'True Detective' Was Ultimately About the Journey, Not the Finale

The finale had its flaws and may not have satisfied everyone, but the series had made its mark well before the end -- with writing and acting more important than plot.
Lacey Terrell/HBO
McConaughey and Harrelson in the "True Detective" finale.

This column contains spoilers to the season finale of True Detective. Watch before reading.

It's likely that wherever you fell on the spectrum about the need for, the execution of and the overall satisfaction surrounding the final mystery in HBO's terrific True Detective, depended on what show you were watching.

Because True Detective, the eight-episode anthology series starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, was very much a tale of two shows. Television is a writer's medium first, followed closely by the need for talented actors to pull off and bring to life that dialogue.

True Detective's brilliance indeed lies hard in the writing and the acting, so watching Rust and Marty talking in cars was a magnificent combination of both. You probably couldn't sell a story about existential cops in a pitch meeting, but series creator Nic Pizzolatto's exceptional prose sealed the deal and the series got made.

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Beyond existential cops who struggle with their relationship to each other and the relationships around them, True Detective was about a bizzare collection of serial murders, the occult, the strange off-the-grid nature of rural Louisiana and about how the emotionally corrosive nature of police work -- especially when it touches on humanity's darkest sides -- can rot even the strongest man from the inside.

That murder mystery -- who killed a girl and then elaborately staged a satanic death altar in the middle of a remote field? -- was essentially the motor that fueled the series (as too were the other unexplained deaths and missing children reports that detectives Hart and Cohle were piecing together). But if finding out the whodunit was the motivating factor for watching True Detective, then you were watching mostly for a different reason than those of us who could have watched Rust talk to Marty on a road trip across the country, with no murder to solve at all.

That's why leading up to the finale -- a new cast and a different story will be in place in season two -- there seemed a need to tamp down wild and speculative theories about who did it and what all the devil worshipping elements really meant. Pizzolatto himself downplayed the actual mystery as the essential part of the series, but viewers are conditioned to want answers (and, too often, ones that close out the mystery in black and white).

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Taking that into consideration and, ultimately, how the relationship between Rust and Marty changed in the finale, it wasn't the greatest of endings. But neither did it detract from the overall impact of the series, Pizzolatto's clear talent, the superb acting by everybody on the series but especially McConaughey and Harrelson, plus the beautiful directing of Cary Joji Fukunaga.

True Detective ends its first season as a thrilling, conceptually intriguing idea brought to life by vivid and memorable language and two magnificent acting performances.

But as the ending goes, there seemed to be enough shortened payoff to probably irritate those strictly in the mystery camp and, for the rest of us, the reversal of Rust's nihilistic tendencies in a too-pat metaphor of darkness and light brawling for supremacy in the world (and our souls).

We found out the killer -- Erroll Childress, who worked up and down the coast as a maintenance worker at rural schools. He was freaky squared, but we barely knew anything about him until this final episode, and while that didn't offset for me the power of the series, it just emphasizes after the fact that the actual crimes in True Detective were handled rather straightforwardly and thus were the backdrop to a stage where we got to see Rust and Marty essentially waiting for Godot, or if you prefer the mythology of the series, either The Yellow King or Carcosa. Thus, what Rust and Marty were doing professionally was less important than how they went about it, what they said during it and how it destroyed them in the process.

But since Pizzolatto intriguingly set out in this world of his the mythology of The Yellow King and Carcosa, some people will feel like they didn't get the answers or the meanings they desired.

And yet, despite loving so much about True Detective, it seemed that other aspects of the finale were more disappointing than not getting concrete answers. For example, the compelling flashback and flash-forward element that whiplashed these eight episodes to and fro was riveting, but in the finale, Rust in particular looked a lot more vibrant than any time we saw him being interviewed by detectives Gilbough (Michael Potts) and Papania (Tory Kittles).

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Could his time spent reunited with Marty, working the case as private detectives, have brought more focus and purpose to his life than when he was drinking beers all day and cutting them up with a knife? Sure. But to have Rust in that bright white designer shirt and showing cat-quick reflexes with his gun while tracking Childress, something seemed a bit off there.

And, also minorly troubling, True Detective had a beautiful, strange look to it as untraditional, unfamiliar Louisiana became a palette for Fukunaga. But the finale had a moment -- where Rust has a vision inside Carcosa just before Childress gets the jump on him -- that was a visual trick, an outlier that hadn't been employed. And in the waning minutes of the finale, we got Rust portrayed in several Christ-like images and poses that was a departure from much of the original cinematography. Meaning, had Fukunaga and Pizzolatto tried to infuse previous visuals (outside of the occult elements) into metaphors, we would have known that it was part of their intention, part of the show's ongoing visual narrative. But to add such stark elements at the end seemed a bit forced. Included in this aspect was shooting Rust's perspective of Marty, while sitting in the wheelchair, from so low that Marty's head became like an enormous illuminated planet, with the stars and the dark skies behind him.

Since that leaked into the duo's discussion about darkness and light and recalled Rust's star-gazing past in Alaska, there was at least a verbal precedent. But to attach so much visual meaning to those final moments seemed a stretch. It was enough for Rust to find some sliver of hope without having to layer on these visual tricks.

But none of that was ultimately a deal-breaker. In fact, the deal was already locked in place in those early, dialogue and existential heavy moments between Rust and Marty in the car. Those "time is a flat circle" days of two disparate men bantering was the hook that True Detective set in me. Getting all the puzzle pieces together (or not) was of less interest all along.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine