The first season of HBO’s latest hit, True Detective, came to a close Sunday night and for a show that’s been dark in atmosphere and heavy in dread, the finale gave the central duo of Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) something of a happy ending. In most shows, such resolutions fulfill a tacit contract between audience and program. True Detective was not a typical show, however, and by delivering a finale that neatly wrapped up the central mystery and provided its flawed heroes with a measure of redemption, the straightforward ending was as surprising as any twist.
Warning: SPOILERS throughout the rest of the review
The surprises started early, with the finale opening on the same scar-faced backwoods bumpkin detectives Gilbough and Papania casually dismissed at the conclusion of last week’s episode. Errol Childress lives in absolute squalor and appears to suffer from multiple personality disorder, as he switches to a loquacious Englishman when responding to the romantic advances of his sister/ lover. For a show that stingily meted out clues about Dora Lange’s killer over the course of the first seven episodes, the first-scene reveal was an interesting choice, but it also robbed the episode of any momentum, as it became a just matter of time before Cohle and Hart discovered the killer as well.
The resolution of the Sherriff Geraci cliffhanger was even more anticlimactic. Last week’s episode hinted at a vast political and religious conspiracy of which Geraci was just a small part. Utilizing Cohle’s ace interrogation skills, they quickly determine his only negligence was following chain-of-command to then-Vermilion Parish Sheriff Ted Childress. The sniper moment was fantastic, but that fact that not much came of their encounter was disappointing.
As was the last bit of detective work that finally lead them to the killer. The nuts and bolts of the investigation has been one of the weakest (and as The Soup expertly parodied, most confusing) parts of the show, and Hart’s deduction about the killer’s identity based on a fresh coat of house paint was the most flimsy leap yet. But once they arrive on Errol’s property, the showdown itself was tense and well-staged in the way it replicated the events of the duo’s raid on Reggie Ledoux's place.
The framing of Cohle’s trip inside the mind/ caverns of the killer was cleverly devised. It might seem a bit on-the-nose for the killer to spell out his twisted MO while Cohle prowls the tunnels in search of him, but his established history of hallucinations forces us to wonder what’s real and in Rust’s head in this branch-strewn terror-sphere. His vision of a funnel-shaped universe right before he’s stabbed points toward the latter, serving as a pointed repudiation of Cohle's now-famous “flat-circle” theory.
It certainly appears that Cohle has met his end before Hart (apparently the worst shot in the world) fires on Errol and attracts his violent attention long enough for Cohle to get off a head-shot that puts him down once and for all. Detectives Gilbough and Papania show up to get the credit. It’s interesting the way their characters ended up playing out, with Papania dismissing the killer when they had him and remaining defiant toward Hart at the cafe. Their ineptitude made them one-dimensional: Ultimately, they served primarily as framing devices.
Marty’s reunion with his daughters and ex-wife after he awakens in the hospital felt stilted, which was intentional, but also unresolved, which perhaps wasn’t. Unfortunately, you never get a sense of who his kids have become as young adults and there’s nothing to indicate what his role he’ll have, if any, in their lives and Maggie’s going forward.
But this show was never about peripheral characters. It was always centered on Rust and Marty and the ebbs and flows of their relationship. Rust surviving the confrontation with Errol Childress was a major surprise and it was particularly satisfying to hear him tell Marty the same.
The final scene is sure to be divisive. To some, Rust’s apparent spiritual conversion from nihilism to, at the very least, agnosticism could be seen as a last-second cop out, the creative equivalent of a serial killer repenting his sins the night before his execution. For me, however, I loved that Rust seemed to be even more surprised than viewers that he didn’t die at the end. McConaughey finishes off what’s sure to be an Emmy-winning performance by selling the anguish of someone who thought they had the case cracked, only to be sent back to square one.
The True Detective finale may not have been a total knockout (it's odd that a show about two damaged, imperfect heroes would ultimately come down to a simple binary of good versus evil) and there are certain to be some segments of the internet who downright hated it (probably the ones most heavily invested in Yellow King theorizing). But this wasn’t Lost, a show that, in the minds of many, needed a perfect finale to protect the integrity of what came before it. It may not have been the best episode of the season, but “Form and Void” still brought a satisfying sense of closure to the story that suggested while the universe of True Detective may be circular, it sure isn’t flat.