Being a lifelong fan of movies featuring psychotic serial-killers, I was intrigued a year ago when I learned that Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey were starring in a serial-killer miniseries. I had always liked Harrelson’s work, right from Cheers to Natural Born Killers to Rampart. And this was a phase when McConaughey was appearing in a string of good films. My interest in the series peaked when they announced that Cary Fukunaga, the director of the incredible Mexican drama-thriller Sin Nombre was directing all the series episodes. After watching the trailer, I was completely sold.
True Detective is unlike any television series ever made. It has only eight episodes, and for the first time all the episodes were written by just one guy (Nick Pizzolatto) and directed by one other guy. This was more an epic eight-hour film than a TV show, in terms of style, scope, aesthetics and scale. Over the past two months True Detective caught on like wildfire across the pop culture landscape, sending fans in a frenzy of detective work. You could compare it to the success of Breaking Bad, but this level of internet craze over a mystery show was only previously witnessed in The X-Files fifteen years ago. And I was part of the mayhem, as I let myself soak in the simple pleasures of Rusty Cohle’s nihilism.
True Detective ended yesterday to polarizing consequences. On one hand we finally got to know the identity of the Spaghetti Monster and the end of a twenty year old case. That was exhilarating. On the other hand, there is the crushing feeling of the show ending – there will be no more Cohle and Marty adventures on TV. That is depressing.
Far more powerful are the emotions surrounding the finale of the series. The lingering question on everyone’s mind is simply this: was it a satisfactory ending to the series?
The perplexing thing is, I’ve religiously watched the series, and even I don’t have a definite answer to this. Sure, it was satisfying on many levels, but did it live up to the seven episode buildup and fans’ expectations? We’ll have to understand the concept of fandom to crystallize that solution. A huge fan base can be both an advantage and a disadvantage to a popular entertainment medium. Promising starts can garner a lot of acclaim, but expands expectation levels to impossible heights. No matter how great your third act is, there will always be someone who is disappointed because it didn’t meet his expectations.
True Detective was always more about the characters and the banter between Cohle and Marty than about the whodunit. You can guess the ‘mystery’ in even the first episode. So when the internet got together to solve the show’s mystery, the results were crazy. The Yellow King and Carcosa were dissected bit by bit. Everything from Cohle’s case map, photographs and files were scrutinized, and crazy theories involving Marty’s daughter were developed. There was even a theory that Cohle had gone undercover for fifteen years and he faked his altercation with Marty to hide from the shadowy cult. The detective work became so wild that writer-creator Pizzalatto had to clarify to the press that he’s not trying to pull the rug under your feet with a twist ending.
And Pizzolatto is right. True Detective is great for not falling into the clichés of a whodunit. Had the show comprised of contrived conspiracy theories, it would have been like any other potboiler forgotten in a few months. In the finale, Cohle and Marty solve the case, but not the entire conspiracy. Marty acknowledges this when he says to Cohle that they got their man, they’ve done their job. Despite having risked his life, Cohle is unsatisfied because he hasn’t caught the other men in the cult videotape. Cohle is the audience, and that is the genius of True Detective. We wanted Cohle and Marty to infiltrate the Tuttle politicos. We wanted them to bring the whole cult down. We wanted them to be superheroes. That didn’t happen, and True Detective is great because it grounds its characters to reality. There was no way Cohle and Marty could've lone-slung against the sprawling Tuttle-Childress clan. Cohle sent the video tapes to the press, and that was all he could do. And even that didn’t work out so well because we’re shown a news report where the Tuttles deny any relation with the Spaghetti Monster. We’re never shown the Tuttle-Childress clans’ dirty work. One of the cops in charge of the guy who dies in jail was a Childress. The show never went into any details of how that guy was killed, because it had the rare quality to expect you to be smart.
That said, the show did throw in a few red herrings under the pretext of layers. Marty’s daughter drew a few drawings reminiscent of the cult, and played with her dolls in appropriate manner. She was overtly sexually precocious, and even wore a tiara just like the first victim’s crown. None of those things were answered in the finale. I’ve made my GI-Joes have sex when I was a kid, maybe the series was just mirroring children’s games with the occult practices of the cult.
But more than the frustration of our detective work not coming to fruition, these unresolved segments are more about robbing us of a sacred emotion – closure. And I’m quite positive that it was another smart addition by Pizzolatto, because it reflects Cohle’s mindset at the end – the lack of closure. The twist in the series was indeed present - a nihilistic Cohle becomes an optimist and tells you that "You're looking at the sky thing wrong. Once there was only dark. If you ask me the light's winning". That’s Cohle telling you to look at the bright side – the second season's coming.