tv review

Seitz: The 7 Things That True Detective Was About

Photo: HBO

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. (That old man with his mouth stitched shut and his eyes wide open — oof.)

Was the final hour disappointing? Was the whole miniseries? Yes and yes, I suppose — if you expected True Detective to tell a story you have never, in any sense, heard before. 2001: A Space Odyssey aside, I can’t think of a quasi-mystical tale full of metafictional elements that built and built but did not in some sense disappoint. No matter how cleverly an artist stimulates the mind, the power of our dread and curiosity will still exceed the work’s ability to match them. It’s hard to imagine the unimaginable. When you try, you usually end up with a rearrangement of things already seen — in which case the work is wise to build the idea of disappointment, or anticlimax, into the story itself, as writer-director Francis Coppola did in Apocalypse Now, a work that True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto has surely seen once or twice. (A likelihood that recapper Kenny Herzog made strong note of in his writeup.)

None of the above is meant to excuse that final action sequence at Errol Childress’s weed-and-ivy-strewn lair. Although it was brilliantly executed by series director Cary Fukunaga, conceptually it was a dud. After all that buildup, all that talk of visions and memories and time, all those allusions to the Yellow King and H.P. Lovecraft and even Kurt Vonnegut (the “time is a flat circle” business was reminiscent of the description of how the Tralfamagorians in Slaughterhouse Five perceive time), Rust Cohle and Marty Hart ended up in a variation of the climax of, well, pretty much every serial killer story you’ve ever seen, confronting a human monster in his maze while listening to his disembodied taunts and inspecting his art installation (serial killers always have art installations; just ask the profilers on NBC’s Hannibal, which foregrounds the idea). It was as Rust inadvertently predicted earlier, a dream with a monster at the end of it.

The finale leaned on animal cruelty and incest for its “ick” factor — Errol’s half-sister’s euphemism for sex, “making flowers,” is a phrase you can never un-hear — and it used exceptionally gruesome violence to jack up the excitement of Rust and Marty’s final confrontation with Errol. The brutality was so extreme that it momentarily obscured the fact that the whole sequence was comprised of moldy clichés, from the Silence of the Lambs–style exchange between Marty and Errol’s half-sister in the doorway to Rust in the monster’s lair, laid low by a hammer blow and a stab wound, recovering his partner’s gun just in time to make a spectacular kill shot.

I loved the finale anyway, though, because — like the rest of True Detective — it had a slightly crackpot vision and stayed true to it. The tale kept track of a dazzling array of motifs throughout its eight hours and stocked the final hour with callbacks to them. And it struck just enough peculiar and surprising notes throughout (particularly by setting the story in three different time periods, which gave the repeated situations a poignant and sometimes haunting quality) that you never felt that you were just being jerked around.

I keep mentioning high-water marks of ‘60s and ‘70s American cinema whenever I talk about True Detective with friends, because many of that era’s classics (like Apocalypse Now) were grandiose and self-aware riffs on seemingly played-out genres, infused with signs and symbols that were easily dismissed as pretentious, but that added a mysterious something that transformed a story into an Experience. True Detective is all those things: a story and an experience; a grandiose, self-aware, pretentious riff on buddy-cop pictures and Chinatown-style conspiracy thrillers and serial killer narratives and art-house puzzle-films and many other modes besides. And it’s funny — often deeply funny — in a way that such revisionist projects typically aren’t. (Rust and Marty’s hospital bedside exchange of middle fingers is a bonding moment for the ages.)

And it passes at least two of what I consider to be tests of great popular art.

First, it walks a fine line between sincerity and self-parody that makes audiences wonder, “Are they kidding with this?” The answer is usually “yes and no.” (David Lynch is probably the king of this sort of thing, though David Fincher, whose Se7en and Zodiac clearly influenced True Detective, is no slouch, either.)

Second, if you pose the question, “What is True Detective about?” you’d get a different answer depending on whom you asked, and every answer would be equally valid, and there’d be enough Venn-diagram-style overlap between the “abouts” that you could make a case for the work being rich and multilayered as opposed to wishy-washy or confused.

In that spirit, then, here’s my list of seven things that True Detective is about. In reverse order, because linearity is an abstract concept, man, all right all right all right.

7. Good Versus Evil
I offer this one first, or last, because duh, it’s right there in the final scene in case you missed it. (“The light’s winning,” Rust tells Marty.) But here, as elsewhere, what makes the work memorable isn’t what it’s saying (there’s darkness and light, good and evil) but how it says it. The sentiment isn’t as clear-cut as, “There are good people and there are evil people,” because the show clearly does not believe that; quite the opposite. True Detective’s people are kind, selfish, weak, cruel; it’s all a matter of degrees. The duality of good and evil within every major character is never far from the script’s mind, whether the detectives are visiting a revival tent or a strip club. The show’s empathy extends toward Errol, a monster in the grip of compulsions like the title character of Fritz Lang’s M, another child murderer who likes to whistle. (Speaking of classic films, although Errol imitates James Mason in North by Northwest, the voice evokes another, more appropriate Mason character — Humbert Humbert in the 1962 Lolita.) Errol seems to genuinely love his half-sister, and he’s physically and emotionally damaged by the abuse he suffered as a child. He’s scary and disgusting, but you can’t hate him — not in the way that you hate action-film bad guys. And even when the show goes overboard with the symbolism (that cutaway in episode six to the ceramic devil and angel on Beth’s dresser as she’s riding the adulterous Marty), it always seems to fit within the show’s moral and philosophical continuum, which seems influenced equally by Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, the Old and New Testament, “hardcore” graphic novels like Sin City and A History of Violence, and the scene in Night of the Hunter where Robert Mitchum shows off his “Love” and “Hate” tattoos.

6. The Banality of Evil
Not that it excuses the familiar imagery and situations in the final action scene, but I don’t have much patience with anyone who complains that the end of True Detective sucked just because the killer turned out to be some random groundskeeper who’d been living under civilized society’s collective nose for decades. The script had been preparing us for this sort of not-so-big-reveal from the very start, by making the story hinge on horrible acts that were allowed to continue for years or decades because people who knew about them kept looking the other way (see Rust’s explanation for why he forced himself to watch the entire tape) or actively covering them up. The molestation and murder and general exploitation of children wouldn’t have happened if people in positions of authority, including church officials, cops and politicians, hadn’t hidden documents, quashed investigations, declared reports as having been “Made in Error” and so forth. (I love that there’s just one letter’s difference between “error” and “Errol”.) As Geraci, who covered up the “green spaghetti monster” report almost a quarter-century earlier, told the partners, “I just follow what the big man says. It’s how this stuff works … It’s chain of command, right?”

5. Stories and Storytelling
Related to my point above above, this is the umbrella that covers every other aspect of True Detective. The crimes depicted on the series were enabled by a series of deliberate omissions, elisions, distortions, and outright lies: holes in what should have been honest and transparent stories. I’m not just talking about the overall story of the molestations and killings, but all the mini-stories related via flashbacks that illuminate the three main characters, Rust, Marty, and Maggie. Rewatch the whole series and you’ll see how carefully Pizzolatto and Fukunaga distinguish between what the 2012 investigators Gilbough and Panpania are told during their interviews and what actually happened.

This is most apparent in episode five, Marty and Rust’s coordinated cover-up of Reggie Ledoux’s murder, but it recurs elsewhere in the series. Maggie never tells Gilbough and Panpania exactly why Rust and Marty split up (because she had sex with Rust to punish Marty for cheating yet again). When Marty asks Rust for a report on what Maggie told him back in 1995, after the first time he got caught cheating, Rust lies and tells him there’s definitely hope for the marriage, because at that moment he needs Marty’s support as he goes undercover again to sell an absurd story to those bikers and get close to Ledoux. The officials who funded those religious schools destroyed or buried financial and administrative records to obscure the horrible truth of what happened there, and in at least one case they threatened a man who found evidence of child molestation to remain silent or be accused of the crime himself. Sam Tuttle’s illegitimate children and grandchildren are not officially part of his family tree, even though he continues to support them, and even though the people who worked for him knew that there were genetic anomalies in the family tree, they didn’t talk about them.

The show literalizes the notion of a hole or a gap in a narrative by building it right into its visual scheme. Every episode is filled with holes, spirals, pits, and the like. There’s the spiral pattern glimpsed in everything from tattoos to bird flocks; Rust’s hallucination of a black hole in the ceiling of Errol’s lair; the busted taillight of Rust’s pickup; the thatched nestlike spiral that covers the hole in the tree where Dora Lange’s body was found; the long shot of Rust in his hospital bed that makes his bruised and swollen left eye look like a tiny pit; the tiny round eye-size mirror that Rust stares into. And that’s the short list.

4. Patriarchy, Specifically the White Male Variety
True Detective is on shakier ground here than in most of the areas it ventures into, but give it credit for knowing what it’s trying to say, even if it doesn’t say it well and often seems to be glorifying the same things it’s criticizing. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the story starts in one millennium and finishes in another, or that the show is so obsessed with the passage of time, the weakening of social prohibitions, and the crumbling and scattering of physical buildings, power structures, and institutions (including families, which Tuttle’s former servant says “were bigger then,” “then” referring to the mid-20th century). Rust and Marty are a couple of badass southern white dudes kicking ass and taking names (“Do I strike you as more of talker or a doer, Steve?” Rust asks, in the finale’s crowd-pleasing-est moment), but the show’s attitude toward them is more skeptical than celebratory, at times shading over into a lament for a couple of guys who don’t realize, to quote Tony Soprano, that they came in at the end.

Marty’s hypocritical attitude toward his wife and daughters is positively Scorsesean in its misogyny. Never for a moment does the show pretend that he’s got the right idea about fidelity, fatherhood, or anything else related to the women who live under his roof. He’s got a gangster’s idea of manhood: I’ll do what I please, and you do whatever I tell you. He’s the king of his castle, everyone else is a serf. Rust, meanwhile, is haunted equally by the death of his daughter (and subsequent guilt over his failure to preserve his marriage afterward) and his rocky relationship with his father, to whose home state, Alaska, he briefly returned; he’s destroyed by his inability to live up to an unrealistic standard of manly strength, goodness, and patience. It makes both dramatic and rhetorical sense that Marty and Rust’s interrogators would be two black men, and that many of the detective’s most mortifying and self-destructive moments stem from their inability to deal with women in an honest and non-condescending way. The show’s disinterest in race relations and inability to resist gratuitous T&A shots damages its credibility greatly in this department, but the notion that True Detective is purely a white male supremacist fantasy is not remotely supported by the evidence.

3. Christ Allegory
That shot of Rust post-stabbing, sitting upright in his hospital bed looking like a one-eyed risen Christ was the second funniest image of the evening, topped only by the subsequent shot of Rust looking at his own refection (as he so often does) in the hospital window, which made it seem as if he were floating among the stars. Rust is constantly railing against the notion that there’s a God, indeed that there’s a world beyond the one that we can comprehend through our senses. (“Certain linguistic anthropologists think that religion is a language virus that rewrites pathways in the brain.”) But it’s all a setup for a moment of otherworldly revelation. As Rust tearfully confesses to Marty at the hospital, his near-death experience convinced him that both his father and his daughter had a life beyond death, and that they were all part of a spiritual continuum, one that he might have joined if he’d had the nerve to let go.

The final leg of this show could have been titled “The Last Temptation of Rust.” Early in the series, Rust admits to Marty that he focuses on the crucifix during meditation because he wants to understand Jesus’ moment in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he contemplates and then willingly accepts the prospect of his crucifixion. Star Matthew McConaughey’s performance is filled with little bits of body language that set up Rust’s climactic crucifixion by Errol, who taunts Rust with Satanic jibes as he wanders through what looks like an underground forest made of leafless tree limbs, then hoists him up with that knife in the gut as if he were Christ nailed up on a cross. As if channeling his hero Paul Newman’s performance as the title character of Cool Hand Luke (one of the most gloriously overripe Hollywood Christ allegories of the ‘60s), the actor’s go-to motion is to raise his hands in the air in a faintly Christlike post, often after moments of violent confrontation, such as in his fight with Marty. And the closing image of the finale? Let’s just say, preferably in a McConaughey accent, that there’s a whole lotta crosses up in that shot.

The last 15 minutes of True Detective are the character’s resurrection, with Rust admitting to Marty that he could have slipped away in coma-land to join his daughter and father (forming a holy trinity of father, son and holy ghost?) but couldn’t summon the nerve. This scene wallows in sentimentality — rather boldly so, considering that True Detective hasn’t dipped into the bathos well up till now — but this tear-bath isn’t coming from nowhere. The early episodes are filled with talk of suicidal impulses not acted upon (“I lack the constitution for suicide”), both individual and specieswide. In one of his lowest, nastiest moments, he advises the child-murdering mother to kill herself.

All this would be insufferable if True Detective didn’t find Rust rather ridiculous and mock him regularly, especially during the final couple of episodes, during which you sometimes get the sense that Pizzolatto is as exasperated with the guy as Marty is. A hilarious Marty line from the partners’ first post-coma conversation sums up the show’s raised-eyebrow attitude: “Jesus, what’s your fuckin’ problem?”

2. Bromance
Pizzolatto is on record owning up to True Detective’s clichés (or “tropes,” as they are called by creative writing majors), and the mismatched buddy-cop duo is one that’s dear to his heart. The partnership between Cohle and Hart is your classic Lethal Weapon–type partnership teaming a brilliant but unstable wild card and a more settled family man who just wants to do his job and go home, though the longer you live with it and stare at it, the more allegiance it seems to owe to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (Rust has a touch of Holmesian alienation and intellectual smugness, and he lives a spartan life). The bromance aspect really takes over in the last two episodes, which show Marty and Rust, who were burrs in one another’s saddles for two decades, finally putting aside their differences and learning to be true friends, true partners, and true detectives. The eighth episode is one long buddy-cop mind meld, capped by the gory confrontation with Errol that ramps down with the bloodied Rust and Marty crawling toward each other like the doomed lovers at the end of Duel in the Sun, and resolving in the hospital with Marty wheeling Rust around like an elderly husband pushing his beloved wife through a nursing home and even presenting a gift-wrapped pack of cigarettes. “If we were getting engaged, I’d have gotten a nicer ribbon,” Marty jokes.

1. A Parable of Grief and Mourning.
As Rust clarifies in that monologue to Marty, the preceding 17 years of his life felt like a postscript. After the death of his daughter and the dissolution of his marriage, he sought out increasingly dangerous assignments that not coincidentally allowed him to lose himself inside cover stories, and give a performance as somebody that deep down he probably really wasn’t. Every part of Rust’s life and identity during this period, including his ostentatious, posturing atheism, was an attempt to push back against the feeling of futility. The undercover operations, the bouncing from drug cartel investigations to the homicide squad, even the extra-legal detective work between 2008 and 2012 in the storage locker, all represent one profoundly broken, grieving man’s attempt to track and punish death in the form of criminals and murderers. Even in his hospital bed, Rust can’t entirely let go of his obsession, preferring to fixate on all the bad guys he didn’t catch. But then he does let go. A little. The ending is not entirely a happy one, but there are glimmers of happiness. The light is winning.

The 7 Things That True Detective Was About