The finale of True Detective, reviewed by Tucker 'Fox' Johnson
Rust: “You’re lookin’ at it wrong. The sky and everything.”
Marty: “How’s that?”
Rust: “Once there was only dark. If you ask me the light’s winnin’.”
And so concludes the first season of True Detective. To a passerby this dialogue exchange wouldn’t seem like anything special but when those words come both at the end of one of the most nihilistic series on record and out of the mouth of a man who spent the series’ eight episodes despising every collective breath that humanity took, well, it’s a big deal.
There are plenty of weighty themes to talk about in “Form and Void” but I want to start with Nic Pizzolatto’s approach to the season’s final moments. Unlike most of the cop shows I’ve seen (and it’s pretty hard to even consider this in the same league as most of them) a huge twist wasn’t thrust into the finale. In fact Pizzolatto threw the killer right in our face at the end of last week’s episode “After You’ve Gone” and in so doing quelled the riot that was internet theorization. Everyone and their mother had their ideas about every aspect of True Detective, the Yellow King most of all. I imagine this always happens with good mystery television (I guess it really doesn’t even have to be good) but what I really appreciate here is even though he had no real control over the audience’s self appointed Easter egg hunt between episodes he did have control over what we did and didn’t know for sure. Most of the season he chose to sprinkle the facts on us but it was almost as if he foresaw what we’d all be doing and reigned us all back in and his actions speak louder than the narrative. He tells us flat out who to be afraid of before we even get to the finale because the identity of the killer isn’t the point that Pizzolatto is trying to make. Errol William Childress could really be anyone. That said, he’s an absolutely terrifying screen presence and Glenn Fleshler deserves all the credit in the universe for showing up this late in the game and still casting such a heavy shadow with his performance. But this man who’s been yearning to be the King in Yellow for so long, who’s taken calculated steps to not being discovered, who’s mastered the art of hiding in plain sight is finally brought down because he painted a house once in 1994. And just when you thought you couldn’t throw your hands up any higher at the situation we learn he painted the house green, not yellow.
That’s where True Detective sets itself apart from other cop drama. The final clues aren’t found and put together because the dutiful detective finally looks at them from the right angle. Not at all. Instead the discovery is made because of a completely random connection brought on by a just as circumstantial frame of mind. And it’s perfect. This is the kind of idea that this series has been building toward since its beginning. Human beings are imperfect creatures that have found themselves in a universe where they constantly face a near perfect enemy: Darkness. So when we finally make the right connection, when we finally discover the killer’s identity, when we finally take them down we see it as a victory against the very cosmos. We spurn the skies because that is where our creator lives and we have to remind him that no matter what his intentions he’s allowed true evil to seep through onto our plane and humanity, not God, fought it off. True Detective strikes me as a series that wants to show how people are constantly trying to prove to their makers that they’re worth the gift of existence. It’s really the most human emotion there is. We want to be worth something. Like Marty we want to be desired by those we care about and though we make mistakes we’ll still fight tooth and nail to retain that desire. Like Errol Childress we want to fight for our place in the shuffle. We push our father’s aside (or lock them up) to make sure that we’re given our time to prove ourselves worthy of power and existence. Every character on the show can be applied to this template except for one: Rust Cohle. Rust doesn’t care what he’s worth. His sole mission in life is to prove the creator wrong. He wants to rub God’s face in the fact that nature and humanity have allowed for atrocities to occur and who in their right mind would allow such horror to exist? He’s not even out to stop the madness. He just wants to make sure that everyone knows it’s there, lurking in the shadows, a horrific inevitability. But then that is why “Form and Void’s” final lines are so beautiful. Rust finally stopped the evil he’d been fighting against for two decades. He finally won his battle with the cosmos and only after doing so does he realize that maybe it isn’t a losing battle after all. In the climactic moments of Rust’s chase through Childress’ Carcosa he looks up into the sky and has a vision of a cluster of stars in the shape of a spiral. “This will all happen again” it says. But in that same defeatist statement hides another, “Now is the chance to do something about it”.
True Detective has spent plenty of its air time focusing on dualities so of course it ends with them too. Time is a flat circle, easily repeated. So of course we’re taken back through all of the outdoor set pieces of this season though now from the vantage point of a helicopter shot gliding cleanly over all. Carcosa is an enormous spider web in the darkness yet when defeat for its king finally comes it does so in a wide-open room with a view of the sun and sky. The cosmos takes on the shape of a spiral yet in the season’s final shot we look upon a starry night sky that seems so much clearer. The stars are positioned randomly in the sky with no real pattern to buy into or obsess over. And as if to strengthen Rust’s closing words the shot is given a long exposure and the full brightness of the stars becomes more and more apparent. Yet Rust’s final line isn’t that we’ve won, it’s that we’re winning. The battle of light and dark is never ending and so of course the winner will change hands. It’s just up to those on the side of light to keep battling the dark no matter the odds or frankly, the outcome.
It’s been lovely watching this season and writing about it. Only because I listened to it while writing this final article do I want to close with the refrain from the song “Black River Killer” by Blitzen Trapper. It just seemed too fitting to pass up:
So you make no mistake
I know just what it takes
To pull a mans soul back from heavens gates
I’ve been wandering in the dark about as long as sin
But they say it’s never too late to start again
Oh when, oh when
Will the spirit come a-callin' for my soul to send
Oh when, oh when
Will the keys to the kingdom be mine again?