How “True Detective” Changed the Game

Thanks for the elevated blood pressure, True Detective!  If last night’s finale didn’t send you to the precipice of hyperventilation or, at the very least, quicken your pulse, then I hate to be the one to tell you this, but I think you might be dead?  Seriously, the episode’s middle section, with Rust and Marty descending upon the Childress house, served as an intense centerpiece to an already excellent final hour.  I’m not surprised that True Detective stuck its landing, but what did surprise me was the way in which the show delivered such a stunning and satisfying conclusion.

It was clear from the outset that True Detective meant to subvert our expectations not just of the cop drama but of drama period.  Its masterful manipulation of cross-cutting between and amongst several narrative timelines had us questioning not just the reliability of Rust and Marty but the plot as a whole.  The internet exploded with speculation for eight weeks, as each subsequent episode challenged us and forced us to revisit our previous theories.  The most engaging part of this show was that we could never quite get our hands on the damn thing; just when we thought we figured it out, it slipped through our fingers like sand.  I, for one, swore halfway through the season that Marty was involved somehow, but–as the season wore on–that became increasingly unlikely.  But this didn’t frustrate me in the least; instead, it lured me deeper.

It’s precisely because True Detective refused to pander to its audience that it achieved such instant devotion from a legion of fans and critics.  But when the show began dipping its toe into the realm of weird fiction by peppering literary allusions to Chambers’ “The Yellow King” and Bierce’s city of Carcosa throughout, the depth of the analysis and debate reached greater heights still.  Rather than concretize and clarify an already opaque story as the season progressed,  True Detective gleefully made it murkier.

A great deal has been said about the show’s title; with two detectives at its center, the decision to apply the descriptor “true” to just one of them seemed an intentional choice.  (For me, this detail simply added to my theory that we would somehow find Marty culpable.)  But, now that the credits have rolled on the season, the true meaning behind the title seems even more clever.  It’s not Marty or Rust or Gilbrough or Papania who are the true detectives.  All along, the audience–you and I–have been the true detective, the participatory viewer whose myriad theories and memes have fueled and deepened a show that was, at its inception, already deep.  We attached string between seeming disconnected people; we speculated; we questioned.  True Detective presented a bleak, almost impenetrable mystery and we, as the true detective, willingly followed its plunge down the rabbit hole.

And follow it we did.

For those of us who watched in slack-jawed suspense as the eighth episode enfolded, it became clear that True Detective had a final trick up its sleeve.  Since the pilot, dread permeated the narrative, a palpably disturbing tone that refused to shed light into its darkness.  Having acclimated to this vision of unrelenting despair, I entered last night’s finale with the expectation that Rust or Marty (or, more likely, both) would die at the hands of Errol Childress.  As Childress stabbed Rust in the gut and flung a hatchet at Marty’s chest, my worst predictions seemed on the verge of actualizing.  But True Detective‘s  final plot twist was more disarming: it provided us with a completely earnest and well-earned hopeful ending.

In defiance of science and medicine, Rust survives his wound.  But that in and of itself does not supply the flickers of light into this dark world; it seems that his near-death experience has reconnected Rust with his deceased daughter.  Previously hiding behind a mask of contempt and cynicism, Rust confesses to Marty underneath a blanket of stars (in one of the finest end-of-season codas I can ever remember encountering) that, as death approached him, the warmth of his daughter’s love imbued his spirit.  Once a sworn pessimist, a renewed Rust even corrects Marty’s opinion of the night sky’s overwhelming blackness with a retort that “Once there was only darkness.  Ask me, light’s winning.”

Has a television show ever used its well-established tone to surprise its audience later on?  Has a television show ever invited an audience into its dense and dark mystery so well?  Has a television show ever shown the true redemption of two deeply-flawed anti-heroes?  Perhaps there have been other shows with which I am unaware, but it certainly feels like True Detective changed the game in a big way.

I can understand if some saw the resolution too simplistic after such a setup, but isn’t that the point?  Isn’t it easier to see the encroaching darkness on all sides and give ourselves over to it?  Won’t the Tuttles of the world continue to corrupt and destroy without consequence?  Of course it is, and of course they will, but that is why–as further layers of evil unfurled across these eight episodes–this became the simple story of not letting such bleak inevitability define us.  Marty and Rust nearly lost themselves to it; Errol Childress certainly did.  His seamless movement from one accent to the next as he stomped through his filthy family home showed us a man who relinquished his identity because he gave himself over to the world True Detective so painstakingly–and chillingly–presented and refused to see that the light was winning.

People far more insightful than I will no doubt wow with the depth of their analysis, but this is my take-away from True Detective, a television masterclass that changed the game by refusing to lose itself in the darkness.

Needless to say, I will miss this show deeply during its hiatus.  But, time being a flat circle, I suppose I have already seen it in some other life, so I’ll take some comfort in that.  Isn’t that right, Rust?

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