'True Detective' finale review: Truth, justice, and... a happy ending?
Culminating a remarkable first season in fine, moving form, True Detective’s finale, titled “Form and Void,” took us to the heart of darkness at the vortex center of its weird fiction — as well as the final stage of its meta-commentary on the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves, for better and worse. It was a tale that ripped dark marks on our bellies, then soothed us by “making flowers” on us. So to speak.
We start on the outskirts of the infernal plane. We begin in hell on earth. The ersatz underworld of The Yellow King — a.k.a. Errol Childress, a perverse product of paternal abuse, generational evil, and his own deranged, pop-culture informed myth-making — was a theater of the mind for a fantasy made real: His vision of Carcosa, the necropolis of Ambrose Bierce and the fallen world of Robert W. Chambers, littered with dead trees and body bags. Childress lured Cohle into his ascension chamber — the staging area for so many murders, and last night, a stage for an ancient ritual, the oldest story of all. Light versus dark. Good versus evil. “Little priest” versus wannabe Elder God. It was The Real World: Dungeons and Dragons, and Cohle, hard boiled to the core, was ready to play. I’ll see your abyss and gaze right back, Lawnmower Man!
He was fooling himself. Rust Cohle has always been fooling himself. His cynicism, his callousness were parts of the mask he wore to engage the world, to deal with himself. But it offered no protection when his mind — tweaking from the fetid evil around him — conspired against him and waylaid him with a vision of a coal-black vortex spiraling down to claim him. Maybe you were thinking: They’re going to do it! Cthulhu is coming! Coming to take us away, ha-ha! Ho-ho! Hee-hee! Beam me up, Lovecraft!
But no. It was gotcha moment, for Rust, and for us. Childress seized him and cut him to the core, literally and spiritually, like a knife to an empty can of Lone Star. “TAKE OFF YOUR MASK!” The Monster bellowed. It was as if Childress was telling him to cut the phony bologna nihilist crap, the useful fairy tale of baggy and buggy sentient meat denying his truth. Of course, you can say the same of his agent of enlightenment, his doppelganger. True Detective was always all about authenticity — or rather, the lack thereof, and the stories we tell ourselves to get us through the day (religion, or nothingness, or our private Carcosas) and in turn imprint (and inflict) upon the world.
What happened after Rust’s gutting exposes us as well: the final 15 minutes of “Form and Void” struck me as a Rorschach test for what you want from stories like this, for what we’ve come to call “resolution,” And boy, did we get a lot of it, both implied and explicitly stated, no more so during the last scene, with all of its mansplaining and bromantic uplift. Yes, uplift. The twist ending of True Detective’s bleak first season: a bracing refutation of its baroque pessimism. Cohle and Hart slayed the decadently dandy slumdog (schizo?) psycho at dream’s end, spent a good chunk of time processing their feelings and baring their souls, then exited, stage right, to star in The Odd Couple sitcom we’ll never get to see. They were as stunned by this turn of events as we were. Cohle and Hart, flawed heroes and failed men, expected to be destroyed by their bid to pay the debt they owed the world, and so did I. If you had told me four episodes ago, after Rust’s ugly Crash digression and Marty’s complete unraveling, that we’d get a happy ending in which they’d be laughing and hugging and telling stories about the stars — like myth-making bards of antiquity — I would have thought you were a sauce-knackered tent preacher. What does say that about me? Perhaps a lifetime spent consuming stories has shaped my imagination to assume the worst. Or maybe I’m just, like, a really hideous person.
And so instead of losing their lives, Cohle and Hart were rewarded with new life. Marty found a little redemption — but not too much — and reconciliation he thought beyond him. Rust found some catharsis for the past, triggered by a near-death experience as his sense of self was becoming incoherent and fading away: A feeling of love and connection with his dead daughter and his beloved father. He wanted to sink and dissipate into that deep: “I said, ‘Darkness, yeah! [Instant classic McConaughey-ism!] And then I woke up,” said Cohle, despairing that what felt so metaphysically real was only a dream. Still, in this moment, we truly saw Cohle for the first time: He shed his last layer to reveal the profound grief that drove him. Wow. I thought we would get a grim and gritty climax that affirmed a gloomy worldview; we thought we would get Chinatown. Instead, we got the deconstruction of hipster/pulp cynicism that says heroism is a crock and the recovery of old school virtue; we got Casablanca.
A toast to Cohle and Hart, who deserve to be the penultimate* final statement on an era of anti-heroism and hideous men: Here’s to the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
*I think Don Draper should get the final word on this, don’t you?
THE FASCINATION WITH ABOMINATION
In which we spend a few hundred words making sense of The Yellow King.
We won’t be forgetting Errol Childress anytime soon. The collaboration of writing, directing, set and performance (Glenn Fleshler, terrific) in “Form and Void” combined to produce a memorable portrait of decadent, demented evil that was rich with layers and allusions and subtext.
The facts, as I understood them. Errol made his home in the boonies beyond the Creole Nature Trail. He kept his dead father — another lawless lawman and corrupt Tuttle, who with other Tuttles abused him and warped him and sewed his psyche with their perverse private religion — bound and lip-tied. He kept house with his half-sister. Made “flowers” on her, too. (Ewww.) He had stacks and stacks of books, magazines and DVDs in his trashed, fly-swarmed, fetid home. (Was The King In Yellow somewhere in those stacks?) He watched a lot of TV. (That was North by Northwest on the telly.) He was a man of many voices — Andy Griffith, Slingblade, James Mason — and seemingly no fixed identity.
But the intelligence behind those masks did fancy itself something monstrous. Errol lived to make his mark on the world by abducting and raping and killing children in ritualistic fashion with the help of his low-life cousins — his “acolytes” — the Ledoux brother, and littering the landscape with devil nets, occult graffiti, a Christian woman slain and transmogrified into an art object that mocked her faith. All were ironic reminders that evil roamed the land with impunity, and no one could — or would — stop him. Certainly not God. It bothered Errol, though, that no one had detected his handiwork: “Oh, if they had eyes to see,” he said. The implication: Errol wanted to be discovered. What’s more, he wanted to expose the family that had made him, that used him, that… worshipped him? And then there was the matter of Errol’s last great project: His “ascension.” He made a reference to tying off the endless loop of his life — his own circle of violence and degradation — and checking out — “I am near the final stage. Some mornings, I can see the infernal plane.”
I am taken by the notion that Errol wanted to end his life by producing a story — his last ritual — in which he would play the part of The Great Adversary. He just needed some worthy Hero-Christs to play their parts in the play. He finally got them — after years of waiting? — in the form of Cohle and Hart. In that moment in the field, when Cohle told Errol to freeze, and Errol said “No,” Errol wanted the detectives to follow him into his labyrinth. A grand battle ensued — Errol wasn’t going to make it easy; our boys had to earn it — and Errol got his death-wish made true by Cohle, no stranger to death-wishes. Cohle shot him in the head, and the image we got framed Errol’s exploding head within the hole in the roof of his chamber. Behold Errol’s violent enlightenment, his ascension, his storytelling mission accomplished.
Of the many details that defined Errol, I am thinking most at present about all that pop culture lying around his house. Errol’s story concluded one of True Detective’s themes/morals: Be careful what you put in your head. You spend your days filling your head with pictures of evil (Cohle, ep. 3), you spend your days filling your imagination with faces of evil and stories about evil (Errol, and his Carcosa-crazed family, Hitchcock flicks, and who knows what else Errol kept lying around), you spend your days fascinated with abomination, and chances are, they’re going to affect the way you see the world.
Heading into the finale, I saw several pieces lobbying for a “no resolution” ending to True Detective. No hard answers, no final declarations. Resist the desire to be just like any other cop show! Their argument was that True Detective wasn’t really about the murders and rapes and the ritualistic desecration of children and women, wasn’t really about its mysteries of history and corruption and secrets and lies. It was about the characters of Cohle and Hart, and their charged bromance, and Cohle’s ridiculous philosophizing, and Hart being a dork, and the world, and the landscape, and the existential unknowability of absolute truth and the mood — oh, the gloriously fetid mood.
I respectfully disagree. It’s a misread of the story to argue that True Detective has always been resolution-agnostic, that it should have given us an ending with question marks instead of periods. The first six episodes were narratively driven by Cohle and Hart’s storytelling, but we see now — and this is important and not to be overlooked — that the story was always framed by two detectives searching for truth: Papania and Gilbough, who we now know to be righteous, honorable cops. The portraits of Cohle and Hart that emerged depicted obsolete modes of masculinity and worldviews, who were unworthy of the heroism that was required of them — but became so by submitting to total deconstruction.
The last two episodes saw Cohle and Hart taking responsibility for a broken world that they helped to break. I loved how this was expressed in the procedural scenes, and I was grateful we got a lot of them in the past two weeks. It was great seeing the detectives actually be detectives — especially diligent, thorough Hart, who made the key connection that put them in the road to Childress. Even Cohle was impressed: “F— you, man!” High praise!
Bottom line: The organizing principle of True Detective was restoring law to a lawless land. Telling me to not care about that — to not want resolution for that — is to be cynical about character transformation. It asks me to not care about justice. And that’s what “resolution” meant here: justice. There is a kind of existential pulp that can get away with moral ambiguity (Breaking Bad), or supernatural existentialism that can get away without explaining its metaphysics (Lost). This was neither.
Yes, it was earnest. It certainly defied common medical sense: How the hell did Rust survive that gutting? Dude plunged that blade deep into his belly, lifted him off the ground and let him hang and tear a little on its jagged edge. Ouch! But it was interesting how the final 15 minutes gave us a series of very distinct scenes, each representing a different kind of ending that could have worked for both this story and this kind of story, yet worked together to create another meaning altogether:
Do you like your pulp colder than Jack Nicholson’s naughty bits at the end of The Shining? Then remember forever Hart cradling Cohle — both bleeding to death — looking up into the empty eye of God formed by the opening in the ceiling in Childress’ ascension chamber, seeing a flare — a flicker of hope — and crying out: “Here! We’re here!” Basically: The Book of Job, before the restoration.
Do you prefer some resolution but not complete resolution? Then remember forever our fallen warriors in the hospital: Hart reunited with family, suddenly feeling healed, then remembering he is not, that his encounter with horror has left him far afield from anything like “fine.” And Cohle, looking hollowed and husked — a grizzled, lost Frodo after his awful apocalypse at Mount Doom.
Do you need happy ending uplift? Then remember forever Hart coaching Cohle toward hope and stars, and Cohle tearfully recognizing that his protest-too-much nihilism has been so much sound and fury, and both men hobbling away, arm in arm.
Taken together, all those scenes created a nuanced climax. Kudos to True Detective for not making too much of Cohle and Hart’s heroic achievement. Yes, it felt mythic, but that’s because we got a climax set in The Yellow King’s fraudulent “psychosphere,” and most of it from Cohle’s muddled perspective. Cohle the Pulp Christ so wanted the grandiose knock-out punch — what a way to go out, to tie off the vicious circle of violence and degradation, both in himself and in his culture; to solve the problem of evil once and for all! (Take THAT, Silent God!) But Hart corrected him, right-sized him; that was not their job, not their fight, and really, nothing they were qualified for. This small chapter of the never-ending story was more than enough and screwed them up good. Leave the rest to the next generation. Leave it to the duly empowered (and totally righteous) Gilbough and Papania.
And this why I loved that True Detective let Cohle and Hart live — or rather, made them live. Their “rewards” for saving the day? Shredded illusions. Painful self awareness. The opportunity to spend all of their remaining years trying to get over the horror, the horror. The only real feel-good compensations? They get each other; they get to figure their sh– out together. My favorite parts of the finale? When Hart called Cohle his “friend;” when Cohle entrusted a man he found so easy to judge with this weakness and tears.
Yeah, yeah: CORNY. But I buy it. Because it’s true. And I’ll take it from almost any story, flaws and all, if I feel it earned it. And I say True Detective did.