Was True Detective's Little Stunt A Sweet Cliffhanger Or A Cheap Trick?

Spoilers below for Episode 3 of True Detective, “Maybe Tomorrow.”

In just two episodes, Season 2 of True Detective has done many things to distance itself from Season 1, hibernating in deep, dark seclusion on the California coast. One of those ways seemingly came with last week’s “Night Finds You,” which ended with Detective Ray Valcoro concluding his brief visit to a whore-populated sex dungeon of Ben Caspere’s by getting shot in the torso. It made that credit sequence one of note for the synchronized screams of “WTF?” But then “Maybe Tomorrow” started tonight, and we saw that Valcoro wasn’t dead at all. So, is that a good thing or a cheap gimmick?

On almost any other show, particularly within the non-anthology bulk of them, such an abrupt fork in the narrative road driven in by a major character’s death would feel like a mix of sadness, revulsion, and a certain amount of damage to the storyline. Yet when it appeared as if Colin Farrell’s short stint on HBO had already come to an end – even if the lack of bloodshed immediately signified his insides weren’t demolished – the act seemed to only invite one feeling or another from audiences, at least as far as Internet searches can imply things. And like most entertainment-fueled conundrums, there are decent arguments for each side.

Because it both shocked audiences and informed the story by showing how dangerous Caspere’s killers are, as well as putting Vince Vaughn’s Frank Semyon in a pretty suspicious light, Valcoro’s “death” would have been an interesting twist within this season’s spider-webbed story, especially since Farrell played such a big part in the promotional campaign. (Though not as big as his mustache’s.) No doubt painted in broad strokes, Valcoro’s personality was driven into viewer’s eyeballs: his parental motivations are not so different from those of his occupation, in that he makes bad decisions and still wants to look like a good guy. It was enough to make him an important presence, and the cliffhanger aspect made sense in that respect.

But because it’s happening in 2015, when HBO has been a leader in “unexpected character deaths” with several of its hit series, Valcoro’s bowing out still felt unearned, and the fact that it wasn’t even a legitimate demise cheapens it further. Yes, it’s more important that non-fatal bullets were used than Valcoro simply wearing a bulletproof vest as is usually the case, but this event’s key place at the end of the episode is what’s being viewed here, not the facts of the event itself. And if someone didn’t have a fond time with the hours that came before that ending, Valcoro’s death just didn’t matter that much, and tonight would have felt more like a thoughtless gut punch landed specifically to prey on people’s expectations, rather than being integral to what’s happening.

But then, what if creator Nic Pizzolatto was simply having a laugh at everyone’s expense by making it look like he’d offed Valcoro for getting too nosy? After all, he received more than his fair share of negative commentary during Season 1, when people took Yellow King references to extremes and judged the finale for keeping both characters alive. So maybe Pizzolatto was just taking people’s “Why didn’t Rust die?” arguments and shoving it in everyone’s death-obsessed faces immediately by making it look like one of this season’s heavies was already out of the picture. This season doesn’t feel particularly winking in that respect, lacking almost all forms of humor – though Vaughn saying the line, “I’m feeling a little apoplectic, myself,” gave me the giggles – but it’s still possible Pizzolatto was just having some fun here.

It could be more obvious than ever that Valcoro isn’t going to die this season, unless it’s in some way that makes it apparent he isn’t coming back, such as a decapitation or being exploded in space. But maybe the point of this season is just to watch these people experience misery for as long as possible. Any way it goes, True Detective will be extending its mystery and Colin Farrell’s career next Sunday night on HBO. Check out some Rick Springfield while you’re waiting.

Nick Venable
Assistant Managing Editor

Nick is a Cajun Country native and an Assistant Managing Editor with a focus on TV and features. His humble origin story with CinemaBlend began all the way back in the pre-streaming era, circa 2009, as a freelancing DVD reviewer and TV recapper.  Nick leapfrogged over to the small screen to cover more and more television news and interviews, eventually taking over the section for the current era and covering topics like Yellowstone, The Walking Dead and horror. Born in Louisiana and currently living in Texas — Who Dat Nation over America’s Team all day, all night — Nick spent several years in the hospitality industry, and also worked as a 911 operator. If you ever happened to hear his music or read his comics/short stories, you have his sympathy.