Ever had a conversation with a friend where you’re recalling a fond, or not so fond, memory, and one of you describes everything that happened detail by detail as though giving a police report? To which the second person might respond, “I was there, why are you telling me this?” The second season of True Detective offered this up in abundance, as one person after another tried to fill in backstory holes in a desperate attempt to get us to care about the characters’ eventual demises. A lot of people have complained about a lot of failings of the show, but it’s the way characters talked to each other that bothered me most. And in the season finale there was one scene, I felt, that summed it up perfectly.
People talk about what happened in the past all the time, and dialogue is an effective way of revealing backstory. The choice of the details you present is what makes this interesting and realistic, though. Time and again, True Detective Season Two demonstrated how to do it incorrectly, with characters frequently listing all the details without much consideration for (1) who they were talking to and (2) why they were saying anything at all. Slight spoilers follow.
In only a handful of lines, I felt the last-minute exposition of the backstory for Frank’s right-hand man, Nils, gave a perfect example. There were much more dramatic examples throughout, some which seemed to last entire scenes, but this one was a nice short disaster of an exchange. We got the idea, rather early on in the series, that Nils, with his disfigured face, owed Frank and was loyal to the end. That was shown by his general following around and unquestioning activities. But in the final chapter he revealed (shock, horror) the details of Frank saving him from a nail-gun incident. So, out of the blue, we get this:
Nils: “You don’t have to do that. The money, I mean. I couldn’t see, one of my eyes, nail in my fucking head, I heard them saying ‘leave me’.”
Frank: “Fucking teamsters, a nail gun!”
Nils: “You slung me over your shoulder, I don’t forget that.”
Which is great for us, the audience, as it leaves almost no ambiguity about what happened in the past. Except it’s not so great for us, the audience, as its lack of subtlety quite jarringly makes you think Why did he just say? In real life, people don’t fill in all the details when they take a trip down memory lane, they signpost them. Along the lines of:
“When I lost my eye, you’re the only one who helped me.”
That doesn’t tell us there was an incident with some teamsters or that a nail gun was involved, but it gets the important detail across – that Frank helped him. Which, if you’re having a conversation with someone who already knows the inconsequential details, is how people tend to talk.Focusing on the point of the memory, not the details that someone who wasn’t there might want to know. On top of this, by getting straight to the point of reflecting on how much of a hero Frank was to him, he doesn’t really need say there’s no need for the money, it’s quite clear that he still feels in debt.
This is a very simple example from a show that was riddled with increasingly unrealistic bits of exposition like this. If more attention had been paid, throughout, to how realistic what everyone was saying, then the series as a whole might have been a lot more engaging. And if it had been more engaging, people may have cared more about the characters and thought of them more as people and less as plot devices. Then they might have been less analytical of the plot itself and just rolled with it. In this particular example, at least, it could also have given the scene some much needed brevity, avoiding yet another opportunity for Vince Vaughn to compensate for acting with some dancing facial expressions.