I’ll never begrudge anyone seeking answers from art, because I’ve done it before and will do it again. But answers can be easy, and they can be hard, and often you’ll find the same answer in something transcendent and something crass. An idea like redemption, for example, may be the end result of both, but one will nourish you and one will leave you with a cloying taste. To me, it’s a mistake to judge a work of art by its answers. More important is whether those answers felt earned.
In other words: How well did it ask the questions?
I want to be sincere and tell you that I think True Detective is the best TV series ever made, and that I’ve basically held that opinion since the third episode. It asked the questions with a depth that satisfied me in an immediate, visceral way, and then again in a secondary, intellectual way. It’s a show that produced an automatic emotional response in each of its eight episodes, and one that I could spend the next week turning over endlessly with the other obsessives in our Internet habitat.
And the way we interacted with this show was profound to me, because I see it clearly now in that inquisitive framework: Every show asks questions of its own characters. Most ask questions of the world. But there are very few that ask questions of the viewers. We were challenged, and we responded, and even if 98 percent of that interaction consisted of wild theories that never came true supported by a compulsive hunt for details that turned out to be irrelevant, it doesn’t matter. The results, in the final reckoning, emphatically do not matter. What matters is that our searching and our probing represented our urgent desire to connect. Both sides, art and audience, reached out to each other, and even if they sometimes failed to meet on common ground—even if the grasping was chaotic and slightly misguided—I still find it beautiful.
Where most other shows fail to breach that gulf, leaving us at a disconnect, this show engaged on an irresistible level. I consider that an act of artistic generosity, and I’m thankful. All of which, I know, sounds earnest to a degree that might feel embarrassing. But the reason I want to be especially direct in this final review is that from a critical standpoint—or, since I’ve been more like a fan than a critic, from a viewer’s standpoint—the important questions the show asked of us is something that hits at the heart of our discourse: How do we really feel about sincerity? And I don’t mean the bland kind of sincerity that gives us tacit permission to feel good by ignoring the realities of the world. I mean the kind that will encompass everything we see, and present it to us stripped of pretense and disguise.
We don’t live in an especially sincere time and place, and without going into the generational politics of that, it does feel like we’re more comfortable with art that winks at us. Something like House of Cards, to choose at random—something hyperbolic, and so far gone from the truth of our lives that despite presenting a caricature of evil, it can’t possibly make us existentially uncomfortable. And what made True Detective so remarkable is that it refused to wink. Which, of course, made some people squirm.
The praise for this show was so universally high that it may be absurd to focus even briefly on the negative, but I think the backlash merits some attention because of its defensive tone, and how it relates to the problem of sincerity. Take Cohle’s philosophy, for instance, and how unapologetically it asked questions about human existence. There was plenty of room to disagree with his pessimism (I do), and last night’s wonderful conclusion proved that it never represented the show’s viewpoint (how was that for an definitive answer?), but the knee-jerk negative critical reaction wasn’t to meet the show on its own level, but to try to diminish the philosophy itself.
I won’t pretend to be an expert, but the more I learn about Cohle’s original worldview, the more I realize that those who tried to dismiss it as “freshman stoner philosophy” have very little understanding of what’s actually being discussed. It turns out to be pretty complex and terrifying, and even other philosophers are interested. But isn’t it sad that when confronted with questions about life that weren’t masked in layers of irony or presented with a smirk, some viewers became so uneasy that they had to retreat into little bunkers of scorn? You can imagine their ancestors angrily gathering stones when the first scientists suggested that the earth may revolve around the sun, and it feels intricately related to the anti-intellectual strain that courses through the fabric of our politics.
But enough of that—just a little annoyance to get off my chest. The broader truth here is that our connection with the show was complete in that as we judged each episode, it also judged our response. To dislike the show is fair game, and I hope I’m never arrogant enough to suggest otherwise, but it was easy to tell when the criticism came from a dishonest place, when the old canards emerged, easy and convenient, to garnish some deeper insecurity at failing to connect with Pizzolato and Fukunaga’s vision.
Last night was about resolution, as we knew it would be from the moment the scarred man—Errol Childress—was revealed in the final moments of episode seven. He was the disturbing, abused progeny of an evil patriarch, a perverse offspring committing murder up and down the bayou while keeping his dead father preserved in a shed. Carcosa was his lair of tunnels cluttered with devil nets and decaying corpses, and he sat on the throne of the yellow king. The first 40 minutes of the show built to a climax of almost unbearable tension as Marty and Rust track him to his home, down a long driveway lined with live oaks draped with Spanish moss, and pursue him into the innermost chamber of his private heart of darkness. It’s a nightmarish sequence, right down to their inability to call for help. Rust arrives first, and picks a bad time to have one of his supernatural hallucinations, imagining a blue portal into unknown realms. Errol attacks in that moment of weakness, and stabs him in the stomach with a knife. Rust manages to ward off the fatal blow with a series of headbutts, surviving long enough for Marty to arrive and shoot the giant in the shoulder. He earns a hammer in the chest for his efforts, but when Errol prepares to strike him dead, Rust summons enough energy to fire one last shot that turns the yellow king’s head into a crater.
The true detectives survive, the voodoo pedophile ring is blown apart, and the really powerful men, like Governor Edwin Tuttle, keep their own names clear. Gorgeous moments abound in the aftermath. Marty’s breakdown in front of his family—his first honest moment with them in many years—was particularly affecting, as were the sweeping aerial shots of the Gulf Coast landscape, damaged and sublime.
But the greatest surprise comes last, as Cohle struggles with the fact of his survival. “I shouldn’t even fucking be here,” he tells Marty, and his anguish first takes the form of self-recrimination—he saw Errol in ‘95 and failed to recognize him. The assurances come, and the regret shifts. “We didn’t get ‘em all,” he says, but that’s another deflection. The real reason for his distress emerges in the final scene outside the hospital. Marty bought him a pack of smokes and wrapped it up as a gift, and in the darkness, sitting in his wheelchair, Rust makes a startling admission. It turns out that when he lay in his coma, near death, he sensed a blackness below the unconscious, a textual darkness in which he could sense his daughter waiting to vanish with him for eternity. It was a welcoming sensation full of “fading definitions,” and he let himself go down with them. But relinquishing his hold on life, and disappearing into total love, couldn’t prevent him from waking up.
It obliterates his philosophical pessimism, which is revealed not as the perspective of the show itself, but as the damage wrought on a man who suffered the tragedy of a lost child. All the dark thoughts he mustered in the interview room were his last refuge against suicide, a fate he intended to finally enact before finding Carcosa forced him to reconsider. Now, back from the embrace of death, he still recognizes darkness, but he also understands the light. It’s the subject of the wonderful last line, as he and Marty make a break for the car, hobbling off together. But there’s a moment just before that says almost as much; Marty asks if he needs to go back for his clothes, and Rust turns the page for good. “Anything I left back there,” he says, “I don’t need.”
Optimism, expressed sincerely, is the answer Rust earned for himself. As far as the show itself, there are notes of ambiguity even in the denouement, a distant sign, maybe, that every idea it ever presented—and every way we ever responded—is contained in the miracle of our universe.
When we refer to True Detective from this moment on, it will be in the past tense, and that realization comes with a weight of sadness. But the phenomenon of its existence can’t be restricted to two months of Sundays. There’s a permanence in the connection it fostered, and the questions, so remarkably asked, will resonate hereafter.