By True Detective‘s fourth episode, it was fast on track to becoming one of my favorite television shows. And pretty much everyone who watched it would agree; True Detective is compelling, both in its style and in its storytelling. Like Breaking Bad before it, it manages to be both wonderfully intellectual in its artistry and complexity, but also just as exciting and accessible as an action movie. I particularly fell in love with the show’s structure– two older and broken men commenting retrospectively and somewhat nostalgically on their lives as detectives, husbands, fathers, and, perhaps most essentially, men trying to understand the universe. I loved the unreliability of their narratives, the ways their lies and hypocrisies rose gently to the surface, and how the commentary from 2012 shed light on the complexities and subtleties of 1995. I felt that this structure was what made the show special and what would eventually be the key to answering the crime’s questions. Like Papania and Gilbough, the questioning detectives, we were groomed to be doubtful of Rust’s and Marty’s histories and their reliability, even if we trusted Rust’s overall innocence.
A little over halfway through the series, the structure changed. We stayed in 2012 for the rest of the show’s episodes. We started taking everything at face value. The show became more about the ins-and-outs of solving the crime than about the detectives’ very subjective and complicated journeys. That’s not to say that solving a crime isn’t interesting. British television’s The Fall and Broadchurch created similar sensational followings, and both made sure to wrap up their questions by their season finales. But those shows never really lost that special lens on the crime. True Detective lost its lens. And I also couldn’t help feeling like I had been misled to believe this show was supposed to be about something else.
Let’s look at what most of us took away from TD’s first half:
1) Rust is unreliable. Even if we knew that he was not the murderer, there was reason to suspect his fascination with the case. His nihilism is coupled with sensory hallucinations, drug use, possibly some kind of PTSD, and a history of loss. Again and again, we got quotes from him saying things like, ‘the answer’s right in front of you even if you don’t see it’ and ‘everyone’s a terrible person on the inside’ and ‘everyone’s truth is subjective.’
Where is the payoff from all this buildup? How did these tensions resolve themselves? How do they play into the solving of the murder? I’m not sure. Childress speaks similarly, telling Rust to ‘take off his mask’ as he guts him. What’s this mask? And what does Rust see in that cosmos hallucination he sees in Carcosa? His daughter’s love? Goodness?
2) Marty is totes a misogynist and treats his family with contempt. After seven episodes of lies, cheating, and violence, this tension is wrapped up with a scene showing the family gathering around a wounded Marty at the hospital. And everyone’s okay? Marty’s not exactly a great detective either. He gets into more trouble than good, and Rust is primarily responsible for their successes. I would have loved to see Marty’s ineptitude and Rust’s unreliability figure more largely into the season finale, say with them botching the case, or discovering their own complicit involvement. But no, their character study ends up having little to do with the case itself, much like any crime procedural with a quirky lead.
3) The structure that was so integral to the show’s first half, and the prominent doubts of Rust’s innocence get resolved a little too quickly, and Papania and Gilbough proving to be much less of a threat or hindrance as we thought they would be. Looking back on the entire series, they seem like little more than plot devices.
4) I’ve never been a fan of the crazy internet theories going around about who the Yellow King is. I never saw anything in the show to latch onto in the way of secret conspiracies. I knew all along that the answer would be a straightforward one. But after all the buildup, it ends up that the killer wasn’t much of a surprise, and a bit of a letdown. You can’t fill a show with so much doubt, so many unreliable facts, and so many references to the obscurities of the world, and then introduce us to the killer in the last episode. It just seems a little too cut and dry.
Let me just reiterate: the problem with True Detective’s finale was not that it was predictable, or sentimental, or even straightforward. The problem is that the show lost sight of its style, its unique voice, its promises. It never manifested any of the many, many obscure themes that it touched upon. In the end, most of those delightful complexities (Rust’s philosophization, the past-present timeline, the Yellow King, etc.) did not come to fruition, leaving me to feel like they were red herrings all along, or, as much as it hurts to say this, something close to gimmicks. The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber says it best: The finale left him feeling like TD’s finale was “a high-budget genre retread with the false veneer of profundity. (As opposed to what I’d hoped for: high-budget genre experiment with actual profundity.)“
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