The biggest mystery for me going into the end of True Detective was how it could possibly resolve itself in a way that would satisfy all of the enormous expectations I’d built up for it after watching and rewatching and rewatching the previous 7 episodes. Turns out it was a wonderful end to a terrific and unique program. I haven’t looked around much to see what the wider reaction to it was, but I have a suspicion a lot of people are going to be really pissed off by how much was left unresolved and how ultimately unimportant the show’s central mystery was. Read on for more, but be forewarned that there are spoilers.
When did TV shows start getting treated like a puzzle that must be solved? Was it Twin Peaks? I don’t know, but you’d think people would’ve learned their lesson with Lost that nothing good can come from going down the rabbit hole on a TV show. Apparently not, because even last year there was lot of weird internet speculation surrounding Mad Men of all things. It’s a show that never presented itself as any kind of mystery, yet somehow a t-shirt one character wore in one scene of one episode meant that character was going to die. It didn’t happen. It was a benign costume decision that portended exactly nothing.
Being a show that revolves around a central mystery, True Detective perhaps invited audiences to pore over every episode, sifting images and snatches of conversation for vital clues that would point to the identity of the mysterious Yellow King. The thing is, it never really felt like True Detective was hiding anything. While the characters in the story were often dishonest with each other (or themselves), there was never any evidence to suggest what the audience was privileged to see was somehow inaccurate and nothing we were ever shown really supported any crazy theory. Nevertheless, people dug and they obsessed and they speculated. Theories abounded that something supernatural was going to happen or that one of the lead characters was the serial killer. Unable to see the forest for the trees, I fear a lot of people missed the wonderful show that was unfolding before their eyes the whole time. Don’t get me wrong, I rewatched each episode multiple times and enjoyed pondering the meanings of some of the clues too. I just think in the end, that’s not where the lasting pleasure of the show resides. In the fourth episode, Detective Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) talks about the “detective’s curse” where the solution is right under his nose but he was paying attention to the wrong clues. In many ways, that describes a big chunk of the show’s audience, but it turns out everything we needed to know was right in front of us when we needed to know it. The biggest surprise for many may have been that the last episode didn’t actually have a surprise or a big reveal.
Except it did. If you were wrapped up in the show’s all-important themes and emotional rhythms, the finale packed a surprisingly emotional punch. Caught up in Rust’s corrosive world view, I assumed the show would end on a dark note. Depending on how you look at it, True Detective resolved itself in an almost shockingly optimistic yet wholly satisfying way. If I said I predicted the finale would nearly bring me to tears twice, I’d be lying. I did not see that coming, but I’m glad it did and now I can’t imagine how I ever could’ve imagined it would’ve ended in any other way.
Had the show’s central mystery surrounding the murder of Dora Lange been True Detective‘s only attraction, I might have lost interest half way through when it started to become clear what at least the broad outlines of the crime were. By that point though, I was fully hooked into the dual characters of Hart and Matthew McConaughey’s Rustin Cohle. Near polar opposites, they were like the two leads in a dark, existentialist version of Lethal Weapon and it was fascinating (and often funny) to watch how they navigated this twisted, diseased Southern Louisiana world created by Nic Pizzolatto. Marty is the ultimate flawed human being. Incapable of not stepping on his own dick, he lives behind a series of blinders that make the world seem like a nice place and he wears the mask of a better man. He’s not evil, but he is deeply flawed and prone to destructive behavior especially where his family is concerned. Rust, on the other hand, is on something of a downward spiral since the death of his daughter many years before the show begins. Unlike Marty, he sees the evil world for exactly what it is and tells himself no fairy tales about it. There’s no filter to the insanity and horror he witnesses every day in the course of his job. He has no belief in God to give meaning to the tortured existence we live, but his inability to varnish reality the way Marty does gives him a unique insight into the criminal mind. In his own way, Rust has the purity of a saint. The irony is that he’s not shunned by his community for talking to God, he’s shunned because he doesn’t.
Watching Rust in action, interviewing suspects and filling his ledger with potential clues, it’s easy to assume he’s a better detective than his partner. It’s true Marty often can’t see the evidence right in front of him, but with that mask he wears of the good father and husband, he’s able to move through his world without disturbing it. He can ask questions of people who might not even talk to Rust. He also has a knack for the more mundane aspects of detective work, the sifting through old files and records for example. It’s interesting that Rust misses a vital clue in the third episode when he first encounters Errol (Glen Fleshler) and isn’t able to connect him to the case. It’s also interesting that Marty is the one finally finds the one piece of the puzzle that ultimately leads to the killer. If I’m going to complain about the show a little bit, I have to admit Marty’s sudden leap of logic nearly 20 years later felt a little too easy, but in the end it doesn’t really matter.
The show was less about who killed Dora Lange, and more about two unlikely partners who were always better together than they were apart. They complimented each other. True Detective was also most satisfyingly about Rust and Marty’s emotional journey, together and as individuals, navigating a hellish world that is sick and diseased and unraveling around the edges. That hell on earth still exists, but Marty opens his eyes to it and pulls off his mask. I think he learns to be a better man in the process and I’m optimistic that he gets back together with his wife and daughters. Meanwhile, in confronting his own death and indeed practically begging for it but being denied, Rust finds a measure of the humanity he’d lost when his daughter died and his marriage fell apart. The story he tells Marty about being at death’s door and feeling his father and daughter was genuinely heartbreaking, but it feels also like the first time Rust had ever truly confronted those emotions. I doubt Rust has become a full on optimist, but I bet he’s a lot better at parties.
Honestly, I’m not bothered at all that so many loose ends were not tied up. That’s the way of the world. True Detective has been a fabulous, entirely unexpected and ultimately surprisingly moving 8 hours of television. I’ll miss Rust and Marty, but I feel like their story has now been told and I’m excited to see what new thrills we’ll get next season which cannot come fast enough. If the leads are half as amazing as Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey were, it’s going to be great. In the mean time, I think we have 2014′ s first clear Emmy favorite.