Crawling Out of the True Detective Rabbit Hole

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
March 10 2014 2:38 AM

Crawling Out of the True Detective Rabbit Hole

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Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) has said his piece.

HBO

Listen to our True Detective Spoiler Special, in which our critics debate the season finale:

David Haglund: “Quite some time I’m gonna be thinking about you, Rust.” The corrupt sheriff Steve Geraci (Michael Harney) didn’t intend that line, one of my favorites from tonight’s finale, “Form and Void,” the way I do: He intends it as a threat. I think of it as my primary response to True Detective, and especially this episode. A lot of plot questions went more or less unanswered, which will bother some people, I’m sure. What was the nature of the conspiracy? Just how were the Tuttles involved? Who was the Yellow King?

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But the show answered the questions it needed to, both in terms of the storyline and, especially, with regard to its two central characters. In the end, this series really was more about them—particularly Rust—than it was about the wheels-within-wheels murder mystery that propelled the narrative. Quite some time I’m gonna be thinking about him. What are you thinking about?

Willa Paskin: 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.

Haglund: I’ll try. For starters, Rust did not find God, so far as I could tell: He found physics. (I haven’t watched the new Cosmos yet, but I hear its message is roughly the same.) Or maybe it’s more accurate to say he found hope. And I found his final speech, out by the hospital parking lot, genuinely moving.

I didn’t love everything in the episode that preceded it. I did not find Errol William Childress an especially interesting monster. (You say Grey Gardens meets Deliverance, I say Norman Bates meets Hannibal Lecter.) But he did make sense thematically. That broken woman was apparently his sister, or half-sister, and she was evidently raped in her childhood by their grandfather. This was about the sins of the fathers being repeated by their sons. “You know what they did to me?” Childress asked. “What I would do to all the sons and daughters of man.”

The theories concocted by the Internet were more elaborate and engaging purely in a puzzle-pieces sort of way, but Pizzolatto was apparently not kidding when he said his interests lay elsewhere. The show did quite a lot to nudge viewers down the rabbit hole, so I can understand some frustration. But I fell down there, too, and then came back up tonight, and was happy to do so.

Paskin: Rust saying that he could feel a deeper darkness underneath him, one that was “warm, like a substance,” where his father and daughter were waiting for him, that was all love, that he wanted to just “let go” and join? That does not sound much like physics to me! Or, really, much like Rust Cohle from early on. Which is fine, Rust is allowed to change. But it did seem to me like the show was more than a little in love with Rust, and maybe not for the good.

Here is a character—who, like you, I won’t be able to forget anytime soon—who was unique in part because of his particularly bleak way of thinking about his place in the universe. We’re all sentient meat, and all. Not only does he end the episode talking about how the light is winning, right before he sees Errol Childress he has, what, a revelation—or a hallucination that is almost indistinguishable from a revelation—of the opening of a hellmouth pointing right at Childress? This seems rather cheesy and mystical. And has there ever been a more over-the-top headbutt? I mean that thing was straight out of The Expendables! (As was his “cue the sniper” move on Steve.) Hiked up four feet on the edge of a knife and he headbutts his way to life. It’s enough to make me believe in a higher power—or maybe just a bunch of dudes sitting around a camera, being all, “You know what would be so, so cool??”

Haglund: Rust learned his physics—we’re all star stuff, Willa—but that doesn’t mean Fukunaga did. (Or maybe Fukunaga just prefers to ignore physics when staging action sesquences.) And I’m honestly not bothered by the loose ends. It’s clear enough to me what happened: Evil has existed in the Tuttle family for a long time, and Errol is the latest and most grotesque embodiment of it. As for what Rust saw when he reached the pit of Carcosa, I took that as another hallucination of the sort he has had throughout the series, brought on in this case by the intensity of the situation. Pizzolatto was careful to set that up with an earlier exchange in the car, where Marty asked Rust if he still saw things sometimes. “Never stops, not really,” he said, having apparently lied to Papania and Gilbough about this. “What happened to my head, it’s not something that gets better.”

And I don’t see Rust’s parking-lot epiphany as some spiritual deus ex machina. I see it, retrospectively, as what the whole series was building toward. His bleakness made him fascinating as a character, but we always knew it was rooted in pain—of the worst kind, the death of a child. He had, after that tragedy, shed all of his illusions—and all of humanity’s, as far as he was concerned. That’s the power of his revelation at the end: It’s not based on fairy tales, it’s based on his experience at the absolute pit of life. What he felt was love. And you can find that mawkish, if you like, and perhaps coming out of another actor’s mouth it would have seemed as much. But McConaughey made it moving, for me.

Paskin: And I am not trying to take that from you! But I am trying to figure out why my first thought when the camera panned in on Rust sitting in his hospital bed, staring out the window at the city lights, in the midst of immense psychological distress, was, “Oh, he looks a lot like a guy in KISS.”

One of the things I have so enjoyed about True Detective—which, let me be clear, is a show I still really love—is how all-enveloping it is. It’s a whole world, and you’re in it: the atmosphere, the green, even that ash and aluminum smell. But something about this episode just cracked that open for me, and all of pop culture came pouring in. The house Errol lived in looks so much like the mansion in The Notebook gone to seed. Having no cell phone reception is very every-horror-movie-ever. It’s like, the spell wore off and suddenly it was just a TV show.

I think part of this is that the show did not just leave plot loose-ends, it left emotional ones as well (though perhaps not with regard to Rust). I wrote a piece a few weeks ago, about how True Detective semi-ignored its female characters on purpose. Now I think it was kind of just ignoring its female characters. All the stuff that was going on with Audrey, with Maggie—and there they are, at Marty’s bedside, as unfleshed out as ever. (And what was the deal with Maggie’s wedding rings?)

I did love the moment where the woman whose house had been painted green remembered exactly how much it cost. There was something so perfect and human about that to me, the just-right detail that encapsulates so much of what True Detective did right. But the show really was, ultimately and intentionally, a bromance, albeit a really well-acted and well-written one. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but I did think that it was maybe something more, something in-addition-to. Not that I don’t hope Marty and Rust are giving each other the finger for eternity.

Haglund: Here’s how I see it. When we—and by “we” here, I mean a significant percentage of the True Detective-watching Internet—saw those drawings that Audrey did, we figured that they were clues to something that would be revealed later. But really they were clues to what was going on with her in that moment. Was Audrey a victim of Childress? Probably not. But was she a victim of some other abuser? I’m guessing yes. Perhaps Maggie’s father. We don’t get the answers spelled out for us, but there’s enough to suggest that something like that happened. The sins of Childress may take an extreme form, but they are not unique. They do not come out of nowhere.

I’m not going to say that Audrey or Maggie or Lisa or Beth were as well developed as characters as Rust and Marty were; this was, ultimately, the Rust-and-Marty show, and the rest of the series revolved around them. Nobody else on True Detective could spout a cliche like “Don’t ever change, man,” and have it feel perfect and hilarious. (Their hospital banter was a hoot.) For viewers who say that they’ve seen too many shows about dead beautiful women and the men who fail to save them, I can understand that response. But I think that this series, while not all-encompassing, was wonderfully what it was: a gripping, twisty, moody show about two men, and how one of them came through despair to the other side.

Paskin: It’s true, we don’t know what happened to Audrey—and that’s the end of it. We just don’t know. I think I would be bothered a little less by this if I didn’t feel like the finale was in some ways very flabby. (It had something like five endings.) We really learned very little new information this episode—basically none, since we learned that something was definitely up with Childress at the end of last week. Instead, we got a long, dreamy sequence through this insanely detailed set, and moderate-to-no answers on many of the dangling questions. Which is an interesting and valid choice, obviously—a choice that seems even more willful given how loose this episode was.

And while I’m not super into the idea that major characters have to die for a TV show to be serious, it’s pretty surprising that Marty and Rust both lived, no? An ax to the throat probably has a pretty high mortality rate. And the show tacked an additional happy ending on to their survival: The almost-final shot of the two of them leaning on each other through the parking lot was all the more sweet because you know in three days they’ll barely speak again.

Haglund: The lowpoint of the finale, for me, was when Rust and Marty were looking at Marty’s laptop, going through ... tax records, I think it was? That did not strike me as the tightest bit of writing. So I can see, at least partly, where you’re coming from with regard to the flabbiness issue. And I did think, once they’d both gotten the business end of one of Errol’s blades—though I’m not sure either was hit in the throat, precisely—and were lying on the ground, that they had died, that this was how the series would end, with two detectives chasing a monster to their doom.

That such an outcome actually felt like a live possibility is probably why the chase through the catacombs—and that fort is a real place in southern Louisiana, by the way—was riveting for me, purely as an action sequence. That shot of the top of McConaughey’s head, as he made his way through the tunnels? Fantastic work by Fukunaga and his cinematographer. I did wonder how, exactly, Errol’s voice traveled so well. And while I’m on his voice: The British accent was weird. I guess he learned one from all those VHS tapes he had stacked up around the TV.

Paskin: Very American Hustle with the in-and-out British accent. (There’s another pop-culture reference that flitted through my brain.) And I wondered: Was Errol’s voice in Carcosa a hallucination? And how long had Errol’s daddy been tied up to that bed? Did he kill him right when he saw Marty and Rust roll up? But also: These are very small questions to be thinking about, compared to the bigger conspiracy.

Still, if they didn’t get ‘em all, “We got ours,” as Marty said. And we, like Rust, will have to be content with the resolution that we did get. Or, at least, content until next season, when the dark and the light take up fighting again.

Haglund: “I believe ‘no shit’ is the proper response to that observation.” I’m looking forward to the second installment.

Paskin: L’chaim, fat ass.

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

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