True Detective season one finale review: Form And Void

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. 

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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. 

Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, After You’ve Gone, here

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