True Detective Sticks the Landing

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.

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  1. Avatar
    Craig 8 years ago

    Just finished the finale. Wow. Swear I barely breathed the whole hour. LOVED! Such a dark show and not an easy watch at times. But worth wading through the darkness to discover the light that shines so bright in this series through all involved. Didn’t need all the loose ends tied up. They got their monster in the end and, more importantly, achieved their own personal redemptions along the way. It deserves all the awards coming its way.

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    phantom 8 years ago

    So rarely do we get to experience something so astonishingly special and quite simply brilliant on screen and I could not be happier that in recent years that “screen” also means the small one especially in a time when A LOT of big screen attempts are underwhelming to say the least.

    What a waste McCounaghey had been in that decade-long-sillylittleromcomslashtentpolewannabe phase of his, seeing now that the industry was wasting one of the greatest actors of our time on films utterlz unworthy of his talent. With his ridiculously spectacular winning streak (The Lincoln Lawyer, Bernie, Magic Mike, Killer Joe, Mud, Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf of Wall Street, True Detective) he proved that he is not only a serious but alsoa seriously fantastic actor and I’m pretty sure the best is still too come. What he accomplished in True Detective, makes Nolan’s Interstellar THE most anticipated film of 2014 for me…AND I rooted for DiCaprio at the Oscars.

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    Christopher 8 years ago

    I just people are not so caught up in the McCouna-hype that they forget how brilliant Woody’s work was in TD. In fact, he sealed the deal for me with that scene in the Hospital bed when he came “full circle” with his family who were there because he TRULY did something heroic instead of the lie he told the first time he received the title of “hero.” It’s much easier to play crazy then to play opposite crazy as an actor. I sincerely hope that Woody collects his fair share of the awards accolades.

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    Bryce Forestieri 8 years ago

    Fantastic, singular take on the finale, Sasha. I was utterly impressed by McConaughey towards the series but always from a distance, as raw and unstable as he was, he always came across a rootless and clinical, but boy that last scene when he recounts almost fading away with his loved ones really connected emotionally. In a perfect world Woody Harrelson, who really anchored the series, would share all the accolades. Can’t wait for Season 2.

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    Valerie 8 years ago

    Christopher ^

    I totally agree. Obviously Matthew got all the fanfare due to his career turnaround and don’t get me wrong he was great, but Woody Harrelson is one of the most under appreciated actors out there. His performance was equally as compelling. Woody tends to play characters that are more “out there” so for me this was a nice changeup for him and he hit it out of the part. I hope he gets the level of recognition Matthew has.

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    Bryce Forestieri 8 years ago


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    Kasia 8 years ago

    Great writing! I pretty much agree with this viewpoint. The symbolism and all the details are cool, but to me they serve two purposes: one, they add to the atmosphere of the show; and two, they build the reality of the world in which the characters function – the world that is weird, messy, corrupted and also kind of unnatural in a sense that it is created by man. That’s crucial to me. It’s like an upside-down world in a way, as Cohle put it: “Nothing grows in the right direction”. People created this world and so they tell themselves stories about it, create lots of narratives that function on different levels of that reality. And yet these narratives serve not only to describe, but first and foremost to change that reality, to interact with it. The crazy Carcosa narrative pushes people to kill. The “true detective” narrative makes Rust and Marty investigate the case. And in the end the light vs. dark narrative forces Rust to make a choice how he wants to see this world.
    I also enjoyed the Daily Beast review of the finale, some interesting thoughts there as well. Though I don’t really buy into the “investigation vs. religion” concept, but perhaps it is worth thinking about. In the end I think “True Detective” is also a beautiful light vs. dark story, about people with flaws who didn’t avert their eyes. Which is more than most of us could ever say about ourselves. Also, if someone asked me before the finale if I would be so moved by Rust Cohle’s crying and making a speech about his dead daughter, I would’ve said that it shouldn’t happen on a show like this. I would have said that it would be a cheap and sentimental ending. But it was one of the best things I saw on TV, which is a testament to how it was written and acted.
    Sorry if this doesn’t make much sense. I just really love the show like most people probably 🙂 Now I just have to catch up on “House of Cards”…

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    Ailidh 8 years ago

    That was a shocking ending, particularly as the audience had been led (or had we led ourselves? – thanks, internet) to expect some trick ending that would, necessarily, reflect Rust’s nihilistic world view. We thought he was Camus, turns out he was the grief-stricken C.L. Lewis. So, good call Sacha, he was in some ways a tormented Christ-like figure.

    Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey proved in this series that they are two of our greatest actors. And McConaughey now has no peer working today as far as I am concerned (you better get back to work, Daniel Day Lewis). I am a born cynic and tearjerkers not only leave me cold, they offend me (well, unless it’s the donkey in Au Hasard Balthasar, well maybe Old Yeller too). Their breakdown scenes in the finale left me sobbing – they were so real, so raw and both men so believably eviscerated by their experience.

    Interesting to read twitter and how affected so many other people were by the finale. Rust Cohle-obsessed fan Joyce Carol Oates did worry he was leaving the hospital without his car keys. Hmm, is it possible Joyce Carol is writing fanfic at this very moment? Somehow, I don’t think Rust and Marty’s story will end there. The internet became way too involved in embroidering their story beyond anything Pizzolatto did. I’m sure that will continue. There are loose ends we’ll feel compelled to know. We aren’t ready yet to say goodbye to Marty or throw in the towel on our unrequited love for Rust.

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    Yvette 8 years ago

    Fantastic piece of fiction. Dark, gritty, metaphysical – and there were those who seemed to feel the show relied on the ‘pretentions’ of Rust’s monologues…
    But that last scene just turned that argument upside down. This was a man who had been decimated by loss and that’s where his seeming nilhism, cynicism was rooted. MMc played that last scene with such minimalist emotion: his speech pattern, the expression in his eyes….MM conveyed such raw pain without any histrionics, acting tricks or methods – that this resurgence feels not only ligit, but like it was meant to be, its not an accident.
    Christopher and Valerie,
    No one is ignoring Woody’s brilliance here – I think as actors, they fed each other. It was a beautiful thing to see. But Rust Cohl was the iconoclastic character here, and MM made it feel real, evolved, not mannered or performed.
    With dialogue like that, it could have been absurd, a fact that Pizzolatto aknowledged, but MM made you believe this guy not only understood what he was saying, but he really believed what he was saying. That takes a rare actor.
    I’m psyched about Interstellar, and imagine MM in the Sea of Trees?
    This is not a fluke comeback, this is an emergence.

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    Christopher 8 years ago

    Yvette-Not to argue your point about the brilliance of MM’s work. Truly acting on a mystical level. As an actor I can tell you that playing crazy can be very well done if you play completely against it. Play it to the other extreme and it comes of incredible. Which I think MM did extremely well. Now: The Case for Woody: This character was a philandering, Southern-White Cop with a giant dose of misogynist thrown in. Throw in the fact that the character was lazy and full of self-pity and we can see how this could have gone terribly wrong. He didn’t have any crazy-I’m a white coat in disguise with a dead wife and child thing going on. The fact that his portrayal actually made you feel for this man and then his last scene with his family-and finally the last seen with MM when he finally reaches out to be there for someone else. Magical.
    If only we had more duo’s of performances like these to debate over. Ha! I would also like to say I have never been a Woody fanboy so this performance caught me off guard.

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    The Dude 8 years ago

    I loved the ending. There will be some internet whining, like there was about the endings of Sopranos and Breaking Bad, but it couldn’t have ended better.

    This was an unique experiment in television that worked superbly, mostly due to the work of Pizzolato, Fukunaga, McConaughey and Harrison. Let’s hope for Emmys to all of them (for Woody, as one of the exec. producers).

    If McConaughey didn’t waste 15 years in romantic comedies and sub-par work, it’s quite possible we would be talking about him in the same level of Pacino, Nicholson, De Niro, Day-Lewis, etc.

    Also, Glen Fleshler deserves a lot of credit; he already had a very noteworthy role in HBO- Remus in Boardwalk Empire (Remus talks about himself in third person! Remus can!)- but I didn’t even recognized him until someone pointed out it was the same actor. Great work.

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    Yvette 8 years ago

    Has anybody read Nussbaum’s review. This writer’s entire aversion to the show is that it centers around two ‘manly men’, and that she’s ‘sure that some people find it profound…’ etc…
    What condescending, shallow crap.

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    Yvette 8 years ago

    Christopher, you won’t get an argument from me about Woody. But I think the roles are so different – and the more idiosyncratic character with the idiosyncractic dialogue and demeanor is going to be the more intriguing in terms of performance. But both killed it. They should be nominated as a duo.

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    Christopher 8 years ago

    @Yevette-MARVELOUS solution! Let’s start a petition!

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    Alec 8 years ago

    If you would have told me after the first episode that this series’ first season would end up being a love story between Rust and Marty, I would have thought you were crazy. I would have been wrong though; I was so surprised by the warmth that I felt for both of these characters and how invested I was in not only their survival, but also their friendship. That last scene outside the hospital was beautiful and it was a conversation only true friends could have.

    Both actors were amazing and deserve all the accolades and recognition that come their way(as are the writer and director of the show). I don’t know where it stands among greatest of all time, but I do know that it is a true game changer for what can be accomplished on tv. I look forward to seeing who they cast next season. You can bet many a-list actors will be interested in it.

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    Craig Kennedy 8 years ago

    Thanks for reading everybody. I’d have come back to comment sooner, but honestly I was a little afraid everyone was going to hate the ending of the show and just yell at me. If you can’t tell, I loved the SHIT out of this show and I can’t imagine (for me) a more satisfying (and yes surprising) finale.

    I’m with all of you shouting the praises of Woody Harrelson. Yes, Rust was the most engaging character and McConaughey teed off on it, but dopey old Marty in the end was just as important. I really do think the two characters compliment each other and they both helped each other become better people and better friends.

    Yvette, I’d heard several people including Nussbaum criticize True Detective for being focused on the male characters and seeming to reduce all the women to victims, prostitutes, mistresses or angry wives. On one hand, in the TV environment in which we live where shows with strong women and minority characters are wildly outnumbered (things are improving, but there’s a log way to go), I’m no surprised someone might thing “Oh great, here we go with another show about men.” But in this individual case, that’s not very fair to True Detective.

    The show was almost exclusively about two characters who happened to be men. Everyone else was a side character so of course they were not developed as keenly as Marty and Rust. Though honestly I think Maggie was a way more interesting character than anyone has given her credit for and I think it’s interesting that her actions were what split up the status quo for it to eventually come back together stronger than before.

    Plus, I think one of the overarching themes of the show was this diseased way women’s sexuality is treated and with a fundamental imbalance between the sexes. There’s that great scene where Marty has given the prostitute Beth some money so she can get out and he’s raking the madam over the coals because Beth is clearly underage, and she sticks it right back in his face how women’s sexuality doesn’t seem to bother him until the woman owns it herself and charges for it.

    I’m not going to argue that True Detective is a treatise in feminism, but it’s too bad it’s being sold short by people who are smarter than that.

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    cyrus 8 years ago

    Great series, hoping for a sweep at the Emmys, including Michelle Monaghan. You had some great small roles too by Ann Dowd in the final episode, damn was she great! Hope she gets more roles a la Compliance. Also great to see Oscar nominee from Come Back Little Sheba (1952) Terry Moore in the last episode too! And Tess Harper was great as Mrs Kelly.

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    Craig Kennedy 8 years ago

    The great thing about all of those side characters, including Dowd and Harper, was you could imagine a whole backstory to them right away. The whole show was like that, with every detail and character bit implying a larger fictional world.

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    brian 8 years ago

    MM’s work here was just absolutely astonishing … better than anything I’ve seen on the big screen not only this past year but across many years …

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    Yvette 8 years ago

    I think there’s always going to be the negative Nancy’s who like to project some kind of ..intellectual superiority over the common masses, the majority opinion etc..
    As Sasha beautifully explored in a Lincoln piece last year, this is the Age of Snark after all.
    It’s just jaded arrogance and a determined defiance to be the asshole who keeps laughing and snarking about all the stupid dancing and singing while you’re trying to watch West Side Story. We all know them and some of them make a living from it.

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    Yvette 8 years ago

    Where was Terry Moore? WTF?

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    Craig Kennedy 8 years ago

    Yvette, yeah pop culture is lousy with snark and irony. It’s true. And then there are always going to be some people who try to nurse their own pet cause with anything popular. At the same time, I’m all for anyone who wants to make the case there needs to be more and better representation of more different kinds of people on TV. But that has to be kept in perspective. Unless a show is literally offensive (and True Detective most certainly is not) at a certain point you just have to set aside it isn’t the show one might want it to be and just appreciate it for what it is.

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    Craig Kennedy 8 years ago

    I’m guessing Terry Moore played the old woman Rust and Marty went to visit at the old age home who used to own the green house and hired Errol back in the day to paint it for her.

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    Yvette 8 years ago

    Even more smug is Matthew Gilbert’s ‘Is True Detective Overrated?’ in the Boston Globe. And why is there no comments section on some of these pieces?

  25. Avatar
    Craig Kennedy 8 years ago

    The word “Overrated” should be banned and anyone who uses it should be banned along with it

  26. Avatar
    cyrus 8 years ago

    Yvette and Craig, yes, Terry Moore was the elderly lady, Lilly Hill the fellas interview in the nursing home. She had her home painted green by the culprit and remembers he also had a scar on his lower face.

    Terry Moore made two great classics Come Back Little Sheba with Burt Lancaster and Shirley Booth and the star-studded classic melodrama Peyton Place with Lana Turner.

  27. Pingback: Awards Daily » ADTV: True Detective Sticks the Landing

  28. Avatar
    Chris 8 years ago

    Erm… “you’d think people would’ve learned their lesson with Lost” WTF?

    10 years later plenty of people are still talking about it. If any lesson should have been learnt it was how to make a hugely successful, brilliantly written TV show.

    1. Avatar
      Craig Kennedy 8 years ago

      Lost sucked

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