I thought last night's season one finale of True Detective struck a nice balance. Demand for the episode crashed HBO Go's server. So, in the end, what was the 17-year saga of Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) truly about? Who is the Yellow King? What is Carcosa? Does it matter?
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"The aspects of a police procedural don’t interest me at all and I’m certainly not interested in serial killers or serial killer stories. I’m interested in the humanity of characters and the way circumstances force them to grow or not grow and reveal themselves and their contradictions." —Nic Pizzolatto, True Detective creator, writerA majority of the episode is the conclusion and confrontation Marty and Rust encounter at the end of their investigation. But the episode, and the series overall, is not really about the murder, the killer, or some big reveal at the end of everything.
The entire mythology around the murders is an important part of the story. But when you break it down, the series is really an examination of two characters that have a yin-yang relationship to each other, and how the circumstances of the investigation affects both them and everyone around them over 17 years.
"Now Betty, I have very important work to do. My ascension removes me from the disc in the loop – I'm near final stage. Some mornings, I can see the infernal plane."
"You haven't made flowers on me for maybe three weeks. It makes me sad is all."
- Home Sweet Home: The opening to the episode, where we see the home life of the "spaghetti monster with green ears," shows us a Childress homestead with a nice mix of Nine Inch Nails video, something out of TLC's Hoarders, a good bit of incest, and quite possibly one of the most disturbing sex scenes in the history of HBO (and that's saying something for a network with all those Real Sex episodes). When Childress (Glenn Fleshler) began switching between accents after seeing James Mason in North By Northwest, at first I wondered if the show was setting him up as having dissociative identity disorder (aka multiple personalities). But I don't think that was it. He doesn't have a split personality. Childress is just your average psycho serial killer, with delusions of God-hood and daddy issues, that likes getting it on with his mentally challenged half-sister.
- Just Following Orders: Last week, I mentioned that Marty's reaction to the videotape of Marie Fontenot's abuse made me think the tape is the show's equivalent to the role "The King in Yellow" plays in Robert W. Chambers short story collection. Geraci has the same reaction as Marty to the videotape (i.e. screaming in terror). Geraci also pleads his innocence, and that he didn't know anything about Fontenot's abuse. He was just following the orders of Sheriff Childress. The information that Sheriff Childress had falsified records and made the missing persons case go away was important, since when Marty and Rust realized why the "Spaghetti monster" had green ears, the association with the name Childress was essential in allowing for the final connection to Errol Childress to be made. The scene with Sheriff Geraci plays a lot like a similar scene in the final episode of Breaking Bad. But I enjoyed it a lot anyway, since I love the argument between McConaughey and the actor that plays Geraci (Michael Harney, who also plays Healy on Orange is the New Black).
"I strike you as more of a talker or a doer, Steve? L'chaim fatass."
"That's my fucking car! Goddamn it! You motherfuckers! Fuck you!"
- What Makes Marty and Rust Tick: Marty and Rust are able to use a $250 tax write-off for home improvements to find the address of William Childress, Errol's father. Rust and Marty set up an "insurance policy," where if anything happens to them manila envelopes with the evidence will be mailed to various law enforcement agencies and the media. On the way to Childress' home, Marty and Rust argue about the issues surrounding the dissolution of their partnership in 2002. Marty is insulted by the idea that Rust held back in their fight. And Rust responds that he was irritated that Marty had, through his adulterous actions, put him in a position to be used by Maggie. That Marty threw away everything. But Rust says they all made choices that's responsible for their situations. What's interesting about the scene is that both men exhibit familiar parts of their personas. Marty filters the situation through macho bravado. He sees it as a test of his manhood, and how everything with Rust and Maggie affected it. Rust, on the other hand, treats the situation as either insignificant in the grand scheme of things, or something of an outgrowth with the "illusion" of human life.
"I never told you how to live your life, Marty."
"No. No. No. You just sat in judgment."
"Look, as sentient meat, however illusory our identities are, we craft those identities by making value judgments. Everybody judges all the time. Now, you got a problem with that, you're living wrong."
"What's scented meat?"
- In the Land of Carcosa: When Rust and Marty make it to the Childress home, the situation parallels what happened when they confronted Reggie Ledoux. They have no backup, are separated while dealing with two individuals, Marty finds someone caged, and eventually the suspect gets their head blown off. The stalking of Childress by Rust was tense, since this is a show where Rust, Marty, or both characters could have been killed at any moment. And when the confrontation does occur, I thought both men were going to die, especially after Rust is stabbed in the gut and Marty takes a hammer to the chest. I spent a good part of the time trying to figure out what " Carcosa" was? Is it some sort of sewer system that they had redecorated Blair Witch style over the years? Or had the Childress/Tuttle families actually built that structure as a "temple" (with a skylight) to the Yellow King? (The "Carcosa" scenes were shot at Fort Macomb, about 45 minutes outside of New Orleans.) Rust blows Errol's head off, which is a more righteous mirror of Marty blowing Reggie Ledoux's head off. This time Rust kills to defend Marty's life, where's Marty's killing of Ledoux was a short-sighted act of rage that had created a "debt" and prolonged this mystery.
There’s a lot of debate already about whether or not the finale settles the identity of the Yellow King — and whether it’s meant to be a person at all.
Fukunaga: I don’t necessarily think the final episode answered that, and I don’t think it was creator Nic Pizzolatto’s intention to answer that, even if people wanted it. It was more of an added layer to the reasons behind the killings. Rather than the Yellow King and the books about Carcosa and the mythology around that being the centerpiece for the finale, it was just another layer.
Another of Rust’s hallucinations, this one a cosmic blue vortex, arrives at the worst possible moment. How was it described to you and what were you going for?
Fukunaga: I don’t know if I could tell you what Nic originally had envisioned without getting in trouble. We landed on the spiral formation of the clouds as a wrapping-up of the symbology, or at least a book-ending of the symbology. I liked the idea that we could actually see Carcosa and black stars. If you look really closely, you can see black orbs floating in it. It was important to me that if we’re gonna talk about these things, let’s see them one more time before we finish.
"Come inside, little priest. To your right, little priest. Take the bride's path. This is Carcosa. You know what they did to me? Hmmm? What I will do to all the sons and daughters of man. You blessed Reggie ... Dewald ... Acolytes. Witnesses to my journey. Lovers. I am not ashamed. Come die with me, little priest."
- Nature and Civilization: One theme people have read into the show has been ideas of man's relationship to nature. Rust, Marty, and even Childress and the cult posit a worldview that asserts either a dominance over nature, or man's insignificance to nature. Carcosa is created out of a structure that's being "swallowed up" by branches and leaves. The town Rust and Marty visit in the pilot episode is a fading "memory" that's dying. And most of the shots of Marty and Rust traveling from place to place in Louisiana show oil refineries and expressways, which are in some ways exhibits of man's reach.
- How Things Change: Both men are saved when Detective Papania (Tory Kittles) comes through, and shows up at the Childress home with backup. The scenes at the hospital show how much these men have changed in the 17 years covered by the show. Marty finds peace with his ex-wife and family, but only after he allows his macho facade to fall. It's only after he breaks down in tears, and shows that everything is not ok, that he can find some peace. I thought it was significant that Marty takes Maggie's left hand, and we see the wedding ring of her new relationship. And for Rust, the experience of this case, and being near-death after his confrontation with Childress, gives him a "belief" in life, hope, and love. He lets go of his nihilism.
“There was a moment, I know, when I was under in the dark, that something … whatever I’d been reduced to, not even consciousness, just a vague awareness in the dark. I could feel my definitions fading. And beneath that darkness there was another kind—it was deeper—warm, like a substance. I could feel man, I knew, I knew my daughter waited for me, there. So clear. I could feel her. I could feel … I could feel the peace of my Pop, too. It was like I was part of everything that I have ever loved, and we were all, the three of us, just fading out. And all I had to do was let go, man. And I did. I said, ‘Darkness, yeah.’ and I disappeared. But I could still feel her love there. Even more than before. Nothing. Nothing but that love. And then I woke up.” (sobbing)
- Things Left Undone and Unsaid: Aspects of this mystery are not resolved. We never find out who else beyond Childress, Ledoux, and Dewall were involved, and how far the conspiracy extended. We also know from the news reports playing in Rust's hospital room that the Tuttles are at least influential enough to have the FBI and the attorney general publicly cover up their connections and involvement with the Childress family. Also, we never find out if anything bad was going on with Audrey. Although, in the Vulture interview I linked to above, True Detective director Cary Fukunaga says he never read abuse or a link to the conspiracy in Audrey's behavior. Instead, Fukunaga says the intent was to show the result of Marty's inattentiveness was a daughter who sought male attention from others. One suggestion I've read is that, even though each season will have a different story and different characters, what if each season connects in some way? Could next year's story have the new detectives having their case intersect with the Tuttles in some way?
"Tuttles, fucking men in the video, we didn't get 'em all."
"Yeah, and we ain't gonna get 'em all. That ain't what kind of world this is, but we got ours."
- The Battle of Light and Darkness: I love that this show, which had such dark and nihilistic moments, ends on an optimistic note. This may be a dark and vicious universe, but for one day Marty, Rust, and the "light" won. It also shows how far Rust has traveled in the 17 years from the murder of Dora Lange.
“I tell you Marty I been up in that room looking out those windows every night here just thinking, it’s just one story. The oldest.”Overall, I thought this series was an amazing achievement, with brilliant writing from Pizzolatto, great visuals and direction from Cary Fukunaga, and amazing performances from McConaughey, Harrelson, and Michelle Monaghan. In the end, the murder of Dora Lange and all of the speculation as to what The King in Yellow is and what it means didn't really matter in the grand scheme of things. It was only part of the crucible by which these two detectives comment on life, have those views tested, and grow and change through the experience. Is life an endless repetition where we'll taste all the aluminum and ash over again in a meaningless flat circle? Or is it an existence where things are connected in light and darkness, where we can only have some form of peace when we acknowledge our ignorance? The show doesn't provide a definitive answer to those questions. But the journey of the show's characters in trying to make sense of hunches and flashes of insight about a case mirrors our stumbling around in life trying to make sense of the best and worst moments. There might be monsters waiting for us at the end of the dream, but the stars may be proof that we have a chance against the dark.
“Light versus dark.”
“Well, I know we ain’t in Alaska, but it appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory.”
“Yeah, you’re right about that.”
(Rust insists that Marty help him leave the hospital, and Marty agrees. As they head to the car, Rust makes one final point to his former partner.)
“You’re looking at it wrong, the sky thing.”
“Well, once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.”
The structure of the series means you could have done anything with the ending, up to and including killing the two leads, because you get a clean slate with the next season. Why did you choose this particular way to end the story?
Nic Pizzolatto: This is a story that began with its ending in mind, that Cohle would be articulating, without sentimentality or illusion, an actual kind of optimism. That line, you ask me, the light's winning, that was one of the key pieces of dialogue that existed at the very beginning of the series' conception. For me as a storyteller, I want to follow the characters and the story through what they organically demand. And it would have been the easiest thing in the world to kill one or both of these guys. I even had an idea where something more mysterious happened to them, where they vanished into the unknown and Gilbough and Papania had to clean up the mess and nobody knows what happens to them. Or it could have gone full blown supernatural. But I think both of those things would have been easy, and they would have denied the sort of realist questions the show had been asking all along. To retreat to the supernatural, or to take the easy dramatic route of killing a character in order to achieve an emotional response from the audience, I thought would have been a disservice to the story. What was more interesting to me is that both these men are left in a place of deliverance, a place where even Cohle might be able to acknowledge the possibility of grace in the world. Because one way both men were alike in their failures was that neither man could admit the possibility of grace. I don't mean that in a religious sense. Where we leave Cohle, this man hasn't made a 180 change or anything like that. He's moved maybe 5 degrees on the meter, but the optimistic metaphor he makes at the end, it's not sentimental; it's purely based on physics. Considering what these characters had been through, it seemed hard to me to work out a way where they both live and they both exit the show to live better lives beyond the boundaries of these eight episodes. Now they are going to go on and live forever beyond the margins of the show, and our sense, at least, is they haven't changed in any black to white way, but there is a sense that they have been delivered from the heart of darkness. They did not avert their eyes, whatever their failings as men. And that when they exit, they are in a different place.