[This is a review for True Detective season 1, episode 8. There will be SPOILERS.]
Aside from its labyrinthine story structure (winding its way back and forth between nearly two decades); the painstaking effort that was taken in crafting and maintaining its sullen yet gorgeous atmosphere; and especially the quasi-deep, philosophical digressions of co-protagonist Rust Cohle, one of the most intriguing aspects of HBO’s True Detective was the response from the audience. More to the point: the manner in which its central mystery was appropriated between Sundays by an audience eager to pour over details and fill in blanks, hoping to head the program off at the pass. The endgame of Nic Pizzolatto’s intricate story about two broken men chasing an elusive truth became the Internet’s favorite obsession, and as a result, discussions about the show nearly became as much about the way we watch things, as it was about the series itself.
The response to the series seemed to be two-fold: There were those who were ready to call it an instant classic after the premiere episode, and defend its honor against any naysayer who might have rightly taken issue with its representation of female characters or the generally narrow assortment of personalities surrounding Rust and Marty. And then there were those who initially were turned off by Rust’s theoretical diatribes and overwhelming misanthropy, only to become excited at the possibility that the sometimes-impenetrable cop show spawning outlandish theories about Cthulhu monsters, yellow kings, and mind-melting descents into darkness would wind up revealing itself to be an insanely detailed, but nonetheless refreshingly traditional example of the kind of story from which the series took its title.
Discussing the True Detective season finale, ‘Form and Void,’ means discussing the importance of the show’s meticulousness and attention to detail. That aspect, the idea it was somehow laying Easter eggs everywhere for eagle-eyed viewers and True Detective theorists to point out on message boards is why new life was breathed into an obscure collection of 19th century horror literature, and why the program itself somehow managed to become the most poured over mystery since Lost. And yet, the remarkable thing about the mystery and the way the audience responded to it, was how, in its final hour, Pizzolatto’s story acknowledged itself in a sort of meta observation about the inherent repetitiveness of storytelling.
There’s “just one story,” Rust tells Marty in the waning moments of season 1; it’s “light versus dark.” That remark not only sums up True Detective‘s search for the Yellow King, the examination of Rust and Marty’s lives since the series premiere, and certainly, the violent showdown with Errol William Childress (Glenn Fleshler) to close this chapter in the anthology, it also serves as a kind of foreword for any chapters to come. When Rust discusses time as a “flat circle” and how everyone is destined to “relive the same aspects over and over again,” he was talking about his own drug-addled brain attempting to make sense of the world around him, but, in a sense, he was also talking about fiction and the idea that there really is just one story. As True Detective established – and the audience reaction wound up validating – a narrative can march right up and have one of its main characters acknowledge the existence of a single story being told over and over again, as long as the details are as strong and as compelling as there were here.
I remarked in the review of the premiere, ‘The Long Bright Dark,’ how, through its use and acknowledgement of genre convention, it felt as though the series was responding to the over abundance of dark serial killer dramas on television. And the show was, in turn, attempting to combat that profusion by becoming the definitive dark serial killer drama. Reading it that way, there’s a considerable amount of subtext to be read into the way Pizzolatto and Cary Fukunaga imbued the series with a sense of self-awareness about television trends and crime fiction in general, while having its two co-leads occupy opposite ends of the self-awareness spectrum in the most extreme sense. “What happened to my head is not something that gets better,” is a good example of Rust’s tendency toward extreme self-awareness, while Marty’s hilarious inquiry of “What’s scented meat?” sums up his relationship with questions regarding his own consciousness. While it further defines who Rust and Marty are as characters, the conversation during the long car ride to a suspect’s location is also prime crime fiction convention; it’s one thing cop shows have to do well, regardless the larger story at hand.
That level of awareness meant that despite everything going on, True Detective was essentially (and perhaps only) about Rust and Marty’s perception of themselves as unwitting participants in a much larger narrative, and how that changed over the course of nearly 20 years. Arguments have been made that the show is only about Rust and Marty, so the other characters (including Maggie and Marty’s estranged daughters) are deliberately one-dimensional. Whether that’s true (and, more importantly, somehow meaningful in the context of the show) or not will likely require a repeat viewing to determine (cue, HBO Go). But that just means in addition to supplying a satisfying conclusion to the central murder investigation – i.e., answers to the identity of the Yellow King, as well as what and where Carcosa is – ‘Form and Void’ had to provide some sort of closure to the shattered lives and relationships of Rust Cohle and Martin Hart.
It’s hard to argue that the detectives’ confrontation with Errol Childress amongst the accumulated detritus and appropriately labyrinthine corridors of Carcosa was anything but satisfying – finding and punishing Dora Lange’s killer was, after all, the initial goal of the narrative. But the secondary goal of the narrative might have actually worked out to be the more satisfying endeavor of the series. During the past seven weeks, True Detective has asked its characters over many, many years whether it’s possible for men like them to change, or if they must simply reconcile themselves with who they are – like it or not. Fittingly, that’s the question the series doesn’t have a direct answer for; instead it leans more toward the suggestion that a person’s perception can change, affording them the comforting illusion of transformation.
When Marty visits Rust in the hospital, there’s an unexpectedly comical interplay that ends with Marty saying, “Don’t ever change,” while the men exchange vulgar salutes toward one another. Strangely, both the comment and the salutes are instilled with a sense of endearment, rather than the vitriol that permeated their relationship previously. It’s a surprising bit of levity and optimism in an otherwise intensely dark program that accentuates Rust’s final line quite well: “Once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.” Perhaps in its heart, True Detective chose to believe that even after tremendous damage is done, the truth is: perceiving some sort of change is the only remedy, and the only way out of the darkness.
Screen Rant will keep you updated on the news regarding future seasons of True Detective on HBO.