Brilliant, weird noir series True Detective had its season finale last night, and the ending probably wasn't what most viewers expected. There were a lot of problems with the way this mystery was resolved, but the show did do one thing gloriously right. Spoilers ahead!
I'm going to start with what I consider to be the season finale's master stroke.
GOOD: The Ending Didn't Answer All Our Questions
What I loved about this episode was that all the most elaborate theories that fans spun out turned out to be wrong. The series didn't become meta-commentary about how we're all trapped in a narrative, nor did we ever discover the true meanings of Carcosa and the Yellow King. Instead, it turned out that the guy killing kids was indeed (as we suspected for at least two episodes) Errol Childress, a schizophrenic child molester who had himself been abused as a child. He was working with a few friends who were also child molesters.
Before you get all freaked out and start yelling at me that THERE ARE A WHOLE BUNCH OF OTHER MEANINGS — yes, I grant you that, and I will talk about them in a second. But for now, just sit back and consider that if you simply look at what the story gave us, we are left with absolutely no explanation for why Errol and his buddies were obsessed with Carcosa and the Yellow King. Why the antlers and the spirals and stick pyramids? There is no explanation other than Errol's insanity. We do see a gloriously spooky Yellow King in Errol's murder cave, and Rust hallucinates Carcosa (I loved that moment), but we never find out who came up with this imagery or what it means. It just gets explained away in one line about "child molesters into voodoo."
We also never truly find out how many members of the Tuttle/Childress clan are involved in the child sacrifice rituals. When Rust frets about this in the hospital after he and Marty have caught and killed Errol, Marty basically tells him to shut up. Of course the evil men in power weren't caught, he says to Rust. "That ain't what kind of world it is," he continues. "But we got ours."
Basically, this part of the ending was perfect. Nothing is resolved, and that's true to the realist spirit of the series.
It also served as an example of Rust's nihilist philosophy. There is no meaning in anything. It's all just a bunch of sentient meatsacks repeating the horrors they've experienced over and over. Looked at in that way, it was the perfect nose-thumbing at fans who searched like crazy for deeper meanings in this story. Humans are doomed to look for meaning where none exists.
And now, here's where the episode went terribly wrong.
BAD: The White Trash Villain
For a show that has been so nuanced and smart about how Louisiana's downfall is the result of powerful men abusing its citizens, this ending was about as stupid as you can get when it comes to politics. In an earlier episode, we learned that serial killer Errol was basically the product of the abusive Sam Tuttle, father to a political dynasty that spans government, the church and law enforcement. We also know he was victimized by his father, his face burned when he was a child.
To underscore how much Errol is still a part of this powerful family, we discovered in last night's episode that he's living in what seems to be a broken-down mansion, possibly even the old Tuttle estate, and his crimes have been covered up with the help of his powerful family — some of whom participate in this death rituals.
And yet when we finally do see Errol in his element, he's collapsed down into the worst kind of caricature of white trash. I felt like I was watching Redneck Zombies, or Texas Chainsaw Massacre, that episode of X-Files with the two brothers who keep their mother under the bed. The episode begins with him telling his "daddy," who is tied up mostly naked in a shack, that he might bring him water if he's good. Then he traipses over to his mansion, speaking in a variety of accents for no discernible reason, to have sex with his sister in piles of filth. His body and his sister's body are displayed for the camera as the ultimate grotesques, and later when Marty explores their mansion it's clear that we are meant to feel nauseated by these hoarder scum.
It felt as if the entire series had been building up to a real revelation about the rottenness at the heart of Louisiana, but instead we just got this impoverished guy having sex with his sister and acting out the perfect stereotype of poor Southern whites. Instead of a political or even a spiritual explanation for the murders, we're basically told that this is just what trash does. They're just crazy and disgusting. Sure, their awfulness is connected to the tidied-up nastiness of the Tuttles, but we never actually see the Reverend Tuttle traipsing about semi-naked fucking his sister.
I don't mean that I think Rust and Marty should have busted the whole Tuttle clan. That's not realistic, and I'm glad the show insisted on reminding us that rich criminals don't come to justice. What I mean is that ultimately the horrors we've seen, and the Carcosa death art, are all ultimately traced back to Errol's handiwork. His mind has spawned this horror, and his voice haunts the Yellow King's shrine.
We are left with an image of Errol's maimed, obese body and filth-encrusted house as the source of all the series' darkness. This feels much too simple, and too pat. Previous episodes gave us such inventive, subtle and realistic examples of horror, from a perverted justice system to a charter school system that churns out ignorant children. Instead of giving us a meaty, complex villain whose name might well be "Louisiana," this season finale gave us an absurd, fantastical stereotype.
Evil, this episode suggests, is white trash crossed with voodoo religion. Somehow, the victims of Louisiana's power elite became the perpetrators in this episode. It feels like a betrayal of everything that came before.
BAD: The Happy Ending
As I said earlier, I can forgive the show for never explaining any of the elaborate symbols of the five beer can people and M-Brane theory and obscure 19th century weird fiction. I think it's a bold way to spank the audience for trying to make meaning out of the void. Plus, there are a zillion productive ways people can analyze what the Yellow King and Carcosa meant, and how it ties into the Tuttle Ministries.
You don't need a tidy "this is what it all meant" ending to enjoy all the visual references and literary analogies in this series. In fact, a pat ending would shut down symbols whose power comes from their very ambiguity.
That said, the writer/director pair of Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Joji Fukunaga made a seriously bizarre decision to end this season happily, with suicidal pessimist Rust finally seeing the light. Literally. We get a final speech from him about how when he was in a coma he felt the texture of a new kind of darkness beneath the other darkness — the "form" in the void perhaps — and felt the pure love of his dead daughter there. And now, when he looks at the darkness of the night sky with its sparse spray of illuminated stars, he believes "the light is winning."
Because . . . why? I get that he's resolved this major problem that's been plaguing him for a decade, and that he's repaired his (actually pretty adorable) relationship with Marty. And I'm glad he's gotten some relief from his sense that life is meaningless. He even got to cry in a manly way with Marty. But this ending feels tacked on, and not in an ironic way.
I am a big proponent of character arcs that show us how people change over time. But this transformation feels like what happens in the final moments of horror movies when the characters escape from the demon in the caves, or the monster in their dreams, or the serial killers in the woods, and suddenly the birds are singing and the police are there to rescue them and a stagey mood of relief pours over everyone as the credits roll.
I think a semi-legitimate argument could be made that this ending is kind of like the fakey-fake happy ending of Blue Velvet, where the mechanical bird sings outside the sitcom-colored kitchen after everybody has been raped and nearly murdered, etc. If that was Pizzolatto and Fukunaga's intent, it didn't really work.
This show was weird emo gothic, not irony-laced postmodernism. There's no reason it couldn't have been both, but it wasn't. I think a lot of us responded intensely to True Detective because it was so incredibly earnest. That's what made it heartbreaking and involving. Regardless of whether the happy ending was intended seriously or ironically, it sold out a show whose intentions were pure and whose characters sought justice in their own personal hells.
I'm going to have to class True Detective's first season with so many other shows that were great until the final episode(s) and then lost their way. I still love this show, but I would have preferred no ending at all to this one.