For the last few weeks, the internet has been exploding with various theories about “True Detective.” There has been everything from think pieces by Andrew Romano at The Daily Beast, wacky fan theories all over the place, and even a wonderful Youtube video about the the Yellow King.
It’s all been a lot of fun to speculate about “True Detective,” the monster at the end of its dream and what all of Rust Cohle’s philosophical soliloquies are really about. Now that we’ve reached the end I think many of us missed the point. (Although, I very much agree with Romano’s piece about “True Detective” being an examination of storytelling and the power of storytelling. But there are a number of subtexts, meta-writing and philosophies at work on this series. It’s one of the reasons this first season has been so great.)
Now that’s all said and done, I think “True Detective” is mainly about our two detectives, Rust and Martin Hart, and how they’ve changed. Creator Nic Pizzolatto has long said this is solely a story about these two detectives. Now, Pizzolatto uses these protagonists to expound a number of philosophies (Nietzsche and Tom Ligotti’s excellent case for the pessimist viewpoint in “The Conspiracy Against Human Beings”), literary references (Robert Chambers' “The King in Yellow”) and ideas about religion that are utterly compelling.
But for me, Pizzolatto did something amazing by examining the human condition through a focus on two men, and presented an outstanding case for the duality of human nature. As Rust said, “Human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution” responsible for all the evil in this world. While that’s surely a valid point, Rust eventually finds beauty in human consciousness by the end of it all. Human consciousness has the potential for horrible things, but it can also create wonderful, powerful love. Through Rust and Marty, we see the capacity for change. Despite all of Rust’s “Time is a flat circle” nihilism where nothing changes and “nothing is solved,” he does actually change, a lot, over the course of this 17-year story, as does Marty.
For all the horrors Rust faced in his lifetime — tweakers injecting infant daughters with meth, Medea murdering mothers and the countless terrors from his four-year stint as an undercover Narco — only one thing forever changed him, the love between him and his daughter. Rust became a shell (sentient meat) of a soul after her death, and then found redemption in her undying love. The longer he refused to acknowledge the importance and power of human connection, the more of a toll it took on him mentally (his pessimism) and physically (his alcoholism).
Some folks may complain about his final revelation. That an all-powerful love exists (even after death), and that this is a violation of who Rust was throughout the entire series. But I found it to be both a welcomed “twist” and somewhat hopeful ending that conveyed much of the contrasting ideas at play this season. (It also helped that Matthew McConaughey had one of his most powerfully gut-wrenching monologues in that final scene with Marty outside the hospital. Give that man all the awards.)
And while Rust had the most dramatic transformation after the showdown with Errol William Childress in Carcosa — more on that below — Marty had a pretty big one too. Marty had always prided himself on his “steady” family man status, but had taken that family’s love for granted, whether out of selfishness, pain or just obliviousness. Once he’s visited by his daughters and ex-wife in the hospital he tries to tell them “he’s okay,” but he can’t lie anymore. He hasn’t been okay for a longtime, and maybe if he’d realized it sooner his family would still be in the picture. Now that he has, maybe Marty can begin to make amends and find some peace, at least by being a father.
Both Rust and Marty were immensely flawed men, though not as much as Reggie Ledoux or Errol. But they did some terrible things. Marty hurt a woman who loved him deeply and alienated his two daughters. If anyone, he epitomized Rust’s words about “The sin of being a father” and just never realized it. While Rust claimed to have all the answers and was just “A bad man keeping other bad men form the door,” he actually wasn’t. Rust Cohle was a very damaged person who could’ve easily given in to the darkness and fallen into the abyss of Carcosa. But he didn’t because that love for his daughter and her love for him wouldn’t let that happen, even if he only realized it much later.
Now “True Detective” ended on a somewhat hopeful notion, even if many of the individuals involved in the Carcosa/Yellow King conspiracy will never be found out or brought to justice, and I’m glad about that. Rust and Marty, and many other people, had to suffer greatly throughout this season of “True Detective,” and presenting the power of undying love at the conclusion acted as a counterbalance to that suffering. Pizzolatto was showing the duality of human nature, how it could be corrupted and evil, but also loving and willing to fight that evil. This duality is exemplified by how different Rust and Marty were from each other, but also in how they were individually, conflicted souls waging a war within. For as much as “True Detective” was about the darkness, it felt completely organic to end on Rust’s, "Once there was only dark. If you ask me, light's winning."
And “True Detective” could’ve ended in the most horrific fashion imaginable. I began to think that was where we were headed after Errol seemed to get the upper-hand on Rust and Marty. And that final hunt through Carcosa — a hellhole of sickness and evil with the piles of children’s clothes, retched skulls and devil nests, and a haunting chamber of death — and battle was just so well done. Kudos to Pizzolotta and Cary Joji Fukunaga for coming up with and executing a scene more frightening and intense than the climax to “Silence of the Lambs.” Also, the opening look into the Childress household and “making flowers” — shudder — was super creepy. That Errol's Yellow King was a total psychopath created by generations of abusive psychopaths also fit with “True Detective’s” theme about the responsibility of being a parent and how neglecting that can have dangerous outcomes.
If Pizzolatto had decided to kill both Rust and Marty, the call never gets made for reinforcements and the murder of innocent women and children just continues, that would have been okay too. It would’ve fallen in direct correlation to Rust’s pessimism and ideas that we’re all just floating along in this “thresher” or “giant gutter in space.” And it would have been a super ballsy and utterly tragic way to end this story. But I’m glad Rust and Marty found redemption and catharsis in the end. And I don’t think I fully realized how much I would have been devastated if Errol did win, until it looked like he was going to. (It was hard enough to sleep last night. I don't think i could've if Errol was still out there.) Again, this was just a magnificent way for the story to unfold that left me on the edge of my seat.
“True Detective” is already on my short list for best TV show of 2014, and I doubt it will unseated from the number one spot. It’s early in the year, but this show was incredibly acted by McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, and some of the smaller characters like Shea Whigham’s Joel Theriot and Glenn Fleshler as Errol in the finale. “True Detective” was also beautifully directed by Fukunaga; every episode was just a masterpiece. But in the end, I’m giving the biggest hat tip to Pizzolatto.
The narrative, and all the different subtexts swirling around inside of it, that Pizzolatto created was just brilliant when all was said and done. I didn’t need for Marty’s daughter found to be abused by the cult of the Yellow King, or for Marty’s father-in-law to be involved. This was a messy end to a messy tale. There is still evil out there, and maybe Marty’s daughter saw that evil first-hand. But there will always be evil and darkness in this world, especially if we don’t see it explicitly. There’s also a small, strong fragment of light that will hopefully shine on evil. And maybe that’s what “True Detective” is really saying in this first season — that two men with inherent darkness found a way to let the light in, if only for an instant, and save themselves from a path of wickedness and sin.