Flatiron Hot! Critic: True Detective Finale Review
It didn’t take long for critics to pronounce HBO’s True Detective the “best show on television.” Superficially, it’s easy to see why. Matthew Rust Cohle and Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart will go down as two of the most memorable and well-acted characters in TV history and the supporting cast is nothing to sneeze at either. Cary Joji Fukunaga’s direction and cinematography are similarly masterful, with his Gothic take on the Louisiana Bayou just as integral to the show as Albuquerque in Breaking Bad, New Jersey in The Sopranos and Baltimore in The Wire. The writing has a literary bent and draws on mythology in such a way as to suggest infinite narrative possibilities, providing the perfect fodder for conspiracy nuts to comb over every detail of the show’s first seven episodes.
With so many of its elements firing on all cylinders, it is initially easy to overlook a thin, meandering plot that swerves wildly from family drama to detective fiction. Over the course of seven episodes, the writers lay out a random constellation of narrative dots that, while intriguing in themselves, never quite come together. While narrative confusion can sometimes serve a deliberate thematic purpose, here it feels less like organized confusion and more like narrative chaos. It is as if the writers don’t know how to integrate the good ideas they introduce and so they let them languish, hoping that the True Detective’s aura of intellectual sophistication will sand over plain old narrative sloppiness. The finale itself is an admirable but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to tie these disparate plot elements into a tidy knot while simultaneously living up to the weighty philosophical themes it has saddled itself with. Unfortunately, in its attempt to do both, it succeeds at neither.
The episode begins with an introduction of the unsettling but ultimately forgettable antagonist, Errol Childress (Glenn Fleshly). Introducing the big bad guy in the show’s final episode when there is so much ground left to cover is a puzzling choice. With so little time to develop him into the imposing figure the narrative requires, you may find yourself wondering: how can this backwoods psycho who looks like he got rejected from a Silence of the Lambs serial killer audition really be the man our heroes have been pursuing for the entire series? Reggie Ledoux (Charles Halford) was more intriguing with his cryptic pronouncements about the Yellow King than Childress was over the course of an entire episode.
Yes, we subsequently discover that the Reverend Tuttle and a network of other religious and law enforcement elites are involved in the Satanic conspiracy. Yet they merit no more than a mention here, their absence justified by Cohle’s uncharacteristic assertion that they can’t catch all the bad guys. So after devoting their lives to pursuing a case, our heroes are ready to call it a day after killing some backwoods stooge?
To be fair, True Detective has always been more concerned with its protagonists’ relationship than the criminals they’re pursuing. Alas, a relationship established with painstaking care and authenticity culminates in a saccharine display of brotherly sentimentality. Hart and Cohle’s transition from partners with a deep connection and mutual respect to bosom buddies having a bro moment in the parking lot is forced, over-the-top and unearned. The two share a deep connection, to be sure, but their unambiguous declarations of affection are not faithful to the characters we’ve gotten to know over the course of eight episodes.
Also, are we meant to think that Hart’s family has forgiven him? Relief that he’s not dead would be one thing, but the strong “we’re a happy family again” vibe glosses over prior complications. Again, the outcome itself is fine, but it’s too abrupt and clean to be entirely plausible.
In the same vein, what is it about killing Childress that reconciles Cohle to his daughter’s death, changing his entire philosophical perspective? We’re talking about a man who’s been set in his ways for decades and refused to accept spirituality even after seeing visions. A near death experience can be powerful, but is it sufficient to justify such an extreme U-turn for a stubborn skeptic? His sudden conversion to a Manichean understanding of morality is also questionable. The writers expect us to accept that their message the whole time was purely one of good vs. evil?
Perhaps True Detective’s ending would have been more plausible with an additional episode to act as an epilogue, fleshing out some of these seemingly incongruous developments. After all, the writers had a lot to cover in one episode. As things stand, everything seemed rushed, depriving what should be a satisfying conclusion of the depth it has striven for.
The last thing expected of True Detective is a Hollywood ending, yet that’s uncomfortably close to what we’ve gotten. True Detective courted stratospherically high expectations at every turn. The fact that, in the end, it couldn’t live up to them does not detract from its many superb qualities. But the “best show on television?” Not even close.