True Detective Season Finale Review: The World Needs Good Men
Going into "Form and Void," there were a lot of ways to describe the first season of True Detective: stunning, raw, philosophical, frightening, pretentious, ambitious, boobies, occasionally hilarious, gorgeous, and incomplete. And coming out of the finale, nothing really changed about those adjectives. "Form and Void" was a very good but not great ending to one of the better new shows to come around in a long time, but I can't help but think the show peaked around Episode 5—the mind-bending and perfect "The Secret Life of All Fate" that threatened to be the first major step in a new post-Golden Age of television renaissance—and since then has been merely a great detective show. That's probably not fair to True Detective to approach it in that manner, but I mean it when I say "great television show." True Detective was astounding television, even when it shifted away from what I thought was its strengths.
For me, it's impossible to look at "Form and Void" individually as an hour. True Detective was this idea of "event television" that other
networks are chasing. It was eight episodes of a new property that made
its viewers theorize and dive in headfirst into an empty pool of obsession. "Form and Void" was the end of a really long movie to me because Season 1 was self-contained with a beginning, middle, end, and no chance of more, unlike 22-or-even-13-episode seasons that contain filler and cliffhangers and could live on in syndication for your grandkids.
And because it was the end of the story rather than a regular season finale, I found it incredibly satisfying as an endpoint even if it wasn't the best part of the season. It ended about as perfectly as it could end. Hart and Cohle got their man in Erroll Childress, a man whose hygiene and sex life was just as frightening as his remorseless acts of murder, but they didn't bust up the bigger sex-cult child-pornography old man's club that was certainly connected to the Tuttle family and responsible for all these missing girls. True Detective was never a happy show, it focused on the worst of us in the worst of times. It's consistent with the show's theme that Hart and Cohle only put a Band-Aid on Louisiana's gusher of a declining young woman population, and realized they they "didn't get 'em all," and weren't going to get them all. But they did get the monster at the end of their nightmare, and the series portrayed this as a realistic victory.
For the viewer who demands closure, this probably didn't work. The idea that Billy Lee Tuttle is still out there and pulling up a van with no windows next to a schoolgirl right now is unsettling, but that's the point. True Detective wants you to leave Season 1 feeling that this battle between light and dark, good and evil, the Rust Cohles of the universe and the fat, incestuous Erolls of the universe isn't done because True Detective isn't afraid to show the harsh truth of the world. The paradox of the world needing bad men ("The world needs bad men," came straight from Rust's mouth early in the season) in order to have good men was all over True Detective, and watching those lines get reluctantly drawn is what really made the arcs of Hart and Cohle so interesting.
But it was the final minutes of "Form and Void" that saw those lines firmly etched into the ground. Our two men were still recovering from their battle wounds in the hospital when True Detective delivered an oddball of a twist ending that I don't think anyone expected. Rust Cohle went sentimental on us! Cohle's near-death experience had a profound effect on his psyche, and as Cohle sat in his wheelchair looking like he just got out of a meat grinder, he told Marty that he was looking at his night-sky metaphor (light vs. dark) all wrong. "Once there was only dark," he said, peering up at the faint stars. "If you ask me, the light's winning." Rust Cohle, the man who could look at a puppy and only see a trip to the vet to put the dog down in 12 years, had hope. HOPE! Cohle's words were captured on the season's final shot, a long hold on the night sky as stars shone brighter and brighter. It was almost enough to draw a tear. Almost.
I'm not entirely sure that ending worked, but I give True Detective an A-plus for effort and I loved how it broke expectations. When I think about how I will remember Rust Cohle, one of television's best characters of all time, it will be the man who amassed a beer-can-man army as his minions against his interrogators. It will be the man who spoke of flat circles, bad men, and suicide suggestions. His final revelation of hope will be a footnote in my memory even though it shouldn't be, and I'm not sure if it's because I'm enamored with the Rust Cohle of old (1995 and 2002, specifically) or if it's because I want True Detective to be that dark, Nihilistic show that thrilled me through the first five or six episodes. And maybe it's because I'm not entirely sure I even believe him. It could be the pain meds talking for all I know. It's just an abrupt turn to take everything we knew about a man—Rust was defined by that fatalistic attitude—and spin it on its head in a series' final minute. But gosh darnit, it still warmed my heart even if it was sudden and cheesy. I like to think Cohle took that positive attitude straight to the nearest watering hole and put down a celebratory six pack of Lone Star.
The ending may give us a little insight as to what's coming in future seasons. I'm just guessing here, but what if future seasons of True Detective all existed in the same universe, and really, there's no reason they couldn't, and told similar stories of how the job affected people in different ways? Did you ever read Cloud Atlas (ignore the movie, it's awful)? It's one of my favorite books, and I think True Detective could do something similar with its structure as it moves forward. Cloud Atlas takes place over several different time periods with recurring themes and images popping up in several short stories. It would make sense that Season 1 of True Detective, which focused more on existential themes rather than homicide investigations, would carry over similar ideas into Season 2's brand-new setting and characters. Cohle's last-minute ray of sunshine could just be the beginning of this war between light and dark. I'm not saying that every season will end with a formerly disenchanted detective saying, "If you ask me, the light's winning," but I could easily imagine it ending with another small victory. "We ain't gonna get them all, that ain't what kind of world it is, but we got ours," Marty said. Maybe True Detective really is a show about good prevailing over evil, about believing that the world isn't one huge garbage dump rotting away at the core, about understanding that you can only do your part to help the light. Maybe, when True Detective Season 14 ends and Zac Efron shares a sunrise with Ashton Kutcher, we'll see True Detective for what it really was: a show about changing your outlook for the better. That's the only way I can understand Cohle's sudden reversal of perspective fitting in with the rest of the series. (That, or another main character has the exact opposite trajectory as Cohle's and the two meet in a later season as a superhero and supervillain and we realize Season 1 was just preamble to a Captain Cohle summer blockbuster movie franchise.)
But I still call "Form and Void" "good but not great" because it didn't quite match up with the meaty and mysterious middle of Season 1, which I thought (and prayed) True Detective would take all the way to the end. Episodes 3, 4, and 5 were revelatory television that played with narrative structure, time, and character. Earlier in Season 1 I tweeted out that True Detective had consumed me, but once the interrogations with Gilbough and Papania ended, True Detective burped me up. I loved the idea of not knowing what was the truth, on relying on potentially unreliable narrators, of fitting the puzzle pieces together to figure out what had happened and what made Hart and Cohle who they were in the present. Episodes 7 and 8 shed that mystery so that all we saw was truth. I hate to penalize a show for being so great at one point, but that run of True Detective episodes were SO good that it made the last three hours look somewhat tame by comparison.
And tame is indeed a relative term, for "Form and Void" contained the scariest sequence of the series by far. Cohle's frantic gangland exit at the end of "Who Goes There" remains the season's pièce de résistance, but Cohle and Hart navigating Childress' twig maze was more intense given the uncertainty of it all. And that's what these last two episodes did have over the first six. We didn't know if Hart or Cohle would die because we were in real time. Even as soon as Hart and Cohle pulled up to Childress' hoarder house, the air in the room changed. There's a shot of the car facing us with that little shed in the background, and you just knew something horrible was going on in there. Cohle knew it, too, and immediately told Hart to call Papania for backup because "this is the place." True Detective does so many things so well, but my favorite is it's mastery of suspense and the way it can seamlessly transition into action. "Marty clear the house!" was our starter-gun for a 10-minute sequence of heart-racing in this one, and it was impossible to do anything but inch forward on the couch and be mesmerized by the backwoods labyrinth, the effective use and non-use of sound, and gorgeous cinematography.
I've probably changed my mind on "Form and Void" a dozen times since watching it, wavering between various degrees of positivity, but I'm noticing that the more I think about it, the more I like it. Right now, it's very, very good, but tomorrow it could be three "very"s and by the time Season 2 ends, it could be the best ever as it finds another puzzle piece to snap into.
– Sorry for the delay on this! No screener plus a newborn baby means my schedule is all over the place.
– This show, more than any I've ever seen, was in grave danger of being ruined by the Internet (and some could easily argue that it was). I never understood why it was picked apart as ravenously as it was with viewers looking for clues to the case and theorizing twists and even a supernatural component. To me, it had always been a more straightforward show that understood that creating bad people who could live within the realm of our known universe was much scarier than anything supernatural.
– However, I do understand disappointment from those who needed every question answered. Online speculation created most of those questions though. I never cared about Marty's daughter's figurines or the picture of the Five Horsemen or even Carcosa and the idea of The Yellow King, but the Internet sure did. I think I saved myself a lot of frustration by not getting sucked into the conspiracy hunt and instead watching True Detective for the characters more than the case.
– And because True Detective was the focus of so much
watercooler discussion, it felt like "Form and Void" almost hit a point
of self parody at some moments, where I got sucked into over-adrenalized
file sorting or digging into tax records, or watched just waiting for
Cohle to say something weird instead of letting these characters be
themselves. LIke Marty's "What's scented meat?" punchline, which made me
think more of a buddy cop comedy than anything else.
– The big break in the case being a house that was painted green decades ago and Marty figuring out that the Spaghetti Monster's green ears were linked to it was pretty lame! Sorry, but it was! But an interesting investigation was never one of True Detective's strong points.
– Cohle might have the new outlook on life, but I worry for Marty. He's a broken man who has nothing left to do but go back to microwave TV dinners. However, he seemed pretty happy to be sucking on that sippy cup in the hospital.
– Speaking of that scene, that back and forth between Hart and Cohle was fantastic. Hart: "What's your problem?" Cohle, barely alive: "Nothing, what's your problem." Hart: "Don't ever change, man." *flips the bird* And Cohle responded in kind.
– I love the sequences of stitching together the gorgeous landscape shots to show how the land was all connected and spotted with sites of evil. Erroll's home, the bayou, the Ledoux meth compound, the river, the site of Dora Lange's murder. It all resonated as a complete landscape and nifty reminder of where we've been. And, if you're pessimistic, what might still be out there.
– I don't normally do this, but a hearty thank you to all those involved in the series for making it such a fantastic watch. This was top-notch entertainment and an extraordinary effort from very talented people.
– "Making flowers"? Did you perverts ever think that maybe they were referring to putting together some great bouquets?
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