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When it comes to damaged antiheroes, True Detective tries to have it both ways

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If you lived here, you'd be evil by now

Photo by Lacey Terrell

True Detective, it should be abundantly clear by now, doesn't have too much use for the power of good. It never allows its characters to bask in small victories or linger on a smile. It takes place in a dark, dreary, hopeless world — the kind of world where men (and now, occasionally women) drive down long, empty stretches of road and find solace in mostly empty bar rooms. It's not necessarily pleasant, but there's an evocative beauty under the surface that couldn't be achieved through any other means — at least, that's what we have been trained to believe.

The show's second season premiered last night on HBO, leaving behind the first season's odd couple Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson). Now we've got three new detectives to lead the charge: Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), a detective working in the fictional, corrupt town of Vinci whose anger issues (and probably his bolo ties) are getting in the way of his family life; Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), a West LA detective fueled by a placidly grim outlook; and young highway patrol officer Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), a former military recruit who's quietly stewing about past traumas. And they all have one thing in common: they're Bad.

"You're bad. You're a bad person."

How do we know they're Bad? Well for one thing, they do things like beat up muckraking journalists and threaten to decapitate the mothers of 12-year-olds. They drink too much, and then they scowl drunkenly at the world for doing them wrong. They punch their friends in sudden fits of rage and walk away. But we also know they're Bad because writer Nic Pizzolatto tell us they're Bad, very explicitly. "You're bad. You're a bad person," Velcoro's wife says to him during a heated argument in a later episode, by which time this has already been made obvious. And despite all this, we should by now be unsurprised to learn, these are True Detective's good guys.

This season's tagline ("We get the world we deserve") implies evil is a vague, self-inflicted thing. Evil is our own doing; Bad things happen because we're Bad. But this whole premise is founded on an impossible notion: the show's protagonists exist inside spheres of self-created evil, but they'll be the ones who will save us from it, because — get this — they're actually Good. Pizzolatto follows a very traditional impulse to convince us that, if his protagonists aren't exactly paradigms of virtue, they're at least better than everyone else.

What difference would it make if they were just Good?

The detectives aren't real evil — that position is reserved for the murderer the plot is centered around, and Vince Vaughn's in-over-his-head villain — they're just wearing the mask of it. Velcoro really loves his son in a sincere way, even if he's bad at showing it. Bezzerides wants to help people, because no one ever helped her. Theirs is a shallow, superficial Bad, a protective shell meant to ward off aggressors. It's such a put-on that one has to wonder: what difference would it make to the story if they were just Good?

True Detective Season Two

This isn't a call for television with a conscience — forced morality, though currently a rare commodity on television, is just as dull as forced evil. But Bad is not inherently more interesting than Good, especially when the evil only goes as deep as throwing the first punch. And it's definitely not more interesting when the surrounding world is already full of it. The detectives' bad behavior, we are told, is not really their fault; it's just a reflection of their environment — at the same time, it's also somehow supposed to suggest an underlying, misunderstood complexity. In the second season of True Detective, evil has become Nic Pizzolatto's crutch.

Pizzolatto always finds a way to excuse his characters' faults

Pizzolatto wants us to think that these characters, at their core, have something redemptive inside them; something worth paying attention to. We know this because he always finds a way to excuse their faults. Over the course of the first three episodes, we're introduced to all of the main characters' parents, and unsurprisingly, they're all Bad — or at least Stupid. Velcoro's father is tired, drunk, and uncaring; Bezzerides's father is a vacuous cult leader; Woodrugh's mother is garrulous and needy.

And because of these pasts, we are told the detectives deserve a pass. Look what they've overcome! Look who they haven't turned out like yet! Look, look, beneath the surface! It's there, but it's so hard for them. The detectives, they have a hard time with life. You, faceless audience member, might recognize that feeling. Do you feel the empathy? Because I'm shoving it down your throat.

There are instances when being Bad works, but not without tension to a character's storyline. One of television's most famous antiheroes, Walter White, started out as a mild-mannered chemistry teacher tired of being patted on the head. His transformation was not only unexpected, it was the point. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow — the sweet, dorky sidekick — turns dark when she becomes addicted to magic. It dissolved a trust that had been building since the show's start, and had genuine stakes for those were fully invested in the show. Heck, even in Eastbound and Down, Kenny Powers cheats on his wife, breaks up a marriage, and is the worst best friend in the world. But all of his social fumbles and selfishness were ridiculous primarily because they were irrational in an otherwise mundane world. Without that contrast — if you're just Bad because the world sucks — your Badness starts to feel a little thin.

If you're just Bad because the world sucks, your Badness starts to feel a little thin

In True Detective's first season, Rust and Marty were interesting because even when they did Bad things, neither of them wanted to be Bad. Marty was a jerk, but he wanted to be a hero and a family man. Rust lacked empathy or any sense of how to have a normal relationship with anyone, but (or perhaps, because) he was almost physically pained by the world's wrongdoing. Above all, both were still grasping at some notion of morality. By contrast, season two's protagonists seem to revel in their self-suffocation, and it's not much fun to watch someone hold their breath.

The first season's biggest flaw was the fact that the villain turned out to be, really, just a man. A deranged, unspeakably abhorrent man, but a man nonetheless. For all of season one's paranormal palpitations, all its Man vs. Universe threads quickly reverted to a Man vs. Man chase scene. The second season's biggest flaw might be that its characters aren't human enough — they're a collection of Bad signifiers with limbs, which we've been told makes them interesting enough to spend eight weeks with.

At one point in the season's third episode, Bezzerides says, "I don't distinguish between good and bad habits." And it seems Pizzolatto doesn't either, so we're sinking into a gray area where nothing really matters one way or the other, least of all the well-worn misdeeds of crooked cops. There's still hope this might change in the remainder of the season. But if it doesn't, True Detective may have abandoned the tightrope walk that initially made it appealing, and jumped head-first toward an inevitable splat.