The Yellow King, Carcosa, and Light vs. Dark: Did the 'True Detective' Finale Deliver?

Were we satisfied by how True Detective wrapped up? Was enough time spent on the mythology of the Yellow King? What do we want in a second season? David and Esther discuss.

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Were we satisfied by how True Detective wrapped up? Was enough time spent on the mythology of the Yellow King? What do we want in a second season? David and Esther discuss.

The bad guy was defeated. Rust and Marty ended up heroes. So were we satisfied?

Esther: Nic Pizzolatto gave us an ending to the tale of Rust and Marty, plain and simple. They almost miraculously survived their encounter with Errol Childress, whose evil ways were revealed to the world, and ended up with something resembling a friendship. It’s was almost heartwarming, don’t you think, David?

David: It was rather heartwarming, and more than a little surprising. I certainly expected the show to pull off some final twist, but I didn’t expect that twist to be that Rust survives and perhaps accepts that there’s a little bit of hope to the world. In the end it seems obvious: the show could have pursued a darker, more straightforward path, where Rust and Marty essentially go on a vengeance mission and wipe everyone out, including themselves. But this show has never been particularly concerned with adhering to formula. In its first episode, it struck a lot of reviewers as a gussied-up The Killing, but by the third, we all realized it was playing in a different sandbox.

Esther: Definitely. The show ultimately rebuked the idea that it was in any way a police procedural, by ending on Rust and Marty’s bond, rather than some revelation about the killings. Ultimately, we knew all we were going to know about who was perpetrating these crimes going into this finale. In part, I think I should be happy that the show transcended genre in that way, but I also can’t help but feel that Rust and Marty’s heart to heart was a little easy.

But who is The Yellow King? Does it matter?

Esther: Perhaps the most frustrating element of the finale, and maybe the show in general, was the fact that Pizzolatto laid out an entire mythology having to do with The Yellow King and Carcosa that remains a mystery as we leave the show behind. In one sense, that’s true to life: killers often are brought to justice without the public ever knowing what their motives were. These guys were evil and believed in some evil things. In another sense, it feels like Pizzolatto was jerking us around and showing off just how writerly he could be. I’m sure in the coming days there will be plenty of theories of how it all ties together, but for now I feel a little bit like I’ve been cheated. (Side note: Did Errol have a sound system in that labyrinth?)

David: I was certainly satisfied with what a nightmarish vision Carcosa turned out to be. Major hat tip to this show’s production designer, who did an equally good job on Errol’s dilapidated shack and his stick-filled chamber of horrors. But I agree that Pizzolatto maybe leaned a little too hard on the whole “who knows why men do the evil that they do” angle. There were so many scenes across the season of people freaking out at the sight of the stick sculptures, at the thought of the scar-faced man. Even Ann Dowd’s babbling in this final episode raised more questions we’ll never get answers to. I understand Pizzolatto’s resistance to just dumping a whole bunch of exposition on us at the end. But it was kinda hilarious how Marty literally cut the explanation off from his hospital bed. He doesn’t need to hear the details, and from a character perspective that makes sense, but I would have loved just a couple minutes on why Errol was doing what he was doing, and why his victims/acolytes were so cowed by him. AND WHY HIS DAD’S CORPSE WAS PUTREFYING IN THE SHACK.

One thing to note: as many on the internet already remembered, and Rust articulated from his hospital bed — he actually encountered Errol the lawnmower man way back in episode three, about 50 minutes in, where he has a brief conversation with him outside of the closed “Light of the Way” school. The reason he doesn’t pursue it further (and maybe notice the scarring on his jaw, his “green ear” headphones, etc.) is that Marty gets a call about Reggie Ledoux and summons him back to the car. I scoured the first episode for some earlier sign of Errol, but that is indeed his first appearance.

Esther: The fact that it’s Reggie Ledoux that drives them away from Errol is worth pausing on. Ledoux never yields anything because Marty shoots him in a rage, despite the fact that the entirety of episode four was spent on Rust’s undercover trip into darkness. Was the intense focus on Ledoux in the early episode another one of Pizzolatto’s writerly games? I don’t know!

David: It’s interesting because neither Marty nor Rust have much remorse about executing Ledoux in cold blood at the time. In a network of crime that’s hard to understand, that’s one thing that’s simple, right? Ledoux deserved to die, and his guilt was pretty plain to see. But it turns out to be one of the biggest errors they make. Not that it’s a guarantee that Ledoux would have led them to Carcosa, but it’s an interesting endorsement of by-the-book police work. It takes them 17 years to rectify that error, and in the meantime it eats away at both of them in different ways.

The show ends with a conversation between Rust and Marty about “light” and “dark.” Did it simplify things too much?

David: I think it worked, just because it helped inform that final twist of Rust realizing maybe he has a purpose on earth other than just being the bad man who keeps the other bad men at bay. For so much of the season, he was so steeped in nihilism, and so insistent on the absence of anything hopeful to what they were doing. I mean, he essentially convinces Marty to join him in the 2012 quest because they left something unfinished, not because it’s a good thing to do. He goes into Carcosa fully believing he’s going to die, but then he has that spiritual revelation (relating largely to the loss of his daughter, which obviously made him the emotional husk he was in 1995). That’s another thing that paid off in a really interesting way. There were all sorts of theories about Rust’s dead daughter, that it would somehow tie into the Tuttle cult, but it was simpler than that. The same mystical aura present in Carcosa that inspired all those Satanic doings also inspired a much more optimistic and peaceful revelation in Rust. Maybe that speaks to some inherent goodness in him, versus whatever inherent evil was present with Errol? And maybe that feeds into the larger conversation Marty and Rust have in the hospital parking lot.

Esther: I mostly agree with you, but something also bothered me about how Marty and Rust — two complicated characters — were left simply as heroes at the end of the show. “Once there was only dark,” Rust says. “If you ask me, the light’s winning.” This viewpoint partially comes from the revelations about his daughter, the sense of love that he has from his spiritual experience. It also comes from the fact, simply, that Marty and Rust got rid of a bad, bad man. The show and Pizzolatto loved Rust, especially, despite all his flaws, and I felt it maybe deified him a little too much. That shot of him in the bed was fairly Jesus-y, right?

(Side note: people are going to analyze the hell out of those final constellations.)

David: That’s pretty fair to say. The way the show would reverently slow down to listen to Rust’s intense speechifying was a little much at times, and in the end, Marty’s second-banana status was confirmed. Marty did get the big detective moment at the end, making the connection between the painted house and the spaghetti monster, but in that final scene, with him kneeling at Rust’s side and listening to him pontificate on light and dark, it was like his ultimate lesson was learning to accept what a worldly guy this was. Marty starts out the season dismissing or hushing Rust’s viewpoint on life, and he ends it basically accepting Rust for what he is and improving himself as a result.

What do we want from a second season?

Esther: A couple weeks ago the Internet chatter about the show turned to how it handled its female characters. The conclusion was that it didn’t handle them well at all, though some, like Slate’s Willa Paskin, argued that that was on purpose. “Ignoring women may be the show’s blind spot, but it is also one of its major themes,” she said. I agreed with Paskin, for the most part, but the finale’s handling of its major female character, Maggie, left me with a sour taste in my mouth. Rust and Marty discuss Maggie’s tryst with Rust as if she had no agency herself, that Marty “pushed” her to do such a thing. Yes, that’s from Rust’s point of view, but by the end, when Maggie appears to have taken Marty back simply because he’s a hero, it seems she really does have no agency of her own. I know this will be a common refrain, but I would love to see a season two told from a female POV or at least with female characters that aren’t seen by the men around them as whores or things to be saved.

David: I agree that Maggie did not get much of a coda at all in episode eight. The way she just shows up at the hospital with the kids, as if a dark veil has been lifted from her ex-husband and she can treat him like a normal person again, was way too easy. I understand what’s happening there. Of course they’re all going to visit. But just a few more minutes, perhaps clarifying that Maggie understands what Marty went through, without completely forgiving him/taking him back wholeheartedly, would have made that work a little better. Pizzolatto has been clear in interviews that the show was intended to focus single-mindedly on Rust and Marty, with every other character intentionally blurring into the background. But you can do that without leaning on these very simple story tropes.

Now, in an interview with Alan Sepinwall that went up this morning, Pizzolatto dropped a hint as to what Season Two is going to look like (with the caveat that things can change, and HBO hasn’t even officially announced the renewal of the show. Although that is certainly a formality that will be addressed once they hire the new cast). “This is really early, but I'll tell you (it's about) hard women, bad men and the secret occult history of the United States transportation system,” he said. The secret occult history of the United States transportation system? I barely have any idea what he’s talking about, but my interest is undeniably piqued.

He’s also mentioned that he’d like to use a lot of the same actors in the second season, establishing a repertory feel, much like what American Horror Story does with Jessica Lange and Evan Peters and what have you. So here’s one suggestion: let Michelle Monaghan be a lead next season, and give her a better role to sink her teeth into. She’s a terrific actress when she’s not stuck in a dull wife/girlfriend role, and it’d be a great way to make it up to her after all that internet focus on her lack of agency in Season One.

Either way, though, I’m happy to give Pizzolatto the benefit of the doubt. For its flaws, True Detective, Season One was a pretty special experience and it’s always fun to be part of the fandom for a TV show that somehow taps into the national consciousness. It’ll be a tough act to follow (and God knows if Pizzolatto will luck out with his casting as well as he did this time, catching McConaughey just at the perfect point in his career arc), but it’s a very worthy challenge.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.