If you were watching — or, more accurately, trying to watch — the “True Detective” finale via HBO Go last night, you got a show-length equivalent of “The Sopranos”‘ series-ending cut to black. Past midnight on the East Coast (and, according to BuzzFeed’s Kate Aurthur, past 11 on the West) the channel’s streaming service was still buckling under the overwhelming demand to find out the identity of the show’s killer(s), what happened to Rust and Marty, and, more importantly, What It All Meant.
Endings always matter, but the story of “True Detective” was cloaked in so much ambiguity that this one mattered more than most. Although creator Nic Pizzolatto warned in advance that the series’ allusions to the supernatural were more a way of expanding its themes than pointing to its conclusion, the question lingered: Just how weird would it get?
The answer, unfortunately, was not very. Cosmic visions aside, “Form and Void” was disappointingly ordinary, with some brilliant, creepy details like killer Errol Childress (Glenn Fleshler) cycling through accents (including a not-bad James Mason) around the edges. Its final moments, with a physically and psychically battered Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) unburdening himself to partner Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) in a hospital parking lot felt like a desperate lunge for meaning, a crude, naked statement of theme that the show asserted more than it earned. Underneath Rust’s talk of “sentient meat” was, as it turned out, not too much.
Perhaps the most striking reaction to the finale came from Slate’s Willa Paskin, who wrote a passionate, Pizzolatto-approved defense of the show’s treatment of women, was sufficiently let down by its abandonment of them to reverse course: “Now I think it was kind of just ignoring its female characters.”
Filing her first piece for her new gig at the Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg wrote:
Marty and Rust may have unhealthy relationships with women. But “True Detective” doesn’t actually show any more interest in the vanished women than they did. The show took time to demonstrate that the stories Rust and Marty told other detectives were lies, and even to linger as Marty narrated his way through a public records database. But it couldn’t make space in its eight episodes to give these women’s lives more purpose than as catalysts for Rust and Marty’s redemptions.
As they convalesced after their mutual ordeal, Cohle lamented to Hart that they’d only chopped off one of the Hydra’s heads; Pizzolatto’s scripts hinted at a broader conspiracy involving state government and a Southern megachurch, but in the end, it came down to one man. And Hart, at least, was satisfied with that: “We ain’t gonna get ’em all,” he told Cohle. “That ain’t what kind of world it is. But we got ours.”
Indeed, it ain’t that kind of world, although stories sometimes like to tell us that it is — that good wins, that evil is vanquished, that they lived happily ever after. We can only do our small part as flickering lights in a sea of darkness, burning as bright and as long as we can before we’re snuffed out. Pizzolatto told HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall that kililng off Cohle or Hart or both would have been “easy,” essentially arguing that the optimistic ending was the more daring choice. But there has to be some ground between glib nihilism and forced positivism, and “Form and Void” failed to locate it.
James Poniewozik, Time
“True Detective” was an artfully written, remarkably acted, stunningly visualized portrait of Marty and Rust trying to find the path in an overgrown world of decay. (From Carcosa to the last montage of Louisiana landscapes, Cary Fukunaga made the setting look dead and teeming with life at the same time.) But everyone else around them was a Yellow King, a story device drawn with the minimum amount of pen strokes–the women, the other cops, the bayou big shots, the good ole boys and the bad ole boys. They threw off only enough light to illuminate the two stars.
Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture
The finale of “True Detective” was silly and awesome, and awesomely silly. The one thing you definitely can’t say about it is that it failed to commit. I immediately rewatched certain scenes because I could not stop laughing at them, but the show gave me nightmares anyway.
Todd VanDerWerff, A.V. Club
Most of all, though, I think Pizzolatto, Fukunaga, and their actors were aware at all times that this whole thing was just a little ridiculous, and they rode that craziness to many of its logical conclusions.
Linda Holmes, NPR
What “True Detective” felt, in the end, was unedited. It felt like it needed another pass, where someone could have told Pizzolatto when Rust was tipping over from an intriguing portrait into a caricature, and when there needed to be a little more story in the story.
Andy Greenwald, Grantland
“True Detective” talked a good game — well, it certainly talked — about the nature of the universe and the systemic rot of evil and horror. But the finale reduced all of those high-minded observations to production design: the artfully scribbled incantations, the haunting sketches of antlers, the broken dolls and accumulated filth that are cinematic shorthand for incest and villainy. In the end, Marty and Rust got their man but what mattered more was that they got each other.
Alan Sepinwall, HitFix
As was the case throughout these eight episodes, Cary Fukunagadid 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.
Andrew Romano, Daily Beast
Pizzolatto could have made the Tuttles a clan of psychopathic murderers. He didn’t. He made them a clan of psychopathic murderers who subscribe to a very specific theology: a theology that alludes, crucially, to “The King in Yellow” — an external narrative that is supposed to create insanity, or as Pizzolatto “prefer[s]” to put it, “deranged enlightenment,” which sounds a lot like a skeptic’s view of religion as a whole. In other words, both Christianity and “Carcosa” are stories. Stories people tell themselves to escape reality. Stories that “violate every law of the universe” (as Rust once put it).
Tony Sokol, Den of Geek!
I never expected it to be this much fun. Sure, “Zombieland” is a rollercoaster breaking at forty five laughs per second, but “True Detective” was a full on immersion into everything I love in film or on TV. Fuck the acting. Fuck the technique. It was spooky shit with a truly dark harrowing core. I laughed a lot. Not just at the intended timing or lines, but at the brilliance of the darkness. Out loud I laughed. Inappropriate belly laughs at the most horrific of moments. Not because I’m a sadist, but because of the art that went behind them. The venom of the lingering camera after a devastating epiphany.
Willa Paskin, Slate
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…. It’s like, the spell wore off and suddenly it was just a TV show.
Emily Nussbaum, the New Yorker
I am certain there are people who found all this experimental and profound. To me, it was a near-total wash. And what was most striking was that every one of show’s gross-out victims — the dead “prosts,” the raped little girls with the blindfolds, the genderqueer hooker who had been raped as a boy and filmed for porn movies, Marty’s own screwed-up daughter — were just there to ease our heroes into these epiphanies. After all that talk about how the two men hadn’t “averted their eyes” to evil, the show did just that. And it ends with stories told in the stars? We’re in Successories territory here, and even great actors can’t pull that off.
Jeff Jensen, Entertainment Weekly
What happened after Rust’s gutting exposes us as well: the final 15 minutes of “Form and Void” struck me as a Rorschach test for what you want from stories like this, for what we’ve come to call “resolution,” And boy, did we get a lot of it, both implied and explicitly stated, no more so during the last scene, with all of its mansplaining and bromantic uplift. Yes, uplift. The twist ending of “True Detective”‘s bleak first season: a bracing refutation of its baroque pessimism.
Maureen Ryan, Huffington Post
Yes, subtlety was not always the show’s strong suit when it came to metaphors, but “True Detective’s” evocative atmosphere and charismatic performances helped the show roll over those occasional pretentiousness potholes.
Phil Maciak, Dear Television
I think the unsung hero of this whole enterprise has been Cary Joji Fukunaga…. I didn’t need to hear Cohle tell me the light had won, I saw it win. And, with Rust and Marty bleeding into the Louisiana dirt, I was ready to walk away redeemed.
Erik Adams, A.V. Club
I have enjoyed its first eight episodes, I will miss it while it’s away, but it isn’t unassailable. It’s a very good treatment of material that’s as old as the medium itself, but it struggles with some of the regressive politics it feels intended to dismantle.
Kevin Jagernauth, The Playlist
“True Detective” has never put the mystery first, and it’s something telling that the weakest episode of the season was also the most straightforward, “After You’ve Gone.” Instead the show is about two men, one presented in darkness, who after losing his family, plunged headfirst into the darkest corners of his job, and the other a seemingly happy family man.
Britt Hayes, ScreenCrush
The pay-off is supremely worth all the build-up: here are two men — one who has embraced his darkness and another who tries to hide his, but both so haunted by those deep shadows — chasing darker men still, in an effort to cling to what lightness they have left and redeem themselves.
Dustin Rowles, Pajiba
The audience threw down the gauntlet, but the only thing Pizzolato could think to do with it was to use it to bludgeon the villain to death. In the end,True Detective was only surface deep, but a mighty shiny surface it was.
Spencer Kornhaber, The Atlantic
In retrospect, it feels like the audience was studying for a test that never came.
Isaac Choitner, The New Republic
What was so striking about Sunday’s show was that despite having to wrap up a big mystery and explain some of the things that have been hinted at over the past seven hours (and 18 years), the creators of the show afforded plenty of time to quiet scenes of the two protagonists talking. Not only did these scenes add an extra layer of depth to a convoluted but powerful series, but they also called for a reappraisal of Woody Harrelson’s character, Marty Hart.