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Exploring The Season Finale Of ‘True Detective’ & What We’d Like To See Carry Over To Season 2

Exploring The Season Finale Of 'True Detective' & What We’d Like To See Carry Over To Season 2

This morning, a dull, gray dawn broke on a dull, gray “True Detective”-less world. The show that has had us gripped for the last eight weeks (or the last weekend for compulsive binge watchers—hi there!) came to an end in either a blaze of HBOGO-crashing glory, or a fizzle of HBOGO-crashing disappointment, depending on your point of view. We’re much more in the former camp than the latter, so much so that we found our usual Good vs. Bad approach wanting this time around, purely because after a couple of niggles we were really reaching for anything particularly bad to say about it. 

Not to sound uncritical, folks, but with only a few holdouts, we loved this show to distraction, so we’re simply going to jot down a few thoughts about the finale (which you can refresh your memory on with the last of our Kevin Jagernauth’s excellent recaps here) prior to looking ahead to season 2. This is a finale post, so do we really have to say there will be spoilers? There will be spoilers.

Thoughts on the finale

Scope of the mystery
We suppose the biggest issue that some might have regarding the finale is that the solution to the mystery is smaller, and some might say, safer than a lot of the speculation had suggested it might be. And it ends with the death of a single man—a terrifyingly fucked up, grotesque and insane man, but one not possessed by supernatural forces, or even gifted particular powers, with other major players in the catalogue of sick crimes still at large. But that was to us a source of great relief too—a cool debunking of the kind of referential mania that had set in where every single thing had Significance and Meaning and it all pointed to some impossibly complex and tortuous, potentially otherworldly conclusion in favor of something real-world, making it more enriching.

In fact, we could go so far as to say it’s the show’s most successful bait-and-switch; just think about how all those “clues” (Audrey’s childhood sex drawings are maybe the best example) made us think about the relationships differently, even though they ultimately had no bearing on the mystery. Because this is a murder mystery show that is not about whodunnit, it’s about who solved it—it is about Cohle and Hart: their characters, their souls, and of course, their weird dynamic. By returning to that throughline for the finale, where some see the “safe” choice, we see the choice that was the bravest of all—staying true to these characters and not tumbling down the rabbit hole of endless overplotting.

Resolution to Cohle and Hart’s relationship
We might almost be tempted to chalk the “they become friends in the end” arc of Cohle and Hart’s relationship into the negative column, for a show that did so much differently to what we’ve come to expect. But damned if it didn’t do it so well that every moment between them in the hospital and beyond felt right, and earned and satisfying. And it culminated in that twinkle of uncharacteristic hope from Cohle (“the light’s winning”) that, whether it’s an homage to or a rip off from Alan Moore or not, feels like it made the whole journey worthwhile.

The climactic chase through the twiggy tunnels
We have to shout out this sequence, because despite the points we’ve made above about it really being the story of a relationship and not the gothic horror blah blah blah, the show could do gothic horror really well too. And never better than here, in what has to be its tensest and most genuinely frightening scene. The fact that this late in the game it was still convincingly toying with the idea that there might be something truly uncanny and unkillable at the root of all this evil, and that it sustains that mood of dread so brilliantly, is a triumph of directorial vision and control—and set design, because, sheesh. That it all then culminates in a vision of a black hole which we retrospectively theorize could be the beginning of the hallucinatory trip that will bring a near-dead Cohle to his daughter (or an unholy confluence of Internet theories so fucking horrible they broke the space/time continuum to enter the show and distract him at nearly the cost of his life), is something that only a show this controlled in its craziness could ever have possibly gotten away with.

What now for season 2? 

A great deal has already been written about what won’t be returning in season 2: no McConaughey/Cohle, no Harrelson/Hart, no Louisiana, no Cary Fukunaga (or single director, multiple helmers will likely take over), no canary-colored royalty. All of these elements together seem to constitute so much of what made the show great that we are forced to ask, what’s left? What can creator/writer Nic Pizzolatto possibly bring to season 2 that will make it not just as good as, but even recognizably the same show? With the writer himself teasing at this very early stage that season 2 will be about “hard women, bad men and the secret occult history of the United States transportation system” here are the elements of season 1 that we really hope to see retained in what is clearly going to be a totally different story.

Lying, storytelling and “truth”
Director Cary Fukunaga was himself quick to tell us last year that the title “True Detective” was “not my choice,” and with the pulpy, tabloid-sensationalist feel it initially gave to a show that turned out to be much more intelligent and elegiac, safe to say we weren’t always fans either. But as the episodes progressed and more of the flashback/interview structure became discernible, we slightly changed our minds on that, and began to think it appropriate that there was some reference to truth in its title. Particularly exemplified by the sequence, which contains the already famous six-minute tracking shot of Cohle and the bikers, which is never related to the interviewing detectives (Cohle and Hart stick to the story that he went to visit his father), as well as, of course, their “heroic” moment which is narrated in such a way that their cover story plays over what actually happened, the show constantly played with the idea of truth, counterpointing it with cover-ups and lies. And it wasn’t just narrative tricksiness: again it was always revealing about the characters and their sometimes almost symbiotic relationships, and also their constructed and occasionally hypocritical ideas of themselves (viz Hart’s “all for the family” rationalization playing over scenes of him cheating). We’d love to see this level of thought-provoking counterpoint and storytelling inventiveness return (though obviously not in the a carbon-copy interview format), and with the job of detecting in general being about trying to “find the truth” and “construct a narrative” we can’t see why it wouldn’t.

A Different kind of cop-partner relationship
Obviously the cop-pair dynamic is one we’ve seen onscreen about sixteen billion times, and one of the pleasures of “True Detective” was that, until the very last episode at least, it had largely subverted all available archetypes. There was a prickliness in their relationship from the start, borne of totally different worldviews and philosophies (not just the old by-the-book guy meets maverick cliche), and if each man eventually made the other a better version of himself, Christ, was that wisdom ever hard-won and unpleasant to come by. There’s still quite some mileage in the idea that the guy (or woman) who has your back is also the person best placed to betray or manipulate you, and we hope this ambivalence finds its place in season 2.

Sense of place
If we won’t be returning to the lived-in Louisiana of season 1, and if in fact we can read some sort of national, or at least less parochial, scale into Pizzolatto’s comment about season 2 being about “the secret occult history of the United States transportation system,” we hope that won’t lessen the authenticity of the locations and the environments. The sense of an ancient place where family trees were as twisted and gnarled as those sinister twig sculptures, and where evil could lurk swamp-deep, and where even ordinary people could be genteel yet corrupt, was one of the great achievements of this show. And while any new setting will bring with it other characteristics, we hope as much time is invested in creating similar depth.

Cinematography, production design, craft
Season 1 looked amazing. There’s the shotmaking, courtesy of Fukunaga and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (also DP on “Top of the Lake”), from the bravura six-minute tracking shot, to the taillight shot—a personal favorite—to the tiara timelapse to Cohle in a shaft of sunlight in the creepy abandoned school and so on. And there are the incredibly intricate props and sets from production designer Alex DiGerlando, which you can read more about in this great Vulture piece (they built the burnt church…they built the church.) But with Fukunaga mentioning that just as he wouldn’t be returning as director for season 2, his collaborators might not be either (by reason of exhaustion), it’s possible that many of the people who made season 1 so unforgettably beautiful to look at might not automatically be back to lend their insane talents next time out. Not that they’ll have trouble finding people clamoring to be associated with what is now a smash hit, but still, we can’t help but feel season 2 has a lot of living up to do, on a craft level, to season 1’s high watermark.

Similarly, the music throughout was pretty extraordinary (listen to it all again here), from the opening track that has haunted our every waking moment since we started watching and that made this probably the only show for which we’ve never fast-forwarded through the openings credits (also: credit design shout-out especially for the Woody/highways bit). Episode 4, “Who Goes There,” is probably the one that sticks most in mind at the moment on this level, for containing both this writer’s least favorite music cue of the season (the Grinderman track) and my most favorite (Lucinda Williams’ “Are You Alright?”), but in general this was peerless soundtracking, evocative and resonant and totally on theme throughout. More, please.

And one final thing we’d like to see that we perhaps did not get enough of first time out:

More central roles for women
There is a criticism that the show’s women were underserved, and certainly their screen time is relatively minimal. We’d argue that was a side effect of those characters simply not being the focus of a story which was as much a depiction, and a very critical one, of socially-constructed masculinity in a very male-skewed profession and milieu, as anything else. And in fact, even with the lesser screen time, their characters had more agency than many lead female roles in other TV procedurals (with the eternal exception of the terrific “Top of the Lake“). But we’d certainly be happy to see women in more foregrounded roles next time out, because if Pizzolatto writes them with anything like the insight and inspiration that went into Cohle and Hart, he could address those criticisms and differentiate season 2 from the very outset. And it seems we might be in luck, as Pizzolatto not only mentions “hard women” in his summation of season 2, he did once tweet (since deleted) in response to a comment in this arena: “One of the detriments of only having two POV characters, both men (a structural necessity). Next season…”

One boon for Pizzolatto and any future “True Detective” director on this and any other casting/crewing decision they have to make, is that we can’t imagine, after the blistering success of season 1, that they won’t have their pick of the crop when it comes to season 2. And with that, here we are at the end and we have to face the eerie void that is a year or so without any more “True Detective,” taking comfort only in Cohle’s assertion that “Nothing is ever over.” Talk us through the grief, or share your thoughts on where you want the show to go, below.

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