I watched last night’s season finale of True Detective mostly through the cracks in my fingers. It was tense. It was scary. It had many a good moment, but in the end, it was a bit of a letdown.
Let’s get this straight first: I love True Detective. It was smart and played with time in fascinating ways. It was a buddy-cop film that had buddy cops that defied virtually all of the traditional buddy-cop paradigms. It was suspenseful and had a fabulously gruesome crime at its heart and, of course, who wouldn’t love the fantastically depressing monologues of Matthew McConaughy’s Rusty Cohle? In short, I think these writers are basically geniuses.
I’ve spent the better part of the day trying to justify that damn finale and the more I think the more I have to admit that I’m disappointed.
–Spoilers after the jump—
Here we go:
Um, what the hell, True Detective writers? You spent an entire season greasing the wheels of this whole Yellow King thing and I bought in hook, line and sinker. The Yellow King! The Yellow King! I have to know who the Yellow King is! And Carcosa! And why are these random people having weird prophecies. The Yellow King must have something special about him indeed and by the end, I’m going to figure out what that is. Because I’ve watched the whole show and I’ve paid attention and I expect to be rewarded handsomely.
Psyche! No, the big, bad killer is actually just a random, crazy serial killer and Carcosa is the weirdo fort that he built. I’m sorry, but that’s the ending to a high production value episode of Criminal Minds. Yes, it was super scary while Rust and Marty were picking their way separately through this “Carcosa,” but that’s, in part, because I thought something crazy was going to happen. I thought they were going to discover something bigger than just some inbred lawnmower driver. For the record, I was fine if the ultimate “big bad” was the inbred lawnmower driver. That was adequately seeded through the season and I don’t have anything against a direct plot. The writers chose an answer that was supported by the story rather than reaching for, as some people theorized, Marty’s creepy father-in-law. But, ok, what’s interesting about this Billy Childress?
During most of the season we are led to believe that Dora Lang perhaps worshipped the Yellow King. That others worshipped the Yellow King and had strange memories and fantasies about him and Carcosa. But what’s so special about Billy Childress? Why would anyone worship him or follow him or do anything for that dude at all?
Wait, wait, before you jump on me, I know–maybe Billy Childress isn’t the Yellow King. We know that Rust and Marty realize that they uncovered their guy, but they didn’t get everyone. So let’s entertain the fact that Billy Childress is not the Yellow King. Are we cool with that answer? I’m not. Here’s why: the clues and hints and strange philosophizing leading up to the last episode are all pretty vague when you think about it. And actually this ambiguity makes the season more suspenseful instead of less. The writers just seemed so smart. So competent. I think viewers inherently trusted that, though they were being coy, the writers knew what they were doing. But in the end, it seems the writers will never have to answer for their coyness. So who knows if they knew what they were doing? Do we just take their word for it? It’s like when that pretentious graduate student at a cocktail party starts spewing exisistential nonsense at an unsuspecting co-ed in an effort to impress her. He can sound smart as long as he never has to explain. This was the ultimate example of a story’s failure to follow the principle of Chekhov’s gun. As a reminder Chekhov once said: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” In True Detective, the gun never went off. [Note: please remember the part where I'm still actually a huge fan.]
So back to Billy Childress. Maybe he’s the Yellow King, maybe he’s not, but why-oh-why does he don a British accent? The writer gave some explanation about him putting on an old movie and not being able to talk clearly in a normal accent because of his scars, yadda yadda yadda–okayyyyy, what does that have to do with anything? How does that serve the story? That’s what you wasted your time on here?
Speaking of wasted time: I actually was happy enough with the more traditional buddy-cop ending. It was a bit ‘aw shucks,’ but hey, that’s cool. Unexpected, fun, I’m good with it. But it was long in proportion to the rest of the finale. A few precious minutes needed to be shaved off the denouement and added to the climax of the story. Then maybe more of the things that needed to accomplished could have been.
Another missed opportunity: This is purely opinion of course, but when Billy Childress is painting the school and watching those little girls he seems to imply to the teacher that he has a busy day ahead (presumably stealing and eating those little girls for dinner) so he can’t have lunch. This scene ended up being fairly pointless aside from the fact that we see that he not only mows lawns but he also paints. If he’d have actually kidnapped those little kids, there would have been a ticking time bomb aspect to the Rust/Marty raid at Carcosa. Rather than just having them happening upon Billy while he’s chilling in his creep-fort. As it stands, why did the little boy stare at him so oddly and long? Just because of his scars? Beats me.
What happened to Rust’s hallucinations and what was the point? I could be wrong but I think he only had 1 or 2 the whole season. I expected these to come into play and be a bit more meaningful. What happened to them?
Along the same lines, why didn’t Rust’s philosophy play a larger role in the actual plot? I understand it often worked as theme, but theme works best when it’s reflected in plot. In the end, yes, Rust experiences a character arc when he learns that there actually is some meaning to this whole thing called life. But I guess that’s just not what I thought I was getting when I signed on to listen to all Rust’s psychobabble. Especially when coupled with the spiral symbol (not really explained well) and Rust’s hallucinations. I liked the whole history being flat piece and I think it might have been depressing but satisfying if (after better explanations about Carcosa/Yellow King), Rust and Marty and maybe Billy were both killed in Carcosa and no one ever knew what happened and history would just keep on keepin’ on. No? Not good. I like the idea anyway.
At the end of the day, I still love this show and I’ll still watch next season. But I notice I’ve been caught up in a tailspin of trying to justify that this finale was the masterpiece it set out to be. Patton Oswalt recently had this to say on Twitter:
And, look, I totally get the desire to save the finale through creative analysis and that good stories inspire lines of thinking that extend beyond the four corners of the story, but I just feel as if maybe this time we, the viewers, are doing a little too much of the heavy lifting.