Criticised for its “cop-out” ending, we dismiss the True Detective criticism and praise one of HBO’s best originals.
WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS
True Detective concluded its eight-episode run this week with a dark, philosophically rich finale that set the internet ablaze with cries of disappointment and confusion. After all the pitch black pessimism and allusions to supernatural goings-on, viewers were upset that in the end, it all culminated with a creepy redneck in his murder maze. Creator Nic Pizzolatto mentioned in interviews how the show was going to upend our expectations of the detective genre, but many thought he only reinforced them.
To see light at the end of the tunnel was unexpected, but it was the most honest way that True Detective could have ended
Many disliked the final scene of the series and thought it a cop-out (pun intended). For a series to be so unrelentingly dark only to have its protagonists see the light at the end of the tunnel felt like one of those “Is that it?” moments. But really, it was the most honest way that True Detective could have ended. What Pizzolatto managed to do with this series was present a detective story about our collective unconscious. By placing it within a meta-textual landscape of American mythology, he recognised where True Detective existed on the narrative spectrum. It became a story about stories – the ones we tell ourselves, the ones we tell each other and also the stories we tell as a collective unconscious.
True Detective wasn’t just Rust and Marty’s story; it was everyone’s story. Pizzolatto used recognisable tropes to make us complicit in the world we have made around us. We all recognise paedophilia as the most despicable of crimes – we also understand organised religion’s role in relation to it and the presence of conspiracies within our cultural hive mind is unceasingly persistent. We also understand the archetypes of masculinity represented by Marty (the family man with his own demons) and Rust (the loner on the edge), but in True Detective all of these familiar elements are cast within a framework of folklore and mythology.
We may not all have picked up on the immediate references to the Old Testament, The King in Yellow or Ambrose Bierce, but we feel it in our bones because these are fundamental archetypes at play here. This is what Pizzolatto achieved in True Detective – by reinforcing the archetypes and genre tropes, he brought us all down into the muck and the mire of our collective unconscious to show us the spinning, churning super-massive black hole at the centre of our cultural universe.
Are we really that jaded that the only ending we could foresee was one of horror and tragedy? The dark has more territory indeed
This is where that ending comes in, the one that many seemed so disappointed or confused by. This is where Pizzolatto finally upended audience expectation by having his protagonists survive. Rust and Marty decide they are no longer going to wallow in the darkness but instead they’re going to rise above it. They know they can’t destroy all that darkness, but they know they never could. All one can do is make their mark of light upon it.
Marty and Rust begin as anti-heroes, but through their journey they become straight-up, full blown heroes and ascend into myth. In a television landscape of anti-heroes like Walter White and Tony Soprano, we are too used to watching bad people do bad things and eventually get their comeuppance (or not), so when a series like True Detective shows us there is not only redemption but ascension, for some of us that appears to be too difficult to compute. Are we really that jaded and pessimistic that the only ending we can foresee is one of horror and tragedy? The dark has more territory indeed.
A mid-season review: Stakes are high as True Detective enters act two
Yet, the light is winning, if only incrementally. Errol Childress may have succeeded in his aim to transcend his body to exist forever on the infernal plane, but his destruction caused its own Big Bang. Two new stars were born in the void that was Carcosa, stars that are now only just beginning to shine amongst the others within the seemingly endless dark. There is still a long way to go before the light will finally win out.
This does not only apply to the world of True Detective, but to our collective unconscious. We have thousands of years of darkness churning within us that could do with being brought into the light. If not to finally rid us of this darkness, then at the very least so we can acknowledge it. It all brings to mind the final line uttered by Morgan Freeman’s Detective William Somerset in David Fincher’s similarly grim cop drama Se7en: “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.” I agree with the second part.”
More on True Detective: Why Edge of Darkness is a proto-True Detective
All images: HBO