The True Detective Finale: That's It?

Should we feel bad for Nic Pizzolatto? Our roundtable discusses “Form and Void,” the eighth installment in HBO's series.
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HBO

Spencer KornhaberChristopher Orr, and Amy Sullivan discuss the latest episode of True Detective.


Sullivan: Did Rust Cohle just get religion? Am I actually going to get my wish for a spinoff about odd couple housemates Rust and Marty play-bickering into their sunset years? Did we watch eight hours of a beautifully directed, superbly acted show with maddeningly inconsistent writing only to be reminded that all of human history boils down to a struggle between light and darkness?

The very last line of the finale pretty much summed up the experience of True Detective for me. There stand our heroes together, having survived a journey into something akin to hell—not to mention a hatchet to the chest and a knife to the gut. They’re discussing the age-old battle between good and evil, with Marty observing that “the dark has a lot more territory.” But before the camera pans up to a starry sky, Rust, the lovable nihilist, utters one final thought that indicates how much this whole case has shaken his core beliefs and changed him—perhaps for the better.

And if you caught that last line, you were way ahead of me and half my Twitter feed.

Is it too much to ask that you make the very last line of your show clear enough that it wouldn’t be rendered on a transcript as “[unintelligible]”? Yes, McConaughey’s drawling delivery presents a challenge but this is 2014—there are amazing post-production tools that would make it no trouble at all for audiences to hear: “Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light’s winning.”

After rewinding several times and finally making out that line, I found it lovely. Despite my frustrations with the series, I was left with a warm, hopeful feeling for Rust. But the difficulty of hearing that last note was of a piece with the whole show, which too often made choices that unnecessarily muddied the story. Not for the sake of art, not because to do otherwise would have just been spoon-feeding the audience, but just because.

I flat-out adored the show’s first few episodes—and the two main performances have to be the best I’ve seen in years. (Dammit, McConaughey, stop making me cry with all that talk about your dead daughter!) But I was never excited about Pizzolatto’s declaration/boast that the series would subvert the clichés of detective shows. That sounded like a show that would just have a handy excuse whenever it did indulge in its own clichés, being able to accuse critical viewers of not being able to grasp its cleverness.

And that I’m sure will be the retort of those who loved the finale in the face of questions like:

  • So all that stuff with Marty’s daughter Audrey was just … coincidence? Or a red herring? A way of suggesting that there’s capital-E Evil like whatever went down at Carcosa but also run-of-the-mill perversion that harms kids all the time? Then why have her set up those figurines in precisely that way?
  • We’re supposed to believe that Dora Lange was not just one of Errol’s victims, but was taught about someone called the Yellow King and read passages from Robert Chambers’s The King in Yellow? That’s some pretty involved mythology swirling around that ended up being essentially irrelevant to the case’s resolution.
  • Was that tangent involving former CID colleague Steve Geraci important in any way to solving the case? Please tell me it wasn’t there just for the cynical purpose of having a character insist he was just doing his job, “chain of command,” blahedy-blah.
  • So Rust was depressed and possibly prepared for suicide as he entered this final showdown. But now, despite the heartbreak of feeling he was denied a spiritual reunion with his daughter, despite the guilt of knowing he ran across the killer 17 years ago and that an untold number of victims died since then, now things are different and he can live with himself. Because…?

I vowed to watch the finale as a fan, not as someone trying to figure it all out. But even as a fan, I still found these dangling threads and implausibilities frustrating because the show practically begged us to get into the weeds, to wade into swampy waters. That’s okay if it winds up giving viewers some extra insight. But it’s another thing entirely if the show is just messing with us.

In the end, what I enjoyed most about True Detective was the pairing of Hart and Cohle that drew me into the show from the start. Did that end up being enough for you, Spencer? And am I the only one who thought that gorgeous reflected shot of Cohle in his hospital bed at night was set up to make him look like a certain Son of God? It would certainly put the last line of the finale in a whole different light…


Kornhaber: No, the starlight consummation of Rust and Marty’s long and tortured bromance was not enough to redeem this finale for me, though I’ll agree that bromance was the best part of this entire show. In fact, it was the best part of the episode. When Rust delivers one last passenger-seat philosophical treatise—about “sentient meat”—Marty grunts a perfectly, typically idiotic reply: “What’s scented meat?”

Generally, though, I feel as underwhelmed as Detective Hart usually does after one of Detective Colhe’s soliloquies. And not just because of the remaining plot questions that you mention, Amy. As I said last week, my suspense heading into the finale came less from the storyline and more from my continuing befuddlement at what True Detective really is. The answer is a letdown: a high-budget genre retread with the false veneer of profundity. (As opposed to what I’d hoped for: high-budget genre experiment with actual profundity.)

The series sought to improve upon the buddy-cop/serial-killer formula in two ways. One was by providing a pure, gorgeous cinematic experience. That effort was a success. Cary Joji Fukunaga, Matthew McConaughey, and Woody Harrelson probably deserve Emmys for helping make us believe this was the Next Great Television Show. This episode showcased their extraordinary talents as well as any; the set design, camerawork, music, and performances during the entire Carcosa sequence in particular made for excellent nightmare fodder.

The show’s other “twist” on its genre came from how extensively it fleshed out its protagonists. As has been observed before, viewers spent more time with Marty’s family than we ever did with cultists or their victims—a fact that led plenty of people, reasonably, to conclude that the Harts were somehow connected to Carcosa. We also spent a ton of time hearing Cohle ramble deceptively to Papania and Gilbough—it seemed like there had to be more to his character than the show had let on.

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