For anyone foolish enough to be reading this without watching the eight-episode first season of “True Detective,” you have now been warned: spoilers big and small ahead.
And the closed circle is complete. The answers so many viewers have been craving for the past eight weeks have been given, and we shall never hear from Detectives Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) or Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) again (doth proclaims McConaughey). The eight-episode first season of “True Detective” came to a close last night with both detectives living to take another case. Not only that, but a show laced with a deep black tone of drudgery and despair somehow managed to leave us with a singular message of hope — perhaps the most surprising ending out there.
The opening scene of the finale introduced us fully to the man everyone’s been looking for: The Yellow King. Errol Childress (Glenn Fleshler), who we glimpsed briefly at the end of last week’s episode, was shown speaking to his father, a man tied to a bed without a mattress. Errol moved across his yard to the main house where he was greeted by an equally odd character who might have been his wife. It’s then that Errol adopted an English accent, speaking cheerily about his morning walk and inviting her to sit on his lap. The camera thankfully pulled away as Errol seduced his partner using a gruff tone and asking her to tell him stories about her grandfather, and that’s as deep a look as we’ll ever get of The Yellow King.
It’s a brief but vital look at our killer, and it turned out to be our only glimpse inside his day-to-day life. He was shown painting a school and getting stared down by a little boy, but the man is too disturbed to be understood in an hour of television (or even eight). More importantly, we didn’t need to see more of Errol. His and the opening scene’s necessity derived solely from Marty and Rust’s desire for closure and our desire for them to obtain it. “True Detective” has never been about the mystery, though it was fun while it lasted. It’s always been about what this case did and does to these men. Errol was simply the catalyst for these two remarkable characters to get together and exchange ideas.
The connection was illustrated when we saw the camera pull back, high above the ground, sweeping across the Louisiana wetlands until we arrived back with our detectives on the boat as they interrogated Sheriff Childress. For a while after this point, the events unfolding felt too much like your typical procedural for my liking. The last episode, “After You’ve Gone,” also sported these as-yet-avoided traits before driving past them in a satisfying final sequence. “Form and Void” followed suit, but got to the goods much earlier as Marty and Rust reunite in their favorite spot: Marty’s car.
When I think of the first season of “True Detective,” as I fondly will for years to come, I will always imagine Rust’s wild musings and Marty’s refusal to hear them while riding side by side across Louisiana. They’ve already been developed into endless memes, and I was overjoyed to see director Cary Fukunaga and writer/creator Nic Pizzolatto pay the scenes due homage with one last awkward car ride. While it wasn’t the most uncomfortable drive the two have shared — that would be their first one — Rust had to challenge Marty on one more issue because, well, he’s Rust. The conversation inevitably turned to Maggie (Michelle Monaghan), the woman who split up their partnership (true, even if Marty had it coming). Trying to be the bigger man, Marty told Rust he knew it wasn’t all his fault. Rust, of course, refused forgiveness. “Everybody’s got a choice, Marty,” Rust said before challenging Marty on his own infidelity. Marty broke and said, “She couldn’t have used you if you hadn’t wanted something.” “There you go,” said Rust. “Everybody’s got a choice.”
The beauty of these moments lies in their honesty. Two worldviews are colliding and over the course of the series we got to see they weren’t so far apart after all. Rust’s rampant nihilism was born out of the loss of his daughter, even if some of it came from working so many cases over the years. Marty’s denial about who he was and why he acted as he did came from his desire to be a “regular type guy… with a big ass dick.” It was the latter part that got him in trouble, and the acceptance of the former that got him out. They’re both regular-type guys placed under enormous pressures and forced to see things no one else could — take the videotape Rust stole from the Tuttle residence. We saw the beginning of the grisly recording, but we only ended up watching Marty’s reaction (and later Sheriff Childress’) instead of the acts themselves. We can look away, and we should. They can’t, and whether they should or not is up for debate.
Which brings us to the final showdown at Errol’s massive compound, the only part of the finale I feel some fans could be disappointed by initially. It was a rather simple chase, as Marty cleared the house while Rust pursued Errol through a maze of tall, green grass and stone hallways, deeper and deeper into the wilderness until he was suddenly looking up at the sky above him from a deep pit. It’s then one of his visions came over him, distracting him from Errol and his dual blades. A skirmish ensued with both detectives taking shots at the killer — how could Marty miss that badly? — and both receiving life-threatening injuries from his furious attacks. Aptly, it’s Rust who ended the conflict by blowing out the back of Errol’s head just before he closed in on Marty. Rust slowly pulled the blade from his belly, and Marty cradled his partner’s head in his hands, offering reassurance.
It’s not that this was a poor way to end the saga of The Yellow King. It’s not. I would argue the balance between reality and fantasy was perfectly struck, with the surroundings and Errol’s haunting voiceover carefully countered against the brutal fight scene and subsequent shootout. Yet I can see how some may be disappointed. They may have wanted to learn more about the mysterious killer in a “Se7en”-esque dissection of his terrifying house, or about Rust’s (accurate) conspiracy theory regarding the government — more, at least, then just an expository line from Detective Papania about reports denying any connection between Errol and his senator papa.
That instinct is understandable, but “True Detective” was a character study through and through. It stayed true to those roots in the end by devoting the final 10 minutes to Rust and Marty, both unbelievably alive and now bonded over their shared experience. Anyone who didn’t get choked up when Marty said the last thing he remembered about being in the pit was “saying my friend’s name” hasn’t been watching the show right.
These two were never pals, and they’d become each other’s closest friend, a sentimental statement I never thought I’d come close to writing in regard to this show. Marty’s appearance next to Rust’s bed sipping from a giant cup was another perfectly timed moment of comic relief on a show packed with cathartic chuckles. Yet “True Detective” truly cemented its status in the lore of television history when Marty wheeled Rust outside the hospital, Rust broke down in tears and McConaughey came alive. The recent Academy Award winner could not have had a better campaign than voters watching “True Detective” every Sunday night from January to March, and Emmy members certainly won’t be able to ignore McConaughey’s moving speech to close the show.
Marty pointed to the sky, telling Rust “the dark has a lot more territory.” Rust initially agreed, but then said, “You’re looking at it wrong, the sky.” “What’s that?” “Once there was only dark, but if you ask me, the light’s winning.”
How Rust and Marty ended up finding peace together after everything they went through in those 17 years is an accomplishment all its own. That Pizzolato both chose that conclusion and made it work would’ve seemed implausible before Sunday’s airing. The first seven episodes presented us with a world of cruel, mean-spirited people and bad men, our stars included. Yet “Form and Void” impossibly flipped the perspective in less than an hour. The two detectives chose to see the light instead of the dark, the truth ahead of the lies. It’s not the job that defines them, though it does play an integral part. Rust and Marty learned how to define themselves, and, in the end, how to embrace life over death.