True Detective: Natural Supernatural

Eight episodes and done.

Which, by the way, is a great way to do a TV show. The story was told. The story is finished.

We are getting a True Detective, Season 2, though one supposes it’ll be more like American Horror Story — different cast, different narrative, maybe some shared territory. Or, given the events in season one, maybe we’ll see some aspects of the case continue somewhere else?

Anyway. Gonna talk a bit about the show here. And the finale.

Which means: spoilers are incoming.

I’m gonna put some spoiler space here

SPOILERTOWN, POPULATION YOU

SPOILERS LA LA LA

YOU ABOUT TO BE SPOILED

TURN AWAY

BRIDGE OUT

SPOILERS AHEAD

AWOOGA AWOOGA

AAAAAAAAH SPOILERS

CAUTION CUIDADO VERBOTEN

SUH POY LURS

Ahem.

I think that’s good enough.

All along, folks were looking, I think, for a twist — a whodunit-style pivot where we find out Marty is the King in Yellow or Carcosa is really a strip club in Des Moines or all of this has been inside Rustin Cohle’s nihilistic little snowglobe all along. And we did indeed get a twist — but I suspect it wasn’t the twist folks were imagining.

We got a happy ending.

All signs pointed to a Se7en-style conclusion: men driven mad by their exposure to the horror of the world, a Lovecraftian sanity-loss as they pick apart the rotten layers of mankind’s ugly soul until they stare into the unblinking void-eye at the center. And certainly it looked like it was moving that way. Wandering the labyrinth. Into the pit. To the throne of the Yellow King. Through a world far more Texas Chainsaw Massacre than we perhaps figured on. And then both men locked in battle with a monster, attacked and victorious but seemingly left to die in a charnel house pit. Grim, grisly stuff. And we were all but assured one of those men was dead, if not both.

And yet –

We got a happy ending.

We got a happy ending.

Not like — ha ha, shiny happy, ponies raining from the sky, but both men passed through that unblinking void-eye and emerged with souls somehow not rent to ribbons. In fact, these two patchwork men — in what is the most cantankerous, nihilistic bromance perhaps ever conceived, a friendship truly earned — have come out possessing something resembling enlightenment.

(I won’t spoil the end conversation between these two men, but even if you never watch the show, it’s probably worth digging that up and watching it. Writing and acting in a one-two-punch.)

I think what’s most fascinating to me about the whole show — aside from it being an intense character study more than it is a detective story — is how the story-world is supernatural-adjacent. By which I mean, the supernatural would not seem to exist (we have no direct evidence), but it has left its mark just the same. This is a world where metaphysics matter, where the cuckoopants geometry of the cosmos has injured men’s souls. We are given no evidence that the bird’s nests and antler skulls and ritual markings have any physical effect on the world around these characters, but the point, perhaps, is that they don’t need to. These rituals have spiritual implications. They have power over these people emotionally, intellectually. The supernatural here is natural. Unreal. Impossible and unseen, yet evident just the same. The killer is like a minotaur at the center of a maze — human, but monstrous. Cohle is truly affected by realms beyond, even though we can’t see them or touch them. The Bayou is still married to old magic, and though the magic doesn’t seem to work in the classic sense, it still twists the family trees.

And of course, the conspiracy of the Carcosa cult is still out there. We know they found their killer, but we also know that he’s just one notable branch of this rotten tree. (Again, I wonder if a follow-up season will continue to pursue this storyline, just with new characters and a new timeline.)

Fascinating stuff that culminated in a potent, if too easy, finale. (I say too easy because some of the logical leaps are a bit strained. The “green ears” — which could’ve and should’ve perhaps been a reference to the ear-muffs worn by a dude mowing the lawn — felt like a hasty conclusion that frankly didn’t rely on much of anything from the rest of the investigation. It seemed random and convenient and for me is perhaps one of the only real mis-steps the series has taken. A mis-step that is pretty forgivable given the strength of the writing and the acting.)

Great show.

Looking forward to season two, whatever it may be.

33 comments

  • Being in Australia I have to wait another 12 hours before seeing the final episode. And no, I haven’t read the above post. But all I can say is, True Detective? Motherfucking awesome, dudes.

  • I didn’t read past the word “spoilers” as I haven’t watched this yet (it’s only just arrived in the UK). Can I just ask for a some very brief, spoiler-free reactions to the show as I’ve heard it’s pretty good?

  • It WAS happier than I was expecting, but I loved it just the same.

    Can’t wait to sit down and watch it from start to finish again to enjoy the dark goodness all over again.

  • Agreed, Chuck. Criticisms that I’ve read have chastened this work for failing to connect all the dots. As much as was left to the imagination, I feel this chapter of the bigger epic of occultism in the Louisiana bayou is closed brilliantly. Looking forward to seeing how the next chapter is spun.

    • I’m happy it wasn’t so easily pat — “Hey, we cracked the whole conspiracy open and now it’s fine yay the end.” I feel like there’s more story here, even if it’s not these detectives specifically who visit it.

  • About the green ears. I thought it worked well in the fact, this guy was doing odd jobs around the area, and by doing so was able to find prey very easily.

    The idea he had green ears was from a child’s description, that also said he looked like a spaghetti monster. His scars in the picture were all over his face, while in reality it was only part. It’s very possible he had only a few bits of green on his ears (or only one painted), but the child focused on that. So I understand fully, but the green ears was never something anyone witnessed to be true except a terrified child.

    Overall, one of the best television shows I’ve seen. I also assume that skeleton covered in yellow rags was the yellow king. Errol could have made it his king, and the idea spread from there to his acolytes.

    • I totally got the child’s description and thought the spaghetti-monster thing worked. But he had green paint on both ears? Seems strained, to me. Again: I felt like there was an easy link with the ear-muffs one would wear for lawn-work? Maybe I’m just picky.

  • Ponies raining from the skies can only be considered a happy ending if you are not one of the ponies. Otherwise, it’s my spec script for Ponyocalpyse Now.

  • How can we find fault with a story that began and ended with character. The journey was theirs to take and take it they did. The case was just the engine that drove them forward-that allowed them to find peace at the end. Loved it. Sometimes we think life is about all this metaphysical stuff, but it turns out it is about friendship, peace, love.

  • Came straight to the comments due to : SPOILERS!

    Unfortunately, the UK is all of 3 episodes in, with the 4th being aired this coming Saturday. But so far, so very very good.

    P.S – if I have repeated anything commented by another post I apologise; haven’t read the comments due to fear of SPOILERS!

  • I’m not sure why people were so ready for a twist after the end of episode seven. I mean, they did a close-up on the villain’s face, and everything fit. He had the scars, he had the opportunity, the only thing missing was the motive — which was found in episode 8. He even had the green ears — though I was also expecting it to be related to cutting grass, not painting.

    I think people have been conditioned to look for the twist. No one wants to be the person who “didn’t see it coming.” Plus, if you guess some kind of crazy theory and you’re right, you look brilliant. If you’re wrong, no one really calls you out on it. There are also some people who are disappointed there wasn’t a crazy twist, but to me that reeks of wanting the story to be something other than what it is. The case was a backdrop to explore two characters; but some seemed to want the two characters to be pawns in the case.

    Now just a few weeks to kill until Game of Thrones.

      • and that expectation was sort of weird to me, because it’s pretty clear that it’s really just an added patina of occultism for the story, and not the root of the story itself.

        I really loved this, and especially the ending. Really, I felt like I anticipated most of what happened in this story– but it was done brilliantly. (I thought the very ending was twist enough for me, because that was the only thing I *didn’t* expect.)

  • IMHO the ending ruined the glorious eight hours that preceded it. Do all stories today have to have a “character arc?” Dashiell Hammett or any other pulp master would have laughed at this conclusion. Today’s fiction is so predictable. You start with a character with a “flaw” that needs healing and come up with a cure. A guy who hates cats ends up running a pet store at the end of the story. A cynical misogynist becomes the founder of a homeless shelter for battered women. Or in this case a cynical nihilist becomes a true believer. What happened to the tough hero able to walk the mean streets without becoming tarnished or corrupt, or “enlightened?” Passe, I suppose. Oh, well, until the end it was great television.

    • TV actually doesn’t do “character arcs” very well — TV is set in a mode where characters generally remain precisely the same. This is one of modern TV’s problems — narratively, it’s “all middle.”

      I was very pleased with TRUE DETECTIVE (and other HBO shows, honestly), for breaking that mode.

  • I got up EARLY on DST Monday so I could watch the finale and not spoil. myself. Damn good TV if it makes me do something like that. Looking forward to season 2’s story.

  • I left my own thoughts on my blog, and have noticed other True Detective fans blogging.

    Heck, the blogging started immediately after the East Coast airing.

    There are haters out there, but even with the nit-pick of Marty cracking the case, I thought having Marty crack it was appropriate. He was and is, a detective of equal caliber as Rust; but he’s a better detective when partnered with Rust. It goes back to “Without me, there is no you.” but I would argue the same applies to Rust with Marty’s presence.

    I think what these two characters share runs deeper than a bromance. These guys are more like blood brothers. They truly do not like each other, but they are lost without one another. they need each other. Sure, they get closer at the end; and who wouldn’t after an ordeal like that? Still, I think their love for one another is a begrudging one.

    Great deep dive into the Southern Gothic mysticism of Louisiana, Chuck. This truly was an amazing experience.

  • Great stuff Chuck. I completely agree. I’ve been obsessed with the show since the first episode, as obsessed as Hart and Cole (which could.make a pretty great country duo, heart & coal). Anyways, I’ve been following anything about the show, it even opened a world of weird fiction for me that I’m sad to say I wasn’t familiar with before. From some articles.with the sole writer nic pizzolatto, the next season will be new characters new story. He’s also hinted at a female character and a possible setting off southern California. Can’t wait for season two.

  • The jury was out for me when I watched the first episode. I thought it was so slow, but wanted to give it one more try because I know how powerful both leads are in their acting and hot damn I’m glad I did! We watched it faithfully through the end and loved it. I’ve been thinking about the final episode all day today. That’s great writing, book or screen.

    I kept thinking at the end, don’t die, don’t die, don’t die and I’m glad neither did. But I’m also glad that it wasn’t a pat, happily ever after, Rust reforms, Marty gets the wife back and flowers bloom across the screen. The character development as the series went on drew me in as much as the plot for me and that the two found an uneasy truce at the end was perfect. I did hate the dog dying, but almost stood up and cheered when the killer got half his head blown off. Sweet revenge there.

  • March 10, 2014 at 8:50 PM // Reply

    i like that it was good old fashioned, non-esoteric research, looking at 1000’s of records so much that you know when a house has been painted, had a part in solving the crime. there was plenty of kohl’s existential meandering (great meandering-the best), which, paired with hart’s ‘scented meat’ anti-philosophy bent, got a difficult ccase solved. a remark by the writer about balance, yin and yang, blah blah blah, that foreshadowed or reinforced the dark and light in the sky dialogue at the end. just sayin. thanks

  • Finally watched the finale, and loved it. Glad to see it held back from committing to a supernatural ending, even whilst one of my fellow UK Facebook buddies “can’t be bothered” with the show, if it’s just a lunatic and not a genuine big bad monster. He’s missing a treat, as everyone who’s been watching can testify – incredible dialogue, well rounded characters. It seems to me that The Call of Cthulhu had its own police raid that proved inconclusive in showing the existence of monsters, even if hinted at by cultists.

    But… I wonder… Where are the Yellow King and Carcosa referenced from, in the context of this story? I was surprised that Rust, in his years of research, hadn’t stumbled upon Robert W Chambers’ collection of short stories to explain tbese names away. Perhaps the decadent child-killing cult have access to a certain cursed play, that has previously only been seen to exist in worlds where the King in Yellow and Carcosa are genuine supernatural apparitions.

    Can’t wait til Season 2.

  • Man! I don’t have Foxtel, so haven’t seen this show – which isn’t fair! :(

    But once Foxtel is finished with it, they’ll toss it in the direction of free-to-air cable and people who can’t afford Foxtel will get to see it too… probably after Supernatural finishes up Season 10 (which, rumour has it, is their very last season).

  • i don’t think Rust was a big user of the internet. I wouldn’t have known of the Chambers origin of The King in Yellow and Carcosa without it. And it wouldn’t have interfered with my enjoyment of the show. I thought it was a brilliant denouement. The love of a daughter, is a very redemptive thing. Those two scenes were about as powerful as drama can get. Honestly, if you found this unsatisfying, you probably feel the same way about life. I think TV series, this one and Top of the Lake spring to mind, are leaving Cinema in the dust for telling a satisfying tale with characters you can care about, because you know them. To complain about a character arc, whilst pining for the he-man days of dimensional pulp characters is disingenuous at best; self delusional if we want to get nasty about it.

  • That’s a fair enough point. It’s wasn’t a big criticism, just something I considered. Back in the 90s, when I first discovered The King in Yellow in a book shop, I thought it was the genuine accursed play mentioned in a game I played, not a collection of short stories. Someone emailed me recently, presumably off the back of the show, assuming much the same thing and trying to track down a copy of the original play. I guess it’s not immediately obvious to just look these things up online unless you’re particularly computer literate.

    I’m a bit disappointed to see some people online complete fail to ‘get’ the final episode and, through extension, the whole story arc. People suggesting that the bad guy was a subpar “Buffalo Bill”, for example, so the ending lacked the punch it deserved. Someone else complained that all the Chekhov’s guns littering the way went unheeded in the end (thereby ignoring that these weren’t Chekhov’s guns at all, but the playing with conventions). I think there were a lot of story elements we’ve seen a million other times, so to make the story a simple detective story, with a twist, for the millionth and first time, wouldn’t have told us much of a story at all.

    As it is I really enjoyed the story of two detectives, their engaging dialogue and evolving relationship, and observations on life, and am glad to see the story wrapped up neatly in eight episodes. Maybe the heroes didn’t bring down all the bad guys in one fell swoop – but doesn’t that make it more realistic? After countless cop shows were the heroes always solve the riddle and outwit the bad guys seeing a show where the protagonists barely make it through with their lives and then spend fifteen minutes of air time contemplating what it all means… is refreshing!

    The bar has been set high. I hope season two can jump at least as high.

  • Yeah, I’ve been turning it over and over in my mind, and there’s no reason to think that the supernatural explanation and the mundane one are mutually exclusive, here. Ultimately, deciding that there was a supernatural element to the story requires the kind of faith the series discussed at length — a decision to believe that there is something more, some master plan, some intelligent design. Which, as it happens, is the same faith that has to sustain television viewers when they go on a journey like this one.

  • Both my husband and I were like “Wh… haaat?” with the leap from the green ears to the canvassing photos. Otherwise, every single minute of that show is re-watchable. We’re going to give it a couple months and watch it again before the next season. Amazing writing. Amazing acting. And I adored the ending! I was laughing and crying! It was a perfect tale of how resilient the human spirit is. How we deal with the mess of the world while dealing our own flaws and try to always come out on the other side of a big mess a little lighter instead of heavier. Good stuff.

  • It was beautifully done. I don’t think the end was particularly happy: Hart realizes what he has lost, Cohle gets to feel what he has tried not to feel all those years. And still, after that and after all those horrors, they find something to live for. In episode 7 both of them dropped hints that they weren’t expecting to come out alive, nor did they wish to (Rust at least). And now this. That final scene, with Cohle so vulnerable, his eyes finally alive, is the best TV performance ever. And aggressive Marty so tender. Both actors have risen enormously in my esteem.

    By the way, nitric.com has an interview with Pizzolato very much worth reading, in which he indicated that season 2 will have a whole new story…Can’t wait

  • One of the things that I loved about the show was that whether you wanted to believe there was a *real* supernatural element to the killings (that Carcossa is a real, Otherworldly place; that the King in Yellow *is* some kind of monstrous god or demon, etc.) or that it’s all just a demented cult operating in a purely physicalist world, the story works. And, I think, it works because of Cohle’s acid-flashbacks-cum-synesthesia. Those visions can be seen as *just* Cohle’s brain manifesting sensory information in unusual ways, as *actual* psychic visions of a kind, or even a marriage of both (synesthesia and psychic intuition) – particularly the final vision in the “shrine” area.

    As well, it is one of *the most* Lovecraftian works I’ve seen in…I don’t know how long. I’d argue that it would be *less* Lovecraftian (and more just a pastiche of Lovecraft) if there had been overt references to more mainstream Lovecraft tropes (Cthulhu, etc.). You have the “degenerate and hedonistic family” trope, the “obscure cult worshiping strange shit” trope, the pessimistic and fatalistic philosophy of Cohle, and the “digging into horrific events that changes the protagonist’ worldview” trope (though, with a nice twist on the usual take, as you pointed out, Chuck), all wrapped up in a nicely-done package.

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