Massive True Detective Season 2 Spoilers Below:
I know I'm a little late to the party for this one, but I wanted to take some time to think about what I was going to say about this season.
The second season of True Detective was highly anticipated and many people were disappointed with the finale. A big reason why this is the case is because season two is constantly compared to season one. Was season one better? Absolutely. But this doesn't mean that season two was not good television.
Part of the problem seems to be that many people were expecting True Detective Season One Part II when the second season was announced. They wanted more of the Yellow King. They were expecting the same symmetrical story-telling: the first half of the season an extended flashback with the second half wrapping up the loose ends with a climax. Of course they were let down when they got something that was completely different.
But to call the second season a bait and switch is unfair. Thematically, True Detective is a show about people trying to reconcile their pasts. We can see this in season one with the massive flashback that took up the first half of the season. The show was literally about two men trying to solve an old case while also making amends for past mistakes. Similarly, in season two all four of the main characters are struggling with their ties to the past.
Frank is most literally running away from his past as he tries to become a legitimate businessman. He spends the course of season two backsliding into his old ways, taking over the old businesses and killing anyone who stands in his way.
Ray is tortured by the rape of his wife and the questionable paternity of his son. Moreover, he learns that he sold his soul for nothing, having taken vengeance on the wrong man.
Ani comes from a troubled home and holds people at a distance as a result. Later in the season she realizes that much of her pain stems from her history of sexual abuse.
Woodrugh is in deep denial about his homosexuality and tries to forget about the romance he had with a brother-in-arms during his tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Just like the first season, the mystery is meant to serve as a backdrop for a in-depth character study. It worked so well in season one because there were only two characters being examined, allowing both Rust and Marty plenty of screen time. This season each character got half the amount of screen time, which of course means they're not as well characterized as Rust and Marty.
Then there's the other issue that many people had with this season: almost everyone died. Ani is the only major character who survives the season's events. This is for good reason, as this is also linked to the theme of reconciling the past. Ani is the one only who is able to shake loose the binds to her past and move forward to start a new life as the mother of Ray's child. Everyone else couldn't, and died as a result.
Woodrugh is the first to die due to the fact that he couldn't accept that he was gay. He is blackmailed with compromising pictures and meets to discuss the terms of his blackmail. He then gets into a shootout and dies, taking many men with him. If Woodrugh could just be honest about his past in Afganistan and the man he was, he wouldn't have been blackmailed because he would have been openly gay.
Frank was ready to move on from his life as a gangster after getting revenge on an old business partner, but the ties to the cartel he forged over the course of the season's events come back to bite him in the ass. Because of Frank's backsliding into a life of crime, he ends up bleeding out in the desert, but not before hallucinating and telling off all of the people who told him over the course of his life that he wouldn't succeed.
Ray's end is perhaps the most tragic because it stemmed from the love he felt for his son. After helping Frank get revenge, Ray stops to see his son at school. As he looks at his son through the fence, the police stick a transponder on his car, thus allowing them to track his movements. He is unable to escape to South America with Ani as a result and instead dies in the forest after a final shootout with the Vinci police.
A brief epilogue provides some closure for these three dead men: Woodrugh gets a stretch of highway named after him (he always loved the driving his bike on the highway), Frank's wife is in South America with Ani helping her take care of Ray's baby (she and Frank always wanted to start a family, and Ray's ex-wife finds out that Ray is the father of their son (whose paternity was in question).
If this were a series by a different name, I don't think viewers and critics would judge it as harshly. Was it perfect? Absolutely not. There was weak dialogue (especially when Frank was speaking) and scenes that dragged. The plot was confusing and convoluted and the ending seemed abrupt. But at its core, True Detective is not a narrative-driven show. It is a study of characters and their relationship to the past, something that this season remains true to.