True Detective is the Battlestar Galactica of Cop Shows.
I mean this mostly in a good way. Both featured compelling, flawed characters and impenetrable mysteries, both had visuals that stood apart from their peers, both redefined their genres while staying largely within their confines, and both came with a dollop of mysticism that threatened to either weigh the whole thing down or push the series into transcendence. That could probably describe Lost, too, though I haven’t watched it.
The problem with these shows, and any shows where at least part of the attraction is the unknown, is that in the weeks, months, or years leading up to the whole, to the final reveal, the audience makes up its mind about what a show is, or what it should be. Apart from the mystery itself, people also settle on deeper meanings in the semiotics of the show, or the actions of the characters, defining them before they have a chance to define themselves.
In part, True Detective (and BSG) welcomed this method of watching by planting cultural and literary references and overtly mystic symbols throughout the series, every one a possible portent of… something, maybe? But mostly it’s just how fans work, obsessing over perceived clues and picking apart flaws. It’s fun, and one of the reasons True Detective is so compelling, but it’s also destructive; negating what it is, for what we think it will be.
At the end of season one we are left to decide what was masterful, what was flawed, and what was a result of misplaced expectations. There is no twist or overarching plot that brings everything together. The Yellow King references remain just that, the Tuttle family’s name is still well intact, and the show’s musings on the male perception of women and the various ways it does harm remain inchoate at best. But these were never the main event, only contributions to what turned out to be the whole. The show has always kept its focus on Marty, Cohle, and the symbol of the Yellow King. Two bad men trying to stop those who are worse.
The final hour is surprisingly straightforward. Marty and Cohle don’t find out much from the chain o’ command police officer, other than he’s a dick who worked for a bigger dick who is unofficially related to the biggest dick of all. Then, through Marty’s detection skills, and the spot-on memory of a senior citizen who clearly spends her day alternating between sudoku and crossword puzzles, they finally find their green-eared spaghetti monster.
This lull, between the introduction of Errol as a person who exists not solely on a lawnmower and the final showdown, is remarkable for how procedural it is. Out of context, these scenes could fit into a Law and Order episode, with the moment of revelation and the suspiciously canny witness. But in context they reveal small things about our characters. For the first time, Marty is clear-eyed; not distracted by sex or alcohol. He is lonely and unhappy, but he is also focused, moreso, in a way, even than Cohle, who is always slightly distracted by things only he sees. The clue he discovers is ridiculous, but it’s hardly important, the clues have never been important, or at least not in terms of the plot. Likewise, the on-the-ball old lady is not just a standard cop show witness, she is the last in the line of many who cannot forget the big man with scars around his mouth. He is memorable, not for his scars, which are relatively nondescript, but for his presence. This also reinforces the nearly insurmountable challenge the show set itself — to create a killer who can stand up to the existential dread that has permeated these eight episodes.
For True Detective it isn’t enough to make a killer deranged or charismatic. To live up, even a fraction, to the Yellow King, he must be both of those things, and neither. He must be impenetrable without being obtuse, and he has to pull all that off in under an hour. It’s a tall order, but the show actually does a fairly great job of it (which may not be that surprising). While it does lean a little too heavily on the redneck killer trope, mainly with the involvement of the half-sister-cousin-lover, True Detective manages to tick off enough boxes as to make him both believable as a charismatic cult leader and the most evil person on the planet. Within the first five minutes of its opening, Errol transforms from an Oedipus figure, to Cary Grant, to someone who is Irish? back to a deranged redneck, all personalities startlingly convincing. It’s possible he’s an idiot savant, an evil genius, or something else altogether, it’s not important, what he needs to be and is, for the most part, is unquantifiable. Because as important as he is to the story, he is ultimately just a representation of evil. The evils of men, the evils of certain types of organized religion, the evils of people who murder other people which I guess is an obvious one.
The final showdown is unquestionably heartstopping, both tense and, for a small moment, beautiful. The catacombs of Carcosa make for an unlikely but perfect place to showcase the strange, monstrous presence that is the Yellow King, but also, once again, a perfect place to show how little he matters in the grand scheme of things. In the arena, where the Yellow King finally falls, Cohle stares once again into the spiral abyss, the one he first saw in that tree in ‘94, the one that has been following him ever since. Maybe it is a vision he shares with Errol, maybe it is one that only he sees, but the void is there in that arena in a real way. The darkness of humanity waits there, ready for us to die with him.
This is where I get back to Battlestar Galactica. Ultimately, the show is always circling back to the spiritual and philosophical. The cyclical nature of time, light vs. dark, delusions and spirit visions, the possibility of the soul. This is where we land at the end, the big bad defeated, our two heroes miraculously surviving. They are both important and not, depending on your perspective. They are tools in the one story as much as they are people.
Battlestar Galactica ended up drowning in its spiritualism, soaking nearly every inch of its finale in religious allusions and the importance of belief. In its final moment, True Detective almost takes up that mantle. Cohle, the stalwart Athiest, has a near-death experience, which brings him to tears. Depending on your perspective, this can be a heartbreaking monologue on the nature of loss and belief, on the impossibility of knowing everything, or it can be the TV show equivalent of saying, “Well, I’m not religious or anything, but I do consider myself spiritual.” I believe it’s the former, but I could see, if someone hasn’t bought into it, where it could fall flat.
In the final scene, Marty and Cohle are looking at the stars, noting how so much of the sky is made up of the dark. But in one last, uncharacteristically hopeful line, Cohle says to Marty that he thinks the light is winning. Again, out of context, it’s a line that could be considered hokey, but in the world of True Detective it has heft. It isn’t just due to the bleak and desperate moments of violence and grief that lead to this statement of hope that give it weight, it’s the fact that its meaning is muddled by Cohle’s own words not two minutes ago. This muddle is what makes True Detective stand out from a show about two dudes solving crimes, or the Battlestar Galactica of Southern Noir. The show isn’t about any one thing, it’s about everything and nothing. Form and void. When Cohle was nearing his death, he didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel as his definition faded. He saw only a deeper darkness, a substance made only of feeling. He felt his daughter’s love, and the presence of his father, good or bad. The final line of Cohle’s isn’t just one of hope; it’s a question. If the light is winning over the dark, what do we lose when the dark is gone?