What True Detective's Critics Miss About the Finale

by Isaac Chotiner | March 10, 2014

A few final stray thoughts on the 'True Detective' finale before we all go back to obsessing over more frivolous things:

One of the main complains about the last epsiode was that Rust Cohle's newfound optimism in the final reels felt unearned. Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) had for so long been such an extreme pessimist and cynic that his final movement toward a more optimistic worldview didn't compute—or so the argument goes. I think this is miguided for several reasons.

Solving a case that has been bothering you for a good chunk of 17 years—and coming close to death while doing so—just might lead you to, I don't know, have a change of heart. But others don't see it that way. The terrific Emily Nussbaum, for example, snarkily writes that Marty was "'fine, just fine,' recovered from years of Match Personals and TV dinners. Rust had a touching dream about his dead daughter, in which he glimpsed light beneath the darkness." After what they have been through, is this really so odd? Would the experience really not elicit existential feelings in nearly everyone?

Similarly, while I probably have less religious feeling than 99% of the people in this country, for Willa Paskin to write, "I think maybe True Detective ended with Rust Cohle finding God? Talk me off the ledge," and add that it all seemed "cheesy and mystical" seemed a tad unfair. The show did go some way to explaining why people depart from materialist views of the world, however objectively incorrect those views might be.

But my central complaint against this argument is that it sidelines what was so touching and powerful about the ending; namely, that McConaughey was making a gesture towards his partner. In scene after scene over eight episodes, Marty mocked Rust's nihilism and showed impatience with his anti-religious rants. One, in particular, took place at a rural church, where McConaughey heaped scorn on the believers. I thus saw the final scene as McConaughey trying to establish a closer connection with Harrelson, and taking a step towards the latter's less cynical view of the world. None of this means that either man is going to become an optimist or a believer (or that, per Nussbaum, we are supposed to believe that Marty's "fine" line means all is in fact swell). 

Moreover, it's not as if McConaughey is in the process of becoming a full-blown fundamentalist. It is thus odd for Spencer Korbhaber, on The Atlantic's excellent roundtable, to write that "Rust scoffed at tent worshippers, and the Carcosa cult’s belief in the supernatural had terrible consequences, but Rust ends up joining all of them by buying into comforting, irrational mumbo jumbo." So saying you are slightly optimistic about the course of humanity is the same as being a fundamentalist Christian at a (presumably very strict) church, or joining a cult that kills children?

To return to Nussbaum's complaint about the tidy wrap-up of Hart's personal journey, I also think many of the critics have been much too hard on the brief, awkward scene in which Hart's estranged family comes to see him in the hospital. It's true that this was another instance of peripheral, female characters given very little to do; but it was also sad and moving because it displayed the ways in which, even in his heroic moment, Harrelson's prior behavior left him wounded and alone.

For those who found the wrap-up too tidy and light (as opposed to dark, to use Rust's formulation), it is worth remembering that the show had one other "light" wrap-up three episodes earlier, in which the supposed killers were caught, the cops were heroes, and all seemed briefly well with the world. And how long did that last? It is certainly relevant that the creative team behind the show chose to end it on the note that they did, but I don't think we are meant to read too much into these final nice moments. This is still a dark show with two characters who are not going to be permanently cured of their difficulties. 

Still, the more I read about the actual plot makes me think that the critics do have a point about the laziness of the wrap-up. The clue that led to the men cracking the case open was pathetically unbelievable; the actual details of what the cult was up to, and to what degree it interacted or steered clear of the central murders, was hazy in the extreme; and the personal story of the killer's connection to the Tuttle clan was underexplained. Not only did this slightly dampen the effect of the last half hour, but it will also, I think, make the idea of rewatching the series less compelling.

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