"How The ‘True Detective’ Finale Failed"
This review discusses plot points from the full run of True Detective in detail.
The biggest reveal at the end of “Form And Void” had nothing to do with Marty Hart, Rust Cohle, or the Yellow King. It was that True Detective was a failure.
Not that the show wasn’t brilliantly acted, beautifully directed, and pulse-poundingly tense. The finale was all of those things, in the last case literally (my viewing partner actually timed out his rapid heartbeat). Rather, “Form And Void” revealed True Detective to be a sham in the worst way: a show that pretended to be about ideas on everything ranging from the nature of evil to institutional misogyny didn’t have any.
For a story that inspired such obsessive fan sleuthing, the resolution of True Detective’s original mystery turned out to be astonishingly simple. After terrifying Steve Geraci into revealing Sheriff Childress’ coverup of the Marie Fontenot disappearance, Marty connected the younger Childress — Errol, our scarred man — to the murders through a house he once painted green. Marty and Rust track Errol through the labyrinthine hellhole he called home, kill him, and do the True Detective equivalent of riding off into the sunset (smoking cigarettes in a hospital gown while discussing good and evil).
What’s missing from this resolution is everything that made the show interesting. By the end of True Detective, “who killed Dora Lange” was no longer the show’s principal mystery. True Detective had always been a philosophical show, but the question of where it came down on Rust’s existential musings became hitched to broader questions: who was in on the conspiracy to cover up Errol Childress’ crimes? Was a U.S. Senator one of the five men whose rape and murder of young women was so violent that watching a tape of it reduced hardened cops to inchoate screaming? What, exactly, was the point of all of these ritual murders? If “Carcosa” was simply Errol’s name for his twisted playground, how did so many people know about it and The Yellow King? Was there life beyond death, as the elderly woman in episode 7 said, or were we living in Rust’s godless world?
In a perceptive essay reading True Detective as a mystery, Andrew DeYoung writes that “in a narrative constructed around a mystery, that central mystery, if anything, takes on an outsize importance, one that threatens to blot out everything else.” That’s because, in this kind of story, the reveal settles the show’s view “about what it all — the world, good and evil, women and men, family, justice, society, the truth at the heart of humanity — really means.” When True Detective fails to resolve the mystery that was driving its third act (a conspiracy tale, not a simple murder whodunit), it fails to even hazard a solid guess about these questions.
It’s also a betrayal of “True Detective’s” strongest asset: its atmosphere. Everything about the show — from the writing down to the music — was carefully designed to produce a sense of deep, permeating dread. Evil lurked everywhere, an omnipresent elemental force threatening to swallow Hart and Cohle at every point. “We ain’t gonna get them all,” Marty said, “but we got ours.” The show clearly shares his view. Yet deciding that the only evil Hart and Cohle need to combat is one supremely crazy hillbilly, and not the more insidious evil behind him, makes that great sense of threat feel like so much swamp gas.
That’s also why Rust’s big conversion at the end fell so flat. Normally, I’m a sucker for an optimistic ending: one of the anti-hero age’s most problematic traits is the idea that good television is synonymous with dark television. So, in theory, the idea that Rust Cohle could be turned from his nihilism by “touching the Void” in a coma should resonate.
Yet it didn’t, because catharsis isn’t what Rust Cohle (or True Detective) is for. Throughout the show, Rust has always been a man driven to big picture by profound despair, obsessed with uncovering the truth about the world because he is literally too damaged to succeed at anything else. Someone who sacrificed his career on the alter of uncovering the Tuttle conspiracy should never be satisfied with simply catching the nastiest, least-powerful member of the clan. But, for mystifying reasons entirely disconnected from everything the show told us about Rust beforehand, he is.
Rust’s Captain America turn also undermined the previously brilliant handling of his relationship with Marty. It was nice to see the two of them be more authentically chummy than they’ve ever been — having an honest conversation about Maggie’s affair, affectionately flipping the bird, and leaning on each other for support in the show’s final shot. But the true genius of their relationship was the clash of worldviews, Rust’s intellectualized despair twinned with Marty’s unreflective lust for life. Rust’s speech about “light versus dark” being “the only story” brought him to essentially the same philosophical place as Marty’s Christianity put him. It’s not that the two detectives need to be mad at each other for the show to be an interesting character study; it’s that they can’t be the same person.
Finally, the show failed utterly to redeem its troubling treatment of female characters. Throughout its run, I was more sympathetic to Willa Paskin’s argument that the show was exposing misogyny than Emily Nussbaum’s claim that it embodied it. But in the final episode, Maggie, easily the show’s most complicated woman, has nothing to do. She appears briefly as a prop in Marty’s story, evidence that he’s done a good thing more than a flesh-and-blood human. Ultimately, that’s what Maggie ended up being throughout the show: her decisions were simply moral bellweathers for whether Marty was on the right track, rather than the actions of a person with agency.
Moreover, one of the show’s most troubling mysteries — what happened to Marty and Maggie’s daughter Audrey — was left entirely unaddressed. Throughout the show, Audrey shows a number of signs of being sexually abused, the nature of which strongly suggested a link to the cult her father was investigating. This didn’t end up being critical to the mystery’s resolution, but I hesitate to call it a true red herring: for something to be a false clue, it has to be end up being shown to be false. Instead, it seems that Nick Pizzolatto, the show’s writer, couldn’t be distracted from his leads’ macho drive to slay the dragon for long enough to take a real look at female trauma.
True Detective, then, ended up selling a traditional story about dangerous men saving faceless women as a critique of violent masculinity. Indeed, this confusion of the conventional and boring with the daring and innovative ended up defining the show. True Detective promised to transcend the cop show’s intellectual horizon. It ended up being subsumed by it.