True Detective season one finale review: Form And Void

Review Michael Noble 11 Mar 2014 - 17:30

As True Detective reaches its finale, it's possible that the light's winning. Here's Michael's review...

This review contains spoilers

1.8 Form and Void

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Matthew McConaughey described the pattern of thinking that helped him create the ‘psychedelically complex’ character of Rust Cohle at each stage of his appearance. Of the boozy and dishevelled 2012 vintage, he says that ‘he’s a guy who lived longer than he hoped’, a marvellous phrase that, like ‘psychedelically complex’, I rather wish I’d written myself. It encapsulates a great deal of Cohle’s southern-fried nihilism, pitching him as a man who has not only left his best years behind him, but who has left pretty much everything behind him. His family, his career, his health, every productive relationship, all gone. All that’s left is the case, the investigation he no longer follows so much as inhabits, like a bad dream from which waking seems impossible. 

That dream, as Cohle himself predicted a few episodes back, has a monster at the end of it. Finally, that monster has a name to go with his scarred face: Errol Childress. We, and Hart and Cohle (and Papania and Gilbough) have seen him before, hidden in plain sight. If there was a sense of anticlimax to the fact that, as in Scooby Doo, the monster was the humble janitor all along, then it was perhaps a justified one. From the first episode, it’s been clear that the Yellow King case was about more than a simple bad guy doing bad things, or even a group of bad guys doing lots of bad things; it was the product of the corruption of an entire culture. The participants might be powerful and well known, like Old Man Tuttle or pudgy nobodies like Childress but they are equally affected and infected by it. 

Childress himself was a curious little oddity. One of the creepiest villains we’ve seen on TV, the opening scene showing him in his dilapidated hovel with his sister-lover, shuffling around, flitting from emotion to emotion and from personality to personality was grim, uncomfortable viewing. Played with sustained creepiness by Boardwalk Empire’s Glenn Fleshler, he was both monster and victim, simultaneously an agent of horror and the subject of powerful forces beyond his limited comprehension. It is possible, in our most empathetic moments, to even feel pity for him, at least for as long as we could forget that other item of grim, uncomfortable viewing contained on the VHS tape that Hart and Cohle forced Sheriff Steve to sit through. 

The section with Steve was among the most straightforward of the episode and of the series as a whole. Our two detectives finally had the upper hand, their target out-thought and outgunned. The show has struck a fine balance between meditative moments (such as the attempt to make the car ‘a place of silent reflection’) and controlled action sequences (the adrenalised denouement of episode 4 being the strongest case in point). Here, the shooting out of Steve’s car was not only satisfying on a personal level, given that he damn well deserved it, but necessary from a practical point of view. The Yellow King’s tentacles run everywhere, only an idiot would try to take the thing on without an insurance policy or two. Hart and Cohle, as we have seen, are not idiots and placing Steve in a double-bind was a smart move, as was the various destinations of the multimedia dossiers that were to be sent out if the detectives did not return from their mission. As a man who had already lived longer than he’d hoped to, Cohle is more than prepared for ensuring that his case is completed even in his absence. That became a very real prospect when it became necessary for Hart and Cohle, like so many Hollywood cops, to enter the villain’s own territory to take him down by force. And what force it was. The pursuit of Childress was as tense and doom-laden as anything the show has yet offered; it gave us moments of genuine horror, suspense and dread and, for a moment, made it seem as though neither detective was going to walk back out. Of course they did, as soon as the guy left for dead picked up his partner’s gun to take down the baddie. It was True Detective once again donning the clothes of cop drama to make a point about its characters. True Detective was not, like The Wire, a deconstruction of cop show tropes, but it did deployed them intelligently with the aim of telling a larger story.

That much was obvious by the structure of this season finale, which featured an extended coda once the central mystery had been solved. To the end, the show sustained an interest in its leads than ran beyond its concern for the case. The themes that the show has floated throughout its run were addressed, if not answered. The issue of manliness was picked up in an  episode in which its two Y-chromosomed leads cried. Hart, who measured himself against his father by considering which of them could ‘take’ the other, has been dwelling on his fight with Cohle. He was worried that his partner was holding back, that, of the two of them, it was Cohle who could do the taking. It was a classic piece of Marty Hart thinking. Their partnership, often fractious, occasionally violent, ultimately became one of genuine buddy-ness. Their bruised reunion at the hospital sparkled with the back-and-forth banter but permitted a discussion that could only take place between the two of them. ‘We didn’t get ‘em all’, says Cohle, of the thing that’s bugging him. ‘Yeah, and we aint’ gonna get ‘em all. That aint what kind of world it is’ replies Hart ‘but we got ours’. It’s a decent piece of matey reassurance but, as an idea sown in Cohle’s fertile mind, it blooms. He still stumbles, finding ‘a vague awareness in the dark’ but in that darkness comes the feeling that his daughter and his pop are present and Cohle can still feel ‘a part of everything he ever loved’. In those last moments of the episode, he and Hart act not as assigned partners but as genuine friends of the kind to exchange small token gifts. Their relationship is mutually supportive and they can look back on a solid job of detective work. The dark may have ‘most of the territory’ but piece by piece, case by case, ‘the light is winning’ and maybe, just maybe, Rustin Cohle didn’t live beyond his years after all. 

True Detective will return with new actors, new characters, a new story but the same dogged reviewer. Until then, thanks for reading. 

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Brilliant Review.

Great review. The monologue by Cohle in the final minutes regarding the darkness he was submersed in during his coma and what he felt to be there, the way it was described, how McConaughey acted it out and delivered the script had me in tears. One of the finest combinations of acting and scripting I have ever witnessed. Superb!

I thought this was a great show for episodes 3-5, but I felt it became more and more "ordinary" over episodes 6-8.

Those middle episodes felt like we were witnessing something really next level, vying for "best show ever," but the last few made it seem more like "typical detective show with a bit of cod-philosophical dialogue."

The final episode made me feel a bit "meh"... it seemed to wrap up the story like any generic detective movie with a typical "monster in the woods" character and an ok shootout. Also it seemed a pretty Disneyfied "everyone miraculously survives!" ending, with a hokey finding love/god conclusion.

The direction throughout was superb, as was the atmosphere, but I feel it peaked mid-season.
I know a lot of people complained about the plot being disappointing because there was no clever conclusion to all the clues, though I never really thought it was going to do much with those plot points, so that wasn't too much of a let down on that front.

I can see how you feel let down in the later half of the season, but, by the end, we realise that we have been searching for meaning where there is none. Just as Cohle has been telling us. Making the last few episodes just as great.

The way the case played out follows the show's path of realism over myth. A perfect ending, leaving us satisfied, but with even more unanswerable questions.

Can't wait to see who's cast for the next season...

Yeah, I'm hoping that they learn from the mistakes of this season, because it has the potential to be up there with the great shows if they get it right.

Just marathoned the whole season. While I was watching it, although great, I didn't get all the praise heaped upon it. But thinking about it a day later and looking at it as a whole I really can understand it. This isn't a show you can go into whilst treating it as normal, I can only describe it as the most hard boiled detective story I've ever seen. I loved the philosophical dialogue too, Rust was a very interesting character and his views were spot-on at times too.

Unlike others I have no problems with the ending, it was perfect. People wanted twists, they wanted the characters to take down everyone involved in one fell swoop, and that just isn't what happens in real life. In that way it is the opposite of typical, as the entire show was opposite of typical in many respects. I feel like these people wanted the fantastical, without realizing that every fantastical element was inside Rust's head.

So, none of the good guys died, the nihilist found God, the other one probably reunited with his family and the bad guy kicked the bucket.
I can't help than feel cheated here. Like someone hit the "Star Trek Reset Button" (TM) at the end and everything returned to normal.

At first I really thought the ending (post-showdown) was weirdly incongruous. Both with the rest of the series, and especially Cohle.
The whole jesus-like feel to Cohle (hair, being "dead" and coming back, someone even exclaims jesus at one point...), and that he would someone become a believer just seems like a betrayal of the character.

But then again. I assume we can all agree that the whole show was about "looking for meaning" - casework, figuring out your place in your life / settling down (Hart), nihilism vs faith, the absolutely awesome might-be-a-clue misdirections, how the show continually flirted with becoming supernatural (nd even flirted with its own genre), misdirecting the audience vs. no big twist, etc. Then it does make sense that Cohle has his own search, which is a flirtation with meaning - he is drawn to the case, to the conspiracy, while denying himself and everyone else any kind of hope. "Everything is meaningless" he claims again and again, while (like Nietzsche) fighting for the ultimate meaning of being intellectualy honest (even when it inappropriate and alienating), and picking at the scab that is the case.
So yeah, maybe in the coma he does "give in" to hope. When his definitions and intellectual faculties (not just a facade, I believe) are gone, his... emotional self, I guess...? allows itself to hope.

I refuse to believe Cohle would "find God" and it would be a horrible, horrible whitewashing of religion and a pat answer to the question of mans search for meaning to say "don't worry, it is there even if you don't see it". But if it is hope, for meaning and for the things we miss, that he finds/gives into, then I guess the ending does make sense.

I did miss, however, some kind of closure or at least continuation of the great themes of the series: Men doing evil to women, the inherently sick culture(s) of the area, the not-a-conspiracy-but-a-societal-ill "answer" that the show underplayed so well. I didn't really see any of that in the finale, and it was really missed, at least for my part.
I think that these themes were supposed to be addressed where Cohle is in the hospital, overlooking the city (and talking about it later). Here, the imagery very much looks like some of the intro - a face and a city overlapping each other. And it did feel like he was "sitting in judgement", debating the merits of society, humanity, life and his own pseudo- (or rather, proto-?)-religious experience. "Do I go back to this life?", "Was the hope I felt false or real?", "Can I allow my self to hope, continue to?"
I don't know how you could have showed all of this. Tied the theme of decay of society, the flood, the corruption, the "bad religion"-aspect and the whole theme of men treating women as objects together at the end. But I am sure that they did the right thing in not laying out the entire conspiracy, or the idea of getting the "real bad guy" - or, come to think of it, that it is all completely hopeless...

If they had one more episode maybe they could have tied it up in a little bow for us, but given the time they had left and the multiple unanswered lines of story, I guess they had to pick the important ones and at least give it some kind of resolution.
Very glad it didn't go on for 7 seasons though, always being right behind the yellow king and never quite catching him.
The finale was far from perfect, but like the guy on your US site said, it filled me up.

Some people are hard to please. One of the finest shows of the last few years, really giving us a focused arc, great dialogue and fine acting.
McConaghey was fantastic, but I don't think he would have been as good without Harrelson, who gave a performance that was just as impressive.
People may feel cheated, but sometimes people look for a myriad of twists and complexities that just aren't there.

I just finished the series and thought it was great. Really well written, directed, shot and acted show and like all the best shows, it was bigger than the genre; in that it is more than just a detective series, as Sopranos is more than a gangster show.

Just wanted to give a nod to these Denofgeek reviews which were brilliant and I enjoyed reading them after seeing each episode. A great accompaniment to a great series.

This is easily the most overrated show in a while. The finale was perfect in the sense that it captured the essence of the show: sound and fury signifying nothing. The show tried so hard to be "edgy" and "different" but it suffered from a lack of substance.
The Rust character was a more of a moronic 1st year undergrad that misidentified theories, espoused false logic, and consistently used non sequiturs as matters of fact.
The Marty character was, while better written, a man-child with serious issues regarding the treatment of those he loves.
The attempted redemption at the end of the series contradicted the essence of these characters. The fact that the show devolved into a conventional cop-buddy story signifies the "all icing and no cake" reality of the show.
If they really wanted to make it as daring as they initially promised (ie the first half of the series) they would have made harder decisions: not having Rust find God and Marty redemption.
Fan reaction to the show is curious to say the least. Reminds me of the scene early on where Rust vehemently criticizes those "parishioners" watching the reverend preach in the tent. Herds of sheep come in large numbers...

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