Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams. (HBO/Lacey Terrell)

Most of the official images released ahead of this season finale show its characters sitting in thought, hands together as if in an attitude of prayer. Looking at the net of collusion tightening around the surviving leads of True Detective, divine intervention seems the only way out of this mess. Ani Bezzerides is wanted for murder; so is Ray Velcoro. Frank Semyon is cleaned out by gangsters and crooked politicians and watching his back every second. Paul is dead after an underground confrontation with the forces behind the conspiracy.

Appropriately, “Omega Station” is suffused with religious images and allusions. Determined not to leave Frank’s side, Jordan spits out “Fuck your martyrdom,” and he leads her through the rich wood tones and coffered ceilings of the small station, reminiscent of a church, to sit on a pew. There, he confesses the truth. “I cannot do the things I have to do unless I know you’re safe. If I don’t think you’re safe, I’m lost.”

Frank (Vince Vaughn) about to confess to Jordan (Kelly Reilly) (HBO)

Loss, redemption, retribution, atonement, just desserts: These ideas are the heart of the episode. Ani and Ray struggle over what they owe Paul, who died for their salvation. Ray pledges to pay back “these filth” who destroyed their lives. He atones, finally, for his years of miserable fatherhood, by silently saluting the son he’s leaving behind—and by seeing Chad happier than he’s ever been shown, sitting with friends, his grandfather’s badge at his side. Never knowing the DNA test proves his parentage, he records a final message of love, and an overdue apology. His son might never hear it, but Ray needs to say it:

“I’m sorry for the man I became, for the father I was. I hope you’ve got the strength to learn from that. I hope you’ve got no doubt how much I love you, son. You’re better than me. If I’d been stronger, I’d’ve been more like you.”

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Ani gets retribution, delivering evidence to take down the conspirators who killed her partners, threatened her family, and drove her into hiding. “These facts were paid for in blood, so honor that,” she tells the reporter. “I don’t know if it will make any difference, but it should, because we deserve a better world.” But that’s not her only motive; she wants to clear Ray’s name. “I owe him that, and I owe his sons that.”

Ray and Ani’s episode-opening conversation suggests the confessional. Side by side, eyes barely meeting, they admit their darkest histories to each other. Even now, she casts about for ways to blame the child she was: “He didn’t force me,” she tells Ray, and “I was proud that he thought I was pretty.”

Ray covers her sleeping form with a blanket, then sets up watch before the window. This scene of protective (even paternal) safekeeping is intercut with Ray’s own confession as he tells Ani the story of the man he murdered years ago. He tries to absolve Ani’s irrational guilt, and she returns the gesture. “People, whole cultures, wouldn’t blame you. I don’t.”

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In one shot of this montage, Ray kneels in the dark at the end of the bed, head bowed in prayer. But neither of them seeks absolution from each other. They want the comfort of connection, and that connection is as much emotional as physical. These people who have been so closed off for so long are opening up to each other, and the show opens up with them.

Like Ray in bed with a woman for the first time in years, True Detective is making up for lost time. After seven episodes of obfuscation, for the first time the intensity and gloom of this season feels earned and earnest, like more than an affectation of gravity.

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Season two of True Detective is a dark fairy tale with a simple moral: A person who denies their nature and their past poisons everything in their life. Paul Woodrugh’s self-denial made him miserable during his life, and his susceptibility to blackmail walked him into his own execution. Ray Velcoro spent his son’s life fretting over the child’s parentage, using that uncertainty as a blind for all the resentments and rages roiling inside him. Ani Bezzerides kept the lifelong secret—even from herself—that she was looking for an excuse to kill a man, any man, who “put his hands on me wrong.”

“Trees. A little place in the rock, in the trees,” Ani intones over the episode’s opening. “A cave, that’s how I remember it. It’s like a fairy tale.” She’s describing her scant memories of her childhood trauma, but she’s also describing their hideout, the dim little room of wood, blanketed with florals… and unwittingly, she’s also describing Ray’s last moments as he flees through a redwood forest, Burris’ commandos at his heels.

More than any other character, Frank Semyon reveals the numbness of rejecting his true self, and the vitality that returns when he embraces it. As Erik Adams points out, Vince Vaughn’s stiffness is actually Frank’s stiffness. It’s the artificiality of a man playing a role. Now that Frank’s given up all hope of going straight, now that he’s returned to being a pure gangster—now that he’s going to war—Frank sparks with vitality.

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For Jordan’s safety, Frank takes refuge in cruelty designed to push her away. He accuses her of lying about her infertility, of selling him on “the fairy tale.” Finally, Frank’s angst about fecundity—encompassing everything from himself to the avocado tree to the poisoned land he lost in Caspere’s double-cross—pays off in a practical measure.

Frank throws away his wedding ring in a gesture worthy of a fable, but Jordan isn’t buying it. When she chucks her own ring after his, he snaps back to prosaic concerns for a fleeting second. “That was a fuckin’ big diamond!” Vaughn’s lapse into comic surprise highlights the seriousness of their parting.

Vince Vaughn (HBO/Lacey Terrell)

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Lies won’t work, and not just because, as Jordan tells him, “you can’t act for shit.” In “Omega Station,” all the cars reach the end of the line, and it’s time to face the truth or die trying. That’s no small feat for a cast of characters so heavily invested in denial, in double-dealing, in obscuring or ignoring who they are and what they want.

The bleakness is buoyed by glimpses of humor brighter, sharper, and more frequent than previous episodes. It surfaces when Ray meets with Police Chief Holloway (Afemo Omilami) in the train station, taking over the hand-off Tyler (née Leonard Osterman) set up. “Honestly, Ray,” Holloway confides, “nobody had any idea you were this competent.”

It’s also packed with homages to Hollywood’s golden age. Frank promises to get back at his rival with a corrupted Casablanca quote. “Maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow, but, Osip, when the lights go out? That’s me.” Mayor Chassani’s body floating in his pool is a clear allusion to the opening of Sunset Boulevard. (Another quick jolt of Vaughn’s leavening acerbity: “Are you fuckin’ dense?” he asks Mrs. Chessani when she squeals about suicide.)

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Mayor Chessani (Ritchie Coster)

For all its improvements, “Omega Station” still suffers in places from the same heavy hand as previous episodes. After the mostly sustained tension of the first and second act, the finale bogs down in overblown machismo and silly conceits. Burris dismisses Ray’s questions about Paul’s death, asking “Why would you care? The guy’s a fag, right?” Though his frantic retreat to the redwood forest is both cinematic and poetic, chain-smoking, hard-drinking, hard-living Ray Velcoro’s easy evasion of Burris’ task force makes them look like pretty sorry commandos, and his Bonnie And Clyde-style riddling with bullets is too over the top to support the solemnity of the moment. Frank’s desert trek, which makes the ghosts haunting him visible instead of purely metaphorical, slogs on too long, with generic figures from his memory taunting him to the point of absurdity, and ends in the hackneyed revelation that his progress across the sand is another mirage.

Ultimately, season two of True Detective can’t decide what it is: California noir, lurid pulp, modern mythology, religious allegory, urban fairy tale? It aims to be a pastiche of all these influences, and like Hansel and Gretel in the forest, it loses its way somewhere.

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But one of those tributes to classic Hollywood illuminates a fragile notion present in “Omega Station,” an idea that helps redeem the mercurial mess that is True Detective. As he sees her off, Frank and Jordan tell each other a story of their intended reunion in a park in Venezuela. She’ll wear a white dress; he’ll wear a white suit with a red rose, and she’ll “see him coming out of the crowd, head higher than anybody else.”

It’s almost certainly a reference to Citizen Kane’s Mr. Bernstein and his romantic memory of the girl in the white dress. It’s also a fairy tale they’re spinning for each other, a daydream not just of safety, but of joy so bright, it gleams like a white suit in the sun. Knowing he might not make it to their meeting under the obelisk, Frank asks Ani to deliver a message for him. “Tell her I wanted to be there. And that story we told? It’s still true.”

Like Bernstein’s memory, the audience never sees a frame of this imagined reunion. It exists entirely in their minds, and in ours, and it’s more poignant for its intangibility… because tangible reality is not the only truth, and a thing doesn’t need to be concrete, or even coherent, to be meaningful. This last episode of True Detective’s second season doesn’t redeem the confusion that came before, and even as a strong chapter in a weak season, it trips over itself several times. But it packs a potency that will linger.

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Stray observations

  • Ani suggests getting Dr. Pitlor’s confession on the record. “I’ve heard enough confessions today,” Ray says. Hers was the first.
  • “What am I supposed to do?” Erica (born Laura Osterman) asks Ani. “I don’t know,” Ani tells her, because sometimes that is the only truth.
  • Frank’s summary to the bartender is reminiscent of the cowboy’s greeting in Mulholland Drive. “Everything’s ending. Time to wake up.” The bedtime story is over.
  • There’s a hint of Hansel and Gretel in the image of Erica chained to the fireplace. Ray and Frank throwing smoke bombs into the cabin are The Big Bad Wolves, huffing and puffing and blowing the house in.
  • Madonna imagery ends the episode, with Ani wearing her baby—Ray Velcoro’s son, just as certainly as Chad is— in a sling as she walks through a street festival, scanning the crowd, as wary of the Virgin Mary statue as she is of any bystander.
  • Thanks for reading our season two coverage of True Detective, and thanks to Erik Adams for letting me sit in on the season finale.

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