'True Detective' : Flawed Finale to a Classic Series

Viewers had to make do with very little that was tangible, and yet that only added to the suspense

Photo: Lacey Terrell/HBO

If you thought it had something to do with Woody Harrelson‘s father-in-law – and this doesn’t constitute a spoiler, because that was too off-base to ever be possible – you were wrong.

In fact, just about every theory that cropped up online speculating about the finale of HBO’s terrific True Detective (and inspiring writers to mention the notorious ending of Lost) was wrong.

Now onto some real spoilers.

The resolution of the sprawling mystery of who was committing the ritualized serial killing of young women and children grew, with surprising directness, out of the very last shot of the previous, seventh episode: It seemed mostly to be the work of the so-called scarred man, whom we had glimpsed on a ride-a-mower in a cemetery (we’d seen him much earlier in the series, again on a ride-a-mower).

Former detectives Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey caught and killed the Scarred Man in the bowels of what seemed to be his own personal fortress, which served as a grisly crypt for his many, many victims.

In the aftermath, Harrelson and McConaughey both realized that this one awful man was not the whole story – what about the other disguised characters in that grainy old video? Who shot the video? Who, in the end, was the Yellow King? (Was it Scarred Man?)

And who, in a diabolical misapplication of folk craft, created all those little twig “devil traps” and littered them all over Louisiana? They could have been sold in gift shops.

Maybe this was all answered and I misunderstood. But I had just rewatched the entire series – and loved it – so I hope not.

Not True Jessica Fletcher

The problem isn’t that True Detective concluded without rounding up every clue and pinning them down like insects on corkboard – that’s true to the show’s metaphysics and its sense that mankind, nature, time and space are basically empty, awful things that you would never, ever like on Facebook. (Although McConaughey, who was the one espousing these views with an almost ascetic priestliness, by the end perceived meaning in the very face of death. Like!) This is not True Jessica Fletcher.

What was wrong with the finale was Scarred Man himself, a psychotic backwoods Neanderthal capable of pulling off a completely credible British accent for the amusement of his lady friend, a dumb, open-mouthed slob.

Apparently a hoarder as well as a psychopath, Scarred Man lived in a dilapidated house stuffed with books and antique dolls – what is it with psychopaths and antique dolls? – while he turned the grounds into a shrine to his own disgusting wickedness.

Apart from the fact that Mr. and Ms. Scarred Man never shook my impression that they were two actors dressed in sacks and liberally smeared with grease, I just don’t think a deranged psychopath who hoards, mimics Cary Grant off the TV and kills and kills again can or should bear so much of the weight of True Detective‘s eight-part narrative – one that so beautifully sketched out a bewildering but compelling pattern of clues, then encouraged us to connect them like stars in a constellation.

And “beautifully” is the right word here.

True Detective was certainly, convincingly, one of the most atmospheric productions I’ve ever seen. Everything was rotting and rotten: abandoned schools, a rusted bronco pony, heaped-up old tires, stripper clubs, biker clubs, burned-out churches and those devil traps.

McConaughey’s musings about man inevitably losing out to vegetation, decay and decline were perfectly attuned to this place – the crimes, too, seemed to spring from decay, decline and fundamental corruption, even among the rich and the powerful.

Atmosphere isn’t enough to tell a mystery, though. True Detective deposited plenty of clues or hints – tantalizers – in this bog like sediment or silt. Viewers had to make do with very little that was tangible, and yet that only added to the suspense (and the wild theorizing). We barely knew the victims, and barely knew the criminals.

The name Reggie Ledoux was vitally important, but he no sooner launched into his big scene, muttering crazily about “black stars,” than he was gone. The Yellow King, Carcosa, names of now-dead sheriffs and people who knew people – the details were always evocative and incredibly vague.

But the framework of the narrative was clever. It helped contain and define the Big Eternal Swamp: Both the time scheme and the perspective were fragmented, with McConaughey and Harrelson separately recalling the original case and their history together on the force.

Honorable Acting

And the acting was superb. McConaughey, coming off his Oscar year, has won the biggest praise for his Rusty Cohle. With his terrible knowledge of the world, Rust had become a living martyr to that knowledge.

McConaughey looked like a man dragging his frail carcass down the road of sorrow. Harrelson’s Marty Hart was willing to strike bargains with himself to survive the sordidness of police work – cheating on his wife was a release-valve – but he was never just a comic foil to Saint Rust. He had his own agonies, and he grimaced and sweated through them.

And Michelle Monaghan, as Marty’s betrayed and very angry wife, was possibly the most interesting character of all. Her bluntly calculated act of revenge seemed to draw on instincts she didn’t understand, or know she had.

Even with the fall-off in the finale, the show will probably join the ranks of great television mysteries. To me that would include Twin Peaks, which shared even deeper thoughts about existence and made no more sense than a pea on a hat, Veronica Mars Season 1, Helen Mirren‘s Prime Suspect and, in the past year alone, Broadchurch (currently being adapted for FOX), Gillian Anderson‘s The Fall and Benedict Cumberbatch‘s Sherlock.

My hope is that, on second viewing, the finale falls better into place. Regardless, the rest of True Detective is so good you should binge – watch it as soon as possible.

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