Do not read on unless you've seen "Form and Void," the "True Detective" Season 1 finale.
"I just follow what the big man says. It's how this all works. … It's chain of command, right?" -- Sheriff Geraci
"What's scented meat?" -- Marty Hart
In its first season, "True Detective" tried to do a lot of things, and it's to the show's credit that it did a number of them very well. It didn't do everything with equal panache, however, as we saw in the Season 1 finale; a lot of the Southern Gothic elements involving the Childress' siblings felt so overripe that the show nearly tripped into parody territory, and there's one line of Rust Cohle's that was so un-Rust-like that I wish I could unhear it.
Yet despite a few missteps in the finale, this long, strange car trip with Rust and Marty was, generally speaking, a fine use of eight hours. Prior to Sunday night, my only theory about the "True Detective" finale was that I'd miss the show when its 2014 incarnation ended. And that prediction turned out to be correct.
The quote above from Geraci describes a story he told himself: He was only following orders, he had no choice and nothing he did or didn't do mattered, because everyone in society has to just do what they're told. That's a story he told himself to absolve himself from guilt, but that story isn't necessarily the truth and his story is ultimately a useful fiction he invented in order to forget his complicity in the disappearance of a girl.
Much of "True Detective" is concerned with narratives and how people use them to shield themselves from unpleasant facts. At every turn, the show has asked us to interrogate the narrative we were seeing. Whose words could we trust? Who was lying about the past or the present? Who was willing to lie to themselves and others, and who was willing to be a true detective? (Get it?!)
Yes, subtlety was not always the show's strong suit when it came to metaphors, but "True Detective's" evocative atmosphere and charismatic performances helped the show roll over those occasional pretentiousness potholes. Matthew McConaughey's Cohle was such a mesmerizing figure in part because he gave the appearance of being the one person who didn't need comforting lies or framing devices that let him off the hook for his actions. As he reminded Marty (Woody Harrelson), we all have choices -- not that most people ever exert that ability to choose or take responsibility for their actions. Rust clung hard to this story and his belief in it could make him kind of a dick at times.
Yet ultimately Rust's own certainties and stories about How Life Works crumbled in the face of the big mysteries -- Why does love hurt? Why can't we live without it? Can a man really choose to stay above the fray? Despite the fact that the Dora Lange mystery was solved and the guys cracked the case, the show was ultimately about the tenuousness of narratives and the elusiveness of conclusions. Underneath the murderous facade, the show was saying that the important things can't be contained or explained by narratives -- they just are, and learning to accept that can lead to a kind of peace.
The show's exploration of the need to find, mine and cobble together narratives extended to Errol William Childress, the scarred man who lived out in the woods. Not much about Errol or his sister worked for me. The opening scenes between them played like a parody of Southern Gothic tropes, and as if the show didn't trust us to grasp the themes at work, it hit us over the head with them.
Errol's cluttered, musty, freaky home was filled with piles of books -- hundreds and hundreds of stories that he'd acquired, yet they hadn't managed to give him a coherent, fully integrated identity. He tried to ape Cary Grant's suaveness and then put on another identity for his sweaty encounter with his half-sister. It was all just a little too much, and ultimately the scenes inside their house came off like Flannery O'Connor gumbo boiling at too high a heat.
I don't begrudge "True Detective" its literary and philosophical explorations, but on occasion this season, the show strained under the weight those aspirations. There were some elements -- Marty's marriage, Marty's mistresses, the serial-killer tropes (a house full of broken dolls!), some of the procedural stuff -- that felt mechanical, as if they'd been borrowed from standard-issue shows. The most successful elements of "True Detective" were weirder, sadder, more beautiful and emotionally grounded, and those are the parts of the show I hope are emphasized next season (in addition to phenomenal acting, of course).
The occasional overwrought moments made me more grateful for the moments in which the show didn't take itself terribly seriously. I laughed out loud at "scented meat" (Marty's mishearing of "sentient meat," which is the name of my next band), and all the love-hate banter between Rust and Marty was a delight. Moments of levity were understandably few and far between, but they served as the points of light that made the velvety darkness stand out.
It'd be easy to launch into digressions about the show's aesthetic choices and its ambitious metaphors, but I have a pretty good idea of what I'll remember most about "True Detective" a month or a year from now. To watch the show was to revel in Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson's wily good ol' boy chemistry, and without question, the high points of the finale revolved around scenes that those two knocked out of the park.
I never cared even slightly about "solving" this show; I've fallen down mythology rabbit holes plenty of times with other programs, but not with this one. To me (and your mileage may vary, obviously), "True Detective" was never really about the case or the procedural aspects or guessing the killer or any of that. The case had to exist to pull viewers in, and everything that spun out from the Dora Lange case functioned well enough to serve as the show's spine, but the murders were never "True Detective's" heart or soul. The show's attitude toward the serial-killer plot was shown pretty plainly in the scene in which Marty was talking to detectives Papania and Gilbough and basically told them he didn't really care about the details of the case. He waved them away; the nitty-gritty didn't matter.
What was important was what happened next: He tried to keep up his "everything's fine" facade with his family, and it didn't work. He said the words, but the pain and fear his family had always seen, but were never allowed to discuss or examine, came to the surface. And it was OK. Marty Hart cried in front of his wife and daughters and the world didn't end. Of course, his world wasn't rebuilt -- the past couldn't be undone and he was still divorced from his wife and estranged from his daughters -- but he finally had a moment in which he revealed his true self and his pain. What he did recalled the command of the eerie voice in the labyrinth: Marty took off his mask.
For Marty, it didn't reveal him as weak, it revealed him as human, and if we can't be human around those we love, what's the point? Underneath all the fancy-pants philosophizing, that's "True Detective's" humane message, and it's a lovely one.
In the finale, we got one last car chat with Marty and Rust, in which we got a new series of Serious Pronouncements from Rust Cohle, the Mustache King. We got a deeply metaphorical journey into the heart of a labyrinth in which it was made very clear that the beast these men sought was a darker, more corrupted version of the rotten man inside each one of them. But they slayed the beast before the altar of the Yellow King, inside a lair I'm fairly sure Led Zeppelin wrote a song about.
I shouldn't be flippant; the sequence in the Yellow King's lair was a masterpiece of set decoration, directing and lighting. I will never see a stack of sticks again without flinching. As is the case with "Hannibal" and the better parts of "American Horror Story," "True Detective" is able to achieve the status of a fever dream; its most intense moments evoke broken, haunting, beautiful, subconscious terrors.
Much of that final walk through the labyrinth felt like something out of a mythological saga or dark fairy tale, and much of what sets "True Detective" apart is evocation of old magic and ancient evil, as well as its belief in the persistence of morality and individual conscience in the face of original sin. When the show delved into those dream-like realms successfully -- as it did during Rust's journey into the heart of darkness -- it can be transfixing. (There was a particularly poignant sequence of overhead shots of all the murder sites: These places will remain, the show silently reminded us, as will humans' capacity for cruelty.)
And when the show overdoes it, it sometimes breaks the spell. I didn't need Childress saying things like "My ascension removes me from the disc and the loop." Ouch, an anvil just fell on my head. I didn't need the last line of the first season, "You ask me, the light is winning." Every word in that line was made of lead. Ouch.
Enh, so what? A month from now, a year from now, what I'll recall is Rust breaking down and throwing away his philosopher-king facade while having a smoke outside the hospital. He also took off his mask, the one that hid a deep well of pain about the loss of his daughter and his abject desire to be reunited with her love.
It occurs to me that before that last scene, Rust was the ultimate hipster cool dude: His opinions were rigid and uncompromising, he always had a pronouncement or judgment ready in every situation, he always thought he was right and his self-regard was equally tiresome and amusing. Even his clothes and his home said, "I'm on a higher plane, thus I don't have to be engaged with the mechanics of normal living."
No wonder Marty got frustrated with him: Thinking you know everything is essentially an adolescent worldview. One thing middle age teaches you is that you don't know sh*t about a lot of things, and this is why the guys could come to a kind of detente. Rust outgrew his unwillingness to compromise and change during the course of this case, and Marty tried to evolve beyond the guy who lied to cover up his mistakes. Dora Lange was just the catalyst for their journeys, not the subject of them.
These actors, director crew should and likely will win all kinds of awards for their work here. Harrelson's role was less showy, but thanks to his subtle performance, you could never write Marty off as a jackass and it was often possible to have a good deal of sympathy for the man. One of he great things about McConaughey's performance was that he always knew Rust was giving a performance; Rust kind of knew he was full of it and he used the fact that others bought into his act to further his own agenda and shield himself from complications and regret.
In the final scenes of the finale, however, both men stopped performing. They just connected, or tried to. That's why Marty didn't have "a care in the world," and that's why I generally liked how Season 1 ended, despite some clanging moments here and there.
It's all about how you frame a situation, isn't it? In the end, Rust could view his unwilling return to meat space as the ultimate rejection from a cold, uncaring universe, or he could view his return to the living as a chance to take out more men like Errol Childress. It could also represent a chance to connect more deeply with life, and with Marty (whose last name, let's not forget, is Hart).
How Rust moved forward depended on the story he wanted to tell himself. It's revealing that he decided to leave all his possessions behind and walk off into the night with his only friend.
A bullet-point list of moments from our time in Carcosa, where death is not the end:
- Anyone else think that the woman living in the Childress house might be Marie Fontenot? She wasn't, but that was my suspicion until Papania and Gilbough said otherwise.
- As I understand it, the Yellow King was not a person, per se, but a spiritual entity that the cult worshipped. That was kind of what I'd figured, but I wonder if message boards will be filled with outrage after the finale.
- I wonder how much of what Rust heard in the labyrinth was real and how much was audio hallucinations. The voice (presumably the voice of Errol Childress) could be heard clearly throughout the structure, which made me wonder at one point if the Yellow King had a dope sound system.
- A visual element of the "True Detective" finale strongly recalled an element of Friday's episode of "Hannibal." In that episode, a round structure on a remote property had a hole at the top, one that the sky could be glimpsed through. The one on "Hannibal," of course, contained something extremely disturbing. What was in the "True Detective" round room was also unsettling, but that hole in the structure also cast light down on the injured Rust and Marty (the light was winning, etc.).
- I just have to add, that was a mighty cool location the "True Detective" crew found for the lair of the Yellow King.
- How long until Louisiana changes its tourism motto to "You in Carcosa now"?
- Do not go to southern Louisiana in search of ominous objects made out of twigs. The "True Detective" production team has them all.
- If you just can't get enough of "True Detective," my previous pieces about it are here and here (it's also mentioned in this story). All of HuffPost TV's coverage is here.
- My kingdom for a Big Hug Mug.