It’s helpful, I think, to look at True Detective through the lens of Nic Pizzolatto’s career before the bidding war for this show reached astronomical levels. He was an English professor, teaching creative writing and literature at schools like UNC-Chapel Hill, the University of Chicago, and DePauw. But he left academia in 2010, the same year his first novel Galveston was published, to work as a screenwriter, first on the staff of AMC’s The Killing (he’s co-credited along with showrunner Veena Sud on the infuriating first-season finale) and now with a presumably lucrative overall development deal at HBO. I’ve heard many people from various universities argue, dismissively, that this is the route to go in order to make something more than a paltry living as a fiction writer in the current market. But plucking out his work as a novelist is the key to looking at True Detective as an eight-hour story. That sounds about right for the amount of time it would take to read a crime novel on the denser side.
That’s to say that “Form And Void” ends the story in succinctly satisfying yet inexhaustive fashion. The arc of True Detective’s first season introduced a gripping narrative structure, one that bounced around in events from 1995, 2002, and 2012 with grim alacrity; confident in the moves it made to reveal exactly what it wanted to in a given moment. Then, over the course of the middle hours, it bloated with compelling cinematographic style, and threw in nods to Lovecraftian horror and weird fiction. All of the references to The King In Yellow helped fuel rabid speculation that at some point True Detective would leap off the rails, along with Rust Cohle’s penchant for hallucination, and end up somewhere in modern Nathanial Hawthorne territory. But over the last few weeks, Pizzolatto’s story has trimmed down, until what’s left is what was there from the beginning: two men, clashing with each other through fervent professional chemistry, working to solve a complex and largely ignored series of disappearances and murders.
The mere fact that the show didn’t steer into the supernatural skid, so to speak, is going to disappoint a lot of people who were looking for something utterly bizarre and unheard of, but that’s just not in Pizzolatto’s roots. True Detective is a lot like a novel that gets lost in the sprawl during the thick middle of the book, meandering, exploring, trying out a few stylistic tricks, before settling back down into solving the major plot threads, tying off a few others in passing, while leaving many others to twist in the wind, questions for further discussion. It may feel like a copout, but I honestly can’t remember the last time I felt this invigorated by the buddy cop model. For that alone, I would deem this debut season a success.
HBO’s “Behind The Episode” shorts, which go up after each episode airs, have been incredibly informative slight glimpses into the production with commentary from Pizzolatto and series director Cary Fukunaga. The one for the finale is especially elucidating. For one, Pizzolatto creates a poignant thematic framing with the title. Form and Void are the most fundamental of the binary opposites: presence and its inverse, absence—what is there, and what isn’t. In case there was any doubt about the monster at the end of the story, this episode tosses off any remaining mystery. The opening scene shows the man with facial scarring from the end of last week’s episode, the man most responsible for the crimes Rust and Marty have uncovered intermittently for 17 years.
But the Yellow King lives in squalor. He’s a groundskeeper that Rust and Marty have encountered before, outside one of the shut down Tuttle schools back in ’95 while investigating the Lange case. He lives with a woman, possibly a blood relative, whom he talks to in a prim-and-proper British accent, and sleeps with. But he also veers into violence at the drop of a hat, throwing a frying pan at a dog. He keeps an old man tied to a box spring out in a smaller house. He babbles incoherently, and has such a cold grip on the woman that she spouts out the dangers of crossing him.
To Pizzolatto and Fukunaga, this is the first scene outside of the Cohle/Hart perspective, jumping through an open curtain to glimpse the monster in his habitat for the first time. (That sweeps the episode focused on Maggie’s memories under the rug, in a way that plays directly into the criticism of how this season marginalized female characters.) But this gives away the who and the where, making the finale more about how Rust and Marty get to that point. And that’s really what this show has been about the entire way through: how those two men navigate the most important professional event of their lives.
In the first of the well-acted but somewhat underwhelming scenes, they interrogate Steve Geraci (Michael Harney, of Deadwood and recently the main correctional officer on Orange Is The New Black), but the truth of his involvement in the cover-up gets explained away in spinelessly unquestioned chain-of-command protocol. I think the bad thing to come out of the feverish speculation over the show’s direction after the middle third got so gleefully out of control in style and scope is that every Ockham’s Razor solution takes a little more wind out of the show’s sails. The episodic structure plays into that—there have been several cliffhangers that turn out to immediately undercut the drama at the beginning of the next episode. This is the final one, which indicts Geraci for his lack of tenacity when tracking down a girl who ended up on a snuff film, a forgotten footnote in the midst of a reign of terror.
The real zeal starts when they let Geraci go. Rust threatens him with capital harm should anything befall the two detectives as they dig deeper into everything. But Rust’s threats (“Me or Marty see cuffs or coffins, you’re going to end up in the dirt.”) don’t scare Geraci (“Your psycho bit don’t curl me, boy!”) until Rust signals for a waiting sniper to take shots at the man’s car. He means business—and reels off an epically quotable “L’chaim fatass” as a kiss-off.
If there’s one moment, more than any other in the finale, where suspension of disbelief is not only helpful, but also required. It’s the big link that gets the investigation to its final hurdles. Marty has shown himself to be a good detective with flashes of greatness. Tracking down the pimp who led to Reggie Ledoux is one such moment of solitary investigation without Rust’s help. But the epiphany Harrelson has to play here, seeing a house photo, realizing it got a new coat of paint, all inspired by wondering about why the “spaghetti monster” from that sketch had green ears, is just about the biggest stretch the show has taken. It’s harder to believe than Rust’s high-functioning hallucinogenic existence as a gifted detective.
Nevertheless, Harrelson acquits himself all right in that moment—aided by McCounaughey’s jealous “fuck you,” and they’re off and running. They track the homeowner, to tax information on a Billy Childress, who owned a maintenance company that did work all over the coast for parishes and schools. There’s no record of a son, but they’ve got a lead. In the midst of this, there’s one final driving tete-a-tete, where Marty and Rust broach the subject of their fight (Marty thinks Rust held back), and they finally just air grievances and lay blame at everyone’s feet.
After a brief scene of Marty talking to one of the 2012 detectives, making sure they want to get a call should the private detectives uncover something of note (which reveals how much the modern day guys want a share of the official credit), the episode shifts back to that decrepit house. On the way, Rust recalls the smell of aluminum and ash, and once they arrive, immediately knows they’ve found the right place. Marty questions the woman in the house, while Rust focuses on the second structure, where Fukunaga’s camera shifts in order to hear Childress’ grunting breath, hiding in the shadows. When Marty lets a dog out, it runs around the other structure, where Childress immediately throttles it offscreen, and the chase is on. Marty clears the house, and Rust gets a head start after the man who would be the Yellow King.
That chase is both physical and psychological, as the amalgamation of pagan, voodoo, witchcraft, and any other sacrificial rituals appear in fuller form. The scene runs through an old pre-Civil War fort, sunken into the ground as though this cult dug out a subterranean lair for sacrificial purposes. This is one of the tensest sequences of the year so far, and will likely be up there still by the end of it. All the devil nets, spiraled twigs, and decaying bodies form the psyche of a twisted man (and unseen group of followers), first running away, then drawing in his adversary, deeper and deeper into territory he can navigate but his opponent cannot. Is that voice in Rust’s head, or is it Childress, finally faced with an enemy, coaxing a showdown into existence? To Pizzolatto and Fukunaga, this man wants to be caught, has been leaving clues for years, in the hope that finally facing down someone worthy enough to cross his path directly will elevate him through whatever sinister theology he’s concocted to a higher plane.
This is the one place that I’ll choose to reference Lovecraft and other weird fiction more directly. Often, the way that a secret society, or a cult, or some kind of supernatural organization, gets revealed in this type of story, is when it has aged to the point of limping survival. In the heyday of these terrible acts, presumably the man in charge would not be the inbred possible blood relative so unhinged he’s intent on getting caught as a way to ratchet up a plane of invented existence. So Rust and Marty have to fight their way individually through all the overwhelmingly terrifying history in order to confront the decaying root of the case they’ve been chasing for nearly two decades.
Rust reaches the heart of Carcosa first, a disgusting and meticulously crafted altar, where Childress attacks, after Cohle’s hallucinations recur at precisely the worst moment possible. Poetically, Marty has to follow Rust’s lead, save the partner he disowned, only to find that Childress is a great deal stronger and more adept in ranged weaponry than either of them presumed. The fight is an intense struggle, and in that moment, it doesn’t matter that this revelation is the two detectives and one man—the Tuttle connection, all the men in the videotape, the mountains of evidence waiting in envelopes to be mailed to news and law enforcement outlets only lead to this place with these childlike and violent people. Rust saves Marty from a decisive axe chop by shooting Childress through the skull, and Marty returns the favor by tending to Rust’s stab wound until the CID cavalry arrives and starts shooting off flares. That one angle looking up through the oculus is magnificent, and a nice piece of thematic foreshadowing: a fiery light fighting its way across the dark night sky. It’s a filthy and beautiful end that still doesn’t quite fit with everything that came before. But on the strength of McConaughey and Harrelson’s performances, and the occasional moments of gorgeously stirring visuals—the long take, the montage of landscape shots around the gulf—make this a valuable season of television.
And then we get the hospital scenes. It would’ve been bolder for the show to kill off one or both of the detectives, having them validated for the near-endless search only in death, as the modern-day CID employees rue how they missed all the key steps. And these brief scenes go a tad too far into attempting to construct a kind of redemption for Marty, as Maggie and his daughters visit for a bedside reunion. Two things keep that from leaning too far over the line: Maggie’s prominent rock of a wedding ring from her remarriage gleaming as she touches Marty’s hand, and Marty’s utter breakdown, as he realizes exactly what he lost—not because of the case, or his feud with Rust, but because this odyssey revealed the man he could’ve been without the booze, rage, and philandering.
McConaughey ends up as the eye-catching performance, the guy who got all the best lines, the memorable philosophical ramblings, and the ultimately heart-wrenching emotional arc. But I think what Harrelson did with Mary Hart is actually more triumphant as an actor. In comparison to Rust, Marty is a significantly underwritten part. He’s a hypocritical jackass who flies off the handle whenever he can’t control the women in his life, while pulling disproportionately attractive women into his orbit. (I think that does a small disservice to Harrelson, but he is a bit past his physical prime here.) And yet, Harrelson is so compelling in the part, such a perfect fit as McConaughey’s foil in technique, dating back to the pilot when he cautioned Rust against prematurely creating an endpoint into which the facts of the case had to fit. It’s not a showy role, nor one that would typically win awards praise over Rust, but both of these men turned in sympathetic performances as wild (but still irredeemable) characters.
Rust’s survival initially appears the most improbable and the biggest roadblock to a believably satisfying finale. But Pizzolatto has one more Rustin Cohle ace up his sleeve, and as the two men sit outside the hospital commiserating, McConaughey unfurls a monologue that might as well end the Emmy race for whatever category he ends up in right now:
“There was a moment, I know, when I was under in the dark, that something… whatever I’d been reduced to, not even consciousness, just a vague awareness in the dark. I could feel my definitions fading. And beneath that darkness there was another kind—it was deeper—form, like a substance. I could feel man, I knew, I knew my daughter waited for me, there. So clear. I could feel her. I could feel…I could feel the peace of my Pop, too. It was like I was part of everything that I have ever loved, and we were all, the three of us, just fading out. And all I had to do was let go, man. And I did. I said, ‘Darkness, yeah.’ and I disappeared. But I could still feel her love there…even more than before. Nothing…nothing but that love. And then I woke up.”
There’s Rust’s character arc in microcosm. Over the course of True Detective he’s been scarred by his daughter’s death, and hollowed out by the spiral downward as an undercover officer he turned to when unable to cope with the accident and subsequent dissolution of his marriage. And finally, when he achieves some semblance of peace and satisfaction, he wakes up back in the unbearable pain of existence. This speech gives the impression that he felt as though this was the last piece of unfinished business he had on earth before he would feel okay with ending his own life. Rust’s conviction throughout the final confrontation implies he intended to die solving this case. His existential crisis, and how he approached his miserable work through that utterly pessimistic mindset, framed the show in quotable darkness. But in that survival monologue, emitting tears, Rust arrives at some small place of comfort, knowing that a place of that satisfaction exists.
Imagine Pizzolatto the novelist one more time. He wrote the entirety of True Detective, and the show was produced in full, long before the pilot ever aired. And with the pitch stipulating that the show move on to another story with new characters in a new setting with each season, a variation on the anthology series like American Horror Story, Unlike many of the other prestige dramas from television’s new Golden Age—from The Sopranos to Mad Men, to even sitcoms like Community—True Detective never had to worry about responding to audience reaction within the narrative. It’s finite, consisting of only eight episodes, before moving on to another self-contained story. In that way, this is the most novelistic form of television imaginable: it airs week-to-week in order to take full advantage of the Internet publicity machine, but remains blissfully unaffected by the demands of audience expectations, and then leaves that story behind forever to be judged on its own. (It’s a significant advantage over the Netflix all-at-once model: how much are people talking about House Of Cards right now? Its second season wouldn’t even be halfway over with a more traditional rollout for streaming each week.) The twisting horror-fiction elements that inspired so many Redditors to tease out potential meanings, or the mind-boggling pattern of Marty Hart punching way above his weight with women, turned out not to be harbingers of a truly groundbreaking genre-hopping trajectory. I think the impressions left behind by the lead actors and the creative pair behind the scenes makes True Detective a show worth following.
Plenty of loose ends exist. All of the big players, who may have been involved, up to the Senator Tuttle, seem to escape prosecution or any serious connection. Marty waves that away in a line or two about finally getting their man and finding the location of countless remains of missing persons. But in cleaving the thread of these two men returning to each other from the rest of the supernatural din, unstoppable force and immovable object, True Detective returns to its roots, just two guys who got paired together by a confluence of fate. I don’t think any of this will truly stick. They’ll stay in contact, but Marty can’t save Rust if he really wants to die and achieve that peace he felt while in a coma. And though the feel-good buddy attitude of that scene outside the hospital ends the season on a steely kind of gentility, there’s an important glimmer of hope. Rust began the season endlessly spouting that the terrible people will continue to thrive, that all existence is hopeless, and all people should stop procreating and let the species die out after the mistake of consciousness. But right at the end, he turns optimist with his final observation about the Sisyphean task of doing good in the world: “Once there was only dark. If you ask me the light’s winning.”
• For anyone looking to find more detective stories with female protagonists, this list at The Millions has a good start.
• The production design that went into that maze of subterranean fort hallways will take weeks to unpack, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to look at all the sickening things I thought I saw in passing as Rust looking around as he crept deeper into that lair.
• Here’s an interview Alan Sepinwall did with Nic Pizzolatto about the first season with some minor teases about the next story.
• The woman in that decrepit house, who may or may not be Childress’ half-sister, is played by Ann Down, most recently Dr. Masters’ mother on the Showtime series Masters Of Sex.
• That’s it for True Detective this year. Hopefully the official renewal from HBO will be handed down shortly, and we’ll get to do this again next year after a good amount of fantasy casting and endless speculation over teaser trailers.