In the season finale, Rust and Marty bury the hatchet, and then some other stuff happens. You know.
There’s just one story, the oldest…light versus dark.
The final, perfect scene of “Form and Void,” in which a newly shattered Rust ponders his place in the universe and allows that there’s more “out there” than he can understand, is what the series had truly been building to for eight episodes. Not the investigations, not the Yellow King, not the action/horror climax inside the nightmarish Childress estate — the simple character shift of one man finding room in his heart for something spiritual. The gibberish-spouting nihilist, whose pitch-black worldview has been shaped by the unspeakable things he’s experienced and witnessed and lost, was this close to slipping away into that eternal darkness he’s touted for so long — only for his conscious mind, or spirit, to realize and admit that there’s something else there. It’s McConaughey’s finest moment in a series generating acclaim since its premiere, finally letting out aching vulnerability after keeping those emotions buried deep behind an icy mask (and mustache).
And it’s not just one towering performance, but two — Woody Harrelson has been every bit his match in a much less flashy role. Marty, who gets his own reunion with Maggie and the kids when they come to see him in the hospital, tries to convince them — and himself — that’s he’s fine, but fails miserably. He’s not just trying to process his near-death experience down in Carcosa, or the realization that this 17-year case is finally over, but coming to terms with the fact that simply succeeding and surviving isn’t going to fix his mistakes of the past and put his family back together. He could go on to do very well for himself, maybe finish that novel he’s been talking about, but he has a long way to go in finding contentment. The idea is that he and Rust might keep on this path, solving unsolvable mysteries — the flat circle keeps spinning — because it’s all they know how to do.
But while the show has been at its best when the investigation takes a back seat to the psychologies of these two men, last night’s finale was fantastic in bringing those threads together. The text and the subtext, the external and internal conflicts, intertwined like one of Errol’s stick lattices. And boy howdy, is Errol a piece of work. Living in the kind of rural squalor that breeds psychosis, with his lover/half-sister and with his father tied up dead in the shed (seriously, my notes on this opening sequence are simply “WHAT THE EFF”), Errol Childress, our erstwhile “Yellow King” — though that is never explicitly stated — is one mercurial dude. True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto offered some insight into Errol’s accent-shifting (in this great interview with Alan Sepinwall): because of the scarring inflicted on him as a child, he taught himself how to speak again by watching a lot of old movies. Hence, his impeccable James Mason impression. But he’s been at “this” for decades — judging by the many, many child outfits and toys laying around his estate. And the subterranean passageways beneath it are even worse, though that evil goes back much, much further.
After threatening an impotently raging Sheriff Garaci (“It’s chain of command…right?!”) with Rust’s sniper friend/bar owner — shades of the Breaking Bad finale, but there’s no comic relief here — Rust and Marty have slipped back into their old uneasy rapport. They have a chance to finally hash out what happened between them and Maggie, and Rust’s honest declaration that “Everyone has a choice” is enough to put the matter to bed. But the inscrutable squad car banter has regularly been a series highlight: “I can read it on your face.” “The problem’s with your face, not mine.” I was also really pleased that, for once, Marty was given the key breakthrough (and the most important one of them all), and connects a fresh coat of paint to the roving Childress clan of handymen. It was important for Rust to finally have a moment to respect Marty for his own investigative prowess, instead of taking the lead the entire time — something that got him in trouble a decade ago. Was it a pretty flimsy, almost random connection? Sure. But it was good enough.
When Rust knows immediately that they’ve come to the right place, we’re hit with an almost crushing foreboding: this is Rustin Cohle’s Heart of Darkness moment. Marty’s only role in this first stage is to place that phone call to Papania, a development which, while giving us a chance to see more of the Childress residence, gee thanks, felt a little bit forced and small, even with Mrs. Errol spewing more of that weird dialog we know too well. But it allows Rust to go off alone — again — and chase Errol into the demonic spider’s web of Carcosa. On and on it goes, like the fabled labyrinth of the Minotaur, or maybe more like the final level of a video game (the otherwordly taunting probably added to that), until Rust finally reaches the Boss Level underneath an oculus, open to a sunset sky. It’s at that moment that Rust’s poorly-timed hallucination — all of the Cosmos suddenly open before him, and coincidentally on FOX as we speak — gives Errol the opening to stab Rust in the chest, digging the knife in deep, and lifting him up like the prized “priest” that he is.
And when Marty finally shows up at the scene and takes a tomahawk in the chest, I thought he was dead, too. And I wouldn’t have been surprised — not only is that the kind of wound that typically does in Hollywood characters large and small, we’ve been trained by these “prestige dramas” to expect heroes to die, and it would have fit with the punishing bleakness of the series to off one or both of these guys. But True Detective, as it turns out, isn’t actually about the darkness coming to consume us all — it’s about the light fighting back. Pizzolatto allows for some optimism to creep into the final scenes — once Rust and Marty have been rescued by Papania and Gilbough, who are finally, finally right about something — and when Rust laments that they haven’t done enough, the visible members of the Tuttle/Childress clan are going to get away with it, Marty sets him straight. “We ain’t gonna get ’em all — that’s what kind of world it is. But we got ours.” The land may be too polluted, the offices of power too corrupted, and there’s always one more pagan cult to bring down, but Cohle and Hart finally stopped the man who killed Dora Lange and dozens of others. And for now, that’s going to have to be enough.
It all leads to that surprisingly honest conclusion, with these two men out there in the hospital parking lot, and Rust laying his blackened but searching soul out there for the first time. (It’s the searching, not the blackness, that is all the difference between a man like Rust and a man like Errol, both products and victims of circumstance who have made very different choices.) While in his coma, he felt the presence of his daughter — and that sensation, or whatever you want to call it, makes that loss all the harder to bear now that he’s emerged from the empty silence. “I’m not supposed to be here,” he keeps saying. Marty, seeing his friend — yes, his friend — in a new light, gives love back, and they look up at the stars like Rust once said he used to do. The war of light and dark is still being waged, but there is hope: “Once there was only dark. If you ask me, light’s winning.”
It’s a perfect note to end the series on, summing up its ethos with a heartbreaking performance and a gorgeously shot denouement. Director Cary Fukunaga, who has shared the credit for TD‘s success with Pizzolatto and the performers, has done brilliant, often understated work. The epic tracking shot of “Who Goes There” was rightfully acclaimed, but I’ll actually more remember the compositions, the color palette, the consistent tone. As we briefly flash back to all of those old crime scenes — the Childress Home, the Ledoux lab, the infamous lone tree of episode one — yes, time is a flat circle and all that, all of this will happen again, but Fukunaga’s camera reveals the incurable poison of the land better than any McConaughey monologue ever could. It’s a real shame Fukunaga isn’t coming back for Season 2 (supposedly female-driven), but you know HBO will dangle buckets of cash in front of some big names. Both behind and in front of the camera.
With its 8-hour limit and single-minded perspective, the series hasn’t been without its flaws. All of the complaints about underwritten side characters — particularly the ladies, who seemed to exist only to fulfill HBO’s nudity quota — still hold water, even in the light of the series’s resolution. Our ideas, even our caricatures, of Rust Cohle and the “Yellow King” will live on even as the memories of their plot machinations fade. Indelible lead performances, a provocative-if-opaque mythology, and some truly excellently-shot sequences will be the legacy of this first season, which, if you ask me, is just fine — I’m not going to artificially build up the series, nor should I over-criticize and foment a backlash against it. The show did a lot of big things really well, and some small things not-so-well, so while it was able to build a totally unexpected level of fan devotion in an incredibly short period of time, it’s not an “all-time” series — just a pretty great one. I think most people will agree with that.
Can it top itself with Season 2? That’s a pretty tall order. There’s a real “lightning in a bottle” feeling here, which means that pretty much anything is going to feel like a disappointment, but I’m eager to see what Pizzolatto has in mind. I do hope it’s substantially different, however. The world only needs one Rustin Cohle.
Season Grade: A-