True Detective Season 2 has raised a lot of questions over the course of its eight-week run, but one has loomed larger than all the others:
Will this installment succeed where season one failed and deliver a conclusion to make all those twists, turns and philosophical diatribes feel worthwhile?
After last night’s bloody coup de grace, it's hard to imagine that anyone could argue True Detective Season 2 Episode 8 was anything less than a powerful, gut-wrenching finale that was in all ways superior to season one’s sappy thud that ended with a scene straight from a very special episode of SVU.
But was it enough to redeem the wildly uneven string of episodes that preceded it?
Let’s re-open this case one last time and find out:
We start with Velcoro and Bezzerides sharing a post coital cigarette and some traumatic stories from the past, as is customary in True Detective Land.
They're on the run now, and they soon realize that Woodrugh is dead and that Burris, Holloway, et al. really want our newly loved-up heroes to join him in the morgue.
Speaking of relationships and life on the lam, Frank struggles to convince Jordan that she's better off without him.
His Bogey-at-the-end-of Casablanca routine clearly won't work on her, and he eventually gets her to head for Venezuela only by promising he'll meet up with her in two weeks. ("Or less," he adds unconvincingly.)
It's the first in this episode's many heartbreaking scenes, as we can tell that Frank has a hard time believing his own story.
It's tough not to take it as a foreshadowing of the embattled gangster's fate when we see Woodrugh zipped up in a body bag in the next scene.
As with the rest of the season, the performances and the frequently witty exchanges between the characters were the highlights of this episode, but it wouldn't be True Detective without some true detectiving, so even though the mystery of who killed Ben Caspere was pretty much solved last week, some legwork remains:
As many viewers predicted, it turns out that the orphaned Leonard was the culprit.
He was also the bird-masked man who blasted Velcoro with riot shells in week two. Not to toot our own horns but we called that one several weeks ago...and we're sure we're not alone.
That's not to say this season has been predictable. Far from it. In fact, what was most irritating about last season's finale was the fact that so many of the "clues" added up to nothing but one dead redneck.
Creator Nic Pizzolatto has thrown a ton of information at us this year, but at least it added up to something.
Not only did we get the satisfaction of solving parts of the mystery ourselves, we got the thrill of watching in horror as everything came tumbling down for our three surviving protagonists.
Sometimes, the world just doesn't care that you've figured it all out.
The downfall is preceded by the Seymon and Velcoro-Bezzerides plot strands finally coming together in a surprising unforced fashion.
Things begin to fall apart when Leonard fails to stick to the plan and - after hissing the most True Detective line in history ("I'm the blood, and the blade!") - loses it when Holloway (Who looks pretty good for having been pistol-whipped the night before.) reveals that Caspere actually was Len and Laura's father.
The sound of Pizzolatto patting himself on the back for executing that Oedipal twist could be heard across the land.
There's a brief ray of hope as Frank lays out his plan (and his massive arsenal of weapons), and he and Ray successfully take revenge (and a ton of cash) in a siege that takes out some of the season's top baddies, including the groveling Osip.
(There's even a nice "f-ck yeah!" moment as Frank calls back to one of his earlier Bogey-esque lines before capping his rival in the face.)
But this is still True Detective, and if you thought the episode would end with Frank, Jordan, Ray and Ani watching the sunset on a South American beach, then you really haven't been paying attention.
Frank and Ray storming the cabin in the woods complete with tear gas and giant-ass guns made for a pretty thrilling set piece, but the most tense moment of the season had to be Velcoro’s painfully prolonged drive back to Bezzerides.
Of course Ray had to see his son one last time, and of course that was his undoing - not only because these things tend to turn out that way on TV, but also because fatherhood has loomed large over TD2 from the opening scene.
Speaking of dads, Frank faces his drunken pa and some other demons from his past during his long, bloody trek home from his unexpected run in with the Mexicans.
The two trips end the same tragic way, because Pizzolatto's is a world where morally compromised men finally do the right thing and still get brutally murdered. (It's worth noting that Velcoro's dad predicted his death in surprising detail in episode three.)
To make matters worse, Ray's final message to his son didn't even upload (Damn you AT&T!), but at least it turned out he was the kid's biological father all along.
Continuing with the often heavy-handed fatherhood theme, the show manages to scrape together somewhat of a happy ending by revealing that Ani has made it Venezuela and given birth to what we assume is Ray's child.
We predicted that one as well, but hey, there are only so many ways this thing could've ended, right?
The final few minutes cap off a surprisingly solid ending by revealing that Jordan and Ani are executing a plan to take down Mayor Tony Chessani and the other surviving villains.
So did that fantastic finale redeem the frequently confusing, often infuriating season that preceded it?
Short answer: no. Long answer: hell, no.
Really long answer: If last night’s finale had been the second half of a really long movie, perhaps we would’ve been willing to forgive the needlessly convoluted neo-noir nonsense that came before it. Unfortunately, that nonsense went on for seven hours.
A talented enough writer can pull off a story with a million intersecting plot strands and the occasional red herring thrown in for good measure, but the whole exercise needs to be meticulously well-engineered.
Based on this season, we're guessing Nic Pizzolatto has been heavily influenced by noir heavyweights like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett (Heck, Frank’s fake name on his passport was “Daniel Hammett.”), but he lacks their ability to construct a twisty road that actually leads somewhere.
Plots this intricate need to be tightly constructed, but TD2 was twisty, yet loose, like a tattered spider web after a storm.
But for all the valid complaints about the stilted dialogue and the trope-heavy, needlessly complex plot, the biggest problem (and the biggest difference from the far superior first season) was the lack of heart.
The finale finally made us care about the show's core characters, but it was simply too little, too late.
Characters we can actually invest in and care about would've gone a long way toward helping us forgive the series' many glaring plot weaknesses.
Of course, the irony is that last year's installment gave us a compelling season capped by a disappointing finale, while season 2 offered the opposite.
Will the show be able to find a happy middle ground for season three, or will it simply plunge us deeper into Nic Pizzolatto's tortured, and often laughably dark soul?
Either way, we'll be along for the ride.
Thanks for reading, and as always, don't forget to watch True Detective online at TV Fanatic to relive the many highs and lows.