I made myself sleep on the True Detective finale before I decided how I felt about it. It sometimes takes me a while to absorb a work of art, and since I’m not bound by magazine deadlines I have the opportunity to ruminate before sharing my opinion. Where I come down is that I found the end of Season One enjoyable and well-executed, but ultimately unsatisfying.
Be warned: Spoilers abound if you haven’t seen all of Season One.
A lot of critics are praising the finale for redeeming the main characters, surprising us with a happy ending, and avoiding the “too-tidy” close in which all the mysteries are wrapped up. A number of fans, meanwhile, seem upset that their pet theories (and their carefully catalogued webwork of clues) were so far off. There were (arguably*) no Elder Gods or Great Old Ones, no heel turns from the leads, no Vietnamese restaurateurs. Subtle clues that appeared to tie Marty’s daughters to the crimes were either red herrings or coincidences. As Marty himself says in the very first episode, if you focus too hard on a certain narrative, you’ll start shaping the facts to fit it.
* There is always the possibility that the spinning wormhole/galaxy thing Rust sees just before he’s gutted is an avatar of Azathoth or Yog-Sothoth, and that everything from that point on is symptomatic of his madness.
Personally, while I’ve enjoyed reading the various fan theories, I never subscribed to any of them. Leading into the finale, my prediction was that we’d learn the identity of the killer (Errol the lawn-mower was my number one suspect, though Reverend Tuttle was a very close number two), but that most of the remaining mystery would remain unsolved. I was correct about that, but wrong in my expectation that one or both detectives would die.
And this is where I felt the ending fell short. For me, the happy ending felt unearned, relied too much on cliche (as did much of the episode) and left too many questions unanswered. Errol is a patchwork quilt of serial killer cliches: the incestuous hoarder, decorating with skulls and corpses, speaking with the preserved and desiccated corpse* of a parent, who gets inside the hero’s head and takes multiple bullets to put down. He was Leatherface yet again, for the umpteenth time. Marty and Rust survive wounds that seem damn-near unsurvivable, especially considering the amount of time that passes (from a high-in-the-sky sun to total darkness) before their rescue. And what turns Rust from his nihilistic misanthropy to a man who professes hope? Why, an off-the-rack near death experience, complete with visits from his dead relatives, with a touch of reversal (descending into darkness, rather than ascending into light) to make it seem original and fit better with the show’s closing image.
* Is anyone really certain “Daddy” was dead? Detective Geraci says Sheriff Childress died, but maybe he just disappeared–and maybe the family just claimed he was dead. Being that the body shown on camera was diapered and restrained, and that Errol speaks to him, I assumed watching it that the guy was being kept alive, a la the child molester in David Fincher’s Seven. Is there a conclusive answer anywhere?
But what of the show’s recurrent themes? What of the five men, that image repeated in beer cans, Barbie dolls, and photographs? As the series closes, we know of three men involved in the killings, and others who may or may not have been involved in various capacities. We’re told by the television that, despite a mountain of evidence including a video tape of multiple assailants, no one is linking anything to the Tuttle family. What of the Yellow King’s spiral on the wall of Marty’s dining room, or the flower painting in Marty’s bedroom in 1995 that becomes a hospital mural in 2002?
[One additional note here about the Barbie doll shot. On first watching, I thought that was a crime scene the two girls had set up, and its significance was to show how their father’s business was spilling over into the lives of his family and his two young daughters. The naked Barbie was a corpse, and the men gathered around were police. I seem to remember there even being a line of background dialogue about “how did she die?” The Internet, however, seems to have generally agreed that it was a gang-rape. I’m not convinced, but the thematic connection with five men–shown in the “Five Horseman” photograph, the snuff video, and the beer-can men, seems indisputable.]
What of the Yellow King? Is it left to the audience to recognize him in the heart of Errol’s temple, with his outstretched skeletal arms and many skull-heads? There are those who posit the Yellow King as the deity of the Tuttle family’s private religion, the inspiration of their congenital madness, and that Carcosa refers to the temple-like location of the episode’s final showdown. That’s hard for me to swallow, when so many outside the family–Errol’s first victim, for instance, and the family’s former housekeeper–are so similarly taken in. It’s one thing for Errol and Reggie, who might have been raised on the Liturgy of the King in Yellow, but when Dora Lange, a grown woman, tells her husband she’s “met a king” and will become a nun, are we to take that as just an LSD-fueled fantasy?
It’s been vogue in television since approximately the X-Files to dress-up a standard narrative in the garb of something more complex and meaningful by inserting thematic symbols or clues to some mystery that will never be resolved–usually because the creators never really knew what it was. Hell, JJ Abrams and Damon Lindelof have built their careers on such writing. I’ve had more confidence in Nick Pizzolato’s work, largely because to me it never smacked of randomness the way later X-Files seasons and Lost always did.
But there’s a difference between a red herring and hackneyed trickery. A proper red herring earns its place in the story; there’s a good reason it fits, and misleads both audience and character. Dropping the Big Bad’s insignia into a drawing by the hero’s daughter isn’t a red herring, it’s a mean trick played by a filmmaker, or (perhaps worse, for a mystery show in the Internet age) a tactic to reduce production-cost that goes overlooked by the director. When asked about the show’s ending, Pizzolato expressed disdain for “tricking the audience,” and insisted that his ending would be earned–which makes the unanswered questions that much more irritating to me.
With all that said, I’m not giving up on the show, or the hope that Pizzolato has something more significant up his sleeve. And here’s why:
From the start, “True Detective” has been intended as an anthology series, with a new cast and a new story each season. For that reason, most fans and critics have been viewing Season One as they would view a stand-alone series, with the finale wrapping up all loose ends. But being an anthology series doesn’t mean there can’t be certain thematic elements that reoccur. Which brings us back to the Yellow King.
Robert Chambers’s book The King in Yellow, from which Carcosa and the Yellow King are drawn (and which led so many to assume True Detective was at its heart a weird tale) is a collection of short stories in which the titular play, which maddens any who read its second act, reappears. While a few excerpts are presented, the reader never sees the play in full–only the way it works upon the characters.
What if Chambers’s book were an inspiration, not only for the first season, but for the series as a whole? What if the King in Yellow reappears as a thematic element in Season Two (which will reportedly be set in Southern California, and according to Pizzolato involve “hard women, bad men and the secret occult history of the United States transportation system”) and future seasons, perhaps as symbolic of madness, or of humankind’s innate attraction to the occult, and the terrible things that attraction can lead us to do? What if Season One showed us only how the Yellow King manifested in the minds of the Tuttle clan, and further seasons will show us others of his many forms?
What if True Detective as a whole is really about humanity’s struggle with being human–whether subtle, like Marty’s inability to be faithful or Audrey’s relationship with her sexuality, or overt, like Rust’s obsession with philosophy or Errol’s murderous ways–and the King in Yellow is a symbolic figure of that struggle? In that case, some of the show’s subtle hints might not be red herrings at all, but clues to the larger mystery we haven’t yet stepped back far enough to see.
Or maybe I’m constructing a narrative to convince myself that the show is what I want it to be, the way I think many viewers are convincing themselves that this finale, and therefore the show, was deeper and more meaningful than it really was. Maybe I’ve been tricked again, as I was by The X-Files, into thinking the show’s producers were working on some grand master story, and not just employing cynical tricks to keep me watching.
I suppose the only way to know for sure is to see what Season Two has in store. Until then, I can tell myself Errol was in truth an avatar of Nyarlathotep, the God of a Thousand Forms.