The following is a viewing diary I wrote as I watched the show for the first time, pausing after each episode to collect my thoughts. As such, it is spoiler-free for upcoming episodes (although the comments section may not be).
"You're looking at it wrong," the dazed, emaciated Rust Cohle tells his sturdy-looking friend Marty Hart. They are crouching outside the beautifully-lit hospital under a starry Louisiana sky. At least Hart is crouching; Cohle is collapsed in a wheelchair, barely out of his coma as he recovers from severe stab wounds. Hart was wounded too, but less severely, whereas Cohle has just finished describing his near-death experience with all the fervor of an atheist in a foxhole. And now Cohle is applying the same optimism to the firmament overhead, in which Hart has noted that the dark has much more territory than the light. Cohle continues, softly, "Once it was all dark. I say the light's winning."
Well, I was looking at it wrong too. Knowing that these characters were only on the show for this run and assuming (correctly, as it turns out) that the case they are investigating would be solved in these episodes, I also took it for granted that we would be getting answers on everything, that the big picture would be revealed. With the end of the last episode I was worried that True Detective would not be able to resolve all of its threads satisfactorily in less than an hour. What I didn't expect is that it wouldn't even try.
The Yellow King, whose reveal I had been eagerly awaiting, is never mentioned once. This is maybe the first time he has dropped off the radar since the early episodes. The secret cult, vaguely referred to as unhinged amalgam of Santeria and Vodun (those must be the mildest ingredients), remains obscure; the biggest hints came last episode. Despite all the evidence accumulated against the Tuttles, the penultimate scene suggests they will successfully spin their way out of any association with Errol Childress, the psychopathic serial killer on whom the hundreds of suspicious disappearances and ritualistic murders are pinned. If Cohle and Hart had the wrong man in episode five (albeit one who was clearly into the same vile shit as Errol), this time they get it right. But this vicious hillbilly is still just a guppy in the murky waters. Somewhere off in the distance the big shark swims - and I'm guessing his fins are yellow.
So we don't get big answers or eye-opening new perspectives and with that in mind it's easy to see why some people were disappointed with this conclusion. But I'm ok with it. It helps that I realized what was going on early in "Form and Void." We open with a bizarre scene of Errol and his wife/sister (Ann Dowd) which seems like an outtake from another flamboyant, much more baroque show - shameless Grand Guignol as the trashy bumpkin wanders around his ramshackle house spouting off in Shakespearean English. This is a trip - we're in Silence of the Lambs/Buffalo Bill territory now, and I dug it. Not what I was expecting, but I enjoy it when a work is willing to branch out in tone. Besides, Errol's cartoonishly colorful abode is just a hint: the real triumph of production design is revealed as his lair in the backyard, if you can call this massive expanse of overgrown ruins, a labyrinth of near-Amazonian splendor, by such a domestic moniker.
From that first scene it's clear the episode is going to emphasize Errol Childress as the dragon who must be slain, the ogre in the cave whose death will signal the end of our tale. I was nervous that the show would absurdly attempt to pin everything - leadership of the cult, statewide corruption, etc. - on this isolated yokel. Then it finally dawned on me, as it probably should have long ago, that True Detective is not going to be a series of unrelated miniseries under the same authorship. The characters will change, but the underlying storyline and backdrop will continue to expand. I suspect we haven't heard the last of the Tuttles (although I assume we will be relocating along with re-casting for season two) and I'm positive we haven't heard the last of the Yellow King. At least, I hope...
So I settled in for a fairly rousing and memorable capper to this particular component of the saga. If I felt any lingering disappointment in the end it may have been more with the characters - since this will be their last hurrah. I'm not sure how I feel about Cohle's not-quite-deathbed conversion into optimistic spirituality. Matthew McConaughey delivers his big, well-written speech superbly. I liked the description of entering a deeper, richer darkness where his father and daughter welcomed him - this is a much more evocative and textured image than the cliched entry into bright light would have been. But something does feel pat, a quality shared by - come to think of it - Cohle's earlier cynicism. This is a character who has always talked a lot. But his emotions are most revealing and effective when we view them from an angle, not when they are being explicated so overtly. Still, this speech works.
Hart, I'm also ambivalent about. I really like this character but in two different ways. I like him when I loathe him, when he's unlikeable, a sonofabitch who gives himself all kinds of excuses but ultimately has to confront his fundamental weakness. I also like him in a more conventional sense, as a flawed but good guy you want to root for. The series seesaws between these two presentations of Hart but ultimately comes down hard on the second in this final episode. On a basic level, this is satisfying. There is redemptive heft to the family gathering around his bed, as he tells them everything's going to be all right before breaking down into sobs (the dark, ominous score beautifully undercuts the potential sentimentality and emphasizes a profound sense of of unease). Calm and wise by his friend's side at the end, Hart's conclusion feels earned on a certain level. Having come to care about these characters, their hard-won camaraderie warms our hearts.
On the other hand, come on! The Hart we saw around the middle of the season bordered on Tony Soprano territory, a seething overwhelmed mess of a man, clinging desperately to his sense of power while flailing in the darkness. It was a powerful characterization and - I don't know - the kinder, gentler Hart who closes the series doesn't totally convince me as a natural evolution of the darker portrait we glimpsed before. Also, I'm calling foul on the young prostitute showing up again as his mistress seven years later, only to disappear again from the story, a totally wasted plot twist. Likewise there was a nasty streak, a truly cold viciousness to Cohle which has been papered over here. He isn't just a wounded soul hurting only himself, a man who needed to confront death to find the will to live. Along with the honor and sensitivity was a genuine force of destruction and poison. Errol, holding him in his clutches, demands, "Take off your mask!" By the end of "Form and Void" I felt more like everyone had put a mask on.
I don't begrudge any story an uplifting end and it's easy to see why, with all the black evil swamping the dim beacons of light, creator Nic Pizzolatto felt the need to amp up the wattage. But if the happy ending feels forced it may be because it makes me realize I didn't quite know what kind of show True Detective wanted to be. And now I'm not totally sure True Detective knows either. It is an incredibly assured piece of work, and the consistent writer/director team makes it all feel a piece. The show deftly weaves together influences as diverse as The Wire, The Sopranos, and Twin Peaks into one tight, filmic narrative. But there's still a difference between a gritty, adventurous, wildly inventive genre piece and something like The Sopranos which goes over the edge into outright experimentation, pushing the envelope until it leaves us exhilarated and exasperated, wandering what the hell we just saw. At its best, True Detective does this too but ultimately it settles for just a little less than groundbreaking art.
If I'm being tough on the show - tougher than I expected when I began writing this - it comes from a place of admiration. I can't wait to see where True Detective goes next, how it unfolds unique stories against the big picture, details accumulating over a long period if and when it chooses to surprise us by weaving old threads back into the tapestry (I hope so). This is an excellent series but more importantly it's a hell of a first season, setting the bar high with a wink that tells us it's only going to get higher. There's a great shot, maybe the best in the series, when Cohle enters the killer's lair and wanders lower in the composition so that only his eyes poke out above the bottom of the frame. It's a moment to send a shiver down your spine in anticipation. If nothing else in the atmospheric and startling climax really lives up to that shiver, that's ok too. It's a promise of what's to come.