The 'True Detective' Finale Was the Most Infernally Disturbing of All the Episodes

by David Thomson | March 9, 2014

photo credit: Courtesy of HBO

ONE: Written After Episode 6

Episode 6 of True Detective struck many addicts as the weakest yet—but the viewing figures were the best the show had had. 2.9 million people were there for the first playing of 6, appreciably more than watched the pilot. President Obama, it seems, had asked HBO for a set of the tapes. I would have thought he had worries enough, but then you realize that he might see Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) as a role model—that faraway look, the dreamy voice, the soaring eloquent hopelessness, those brilliant cross-examinations, and the certainty that nothing could ever impinge on the insignificance of man-unkind.

But 6 did falter. Did Marty really deserve another nymph humping on top of him? More to the point, when Rust and Maggie finally got it together, didn’t we expect more than a rapid rear-entry fuck and then out the door? The attraction between the two of them was evident from episode 1, but who could be attracted to Rust for anything more than his talk? Everyone raved about the six-minute tracking shot in 4 (with justice), but we had a right to expect a six-minute wooing speech from that strung-out nihilist in love with language.

Now, this supposing is impertinent—we have to let Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Fukunaga (the writer and director) work it out their way. But we care. The furious speculation of its connoisseurs is a testament to what this show has accomplished. We’re like the readers of Dickens in America waiting for the ship to arrive with the next episode. Approaching 7, I thought of Se7en, the David Fincher film that must be in the mind of this show, and which tells you that, if you’re ready to stick around to the bitter end (and if Kevin Spacey can still talk), don’t complain if it’s so bitter your mouth falls out of your face. But the heart of this speculation lies not just in the show. It has to do with the opportunities and limitations of what we call long-form television.

As you know, True Detective is eight, hour-long episodes after which the show (if it is renewed) will shift to a different story arc, with fresh characters and actors. But if HBO has been wary of renewing do they wonder if anyone will tune in to series 2 without McConaughey and Harrelson to spin out time? Imagine Breaking Bad if, at the end of season 1 or 2, it shifted attention to a quite different set of characters who somehow justified “breaking bad” as a title. This is not the way networks or cable channels are used to thinking. Their essence is to find a sweet, tasty recipe and keep feeding it to us.

But the series of eight does offer the writer an unusual advantage: he could kill Rust or Matt, or anyone else he can think of. That ultimate dramatic coup is available, as it is not once a big series gets under way. At a certain point, we knew Walter White might be at death’s door, but he was going to have to linger. That is not quite consistent with the nature of dramatic narrative and the gravitational pull of closure. You’ll find a similar problem in Homeland: In series 1, Carrie Mathison plunged toward her breakdown, and the finale was heart-rending. But you can’t have Carrie back on duty for 2 and 3 and likely to end up a shuddering wreck again. There’s only so much the CIA can take, and there is a strain between narrative and commerce that hobbles long form.

So it’s quite possible that True Detective is going to have a startling body count at the close. Eeny-meeny-miney-mo? 

TWO: Written Before Episode 7

Suppose the worst happened; suppose the show did “lose” it. You see, I don’t think that would really matter, but it would raise valuable questions about what “it” was or might have been. Our most pressing anticipation is to have the mystery of the story “solved,” and I daresay there are forces at HBO that would prefer it delivered with maximum impact. But what works best in the show is “mysteriousness,” or the deeper sense of unknown things. A clear conclusion to the narrative will disappoint that suspense. What it comes to is that the totality of True Detective is a little off to one side; it is like the necessary machinery in the ominous but entrancing unfolding of Rust Cohle. Only the other day I was told by a reliable source that when Matthew McConaughey was shown the first two scripts it was with the idea that he would play Marty Hart. But he read it and said he wanted to be Cohle. If it’s hard to credit now that McConaughey could have been Hart (Woody Harrelson), that may only show how much has been discovered in the production of the show.

But the actor’s instinct, and the way McConaughey has reduced his physical self and enhanced his mythic being, suggests an essential impossibility in Cohle.  He walks around with a large black book in which he records the world he sees; he talks like some brilliant kid who dropped out of a Great Books course because the teacher found him crazy and disruptive; and while Hart is an authentic smartasss red-neck cop ready to fuck any pretty woman who looks at him, Cohle is an austere icon of unquenchable attractiveness. That’s why the quick banging of Maggie was inadequate. He should have held her the way some visionaries hold poisonous snakes in those back bayou churches where the snake’s tongue and the man’s speak in unison. Cohle is a figure from a different context—the outcast-prophet, like Faulkner’s Joe Christmas in Light in August, Hazel Motes in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, or Peter Mullan’s incantatory desperado in Top of the Lake. (I thought of that when I realized that both shows were photographed by the same man, Adam Arkapaw.)

So, at this point, I am torn between two possibilities: that there is in this godly but forsaken and antique South a moonshine business in the enslavement of young women. Or, Rust could be the killer himself, a devil, investigating his own crimes, the author of the show. Does he have the scripts in that black book of his?

It’s in the nature of serial television to appreciate serial killers: The structure of their work fits so naturally with the rhythm of an episodic narrative. In the New Zealand of Top of the Lake, women’s fear of rape and a sub-culture of sexual exploitation gave substance to the mystery, and made a nasty riddle for cops to solve. So there might be monsters in this back country, like those mythic marauders in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, George Romero’s world of the living dead, or the paranoid road vision of Duel, The Hitcher, and Breakdown where civilization catches a chastening glimpse of old evil, inbred decay and our remorseless fondness for satanic style.

But then think of the wasted Cohle at the interrogation table, smoking, drinking, blueskying, and making totem figures from the beer-can metal. That man is mesmerizing, and so dangerous you feel grateful that he’s on TV with two cops—moreover, two black cops, his Rosencrantz and Guildernstern. I don’t know if Rust will be alive at the end (or if he ever was), but he could be the distillery cooking the film’s ghostly brew. He might have placed that first corpse, the naked woman bent over, antlers on her head and a crude spiral drawn on her back.

Either of those endings would work well enough. They would be respectable “Wows.” But that larger, creepier mysteriousness where birds spiral in the sky would be gone. It’s the peril that awaits any storyteller who puts all the load on a question. Answer it and you are lost. So what I hope for is an ending, a dying fall, that is as uncertain as the best moments so far, a conclusion in which you have to accept that the answers have gone away leaving twig constructs hanging in the trees. I want the guys and HBO to have the courage to say, “We’ll never know—nevermore. All of this was once upon a time.” The closer the ending comes to certainty, the more depleting it will be. 

THREE: Written After Episode 7

There were moments in 7. It had a piercing scene where Rust questions an elderly black woman close to dementia about a man with a scarred face. Again, you felt his instinct for examination, and the woman was somewhere between Alzheimer’s and Voodoo. It was human and mysterioso at the same time. And then there was the scarred man

But the chief thrust of 7 is to bring the two guys back together. There is even an air of a buddy movie creeping in. Rust compliments Marty at one point and their reunion has the embrace of companionship to support the businesslike investigation. Rust has a storage container full of his obsessive case material, and now that has been transferred to Marty’s private investigator office. I worry that they’re going to solve the case by the end of 8, and dread the screeds of explanation that are threatened. They could get killed saving each other.

This was the most conventional or procedural episode, though its very end had a beautiful moment from Fukunaga that revealed the scarred man, large, ponderous, and child-like, and then panned over white tombs in the woods to see a warning ship passing on the magic hour river. This was very striking “thriller” movie, despite the sinister daintiness that “played” the scarred man like a trump card (and established mowing the lawn as a fundamental theme in the show).

Marty is rotund with middle-aged padding. Rust seems to have wearied of his mad poetry. In fact, Marty edged toward the center, and in his story of how he quit the force, there was a shocking image of him seeing a baby’s remains in a microwave. Harrelson began to come into his own. It looks as if Marty is going to be a good guy, which is not unpleasant, but was not the early promise of this show.

Maggie had short scenes with both men, and the one with Marty was their kindest yet. She’s remarried, in a plush house, though Michele Monoghan doesn’t look much older (or happier). They sat far apart in a large lounge, but he watched her with a new fondness. We hear their daughter Audrey is a painter now: That was a plant and I suspect it will be part of 8 and something else ugly for Marty to see. Both the guys are older now, plus sadder and wiser. I’m afraid they may be decent guys getting ready to be dull.

For much of the show, it was the gulf between the two cops and the structure of separation that was enticing. It’s easy to see how programming needs to bring them together. We assume that Pizzolatto and Fukunaga are as one in this series. That might not be so. Fukunaga does long for cinematic beauty—as in the end to 7—and a lot of the show’s atmosphere comes from that. But Pizzolatto may be striving to make a story “work” without betraying the visual moodiness or the flighty urges in McConaughey’s performance. The story seems to be closing in on answers, and what really happened, whereas the filmic look is obsessed with what might have been, but will be forever ungraspable. Maybe the point about True Detective is its inspiring so much speculation on the Net. It is a show that draws us toward becoming authors.

Episode 8 is to be called ”Form and Void.” You can’t say the show lacks nerve, or theory. 

FOUR: Written Before Episode 8 

This is the time to quit, I suspect. Just as we’ll never learn why Louis Armstrong is in the credits for Homeland, so the mysteries in True Detective deserve to be protected against explanation. Look instead at the strange South we have been asked to accept, with burned out cult churches in the foreground and the immense apparatus of factory and refinery on the horizon. Which deserves most fear?

When the series began, I thought of Faulkner’s corrupt world and then of the desolate locations in the movie of Baby Doll (Benoit, Mississippi). That’s from the 1950s when the South was still whatever it had been, before Civil Rights, a Gothic wound in the American imagination. And in True Detective we see so many wayward communities in the back of beyond—the brothels, the churches, and the drug houses. It’s a place where the maps don’t quite work and cops get lost. So, in the credits we have those beautiful suspended dissolves of landscapes and the haunted faces of Cohle and Hart. From those emblematic openings, we are taught to search but not to see. Marty has guessed all along the answers might be under his nose.

McConaughey and Harrelson are both from Texas, but the show is from the smart coastal cities and their dread of what lingers in this South. Just as Top of the Lake perceived the abuse of women and children in the classical wilderness, so True Detective has the same fears of the last “unmapped” part of the United States where failures of cartography blend with excesses of human nature and the legacy of slavery. Is the South of 2014 really like that? Who knows, but in this extraordinary show it is a place that brings home the things we know happen in this world—the outrages from Bosnia, Rwanda, Syria and wherever else you can remember. And we have this horrific dream, with birds spiraling in the sky and Katrinas falling upon the land. When the physical devastation gets bad enough then the demons will come out of the woods, dripping with mud. Cohle and Hart know it, and now we know it: detectives have a hopeless task.

FIVE: Written After Episode 8 

No, the ending is not enough—but how could it be, and where is the surprise? Yes, there is more comfort in the friendship of Cohle and Hart than we or they deserve. But the show elected to find a little relief at the end. I would allow that because of the properly hideous way in which 8 began. There in the woods—greener and prettier than they had ever been—we were in the lair of such intimate horror that nothing will chase it away.  So many of the ingenious and entertaining theories on the blogosphere can subside, and mine with them. I give credit to the makers of the show in that 8 was the most lustrously forested and the most infernally disturbing. There was a visceral suspense in the scenes where Rust and Marty penetrated the labyrinth—it was in the class of Psycho. And the physical climax was sufficient. The case is closed. Our guys can sit on the verandah nursing their wounds and yarning about their adventures. They have confirmed that wild hope—that the cops will sort it out—and they seem more settled in their lives. Rust is forgiving himself for the death of his daughter. And I can believe that Marty and Maggie will be together again. Audrey seems untouched (until she watches the show).

But how can any of them or any of us forget the life that was being lived in that house in the forest? The horror, and the ordinary, unspeakable need for companionship, will not fade away. Even on the edge of the abyss, we tell magnificent stories: “True Detective” and “Top of the Lake” in the space of a year. And aren’t they the same story?

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