Season finale review: ‘True Detective’ – ‘Form and Void’

A review of tonight's “True Detective” season finale coming up just as soon as I ask you what “scented meat” is…

“Once, there was only dark. If you ask me, the light's winning.” -Cohle

When I interviewed “True Detective” creator Nic Pizzolatto before this season began, I asked him about how he expected to distinguish this show from the abundance of other serial killer dramas filling (or polluting, if you'd rather) primetime at the moment. We've seen by now that even though “True Detective” has many superficial elements and character types and plot devices in common with a lot of those shows (and other crime-adjacent dramas, like an early scene here that evoked the last episode of “Breaking Bad”), it is very much its own thing, and could not easily be compared to the others. “True Detective” and “Hannibal” both featured killers who displayed their victims' bodies with antlers, for instance, and I would never in a million years confuse the one with the other, because they're each so idiosyncratic and brilliant in wildly different ways.

But a part of that exchange stuck with me: when Pizzolatto said, “I have literally no interest in serial killers.” The goal of the show was to tell two intense character portraits of these two cops as they worked together and then apart over 17 years, and it just happened that a serial killer case wound up being the subject that the author found most fruitful to do so.

I don't think that Pizzolatto then took a half-hearted approach to the plot itself, but the plot was never the most compelling part of the series. And the times when the show stripped away the monologues, the mysticism and the bending of time and space and told a relatively straightforward narrative about this case – I'm thinking of much of episode 6 in particular – were when it felt weakest. I loved hearing Rust wax philosophical about the nature of being, or seeing the look of confused disgust on Marty's face after one of his partner's soliloquies, or observing the many ways in which the stories our heroes told Gilbough and Papania diverged from what we were seeing, but I never felt all that invested in the identity of the Yellow King(*) or in how far and wide the conspiracy spread.

(*) And I don't think that learning the King's true identity in any way makes this fan theory from last week any less valid or thought-provoking. 

That turned out to simultaneously be a feature and a bug when it came to “Form and Void.”

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 lengthy 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.

And yet for all of the ways that the finale again evoked the notion of time as a flat circle, and history repeating itself – Rust and Marty even split up at the Childress home, just as they did at Ledoux and DeWall's compound in episode 5, though here it was Rust putting a bullet in the bad guy's head, and under far more dangerous circumstances –  I liked “Form and Void” in the end because the epilogue pivoted away from the case and instead showed that time and circumstance had genuinely changed these two men.

A month or so earlier in the show's timeline, Marty Hart was regaling Papania and Gilbough with stories of what a great cop he was and how he had his personal life figured out in a way that his haunted scarecrow of a partner never could. After going through the whole story of Dora Lange with the cops, and then after the things he and Rust uncovered in their new investigation, Marty's certainty and self-confidence are a thing of the past. He lies in his hospital bed, having survived Errol's attack and closed a case that could make him famous enough to actually write that true crime book he was lying about last week, and he has his ex-wife and estranged daughters all back together with them, and he can't keep the good ol' boy mask on anymore. His phrasing keeps going back and forth between different modes of time – “I'll be fine,” and then “I am fine,” on and on, like “the disc in the loop” Errol was rambling about in an earlier scene – before he simply breaks down. Maggie and the girls are there out of a certain level of personal obligation, but there's still a distance there, and Marty can sense it, just as he understands how all of that distance was created by himself and himself alone. It's a beautiful, difficult moment, and one of many reminders in the finale, and throughout the season, that Woody Harrelson's work shouldn't be underestimated just because Marty wasn't given to flowery rhetoric like his once and future partner.

And the closing scene between the two partners was even better, as Rust the loud and angry atheist acknowledges that he felt the presence of his late daughter and father while he was lying on the floor in Carcosa – that for the first time in a long time (at least since his daughter died), he felt evidence of something bigger in this world than an accident of evolution, of a cruel existence generated by being pulled from nothingness and placed into sentient meat(**).

(**) Marty's confusion over that phrase was both funny and unexpectedly prophetic, given how many people asked me after the finale what Rust said at the end of the episode. Matthew McConaughey's going to deservedly be halfway to EGOT by the end of 2014, but the man will from time to time be gripped with the mumbles. Or maybe the droopy Old Rust Cohle mustache is to blame.

It's an optimistic turn for Rust, and for the series – a show that dealt so often with the evils that can be perpetrated by organized religion, half of it narrated by a charismatic atheist, concludes with that atheist realizing there are things to believe in – but it doesn't play as a tacked-on, false happy ending. For one thing, Cohle's realization that he might have been this close to drifting into that deeper, warmer darkness with his daughter and father makes life painful and difficult for him in an entirely new way. He had anesthetized himself from his feelings for decades; good things come from being in touch with your feelings, but they can also hurt worse than being stabbed in the gut by a Yellow Spaghetti Monster King. For another, McConaughey was so achingly vulnerable in that scene that he could have sold any turn in any direction for Rust as a character. Rust's take on the nature of the night sky and what it says about good and evil is something that the Cohle of 1995 might have laughed at, but we understand exactly how the Cohle of 2012 has come to express it, and maybe believe it.

And in that way, just as in the ways he and Marty have found each other to lean on after all this time apart, the conclusion of this first “True Detective” story felt immensely satisfying. When I look back on this show months or years from now, the proper denouement of the Dora Lange investigation will be way down on the list of things that mattered to me. I'll think about Old Rust Cohle telling the cops about the monster at the end of the story right as we get out first freaky look at Reggie Ledoux. I'll think about Marty coming to accept the way the detective's curse snuck up on him. I'll think about these two very different men driving around in a car, talking about the same subjects in what might as well have been two different languages.

And I'll think of all the times that I was watching it, even as it was presenting variations on things I'd seen a million times before, and thinking about all the ways that the presentation and execution felt so brand-new, so haunting, so moving, and so memorable.

Some other thoughts:

* This review was delayed a bit because I had to jump on the phone with Nic Pizzolatto to discuss the end of the season (including an elaboration on the conspiracy), some of the reaction to it, and to get the slightest hint of what might be coming in season 2. That'll take me a while to transcribe, and it may not be published til the morning if I just fall asleep at the keyboard. In the meantime, I highly recommend Kate Aurthur's interview with Pizzolatto from earlier in the week. UPDATE: Here's the interview.

* One beat from the finale that Pizzolatto elaborated on, and that seemed intriguing as it happened: when Errol comes back into the big house after visiting his father in the shed, he watches a few moments of “North By Northwest” and immediately slips into a James Mason accent, then tries on a few other voices. The short version: as part of the backstory Pizzolatto sketched out for the character, Errol has difficulty speaking in his natural voice due to the injuries that scarred his face, so he taught himself how to talk again by watching old movies.

* I've noted all along the ways in which this show echoes a lot of the other great dramas of the present and recent past, and when Rust threatened Steve with a sniper attack should anything happen to him, I chuckled at the thought of Rust and Walter White using the same gambit in their farewell episodes. Then Rust's boss from the bar – who, we were told last week, has a good reason to hate cops – started shooting up Steve's car and laughed even harder. Rust Cohle does not bluff, boys and girls.

* That was the great character actress Ann Dowd (seen recently on “Masters of Sex” as Bill Masters' mother) as Errol's developmentally disabled lover – and, apparently, half-sister. As with a lot of the non-McConaughey/Harrelson performers who walked across the screen in these eight hours, I wish she got more to do, but she certainly left an impression with what little time she had. And though Marty didn't want to hear more about the family tree, I imagine many theories will be spun about House Childress in the months to come.

So check back later tonight or in the morning for more from the author, and we'll be doing this again once all the details have been nailed down and a second season's been shot. But as for the story of Rustin Cohle and Martin Hart, what did everybody else think? Were you satisfied by the conclusion? If not, does that impact how you feel about the season as a whole? Do you feel more or less eager tonight to see what Pizzolatto has in store for a new setting and new characters?

Have at it.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at