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.


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.

But no: Turns out that was all in the service of pure character study. In retrospect, though, it all feels like the show and its viewers had been studying for a test that never came. After all, by the second or third episode, we knew who these two guys were: a square, rigid alpha male who’s hypocritical on the home front; and a deep, brooding, damaged lone wolf with a burning obsession over one unsolved case. Each scene didn’t so much complicate Marty and Rust as remind over and over again about their essential natures. Like men in cop fiction for decades, these guys fought over women, reunited out of duty, and were able to save the world only once they’d cut most ties to it.

As you mention, Amy, Nic Pizzolatto says that these finely shaded but basically recycled characters were supposed to allow him to subvert tropes. Certainly Marty’s violence and sexism isn’t appealing; certainly Rust deserves the eye rolls that other characters threw his way. But creating flawed heroes isn’t subversive—it’s doing exactly what any decent fiction writer is supposed to do. A subversion would have been to make those flaws figure into the main narrative in some unexpected but crucial way. Maybe the “good guys” botch the case. Or maybe, per the theories mentioned before, they’re connected to the murders in ways they don’t understand till it’s too late.

Instead, both main characters got a fair amount of vindication in the end. Marty’s family doesn’t seem to hate him quite as much anymore. Rust believes in the afterlife now. They both go backslapping into the night. All of this comes from them catching a killer of women and children. So for the zillionth time in Western pop culture, men (straight, white ones at that) get psychic rewards for valorously risking themselves on behalf of the weak.

I suppose that Pizzolatto and/or his defenders will argue for True Detective’s subtle profundity by pointing to the fact that Rust and Marty didn’t totally “win.” The wider suspected conspiracy involving the Tuttles and the government lives on. As Marty says, this isn’t a world where you get all the bad guys. OK. Fair enough. I truly wish that that observation really were mind-blowing. But the pervasiveness of evil shouldn’t come as a revelation to anyone, especially anyone who recognized Rust’s sniper-as-insurance trick from a certain other highly hyped TV drama.

A True Detective true believer might also argue that the show’s big, brave message is that men do terrible things to women—whether it’s Marty or whether it’s Errol. But that just feels like more stating of the obvious, in distinctly uncomfortable ways: This juicy, angst-filled thriller created a lot of its juicy angst through the portrayal of, yup, men doing terrible things to women.

Right now, the best defense of episode and the show I can come up with would have to do with the “get religion” ending that has you sputtering, Amy. That final scene, with Rust talking about sensing his daughter’s essence and Marty asking him to tell stories about the stars, was egregiously hokey—but maybe it was meant to feel that way. Rust scoffed at tent worshippers, and the Carcosa cult’s belief in the supernatural had terrible consequences, but Rust ends up joining all of them by buying into comforting, irrational mumbo jumbo.

So perhaps Rust’s nihilism over the course of the series was just the setup for one big, cosmic punch line about the human yearning for meaning. In which case the joke is as much on Rust as on the viewers who obsessed over the clues in the narrative like so many divine omens. Kind of rude, Pizzolatto.

Speaking of which, how’re you feeling, Chris, our resident obsessive omen reader?

Orr: Wait, so you guys didn’t get the coded message in that final shot of the stars? Really? If you connect the stars in sequence from brightest to least bright, you get an anagram that, when unscrambled, reveals that “Sheriff Tate is the Yellow King.”

I mean, seriously. Try to pay attention.

Okay, did I perhaps succumb to an unhealthy—if widely shared—case of obsessive over-reading? Yes, I suppose I did. (See here.)

And it’s true that Pizzolatto had been warning us, in increasingly strident (or perhaps nervous?) tones, not to expect some mind-blowing twist at the end. But maybe he could have offered at least a gentle puff on the cerebral cortex? Something? Anything? It’s as if he scrupulously combed through version after version of the finale script, carefully excising anything that might constitute even a moderate surprise or revelation. I have mixed feelings about the very end of the episode—maybe more mixed than you guys—but let me work my way up to them with a few more close-read observations.

There were several times during True Detective’s brief run, where I came out of an episode astonished by how much they’d crammed into less than an hour. Tonight? Pretty much the opposite. 1) Cohle and Hart brace Steve Geraci, who knows nothing. 2) Based on a clue so obscure that it eluded even the thousands of frame-grab obsessives watching the show (a house in Dora Lange’s neighborhood—not even her house, just one that was canvassed—was freshly painted green), they immediately find their way to Chez Errol. 3) They chase him, shoot him, and both get thisclose to being fatally stabbed/hatcheted. 4) He dies, they live. 5) Stars are pretty. 6) The end.

Now, yes, as you both note, there was still plenty to like here. McConaughey and Harrelson were customarily terrific. Likewise, Fukunaga’s direction. And the chase through Nightmare Backwoods Disneyland was genuinely creepy and tense. But at nearly 10 minutes, it was also twice as long as it needed to be, given all the questions the episode left unexplored or unanswered.

Begin with Errol and his half-sister (or whatever relation she may have been). There was a real opportunity to make these characters memorably unique or idiosyncratic, but instead they basically came across as your garden-variety redneck maniacs. The incest. The mangy dog. The grimy shacks deep in the overgrown woods, decorated according to the dictates of Better Psycho Homes and Gardens: peeling portraits, scuzzy washtubs, mildew thick as wallpaper, and—yes!—dolls. (If there weren’t dolls everywhere, we might have mistaken them for sane, responsible adults.) The one notable particularity ascribed to Errol basically comes out of nowhere and leads nowhere: his instantaneous mimicry of James Mason based on watching 10 seconds of North by Northwest. That was supposed to suggest what exactly?

But more important were the unexplained plot points. So: Errol is in the process of slowly killing his “daddy.” Actual father? Some kind of father figure? Why? Why now? (And, on a narrower note, why is Errol promising to bring the poor fellow water later, given that he’s already sewn his lips shut?)

Nor is it merely the questions raised in this episode that went unanswered. On a broader level, the finale basically just dropped the whole issue of the deeper conspiracy abetted by shadowy figures (among them, Tuttles) in the upper echelons of the Louisiana clergy and political aristocracy. For all practical purposes, it’s dismissed with an aside from a TV news reporter. Don’t get me wrong: I’m fine with the ultimate resolution. But as a friend noted to me, there’s an entire act missing between Carcosa and the chat under the stars, one in which Cohle and Hart push their larger theory but are shut down by the Powers That Be. Given how central the idea of Rich Men Doing Horrible Things was to the whole series, it needed to be resolved as more than a footnote.

Indeed, we were really never given any real sense at all of how those wealthy aristocrats were connected, in a practical (as opposed to genealogical) sense, with the inbred swamp folk we met in episode 5 and tonight. Errol and the Ledoux brothers don’t seem like the kind of fellows who’d be attending parties at the governor’s mansion and Tuttle Ministries, and their dingy, sodden backwoods abodes don’t really seem suited for entertaining the elite of Louisiana. I get the implicit idea: of generational decay, and moral degradation begetting physical degradation. But even some cursory stab at explaining the mechanics of these upscale/downscale, rape-and-murder get-togethers would have been nice. (Did they serve Oysters Rockefeller? Possum? Or was it a surf-and-turf situation?)

Which brings me to perhaps the episode’s (and, by extension, the show’s) largest oversight: We’ve got this secretive cult that’s quietly killed dozens of women and children over the course of generations without anyone noticing. And yet twice, in 1995 and 2012, at least one member of the cult has flamboyantly arranged a ritualistic crime scene in a manner clearly intended to attract attention. What gives? There are any number of explanations, from the super-clever (arguably too-clever)—i.e., this reading from Paste—to the relatively straightforward. It’s easy, for instance, to posit a narrative where all the omissions I’ve noted above could be explained simultaneously: a generational conflict between the genteel, under-the-radar child rapists of yesteryear and their low-class, high-shock-value country progeny; Errol torture-killing his father as a result of said conflict; and Errol developing a knack for upscale accents thanks to this inter-class interaction. But the show made no meaningful effort to connect any of these dots.

Which brings me to the ending. I would’ve very much liked to have found it uplifting. But I didn’t, because it felt unearned. Maybe it would have worked for me if the episode had devoted a little more time to the idea of persistent evil. But it’s hard to be too upset about the Big Bads in the Background, given that 1) the episode itself treats them as an afterthought; 2) every single demonstrable conspirator in the show winds up dead; and 3) the state-level string-pullers seem so utterly remote from the bayou abyss where the episode spent all its time.

Call me bloodthirsty, but I think the show would have ended more powerfully with either Cohle or Hart dying. The former might have been a little too obvious—you’re not the only one, Amy, who noticed his post-ponytail Jesus hair. But if Hart had died? His family gathered at the funeral, seeing the man’s ultimate worth for all his flaws? Cohle, realizing that the martyrdom he’d envisioned for himself belonged to someone else and he’d have to keep revolving through his own lonely, flat circle? It pains me even to think of it.

Instead, I’m reminded, against my will, of the ending to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a film that Pizzolatto is no doubt familiar with (and the one, incidentally, that first put Michelle Monaghan on the map). The P.I.-buddy protagonists, played by Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer, have both been shot, perhaps fatally—especially in the latter case. But Downey wakes up in the hospital, and not long after Kilmer rolls in in his wheelchair, prompting the Downey voiceover: “Yeah, boo hiss. I know. Look, I hate it too. In movies, where the studio gets all paranoid about a downer ending, so, like, the guy shows up and he’s magically alive, on crutches? I hate that. I mean, shit, why not bring them all back?” At which point everyone who was killed in the course of the movie shuffles into the hospital room, along with Abraham Lincoln and Elvis. Totally unfair? Maybe. But that was precisely how I felt about Rust’s miraculous recovery.

All that said—and with genuine apologies for those who thought the show ended exactly as it should—I’m not in your boat, Spencer. Yes, I agree that it’s a show that couldn’t decide what it was, that shifted radically in tone and structure from episode to episode. But its moments of greatness far outweighed its disappointments for me—even now, when I’m close to my depth of disappointment. Like Amy, I thought the first three episodes were sublime, and if the show never quite fulfilled their promise, it still did enough things right—often very, very right—to reward viewing (if perhaps not the kind of obsessive viewing that I ultimately fell prey to).

All told, I feel a little bad for Nic Pizzolatto, who in retrospect seems to have written a powerful, engaging serial-killer miniseries that was so good early on that it raised expectations that it would be considerably more—expectations that, again, he’s seemed to spend the last couple weeks trying hard to ratchet down. Do I think some of the scenarios invented by the shows’ many rabid fans were better than what wound up on screen? Yes, I do. (To cite a very minor example: having the “green ears” of the Spaghetti Monster be the noise-reducing earmuffs of a lawnmower operator makes a ton more sense than having them be the byproduct of a profoundly clumsy painter.) But what writer is going to do a better job at a mystery series—especially so early in his career—than the combined ingenuity of a horde of meticulous fans who don’t really need to make the pieces all fit?

So now Pizzolatto has something to aim for next season. And I’ll be right there watching, hoping for a bullseye.