Season 2 of True Detective wrapped up last Sunday with a less-than-stellar finale: the various story lines mostly came together, but this season lacked much of the impact and focus of the HBO show’s first season. Allow me to suggest one change that should help the show get back on track: Take the story out of the American West and set the story in New England.
Clearly, if there’s a third season, some changes need to be made, and location is just part of the equation: any seasons moving forward will need to address the problems with pacing, characters and story to take this back on track. But, location is important, and changing it up might be part of the equation for getting the show it’s groove back.
There are two things that have struck me the most with the show: the first is that Nic Pizzolatto is playing with the mystery and pulp genres in some neat ways. Season 1 was a great modern gothic story, while Season 2 took its influences from southern California crime novels. Second, the story’s location each term is crucial to the mystery at hand, and the authors and works that the show seems try and emulate. For an eventual Season 3, there’s certainly no shortage of locations and mystery authors around the United States, but let me make the case for New England.
I grew up and live in Vermont, tucked away in the corner of the country, and there’s plenty of inspiration for a dark, complicated mystery. There’s one author that’s been pounding out these sorts of mysteries year after year who would be great to emulate: Archer Mayor. For the past quarter century, Mayor has been writing a criminally under-read series about his Vermont detective, Joe Gunther. Forget the marketing shots of orange and yellow hills in our fall months, and pristine ski slopes in the winter months: Gunther goes through the state’s far less glamorous parts: the ramshackle towns and isolated families that dot the countryside.
Mayor’s novels are also complicated stories about land deals, human trafficking rings, revenge murders, drugs and quite a lot more, all set against the background of intrigue in a state known primarily for its small towns. A place like New England is perfect for the sort of story that Pizzolatto has been writing: seemingly innocuous murders that when cracked open, reveal a considerable and complicated plot that has greater implications for the society that exists around us. Mayor’s novels seem as though they’re stridently pushing against the postcard version of Vermont, and Pizzolatto makes the point that everything around us isn’t quite what it seems at first glance.
There’s other famous, New England authors that Pizzolatto can draw some influences from: just look at some of the region’s earliest genre authors: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson. Each wrote about the closed-off nature of the state and region’s isolated communities who often inflicted more harm than the supernatural.
If there was anything missing from Season 2 of the show, it was that touch of the supernatural that Season 1 maintained, and it’s something that these authors could provide. Originally, the show was going to include some occultish influences, and you can still see the fingerprints of where these elements remained in the version that made it to the screen. True Detective should go back to those influences, and can with the history of New England genre writers. Hawthorne’s stories of mysterious cults set in the back woods of Massachusetts, Shirley Jackson’s legendary story of a town that stones someone to death, Poe’s Weird mystery stories and H.P. Lovecraft’s outright fantasies.
The works of these authors are inextricable from the region in which they worked, and would allow Pizzolatto to play with the roots of the genre’s canon, while drawing on the works of modern day authors. There’s no shortage of inspiration from the geography here for those fantastic overhead shots: ancient, dark mountains, cold Atlantic coastlines, foreboding forests and aging industrial towns that are slowly falling to pieces. The daylight is short in the fall and winter months and its inhabitants are a taciturn bunch who close ranks when confronted with outsiders. This is the perfect territory to set a pulp-ish detective story with overtones of obsession and long-hidden secrets.
There’s other problems with the show as well: Season 2 went for the ‘Bigger and More’ strategy usually applied to a summer blockbuster franchise: the result was a story that was scattered throughout a larger range of characters, and a considerable amount of lost time setting up the murder of Casper. Ultimately, this is the problem that needs to be addressed. Hopefully, the show will return: ending the show on the note that Season 2 left would be unfortunate, because despite the season’s solid moments, it was marred by a bit more incoherence and fluff than its predecessor. Maybe, a change of scenery and inspirations will help revitalize True Detective and recapture everything that made excellent in that first season.