immigrants from her native Venezuela, who she hid on their entrance into the country and dispersed among the LA community. It was here that Semyon, Velcoro and Bezzerides met for the last time. In fact, with Loretta Lynn singing in the bar downstairs, Semyon and Velcoro had one of their head-to-heads, this time sitting opposite each other on beds instead of at a barroom table. Lynn quietly packed up her guitar downstairs and we knew their story, like her shift at the club, had come to an end.
Like Semyon and Jordan, Velcoro pleaded with Bezzerides to get on the boat arranged by Felicia to Venezuela, while the men went off to do men’s work – in this case go armed with enough semi-automatic weapons to capture a small country to Osip’s house and take him down for good. Which they did in another scene that was efficient and non-showy.
We were then up to the final scenes. As the three of them scattered and began to make their way out of the country, their fates were shown with brilliant skill, expertly cutting between the three strands to maximise suspense and tension.
Semyon had taken care of business, picked up his passport from the Armenians and sold his diamonds to the Jewish jewellery expert. Things were going smoothly as he cruised along the highway, until he was sandwiched by two cars… driven by members of the Mexican gang who he had promised a cut of the club to. The club he had burned down and the Mexicans he had completely forgotten about. Oops. They took him to the desert, where they stripped him of his money and stabbed him in the stomach, leaving him for dead in the sparse, arid landscape. As he trudged determinedly back to civilisation, crows feasting on the trail of blood snaking behind him, hallucinations from his past walked with him. First his haranguing father, then a gang of black gang bangers, then an associate he had murdered who pleaded for mercy and then, finally, his wife Jordan. This mirage told him, “you did it, you made it. You can rest now.” “No rest. Never stop,” Semyon replied with a half-smile. “Babe. Oh babe. You stopped moving way back there…” In this limbo state between life and death Frank Semyon looked around and saw himself on the floor, 50 yards back, a heap crumpled in the blazing mid-afternoon sun. A character that had morphed from street-level thug to high-flying gangster to legitimate businessman and then back to street-level thug saw his final moments in a fug of desert dust and sun flare. It was an extraordinarily powerful scene, edited to full, dream-like effect. It was like watching an acid trip.
Elsewhere, Velcoro was on his way back to Bezzerides couldn’t resist looking in one final time on his son. Big mistake. On returning to his car he saw that someone had placed a transponder to the bottom of his car, and in that moment he knew he was doomed. He telephoned Bezzerides and told her to go on and catch that boat, and that he would follow. He then spoke to Felicia, telling her he would not make it and made her promise that she would get Bezzerides out. As he drove out of the city he recorded his son one last voice message, telling him he was a better man than he. (And he was his son because we saw a short scene in the epilogue where his ex-wife had looked at a paternity document, which confirmed Velcoro’s claim to her son’s fatherhood.) As he waited for the message to upload and send he found himself running wild in the woods, puffs of dust following him as he tried to escape Burris and his team of marksmen.
At 3.21pm Ray Velcoro ran out of ammunition and decided enough was enough and faced his pursuers, when he replied to Burris’ question of where Bezzerides was with the whispered line: “In a better place.” He was then shot repeatedly, his final moments spent looking up at the forest pines with the sun glinting through the branches. For Velcoro, the most emotionally open of the three main characters, it was a wrench to see him finally die because, in turn, we had become emotionally attached to him the most.
The last one of the three, Bezzerides, made it out of LA alive – down to Venezuela with a suitcase-full of incriminating documents and photographs. In the final scenes we saw her with Jordan, a baby (presumably Velcoro’s) and Semyon’s trusty guard. They were a new team and were setting off on a long journey, while back in Vinci Chessani Jr became mayor, Burris became police chief and a public highway was named in Woodrugh’s honour.
It seems the message is that people like Chessani Jr and Burris always get away with it.
And that was that. Pizzolatto did a fine job of writing this thoughtful, moving finale, tying up everything that needed to be tied up and providing an emotionally satisfying ending to all his main characters.
Back in Felicia’s club, Loretta Lyn sang the line, “When I look in the mirror I see someone else.” I think that was apt because this series of True Detective, while far from perfect and mostly a trudge through gloopy narrative, was, at its heart, about shifting identities – characters that morphed from one thing to other, being given opportunities to change, taking them only to revert back to who they really are; and to locations like the city of Los Angeles, so often seen as an anyone-can-make-it paradise only to be revealed to be a hive of corruption and decay.
True Detective, at its heart, was a hyper-noir story, its characters descending into a vortex of chaos, down through layer after layer of plot. These layers are designed to confuse, to plunge both the character and the viewer into a state of anxiety and extreme disorientation. Like the very best noirs, True Detective managed to do that alright – there were so many characters, sub-plots and details it was difficult to keep up with it all. Actually, it was too difficult to keep up with, and its key set-pieces (the shoot-outs and brothel scenes) had sprung from such high levels of confused, muddy narrative they completely lost any impact. Unlike the very best noir stories, there was no pep or drive or pizzaz in both the pace of the dialogue or narrative. Sure, there were some great soundbite lines and some great moments, but overall this second series of True Detective over-noired its noir, despite its satisfying ending.
The set pieces also, curiously, lapsed into cliché to the point where they felt almost laughable when they should have been edgy and super-tense. Sex clubs and nakedness as part of a murder plot in LA? Ooooh edgy. Land deals gone wrong in LA-set thrillers? Seen it all before. What True Detective deemed to be subversive actually proved to be strangely passé. And all this from a person like Pizzolatto who has written a superb novel and one superb series of True Detective.
Still, I want True Detective in my life. I need True Detective in my life. The whole world needs storyteller auteurs like Nic Pizzolatto who aim for epic examinations of the dark corners of human existence. The fact that this series has attracted people like me to write about it on blogs and countless others to blather on in magazine articles and on websites prove that series like True Detective need to exist because it makes us talk about them and their themes and the lives they depict.
And if people like Pizzolatto occasionally miss the bullseye, that’s fine, too.
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