This review appeared shortly after the initial premiere of True Detective in early 2014 — slight edits have been made since the original posting.
Everything leading up to last night’s conclusion to True Detective’s first season has been pretty stellar, setting the bar higher for the show as a whole than any other first season you care to name. The finale was so sought-after, in fact, that the HBO GO server overloaded and crashed due to such high demand, sending millions into despair over whether Rust and Marty would finally get their man. Last week’s episode “After You’ve Gone” served up a nice volley for the finale to knock down — and the eighth and final installment did just that. Needless to say, spoilers follow for the season one finale “Form and Void”.
Writer and showrunner Nic Pizzolatto dug himself into a hole in several ways with True Detective, foremostly by turning out a phenomenal, pitch-perfect pilot and a five-episode arc that brought with it the most intriguing hour “The Secret Fate of All Life”. I didn’t hear any major complaints after the first three episodes, and only when the fourth episode “Who Goes There” indulged in an action sequence did reviewers post fears about the show becoming “just another procedural”. Now, it seems, we have something of the reverse: “Form and Void” was inarguably, inescapably, and at times frustratingly revelation-free, instead providing a straightforward “resolution” where most fans pined for a major twist involving the unveiling of the Yellow King.
But if Maggie’s father or Sheriff Tate or Shea Wigham’s minister or Clarke Peters’s minister (why was he in this show? and why did he make such a big deal about those cats?) turned out to be the King in Yellow, or even just another member of the coastline cult, would it have really made for a better ending? Granted, the reveal of the scarred man at the close of the penultimate episode was, in retrospect, not nearly as heavy of a moment as it should have been — ultimately, as I’ll explain, I’m fine with Errol Childress being the only “real” one that Rust and Marty caught in 2012, but his reveal could have played out more dramatically or been left to the final episode. His first line after we really get a good look at those scars regards his family, and how long they’ve been around, how rooted they are into everything around that bony coast — so not showing any more family members does feel like a bit of a cheat.
Yet, by leaving the case less than 100% solved, we get something more than just a more realistic resolution: by leaving some of that darkness unlit, we get a world where this ending, with Marty hatcheted, Rust stabbed, children dead that the pair could have saved had they only caught Errol seventeen years earlier — this ending is as complete, as satisfying, and as straight-up happy as it gets. There are men out there who operate in secret as a part of this grim bayou brotherhood, and they will give way to men who will do things that are even more horrific. These men exist, there is no doubt — we’ve seen multiple men in the Tuttle tape, and between the Tuttles, the Childresses, and the Ledouxs, we’ve only laid eyes on maybe four guys who are definitely a part of the killing cult. These men are Evil, capital E, and there’s quite possibly more of them out there than you can imagine.
The point, though, is that Rust and Marty are out there too, and for all of their faults the two detectives are most definitely Good. This is a point made in the closing moments of the season, with the starry-eyed couple (not like that) ruminating on what it all boils down to: light vs. dark. Rust’s tearful confession to Marty about seeking his daughter in the dark below the world, Marty’s observation about the massive advantage in territory the dark seems to hold, and Rust’s eventual retort that Marty’s looking at it all wrong (“once it was all darkness”) lead to that simple but important point, and it’s a point that — quite uncomplicatedly — could not have been made if we had spent the finale hour collecting the entire gang of Evil.
It’s always been more about Cohle and Hart than about the case anyway — or, rather, less about the resolution of the case and more about how it changes the detectives involved. The final moments serve to put on a fine point here as well, first with Hart breaking into tears at the sight of his family. These aren’t I’ve-just-been-through-chest-hatcheting tears, but tears for the family that he himself drove away. Hart would never break down in front of Rust, but Rust’s words in the car about pushing Maggie away have clearly taken root. Remember, this is 2012 Hart — the one who told Gilbough and Papania that his infidelities were “necessary for the good of the family”. At such times it was difficult to like Hart, but seeing him cry, knowing that he’s finally not blind to the effect his own actions have had — well, it was hard not to just love the guy.
And Rust — ah, Rust — changed. Yes, that sentence seems so strange, so backwards and easy, but I can’t say it enough. Rust changed. Rust changed. This was a man, as Maggie said in the sixth episode “Haunted Houses”, who “knew exactly who he was. That was Marty’s problem — he never knew who he was, and so he never knew what to want.” Rustin Cohle is a smart, overly-philosophical, guilt-ridden, job-obsessed nihilist, and no, that hasn’t all gone away now just because he had a major hand in catching Errol. He’s still that, I think — but outside that hospital the tables were turned, Hart perhaps trying to comfort Rust by adopting his argot, saying that he too sees the world as a dark place with only pinprick planets throwing weak light. “You ask me, the light’s winning,” says Rust — and like that, the pages and pages of bloodworthy, death-dealing monologues delivered by the man who called his life a circle that he’d agree to “tie off” seemed to evaporate.
Rust changed. Did he? Or was this man who viewed the world optimistically always there? I think Rust always saw light vs. dark, and I think he always saw that dark was most definitely winning. I also think he fought like hell for the light, even when he didn’t know how — in 2002 he tells an abusive mother to kill herself, and the moment is shockingly hard-edged, even for Rust. He sees light vs. dark and maybe he finds it difficult to see beyond that, so he uses his superior mind to convince any Evil Ones to go away — a win for the side of the light, and a reason to keep fighting amid the insufferable murk. The Yellow King case is the biggest case of his career as a detective, thus the biggest light vs. dark battle of Rust’s life, and it very clearly has an effect on him. They didn’t catch everyone, and maybe the killing will even continue — think about “The Secret Fate of All Life”, when the imprisoned drugstore shooter commits suicide after a mysterious phone call; it probably wasn’t Errol on the other line, and if this kind of open possibility bothers me then you can bet it bothers Rust. So they didn’t catch everyone — but they caught one, and that’s one less.
That phone call, Audrey’s creepy doll arrangements, Dora Lange’s knowledge of the Yellow King before her death, the spaghetti mask — there’s a lot still hanging, and most of it we’ll never understand. Season Two will not feature Rust and Marty, nor will any other season of True Detective, and I doubt a different pair of detectives returning to finally unveil the King in Yellow would ever happen, nor is that a good idea. But the things that were revealed are hauntingly indelible, with the hell-on-earth organic dungeon Carcosa being the most memorable setting of a brilliantly-shot season. There’s no doubt Cary Joji Fukunaga is one of the breakout stars of True Detective, and the future looks bright for him with bigscreen adaptations of novels by Stephen King (2015 update: the adaptation of It is now sadly dead) and Uzodinma Iweala (2015: Beasts of No Nation is still a go UPDATE #2: it’s incredible) on the horizon.
Nic Pizzolatto deserves a round of applause, too. Again, he had a hell of a job following that pilot and overall first half-season of pure intensity, and there was no way the finale was going to satisfy everyone. And he has his work cut out for him writing the second season as well, which HBO has yet to greenlight for some reason (they wouldn’t…would they?), and which hopefully will feature a similarly strong caliber of actors and crew as we saw during the first season. Pizzolatto’s novel Galveston may be worth a read to those hungry for more — but it’s certainly no True Detective. Roy Cady, the “hero” of Galveston and the other Pizzolatto protagonist with the initials R.C., is interesting and well-written — but Rust Cohle is something else. Rust Cohle, really, is unlike anything on TV before, and he’s the main pulse in a show with a surprisingly big heart.