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‘True Detective’ Was Always About its Characters, Not the Mystery

“We didn’t get ‘em all, Marty,” Rust Cohle laments. He’s been laying in a hospital bed, emerging from a coma, having nothing to do but stare out the window at the stars in the dark night sky and continually think about the case that he’s been obsessed with for 17 years.

“And we ain’t going to,” says Marty Hart, who’s followed his partner along on his obsession for many of those years. “That ain’t what kind of world this is. But we got ours.”

Hart’s sentiment seems to apply to the season one finale of HBO’s True Detective. The kind of world that creator/writer Nic Pizzolato and director Cary Fukunaga built for this story wasn’t one in which all questions were answered and every dangling plot thread was tied up nicely. Was Pizzolato essentially trying to address an audience he knew would be left unsatisfied through Hart’s dialogue?

Opinions about the resolution to the Dora Lange murder case and the mystery of the Yellow King were rather mixed after the finale was broadcast. Though if a poll had run soon after the show, those who felt the eighth and final episode of True Detective‘s first season was lackluster would likely have taken the lead.

io9’s headline for its recap was “What the hell kind of ending was that, True Detective?” Criticwire’s Sam Adams called the episode “disappointingly ordinary.” The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg thought the finale was “predictable” and simplistic.

Rust Cohle's bat cave from 'True Detective.' (HBO)

I can’t say whether or not such reactions are wrong. Those are perfectly valid opinions based in critical thinking and many, many viewers shared such views. Besides, I don’t entirely disagree. If you thought True Detective would end with a shocking twist or great revelation, it must have felt disappointingly ordinary to learn that the killer was the “Lawnmower Man” (named Errol Childress), a seemingly insignificant but mysterious witness that Cohle encountered earlier in the investigation.

So much of the fun during True Detective‘s eight-episode, nine-week run has been the many theories as to how the show’s mystery would be resolved. Would Cohle and Hart uncover a deep Southern Gothic conspiracy driven by a child-killing underground cult whose branches weaved through higher offices of government and religion? Were one of the detectives — whether it was Cohle, Hart or even Papania or Gilbough, the two detectives questionging the main characters — actually the murderer? Some felt the story would take a supernatural turn, with black stars, spiral symbols, green spaghetti monsters resembling H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and the seemingly otherworldly realm of Carcosa.

But Pizzolatto shot down such notions in interviews leading up to the finale. Wild twists that attempted to fool the viewer were “terrible, obvious” writing. Why would the story go into mystical realms when there was no previous indication of that — even in the cryptic clues and mythological mumbo-jumbo left behind — throughout the case?

Yet it wasn’t difficult to see why so many fans and writers would go in that direction because we’ve become conditioned to that with shows like Lost and The Killing (which, interestingly, Pizzolatto worked on as a staff writer). One can only imagine what Pizzolatto thinks of The Following, which tries to pass off a shocking “twist” in every episode.

However, Pizzolatto ultimately wasn’t blowing smoke or trying to deceive the audience with his remarks. True Detective didn’t become a different show in its finale. Perhaps it wasn’t exciting because of how Cohle and Hart found the killer. If you scoffed at Hart drawing his fateful conclusion based on Cohle’s throwaway “green” remark , no one would blame you. Green… ears… green… paint? It felt like a stretch, not to mention a much smaller moment than the series was presumably building up to.

Glenn Fleshler in 'True Detective.' (HBO)

Perhaps this was an attempt to show how these sorts of cases are often broken, through hours of studying paperwork like tax records and invoices, rather than interrogating suspects and analyzing forensic evidence. However, being realistic doesn’t always make for satisfying drama. Was being true, pardon the pun, to their story a mistake by Pizzolatto and Fukunaga? Or was the audience at fault for expecting something bigger and grander as a reward for following this story and its characters for eight episodes?

In reading interviews with Pizzolatto — or watching him on the supplementary material provided on demand and at HBO’s “Darkness Becomes You” website — it seems rather clear that he wouldn’t admit to any creative mistakes or missteps. He seems supremely confident in his approach. (My friend A. thinks Pizzolatto comes off as arrogant.) And really, you must show confidence as a writer. If you don’t have faith in what you’re doing, how can you expect the audience to buy in? But maybe Pizzolatto and Fukunaga underestimated just how much the audience would come to expect as it tried to fill in spaces between all of the clues the story had presented.

However, True Detective always seemed far more interested in telling the story of Cohle and Hart. The murder investigation and mystery was just the delivery system, the framework upon which to lay the story of two detectives whose partnership was forged, broken, then formed again by the one case they could never solve, the one that could never be shaken. How could a pairing between someone whose outlook on life was utterly bleak and another who just wanted to live the normal life to which he felt entitled possibly work out?

So often, this show seemed to be a commentary on “buddy cop” shows and movies. The banter between detectives carried on, bickering like married couples, while driving is the basis for so many of these stories. Look at the new Hawaii Five-O or Almost Human, in which these moments try to make the characters more accessible and human. Yet in True Detective, those conversations were battlegrounds between two very different philosophies. They created more tension between Cohle and Hart.

This also seemed to be a story about the toll that being a homicide detective can take upon the people who investigate such terrible, grisly crimes.

Cohle may already have been a broken person when he discovered Lange’s dead body, but getting into the headspace of this killer and attempting to comprehend the surrounding conspiracy indulged his worst impluses. The case confirmed his belief that this world was a terrible place with no hope of getting any better. Solitude, booze and cigarettes were the only things that made life bearable. Yet Cohle could never just let go because he had unfinished business with the murder case that was never completely solved.

Woody Harrelson in 'True Detective.' (HBO)

Hart may have been less obviously damaged, but dealing with the worst in humanity compelled him to place unrealistic expectations on his wife and children. He wanted them to be sanctuary, a simple, uncomplicated place where he could feel normal. But they needed him to be a father and husband to a family, and when has a family ever been uncomplicated? Marriages are never simple, nor is raising two children. Hart always tried to avoid that by drinking with the fellas or having affairs in which the only expectation was sex.

Did Hart’s family also leave one seemingly unresolved plot thread? Many felt his daughter Audrey was somehow involved in the conspiracy or might possibly be Childress’s final target because of the gang-rape scene she created with her dolls in the first episode, the sexual drawings that were found later on and eventually being caught having sex with two boys in a truck. Why was she so possessive of a crown, one reminiscent of the crown found on Lange? And what about that spiral drawing that echoed the spiral tattoo on Lange’s back?

Those things should’ve had meaning, right? Nothing in this series, no bit of information, was supposed to be insignificant. However, even if Audrey’s behavior had no direct bearing on the case, they likely reflected the consequences that Hart’s job was having on his family. Perhaps Audrey found pictures of crime scenes that Hart carelessly left lying around at home. Maybe she thought acting out was the only way to get her father’s attention since he seemed to care more about his job than his family. And perhaps she also had low self-esteem due to the way Hart treated the women in his life.

Hart’s family also factored into one of the more touching moments in the finale’s last moments. While Hart recovers in the hospital from the injuries sustained in hunting down Childress, his wife and daughters visit him. Once again, we see the toll this life has taken on what should’ve been the ideal family life. Hart is divorced from his wife and alienated from his children. He has no relationship with these three people and lives a lonely life with a struggling private investigation business and nights spent looking for dates on Match.com. When it occurs to him what he’s lost, in addition to the unconditional love that still comes with family, he breaks down and cries.

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In the end, Cohle has his own breakdown as he confronted his mortality, the family he lost, and the shambles that his life ultimately became. Many thought Cohle would die in the finale. He seemed as if he had a death wish, looking to get away from this life that caused him so much pain. For dramatic purposes, having Cohle die would also add weight and consequences to the story, demonstrating the cost of solving this case. It certainly looked like that would happen when Childress stabbed Cohle in the abdomen. But Cohle was always terribly stubborn, and he may have also been too stubborn to die.

By not dying, Cohle also had to confront his beliefs that we’re doomed to repeat the past over and over, that there couldn’t possibly be a God, that life is always a battle between light and dark. As he reveals to his partner, he wanted to die. He felt his late daughter and father as his life slipped away in a coma. But he woke from the coma, something he seemed to feel was a continuation of his curse. Instead of making him more pessimistic, however, coming into contact with his idea of an afterlife created a sense of optimism. The light, as he said to Hart, is winning against the dark.

Ending on an optimistic note wasn’t what viewers had in mind for the finale, which is yet another reason why so many were left unsatisfied. Was this really how we were going to leave Cohle and Hart after following them through eight episodes of darkness and depravity?

But it’s really up to the audience to determine where these characters go from here. Without the Lange case giving him purpose, what’s left for Cohle? There’s no guarantee of a happy ending for him. Does Hart find renewed purpose after utilizing his detective skills again? Or is there no point in working small, petty cases after breaking this landmark investigation? Do Cohle and Hart remain friends, bonded together by this case that changed their lives forever? The ending really could be what you choose to make it, which is surely what Pizzolatto and Fukunaga ultimately intended. While some may not like that, it could ensure that this story stays memorable for years to come.

Ian Casselberry

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is a columnist for The Outside Corner and the editor of The AP Party. He has written for Yahoo! Sports, MLive.com, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, and provides analysis for several sports talk radio shows each week. He currently lives in Asheville, NC.

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