'True Detective' post-mortem: Creator Nic Pizzolatto on happy endings, season 2, and the future of Cohle and Hart
True Detective wrapped its celebrated, intensely parsed first season last night with a finale that has invited a wide variety of reactions. Your opinion might hinge on whether or not you found the revelation of The Yellow King — Errol Childress, aka The Lawnmower Man — and his evil to be interesting and a surprisingly uplifting, optimistic ending for Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) to be the correct call for the series. The man behind the madness stands behind his choices, although the writer (best known before this for the crime novel Galveston) sounds a bit relieved that the roller coaster ride of his first major work for television has reached its conclusion. “Our long national nightmare is over!” laughs Nic Pizzolatto, jumping on the phone not long after the east coasting airing, and before watching the finale with his family and music supervisor T. Bone Burnett at McConaughey’s house. In this brief interview, Pizzolatto discusses his endgame vision, clarifies Errol’s master plan, and teases season 2 of True Detective — and the future of Cohle and Hart.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So let’s talk about the twist ending: Rust Cohle and Marty Hart walk away from this alive. I was not expecting that. I also wasn’t expecting that we’d get to see them process the experience to the extent that they did. And then there was the strong note of optimism at the end. Why did you want to end this story this way?
NIC PIZZOLATTO: A few reasons. We’re never going to spend time with these guys again. And killing characters on television has become an easy short cut to cathartic emotion. So I thought killing the guys, or having something more mysterious happen to them – like the guys charged into Errol’s underworld, and disappeared, and nobody knows what happens to them – would have been the same thing if the show had gone full-bore into the supernatural: To me, it would have been puerile, and it would have skirted all the issues the show raised. To me, the challenge was to not only let these guys live, but show true character change through this journey. That passing through the eye of the needle in the heart of darkness has actually done something to them.
The challenge was to create an emotionally resonant ending that made the journey worthwhile. And it felt to me like my proper relationship to the characters should end with me allowing them to walk away into some kind of immortal life outside of this show. I mean, it ends with them exiting stage right, right? We don’t know what kind of life they’ll have. But I think we can be sure that each man is more willing to acknowledge the presence of grace. That was one of the ways that they both failed the same: Neither man would accommodate the idea of grace for their own reasons. Where I wanted them to go in their journeys wasn’t a point of redemption or conversion or even closure but a point of deliverance. They are not healed, but now, for the first time, you can imagine a future where they are healed. And before that was never a possibility for Cohle and hardly a possibility for Hart. But now it’s a real earned possibility.
You closed the show with Cohle talking about the stars – a metaphor for good versus evil, light versus dark – and how as a kid he’d look up at the stars and create stories. All of which reminded me that of storytellers of antiquity, assigning heroic myths to the stars. What was the meaning of that sequence for you?
There was a part in the show that wound up getting cut, in which Cohle detailed his childhood in Alaska, and he described having no entertainment, now way to pass the time than to walk around in the night, with his synesthesia, it would seem like he could hear the stars ringing. That was his television show. I think what True Detective keeps telling you, over and over again, is that everything’s a story. Who you tell yourself you are, what you tell yourself what the world is, an investigation, a religion, a nihilistic point of view – these are all stories you tell yourself. You need to be careful what stories you tell yourself.
You said there was no conversion in the story. But was Cohle suggesting he now believes in some kind of afterlife when he told Hart about his near death experience?
It’s not a belief – he’s talking about an experience. And he’s not talking about a reconciliation with loved ones after death: If you listen to what he says, he says, ‘I was gone. There was no me. Just love… and then I woke up.’ That line is significant to the whole series: “And then I woke up.” The only thing like a conversion that he has is when he says, “You’re looking at it wrong. To me, the light is winning.” And that doesn’t describe a conversion to me as much as it describes a broadening of perspective. The man who once said there is no light at the end of the tunnel is now saying there might be order to this. I don’t think it says anything more than: Pick your stories carefully.
Errol Childress was pungent with rot and weird. What was your philosophy regarding the villain of the show and how you portrayed him in the finale?
We had kept the monster behind the curtain and we needed to get to know him. We had showed aspects of the monster and we had showed the historical genesis of the monster or at least provided enough information to describe him. For the finale, I thought the audience deserved to get a close point of view on the monster, and to recognize him the way you recognize the heroes of True Detective. There are no monsters other than humans, no heroes other than humans. The challenge with Errol was to imply an entire history and personal mythology and methodology within the limited amount of time we had with him. Since this was the finale, I thought we could make room for one more point of view, the dark mirror to our characters, the shadow they’ve been chasing for so 17 years without knowing it, the historical victim of bad men who murders women and children.
Errol spoke of a rather mysterious, occult agenda: He spoke of aspiring to an “ascension.” What was Errol really up to? What did he want?
That’s a really good question, and I don’t know if it benefits me to answer it. We definitely had an idea – I laid out for Glenn Fleshler, who played Errol, and for our art department, in terms of who this killer was, what he was doing, and how he lived. In the beginning, when he says, “My ascension removes me the disc in the loop,” he’s describing the cosmology of eternal recurrence of various characters, including Cohle and Reggie Ledoux hit upon, and he’s hitting upon his personal mythology. When he says, “It’s been weeks since I left my mark, would they have eyes to see,” we can tell from that that he’s angling for a reckoning, for a showdown. He’s waiting for it. He believes the murders ritually enacted over a period of time, upon his death, permit him an ascension that removes him from the Karmic wheel of rebirth. This whole idea of time as a circle, yeah, that’s Nietzsche and quantum cosmology, but that’s also the Karmic wheel. If you mentioned something like Karma to someone like Cohle, he’d probably throw up.
So it’s fair to interpret from the finale that Errol wanted death and was inviting it?
Yes, he was inviting it.
Would it be fair to interpret from the series as a whole that Errol was trying to expose the monsters who made him, his family, by leaving clues that implicated them?
Yes. You can tell there are certain times he wants people to notice him. Childress was signaling to the authorities both his presence and the presence of the men who made him. And Cohle and Hart don’t get absolute justice at the end. Cohle says, we didn’t get them all. But they got a branch from a big rotten tree, and Hart says, we got ours, and basically, the rest of the tree is up to other people.
Errol seemed to consume a lot of pop culture. He had stacks of DVDs and books and magazine in his house, he watched North by Northwest on television. What was his relationship to it?
I had an entire biography for Errol. For example, he taught himself to sound like other people by watching movies on his VCR. That’s why one minute he can sound like Andy Griffith inviting you to the fishing hole, and the next second he sound like James Mason, and then the next, he can sound like something otherworldly. So yeah: if we’re talking about the stories we tell ourselves, if identity is a story, this killer we get to know a little at the end, his identity seems completely fluid, depending on what story needs to be told, or, in the case of the North By Northwest scene, whatever story is in front of him.
Are you prepared for the theories or varied wild interpretations that might come with this ending?
About four weeks ago, I realized I had to completely avoid the Internet. So I am going to just keep doing that. Once it really got out there, and people were buying The King In Yellow, I wanted to tell them, “Don’t buy that! Go buy Galveston!” [Laughs] I realized that people need to have their own journey with the show. Whatever they end up with – whatever theories they have or don’t have – that’s what it means to connect with an audience. One of the most exciting things to see from people who really like the show is that it has inspired such great creativity in them. There are websites of True Detective artwork out there now and it’s beautiful. And I don’t want to take that away from anybody. I know what it means to me. But I don’t want to take away anyone’s interpretation of the show. If they have an interpretation that means it lives inside them and they connected with the show.
True Detective doted a lot on religion. What does that subject/theme mean to you?
It’s one of the stories we tell ourselves. I lived in the rural south in a heavily religious family but the only thing I can point to there is this real sensitivity between knowing and wishing. We live in a culture that has a real hard time distinguishing fiction from reality. Even when they’re told something is fiction. I have people in the same breath ask me “Is this show supernatural?” and then ask me “What are you saying about Louisiana?” As if I am making a documentary. It’s a work of fiction. And it reflects one of things that fascinates me about our species and our culture is what we do with stories. I mean, look at people did with this story! It was a nice lesson learned for me. The show is not anti-religion or anti-anything. The show is against not thinking.
What’s the update on season two?
I am still fleshing it out. The basic idea: Hard women, bad men, and the secret occult history of the U.S. transportation system. I was well on my way in the writing but there’s been a lot noise and work around the end of the first season that got in the way.
Is it true that you’ve retained the literary rights to Cohle and Hart?
I do. So maybe you will see Cohle and Hart novels down the road after Hollywood kicks me out. Always a possibility.