Tuesday, March 11, 2014

True Detective Season Finale

As I’ve never been good at predicting the endings to mysteries, there are plenty of directions that the True Detective finale might have gone in that would not have surprised me a bit. A dark secret rising out of Rust or Marty’s past? Sure. Ancient gods, aliens, a surprise crossover with True Blood? All right. Sentient meat? Why not?

The one thing that I would not have predicted, though, was that this dark, brooding series, this recruitment video for nihilistic pessimism, this express elevator to the sub-sub-subbasement of human degradation would end up… Hopeful? Optimistic? Even spiritual?

Oh man. I just finished watching about five minutes ago, which means I’ve had no real time to modulate my feelings, something I’m sure I’ll regret come the morning. But: I Really Did Not Like That. I think finales are under insane, constricting amounts of pressure in the Internet age, with thousands and thousands of people paying incredibly close attention to every single aspect of a show, hypothesizing en masse. If they do exactly what you were expecting, they’re screwed; if they do less than you were expecting, they’re screwed. It’s very hard to live up to expectations, let alone exceed them.

But I am a little in awe of how totally snookered we all were. Boy, did we overthink this thing! The Internet’s theories about the case were so much more ingenious and captivating than what happened in tonight’s episode. They so much more neatly and plausibly tied up loose ends that the finale had no interest in. Maggie’s father-in-law, Audrey, even the Yellow King—not really relevant! Instead, we got a mansion out of Grey Gardens-meets-Deliverance deposited next to the largest catacomb this side of Europe. (Can you build that deep in the bayou? Or doesn’t the water come up? Or was the whole thing constructed just so Rust and Marty could stare up at a flat circle?) Also, it finally happened: Someone made Cary Grant super creepy.

Worse was the last character beat. I think maybe True Detective ended with Rust Cohle finding God? Talk me off the ledge.

True Detective’s final episode, “Form and Void,” breaks the cardinal rule of show business. Leave ‘em wanting more. Oh sure, I’d love to watch this every week for the rest of my life, but this was satisfying. True Detective satisfied me as a supernatural suspense thriller, as a monster movie and as a worthy entry into the Satanic Detective genre. And it was a good cop show, with grit and humor, that could sit atop any list with Joseph Wambaugh in it. I am sated. It was a great meal that started with antipasto and had a monster course of spaghetti, albeit with green ears. True Detective even had a little acting cadence at the end like one might serve pastries with espresso and Sambuca. Cohle and Hart reach an understanding. That’s dessert. There is a monster at the end, but there is also hope. When you look up at the stars and you see that the darkness outweighs the light, a little hope from a nihilist goes a long way.

First of all, I want to backtrack to why I started watching this in the first place. I thought True Detective was going to be fun. Matthew McConaughy and Woody Harrelson, veteran actors, veteran stoners, kicking back and having fun chasing demons in the woods and swamps. I thought it was going to be a blast. Maltese Falcon on the bayou. Mio mayo. I get a steady kick out of both of these actors, I figured, cool. Sit back, get bent and enjoy the ride.

A little bit about stoner clarity, because it does play into True Detective. Those who partake know how they can get lost reading something and blow through whatever’s available out there to read on it to get to the ultimate conclusion. It’s fun getting lost in anything that remotely interests you and you’re not scared that they eat time in Carcosa. Think about the excessive detail the Beatles brought into their music after it became verdant. That clarity tunes right in to the abyss of unlimited potential. Nic Pizzolatto’s excessive compulsive attention to detail mirrors the detective work. It relies as much on chasing down clues and doing research as it does that leap of intuition. True Detective captures that unquenchable need to know with pincers and a magnifying glass. Rust and Marty are two cops who know how to get down when they need to. Woody and Matthew are two actors who always know how to get down.

So, I thought, wow, what fun. I never expected it to be this much fun. Sure, Zombieland is a rollercoaster breaking at forty five laughs per second, but True Detective was a full on immersion into everything I love in film or on TV. Fuck the acting. Fuck the technique. It was spooky shit with a truly dark harrowing core. I laughed a lot. Not just at the intended timing or lines, but at the brilliance of the darkness. Out loud I laughed. Inappropriate belly laughs at the most horrific of moments. Not because I’m a sadist, but because of the art that went behind them. The venom of the lingering camera after a devastating epiphany.

I thought Sunday's finale ("Form and Void") was the perfect conclusion to a series that has come as close to perfection over the course of its eight all-too-brief episodes as any I can remember. To stick around any longer—as much as I adore Rust and Marty and the whole Carcosa mystery—would have broken the spell. And to tie things up in any other way would have betrayed what the first season of True Detective was all about.

Before I explain why, let's review what happened in "Form and Void."

Or rather, let's review what didn't happen. (Warning: stop reading now if you haven't seen the finale yet. The rest of this review will consist of nothing but spoilers.) We didn't meet a tentacled Yellow King from another dimension. We didn't step through some sort of mystical portal and enter the Lovecraftian land of Carcosa. We didn't reenact the Vietnam War or discover that Marty's father-in-law had raped Marty's daughter. We didn't find out that Marty was really the killer, or that Rust was really the killer, or that the guy at the banh mi place was really the killer. We didn't unravel a "five horsemen" conspiracy that went all the way to the top—to Sen. Eddie Tuttle. We didn't fulfill the Internet's wildest expectations.

Instead, we got exactly the finale that Pizzolatto had promised us all along: no alarms, no surprises—for the first three-quarters of the episode, at least. "I cannot think of anything more insulting as an audience than to go through eight weeks, eight hours with these people, and then to be told it was a lie—that what you were seeing wasn’t really what was happening," he told me earlier this year. "The show’s not trying to outsmart you.”

I entered the finale not really caring about whether Errol the Spaghetti Monster was also the Yellow King, whether Audrey Hart's doll crime scene tableaux would somehow tie into the case, whether Marty's father-in-law would somehow be part of the conspiracy, etc. I had no pet theories about the case; I cared much more that the story of Rust and Marty come to a satisfying conclusion than that the case they were investigating did. So the fact that this sprawling, complex investigation all boiled down to Errol Childress as a bogeyman in a really large haunted house — the overgrown Childress estate as the lost city of Carcosa — pursuing and being pursued by our heroes didn't really wreck things for me, because it was followed by a length epilogue that brought the show back to its focus on these two men and the ways they've been changed by the years and this case (and by the ways they haven't).

At the same time, because I cared so much more for the men than the story, the fact that so much of the finale dealt with a bogeyman in a haunted house was disappointing. Not enough to reduce my feelings about the season as a whole, but enough to remind me of some of the show's flaws, and to make me wish that somehow Pizzolatto had constructed the entire thing as a story being told in those interview rooms by Cohle and Hart. As was the case throughout these eight episodes, Cary Fukunaga did beautiful, darkly original work shooting the Carcosa sequence — the way, for instance, Cohle's hallucinations returned at the absolute worst moment — so that it never felt exactly like a rehash of the denouement of every serial killer movie ever made. But it still felt more simplistic and formulaic than previous episodes had suggested. After the fact, Rust and Marty talk about how they didn't get all the members of the conspiracy, and the TV news reports suggest that the Tuttles have already shut down any attempts to connect them with the Childresses, but in the moment, a show that had been so very complex and strange so often boiled down to unkillable Rust Cohle in battle with the superhumanly strong monster Errol Childress.

Well, it's over. After eight weeks, two great performances, brilliant direction, and endless speculation, True Detective came to an end tonight with a superb episode. It may disappoint people who were hoping for earth-shattering relevations, but this was a brilliant hour of television with the best-written dialogue of the series.

Indeed, what was so striking about Sunday's show was that despite having to wrap up a big mystery and explain some of the things that have been hinted at over the past seven hours (and 18 years), the creators of the show afforded plenty of time to quiet scenes of the two protagonists talking. Not only did these scenes add an extra layer of depth to a convoluted but powerful series, but they also called for a reappraisal of Woody Harrelson's character, Marty Hart.

But first, the other stuff: the mystery was solved in just about the way it seemed that it would be after episode seven, thus putting all the more colorful (and enjoyable) theories about surprise killers to rest. It's true that the lead which Marty discovered to crack the case was flimsy in the extreme—green paint on a house? really?—but it didn't upset the dramatic course of the episode. The early scenes with the bizarre killer and his lover/half-sister were creepy, but also more familiar from other serial killer shows and movies. (These wackos usually disappoint.)

Two weeks ago, I published a critical article about HBO’s “True Detective” in which I argued that, as stylish and as well acted as the series was, it had a hollow center. Beneath its auteurist trappings, the show boiled down to bickering cops hunting a sinister “rape club”—a plot that has been done to death, so to speak, on many better shows. “True Detective” also had a funky gender problem: it was about the evil of men who treat women as lurid props, but the show treated women as lurid props. And, though the dialogue was deeply, sometimes deadly serious, those layers of Lovecraft and nihilism just felt like red herrings.

Well, as of the finale, I’ve changed my mind about one thing, at least: Rust Cohle’s monologues weren’t window dressing. They were the whole point—but I don’t mean that in a good way. In the finale, we discovered that the Spaghetti Man—a.k.a. the lawnmower man, a.k.a. the hulking guy with scars—was indeed our serial killer. A perverted mastermind with a cave full of skulls and thorns, he was diddling his disabled sister inside their Grey Gardens wreck of a mansion; he also had some serious elder abuse going on, a plot that gave me flashbacks to the hilarious movie “Cold Comfort Farm” (“I saw something nasty in the woodshed!”). I relished this surreal, sick, and frankly nasty opening sequence, which led deep into the territory of the notorious “X-Files” episode “Home,” but after that everything went downhill.

To summarize: Our boys intimidated a corrupt cop with a videotape (he howled upon seeing the un-seeable, then screamed “Chain of command!”). They Googled documents and visited witnesses and had Sherlockian insights about green paint. There was a meeting with one of the African-American cops, who turned out to be the good cop. There were endless conversations in the car, about issues like whether Rust held back in that fistfight, and about Rust’s argument that Marty should be blamed for “pushing a good woman to the point where she had to use me.” (Of course, Maggie couldn’t have actually wanted to screw Rust, out of revenge or because the man had been flexing his arms at her for years; that would mean she had desires beyond being a plot device.)

About two-thirds of the way into the hour, there was an extended game of Marco Polo in the ruins, a truly ridiculous head butt, two stabbings, and a gunshot. No involvement of Marty’s father-in-law; no payoff on the goth daughter angle; no payoff on a lot of things, actually, like that mysterious convict who died in his cell. “Errol” was behind all the show’s central crimes: he’d participated in drugging a prostitute and decorating her in antlers; he’d helped organize the “Eyes Wide Shut” club with the girls in blindfolds; he was behind the kiddie-porn preschool molestation in the school basement; and then, of course, there was that ancient incestuous family to tend. He also got solid ratings as a housepainter. The masked figures behind the larger conspiracy went free, including the powerful Tuttle family—although I haven’t entirely sorted out the details, maybe because so many of them didn’t make any sense.

There was a hospital scene between Marty and his wife and kids that was so abstract, it might as well have featured a silent-movie card reading “Forgiven!” And, over the show’s last twenty minutes, as in the finale of “Lost,” the series became a meditation on how our heroes healed from their psychic wounds and became buddies again. Marty was “fine, just fine,” recovered from years of Match Personals and TV dinners. Rust had a touching dream about his dead daughter, in which he glimpsed light beneath the darkness. They were able to move on, to forgive themselves for their own mistakes (Marty) or find optimism in their nihilism (Rust).

I am certain there are people who found all this experimental and profound. To me, it was a near-total wash. And what was most striking was that every one of show’s gross-out victims—the dead “prosts,” the raped little girls with the blindfolds, the genderqueer hooker who had been raped as a boy and filmed for porn movies, Marty’s own screwed-up daughter—were just there to ease our heroes into these epiphanies. After all that talk about how the two men hadn’t “averted their eyes” to evil, the show did just that. And it ends with stories told in the stars? We’re in Successories territory here, and even great actors can’t pull that off.

Culminating a remarkable first season in fine, moving form, True Detective’s finale, titled “Form and Void,” took us to the heart of darkness at the vortex center of its weird fiction — as well as the final stage of its meta-commentary on the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves, for better and worse. It was a tale that ripped dark marks on our bellies, then soothed us by “making flowers” on us. So to speak.

We start on the outskirts of the infernal plane. We begin in hell on earth. The ersatz underworld of The Yellow King — a.k.a. Errol Childress, a perverse product of paternal abuse, generational evil, and his own deranged, pop-culture informed myth-making — was a theater of the mind for a fantasy made real: His vision of Carcosa, the necropolis of Ambrose Bierce and the fallen world of Robert W. Chambers, littered with dead trees and body bags. Childress lured Cohle into his ascension chamber — the staging area for so many murders, and last night, a stage for an ancient ritual, the oldest story of all. Light versus dark. Good versus evil. “Little priest” versus wannabe Elder God. It was The Real World: Dungeons and Dragons, and Cohle, hard boiled to the core, was ready to play. I’ll see your abyss and gaze right back, Lawnmower Man!

He was fooling himself. Rust Cohle has always been fooling himself. His cynicism, his callousness were parts of the mask he wore to engage the world, to deal with himself. But it offered no protection when his mind — tweaking from the fetid evil around him — conspired against him and waylaid him with a vision of a coal-black vortex spiraling down to claim him. Maybe you were thinking: They’re going to do it! Cthulhu is coming! Coming to take us away, ha-ha! Ho-ho! Hee-hee! Beam me up, Lovecraft!

But no. It was gotcha moment, for Rust, and for us. Childress seized him and cut him to the core, literally and spiritually, like a knife to an empty can of Lone Star. “TAKE OFF YOUR MASK!” The Monster bellowed. It was as if Childress was telling him to cut the phony bologna nihilist crap, the useful fairy tale of baggy and buggy sentient meat denying his truth. Of course, you can say the same of his agent of enlightenment, his doppelganger. True Detective was always all about authenticity — or rather, the lack thereof, and the stories we tell ourselves to get us through the day (religion, or nothingness, or our private Carcosas) and in turn imprint (and inflict) upon the world.

In its first season, "True Detective" tried to do a lot of things, and it's to the show's credit that it did a number of them very well. It didn't do everything with equal panache, however, as we saw in the Season 1 finale; a lot of the Southern Gothic elements involving the Childress' siblings felt so overripe that the show nearly tripped into parody territory, and there's one line of Rust Cohle's that was so un-Rust-like that I wish I could unhear it.

Yet despite a few missteps in the finale, this long, strange car trip with Rust and Marty was, generally speaking, a fine use of eight hours. Prior to Sunday night, my only theory about the "True Detective" finale was that I'd miss the show when its 2014 incarnation ended. And that prediction turned out to be correct.

The quote above from Geraci describes a story he told himself: He was only following orders, he had no choice and nothing he did or didn't do mattered, because everyone in society has to just do what they're told. That's a story he told himself to absolve himself from guilt, but that story isn't necessarily the truth and his story is ultimately a useful fiction he invented in order to forget his complicity in the disappearance of a girl.

Much of "True Detective" is concerned with narratives and how people use them to shield themselves from unpleasant facts. At every turn, the show has asked us to interrogate the narrative we were seeing. Whose words could we trust? Who was lying about the past or the present? Who was willing to lie to themselves and others, and who was willing to be a true detective? (Get it?!)

In the end, there is only the darkness and the light. There is no Rustin Cohle, there is no Martin Hart. There’s not a Reggie Ledoux or an Errol William Childress. There’s no Maggie, no Lisa, no Beth. No Yellow King or Green-Eared Spaghetti Monster, either. They’re all a part of one larger entity or the other, this darkness and lightness that have always been there, forever grappling for supremacy. At times, the light feels like nothing more than a single flare blazing through the night sky. At others, it’s the infinite number of stars dotting the inky blackness. (It’s a beautiful coincidence that “Form And Void” aired opposite the premiere of the new Cosmos.) One side never manages to come out on top of the other for very long.

These are big terms for kicking off the discussion of True Detective’s first season—but this is a big episode, and it makes its full weight felt. They also make an important distinction: In many of these eight episodes, True Detective felt like the most nihilistic show on TV. It was grim and gritty and delved into the evil doings of evil men without a lick of varnish. In “Who Goes There” and “Haunted Houses,” the story followed tangents that showed the protagonists had a bit of evil in them as well. But the conclusion reminds the viewer that the words of a man with six Lone Star tallboys in his belly aren’t necessarily gospel—no matter how profound they may sound.

There’s more light in the universe than 2012 Rust wanted to see, because the universe had shown him a lifetime of the dark. Human beings may be creatures of habit, but that doesn’t mean we have to repeat those cycles Rust was so obsessed with back in “The Secret Fate Of All Life.” We do, as Rust tells Marty in “Form And Void,” have a choice. We can hole up in our locked rooms, or we can reach out to others, team up with another retired cop and a sniper with a grudge and help kick against the darkness. This first season of True Detective doesn’t declare the glass half-full, but it doesn’t declare the glass half-empty, either. To me, the big, pleasant surprise of this finale is that it says the existence of the glass and its ability to hold any amount of water are wonders enough.

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