Spoilers for the season finale of True Detective follow:
"There were other times I thought I was mainlining the secret truth to the universe." —Rust Cohle, episode 2
"Once there was only dark. If you ask me, light's winning." —Rust Cohle, episode 8
As I've never been good at predicting the endings to mysteries, there are plenty of directions that the True Detective finale might have gone in that would not have surprised me a bit. A dark secret rising out of Rust or Marty's past? Sure. Ancient gods, aliens, a surprise crossover with True Blood? All right. Sentient meat? Why not?
The one thing that I would not have predicted, though, was that this dark, brooding series, this recruitment video for nihilistic pessimism, this express elevator to the sub-sub-subbasement of human degradation would end up... Hopeful? Optimistic? Even spiritual?
Better scenario-spinners than I have spent the last few weeks concocting elaborate resolutions to True Detective's mystery, positing one or another character—or supernatural force—as the Big Bad. There was no such whammo twist: the investigation took us right where it suggested it was leading, even if it took us through a creepy backwoods haunted house / cloister to get there. Errol Childress, ol' Scarface, was indeed the killer—or at least, a killer, the one Marty and Rust would have to content themselves with nailing. Why? Ritual abuse, occult worship, pretty much exactly what it looked like.
There was a twist ending, though, and it had nothing to do with the plot but rather the psyche, or dare I say the soul, of bleak-hearted Rust Cohle. As he lay comatose in the hospital, his long-lost daughter returned, not as a final piece to the puzzle or shocking link to the Yellow King investigation, but as a lost child haunting her aching father. Rust started to go into that good night and, being Rust, found more darkness, except this darkness was good—"deeper. Warm. Like a substance"—and it held everyone he'd ever loved. It was darkness, but it wasn't nothing; it was the point.
I don't think this was necessarily about atheist Rust literally finding heaven. It might have been, or it could have been one of the hallucinations he was prone to; it could have been the sort of hallucination we're all prone to, facing the end. If he didn't get religion, he got where religion comes from. Then, having found whatever kind of peace he did, he was pulled back into the world, and in one last tour de force performance, Matthew McConaughey's shattered face conveys his devastation at losing his daughter one more time.
And—and here's the ending I never saw coming: he goes on. He sees meaning. There's a story here, one story—the oldest—about the fight between light and dark. He and Marty were given their one bit of the dark to extinguish but, just as with the men in the masks, they'll never get it all. But, he says, "Once there was only dark. If you ask me, light's winning."
It's a remarkably generous take on the power of story and metaphor to give hope to a bleak existence, especially for a series that often seemed to be 100% simpatico with Rust's bleak view of spirituality and religion. (I keep flashing back to the moment in the premiere in which the minister played by Clarke Peters calls the devil-nets a myth for children--"tell them stories while they're tying sticks together"—as the camera closes in on a cross on the wall. Get it?) It's a secular argument for finding wonder in the vastness of the universe. And it was, in a way I never expected from this series, beautiful and moving.
Was it satisfying, though? I'm, guessing that a sector of viewers looked at Marty and Rust's male-bonding heart-to-heart and saw a repeat of what they hated about the Lost and Battlestar Galactica finales: all this buildup, and it's one more freaking show telling you that all you need is love.
And if you judge the series as a mystery—which it was, Nic Pizzolatto's protestations notwithstanding—the plot payoff was meager. The hunt for Erroll was a lot of spooky buildup to a very conventional fight to the death--right down to Rust shooting him from behind moments before he could deliver an axe blow to Marty. What we learned of the killer himself wasn't really a revelation of his psychology or the beliefs of his cult so much as a collection of weirdnesses—the hoarding, the incest, Daddy strapped on a slab, the affected British accent[!]—that seemed heaped on to create a sense of gothic creep-o-rama. Gilbaugh and Papania were just cops investigating a case, not muscle for the Yellow King—and the Yellow King him/itself was no particular figure, just another of the eternal darkness' long list of aliases. As for the mythology driving the killing—the disc and the loop, the infernal plane--it ends up nothing more than the crazy talk it sounded like.
And look, those flaws in the finale reflected flaws in the show overall, even as it's ridden a wave of overexcited hype canonizing it as the greatest thing since The Wire, or maybe since the electrical wire. True Detective was an artfully written, remarkably acted, stunningly visualized portrait of Marty and Rust trying to find the path in an overgrown world of decay. (From Carcosa to the last montage of Louisiana landscapes, Cary Fukunaga made the setting look dead and teeming with life at the same time.) But everyone else around them was a Yellow King, a story device drawn with the minimum amount of pen strokes--the women, the other cops, the bayou big shots, the good ole boys and the bad ole boys. They threw off only enough light to illuminate the two stars.
That limitation kept the season from top-tier, all-time-TV-pantheon greatness, but the show had pockets of greatness that were stunning. True Detective was the closest thing American TV has done in a while to the British model of drama, a story told in one season, from the keyboard of a single writer (and the lens of one director). There was nobody to dilute the creator's perspective, or to call b.s. on it. A more collaborative show, in the typical American model, might have fixed many of its problems. A writer's room or a strong collaborator might have gotten Pizzolatto to make his supporting characters more three-dimensional, an accomplished crime writer—as, say, David Simon brought on The Wire with the likes of Richard Price and George Pelecanos—might have juiced the mystery plot, or excised some of the red-herring flourishes that probably left clue-hunters feeling cheated.
It might have been better; we'll never know. That show would have been more consistent, less pretentious, probably more satisfying in its ending. But I'm guessing it would also have been less sui generis, less dedicated in its unusual goal of finding meaning in an endless, Godless universe. It might have been neater and less full of its own philosophy, and it might have covered all its bases, but to paraphrase Marty, that wasn't the world we were living in. Like Marty and Rust solving part, but only part, of the mystery, True Detective did what it did and didn't what it didn't, but as a whole? The light outshone the dark.
Now for a quick, last hail of bullets:
* "L'chaim, fat-ass!" One of the most interesting contrasts to another recent big drama finale—Breaking Bad's—is that Rust ended up pulling off a literal version of the gambit Walter White ingeniously faked, hiring a trained sniper to make sure someone didn't cross him later.
* Another weird TV synchronicity here: the finale, with its theme of a secularist finding meaning in the vastness of the universe, came along on the same night the first episode of Cosmos did the same thing in documentary form.
* For some background on the finale—including an explanation for Erroll's wide repertoire of voices—see Alan Sepinwall's post-mortem interview with Pizzolatto. (Speaking of the voices, it turns out the two monologues on this found audition tape were both from the series after all.)
* It took me well over an hour to finish watching the finale, on account of rewinding my TiVo repeatedly because of all the damn mumbling. Those of you who watched without a DVR, could you make out Erroll's lines or Rust's final speeches? And if you were watching on the problem-plagued HBO GO last night, how did you ever manage to finish?