The True Detective finale on Sunday, arguably the obsessed-over closing episode since Lost’s curtain call almost four years ago, will decide whether the show lives up to its grandest ambitions. At its best, True Detective displays dread play on cop show cliches; at its worst, it falls into them.
Given that all of the best evidence suggests one of crime fiction’s most banal bugaboos — Evil Powerful Southern Men Cult — is responsible for the serial murders, there’s a very real risk True Detective collapses into the worst version of itself. Indeed, Nick Pizzolatto, the show’s creator, has been warning viewers not to expect any kind of twist or surprise ending, particularly a horrific or supernatural one. “All I can offer,” he said on Thursday, “is that to date there hasn’t been a single thing in our show that’s supernatural, so why would that suddenly manifest in the last episode?”
If he’s not being coy, that’s a shame. Embracing the supernatural would be the best way for True Detective to follow through on its awesome intellectual ambition.
“This isn’t Law & Order: McConaughey and Harrelson,” Pizzolatto says; that’s “not something I will allow my name to be on.” True Detective aims to tell a detective yarn while simultaneously “poking certain holes in it.”
The most ambitious hole to take a stab at is the crime drama’s fundamental premise: that closing an investigation actually provides closure. As True Detective has progressed, Rust Cohle and Marty Hart have increasingly resembled the archetypal lone wolf detectives, “working outside the system” to expose its fundamental rottenness. They’re onto a truth too big for normal detectives (like their interrogators, Papania and Gilbough) to grasp, and they need to expose it. Both for the world and the audience’s sake.
This kind of story is frustrating, and not only because it’s been told a thousand time. In the real world, the criminal justice system is definitely flawed, but detectives working outside of it tend to be much worse. Positioning lawbreaking male cops — ones who repeatedly torture suspects and witnesses on screen — as fully justified heroes suggests violent masculinity as a viable alternative to a broken system. “The ends justify the means” isn’t a lesson we need to learn again.
If Hart and Cohle catch their human killers, only to be frustrated by the monstrous force the villains serve, the story becomes much more interesting. Hart and Cohle’s tough guy shtick become pathetically inadequate; evil of that magnitude demands a systematic response, something well beyond the ken of two rogue detectives. It’s a point a show that claims to be taking on deeply rooted structural evils like sexism would do well to make.
Moreover, it’d be a more satisfying delivery on True Detective’s foreboding atmosphere. The dread that suffuses each episode has been as important to the show’s success as McConaughey and Harrelson’s stellar performances, creating an electric viewing atmosphere where demons could be anywhere, and probably are. Something so familiar as a rich men’s murder cult, telegraphed since episode 1, to be the sole villain would be a weak payoff for all that fearful anticipation.
Meeting a monster would also make sense for Hart and Cohle as characters. Hart has long felt like an ordinary, flawed person struggling to stay above water given the horrific events surrounding him. Being finally submerged by an evil beyond his comprehension would be a fitting end, given his downward psychological spiral since catching the Dora Lange case. Cohle’s existential musings and avowed death wish, of course, feel destined for some dark revelation.
A supernatural end wouldn’t, as Pizzolatto suggests, mark a jarring break with the plot. For all we’ve learned about the murder cult’s use of the Carcosa-Yellow King mythology, we know precious little about what, exactly, they’re worshipping. Given that the Carcosa mythos is intertwined with H.P. Lovecraft’s horror world, it could be Lovecraft’s Cthulhu or Old Ones. But that’s hardly the only the possibility; the murders could be honoring almost any monstrous power Pizzolatto chooses. Whatever the horror is, it could easily make an appearance without feeling out of step with anything that came before.
The Lovecraftian influence has made True Detective feel a lot like stepping into a brilliant fever dream. In keeping with Cohle’s adage about dreaming, there ought to be a monster at the end of it.