Sign up FAST! Login

True Detective s2e3 Maybe Tomorrow underscores the larger problems with True Detective's format.


Stashed in: The Wire, American Horror Story, Twin Peaks, Colin Farrell

To save this post, select a stash from drop-down menu or type in a new one:

Interesting argument that True Detective season 2 would have been better if Colin Farrell's character did die:

For starters, there's the scene that opens the episode, where a lip-syncing performer "sings" Conway Twitty's version of "The Rose" (the song was first made famous by Bette Midler). It's a straight-up homage to Twin Peaks, which also featured occasional musical performance sequences that were seemingly staged in a space between life and death, and it's kind of glorious.

As it happens, the scene takes place in a scuzzy bar that Ray (mentally) patronizes while he lies on the floor of Caspere's second home, recuperating from his injuries. Yes, technically, this is a dream, spurred by the song on the radio, but every image we see is meant to imply this is a sort of waystation en route to the afterlife. And how appropriate would it be for True Detective's afterlife to be a dive bar?

Bathed in glorious blues, with the redder lighting of the bar providing contrast, it's one of the most beautiful, audacious sequences True Detective has ever pulled off, full of the unfiltered weirdness the show does so well. I half wanted the entirety of "Maybe Tomorrow" to be set in that dive bar. (Then again, the parts of Twin Peaks where the surface of the show was peeled back to reveal its underlying mythos were always my favorites, too.)

Of course, Ray wakes up, and his life goes on. But the bizarre atmosphere of that dive bar acts like a kind of hangover for the remainder of the hour, leaving viewers in a state of fuzzy anticipation for something unexpected to pop up just around the corner.

It should be said that the rest of "Maybe Tomorrow" doesn't really deliver on that. For the most part, it's devoted to filling in more of the blanks episode two started coloring in, and it does so in a way that sometimes feels a little perfunctory. The foot chase that closes the episode, for instance, is exciting on a visceral level but also feels like it only exists because Nic Pizzolatto wanted a big closing sequence and the characters need to come close to catching one of the bad guys before falling just short.

And yet the reminders of the weirdness are still there, in every instance where it takes Ray a little while longer to struggle through something he would have handled easily enough  before he was shot, or in the unsettling moments when the characters realize how shaky the ground they're standing on has become. Ray being shot has hurt True Detective's more tangible stakes, but it's also upped the sense of unease, which is not nothing.

Unfortunately, Ray's fate still underscores the larger problems with True Detective's format.

So far, the promise of True Detective — and American Horror Story and Fargo and their anthology ilk — has been the idea that "anything can happen." Since the actors are only signed on for one season at a time, the plotting can radically shake up the status quo, whether through big plot twists or characters being killed or what have you.

But in actual practice, this idea hasn't really worked out. All three shows have been hamstrung by conventionality at one turn or another, by an adherence to genre that prevents them from really altering their own status quos. Ray's survival is largely a repeat of Molly from Fargo surviving her encounter with the vicious Lorne Malvo in a snowstorm — a story point that does certain things for the plot but closes off the larger realm of possibilities of what can happen. (For the record, I ultimately came down on the side of Molly's survival being the right call, so I suspect I'll eventually do the same here.)

At the same time, however, True Detective is currently grappling with the fact that it's trapped in a format where detective stories struggle. In general, the detective story is helped by compression, by the way that events can be collapsed into each other to keep the plot momentum building. That's why the two most familiar cinematic versions of detective stories are the detective movie (which rarely runs much longer than two hours) and the case-of-the-week TV procedural (which typically wraps each mystery in the span of an hour). Both can tell compelling stories because they're working within set parameters.

In contrast, "case of the season" series are hindered by their relative freedom, because they have so much space to play with that compression largely becomes impossible. That means rolling the dice on individual characters (as, say, Fargo did) or a larger thematic point (as The Wire did), but these sorts of arcs can be tough to execute unless they're baked into the story from the first.

By resetting their stories every season, shows like True Detective and Fargo leave behind the greatest strength of the TV crime show — the familiarity of characters we've gotten to know — and immediately return to the greatest weakness of the format: coming up with a new crime story that will serve as a good spine for illuminating brand-new characters and themes.

If True Detective had killed Ray, it could have found a way around this problem by genuinely suggesting nobody was safe. It didn't do so. There are certain advantages to that approach, to be sure, and Colin Farrell's performance seems invigorated by Ray's fictional brush with death. But season two has also closed off a bunch of potentially interesting stuff that could have come out of his demise. Oh well.

Conway Twitty's version of The Rose:

THAT was awesome. Surreal, haunting, weird.

Yes, very Twin Peaks. I'm surprised I had not heard that version before. 

You May Also Like: