Last Thoughts on ‘True Detective’

TD finale

Television, like pretty much all art, is imperfect. The first season of True Detective, for all of its hype and undeniable glory, was no different. Over the course of eight compelling hours, it was a beautiful mess that was at its best when it was at its messiest. It concluded this past weekend in a way that was satisfying, yet fairly conventional. Its conclusion definitely leaves a void –nothing was more fun to analyze, theorize and obsess over during its short but impactful run – but it also leaves us with plenty of things to chew on and sort out.

After all of the talk of Yellow Kings and monsters at the end of the tunnel, the only thing that could be considered moderately supernatural in the finale was Rust’s dark vision when he was facing down evil in the labyrinth of Carcosa. (Well, that and maybe his religious epiphany, if you’re an atheist.) Evil was revealed to be man, but if we’re being honest with ourselves, we already knew that; this is a show that has had the tagline “Man is the cruelest animal” from the jump.  There weren’t too many outright surprises in the conclusion of the plot. The so-called spaghetti monster, as was strongly implied in episode seven, was indeed the overlooked man on the lawnmower, perpetually driving around in flat circles, scoping out his next prey.

The episode followed a pretty traditional three-act format. In the first act, Rust and Marty finish interrogating Cohle’s old nemesis Steve Geraci and force him to admit his involvement in the cover-up of Marie Fontenot’s abduction. His confession confirms their suspicions of the Childress family, along with their connection to the Tuttles, and finally gives them a name to pin on their 17-year debt. In the titillating middle section, Rust and Marty descend into the depths of Carcosa to confront Errol Childress, the deranged and badly scarred killer. The final third is the aftermath of the showdown, which takes place primarily in the hospital as Marty recovers from an ax to the chest and Rust, from a vicious knife to the stomach. Here we are treated to one more of those heavy Rust Cohle monologues that some couldn’t stand, but most couldn’t get enough of these past few months. It’s one last opportunity for the show to make a definitive statement about what all of the conversation, action and nonsense really means. It’s the moment to reveal what it’s all about. The answer: light and dark, good and evil, the same stuff all stories are made of – everything, basically.

And what a True Detective way to answer that question! This was a show that could have been a rollicking buddy-cop procedural, as pieces of various episodes and the bulk of episode seven revealed, but instead opted for an advanced degree of difficulty. Yes, its HBO-production value, gorgeous cinematography and brilliant direction set it apart; however creator and showrunner Nic Pizzolatto wasn’t content with just that. He crafted it around a unique, decades-spanning, non-linear structure that was difficult to pull off but tantalizing to watch unfold. And he never stopped attempting to comment on things. Whether it was institutional corruption, evil being passed down through the generations, the nature of man or the structure of the space-time continuum, no topic was too weighty or daunting for True Detective to tackle. Although you could argue it addressed some of these topics more effectively than others, you can’t say that the show lacked ambition. Of course it’s about everything.

Another show that tried to be about everything at the end of its epic run was Lost. The two shows’ premises are dramatically different, but the shows themselves bear some interesting similarities. In the early going, both shows were about solving a mystery (Who is killing women and children in rural Louisiana? What the hell is up with this island?), both featured non-linear timelines (2012 interrogations/1995 investigations – plus eventually, events from 2002, on-island/pre-island – and eventually, post-island) and both included musings on humanity, faith, good and evil (this one is self-explanatory). Moreover, they also both happened to incorporate – or least hinted at incorporating – mystical elements.

That shared distinction played a significant part in making Lost and True Detective such buzzworthy shows. The literary references and merely the suggestion of something supernatural in the background prompted True Detective fans to become obsessives, just as the Lost puzzle masters were a few years ago. The crazy theories and wild speculation that those two shows generated in their run put even the later seasons of Breaking Bad and Mad Men to shame. In True Detective’s case, a few stray allusions turned a largely forgotten 19th century book of short stories into a bestseller overnight.

Lost chose to render all of the theories moot by throwing their hands up, much to the majority of its viewers’ chagrin, and saying “everything is magic” (except for the parts that were God!). True Detective did so by going the opposite way and saying nothing is, but that doesn’t necessarily make them unimportant. The theories didn’t amount to anything per se, but they’re still meaningful, even the batshit-insane ones. The speculation is what fueled the fanaticism for this season in its brief run — the finale broke HBO Go, for God’s sake! — and additionally, speaks to the infinity of interpretations that can be taken away from the show, television and art in general.

When I first wrote about True Detective after it initially premiered two months ago, I wondered what this show was going to grow into, or if it would, for lack of a better phrase, bear fruit. I suggested that if it did, it would be due to its wonderful seeds i.e. the main actors and the characters that they portray. In hindsight, I feel like this was at least partially correct – but maybe not totally in the way that I imagined. What I mean by this is that in the first hour of the show, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson are insanely compelling; their acting is pretty much impeccable. The quality of their performances never dipped; in fact, they only grew more spectacular as it progressed. The rest of the acting on the show, however, ranged from fine (almost everyone) to terrific (Michelle Monaghan), but the other characters were two-dimensional at best. The show has particularly been criticized for its portrayal of women. They generally seemed to be crazy, vindictive sluts or worse, dead bodies. The counter-argument to this is that the story should be seen through the prism of its main characters’ lives; everything else only matters as it relates to them. It makes sense to an extent, but because the world and the characters that inhabit it falls far below characters and plot in the hierarchy of the things that the show cares about, it’s also limiting. A little more attention to the secondary characters, the suspects and the victims could go a long way in future seasons. Either way, the show’s flaws force it to lean on its seeds a lot more than I anticipated.

There’s plenty of room for improvement and further innovation in the future seasons. Having said that, I have no real complaints with how the season ended or with the show in general, rather I think that’s what makes it so exciting.  A different kind of a metaphorical seed was planted in the first episode of this series: the seed for something unlike anything else on television, something special. Lo and behold, season one grew into something as striking, creepy and alluring as that majestic tree in the sugar field.

TD Tree

Can’t wait for season two.

Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently writes about sports and culture for Yahoo Sports and Yahoo Voices, and previously covered the Carolina Panthers for Football.com during the 2013 season, as well as college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College FixThe Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future. 

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