Are you satisfied with yourselves, True Detective fans? You crashed HBO Go! I’m hoping everyone did the responsible thing and ditched work this morning to finish the show.
So. Are all the questions answered? Not remotely! Is every clue explained? Hell no. Am I OK with that? …mostly? I think so? The longer it sits in my brain, the more I think this is one of the strongest finales I’ve seen, and that the resolution works so well thematically, I’m willing to overlook any loose threads that are still hanging. So join me if you will for one last wild tear through Carcosa!
Will there be spoilers? Sheeee-it yes, boy!
We open on the Yellow King at home. We get treated to one of the most disturbing familial arrangements I’ve seen this side of the X-Files’ infamous “Home” episode. Errol William Childress and his wife (who is possibly also a sister?) banter and reminisce about that time grandpa caught her in the cane fields. (Also, um, every single meaning that my brain supplied for the phrase “making flowers” was better than what it actually meant.) A weird British accent is used. There is a bit of a hoarding situation going on. And if you thought Errol Childress was going to wear a shirt while he did horrible things to his dead, tied-up, Se7en-extra father, you are tragically mistaken.
We rejoin Rust & Marty on the boat with Sheriff Geraci. They promised to torture him, and what they meant by that is truly ingenious: they make him watch the infamous videotape, and that’s all it takes to get a few more answers out of him. Marty of all people notices a detail that cracks the case. I’m of two minds on this: yes, it’s good that Rust didn’t do everything, but after we see how much of a fuckup Marty is, it’s a little hard to buy. (Although the thought occurred to me: now that Mr. Hart has slowed down in his old skirt-chasing ways, maybe he’s finally able to think clearly?) Anyway, the detectives finally get around to using the internet to track down whereabouts on the Childress family.
At no point do they Google the word Carcosa, though, so one of the mysteries remains unsolved: Does the Chambers book exist in this universe? Did these people watch Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge in middle school like I did, and learn the name Ambrose Bierce from that? Showing the detectives researching these occult aspects of the case would probably clear up a lot of questions…
Anyway. They get to the house, find the Yellow King, his wife, and his deceased father. And then down into Carcosa they go, led by the merry voice of Errol.
It seems to be an overgrown cistern? Or an old fort? But the deeper Rust goes, the worse it gets, with wicker altars holding things that are probably bodies, and ever thicker nests of branches and antlers. And then there’s this:
That would be a pile of clothing. Little girls’ dresses, mostly. There are also baby shoes hanging from the ceiling, but I’m not putting them in here. Rust winds his way through more wicker until he comes to a large gateway—mirroring the circle that was placed at Dora Lange’s tree.
Then he comes upon the altar of the Yellow King, and either finds, or hallucinates, a swirling cloud vortex, which distracts him just enough that Errol gets the jump on him and puts a knife in his gut. Errol also politely requests that Rust “take off [his] mask,” and our boy responds with a series of headbutts that are truly epic. Errol also manages to attack Marty with a hatchet before four bullets finally take him down. And so True Detective’s ambiguous anti-heroes are left in the bottom of the cistern, bleeding profusely, as we fade to black.
And then…we’re in the hospital? Remember when I mentioned Owl Creek? Well, I kept waiting for the rug to get pulled out from under me, to realize that we were seeing Marty’s dream, while Rust actually bled out on the flood or something. But no, they both live. And more than that, they both gain a certain type of redemption. This is one of my problems with the ending, sort of? But I also like it, kinda?
Marty’s redemption is a reconciliation with Maggie and the girls. Maggie holds his hand (though given her ring situation, she’s remarried) and then Audrey asks if he’s alright. And he just collapses. He doesn’t just allow himself to cry in front of them, he allows himself to collapse. And they form a circle around him, and it isn’t like he has his family back—he can never have that—but the scene does give us a sense that he can fix the relationship with his daughters at least, and maybe his life won’t be so empty as it seemed in the last episode.
Meanwhile, Rust. Rust did not in fact turn to the camera and admit his fictional existence, nor did he die in a noble sacrifice, nor did he accept Jesus at the last minute (although McConaughey was doing a pretty good impression of a certain Galilean there by the end). Instead he had an epiphany that felt very, well, Rust Cohle, and I’m mostly satisfied by it. He was in a coma, as his daughter had been before her death, and like her he felt himself slipping into a deeper blackness. But in his case, he came to believe that the blackness itself was his daughter’s love for him. Waking up out of that love was clearly not Plan A for him, but now the idea that love can last after death has charged things with more meaning. Almost, maybe, hope. A little.
So here now, are some scattered notes on the arc of the show!
The Genre Reading
With the inclusion of that vortex, Nic Pizzolato does give SFF fans a great supernatural reading. If we want to take Rust’s experience of his daughter’s love as real—whatever passes for real—then we can work backwards and read Rust’s visions as “mainlining the secret truth of the universe” in exactly the way he used to believe. In this interpretation, the terrifying vortex (or, as one of my friends called it “The Special Effect”) is actually a portal into another world, and the Yellow King is presumably sacrificing women and children to bring something through it, into our world. As Carl said last week, Rust is the Lovecraftian hero who learns just enough to realize that he’s fighting in a cosmic war between good and evil, and then almost loses his sanity and his life in the fight.
Since Errol hasn’t quite “ascended” yet, he is still only flesh and blood, and Rust and Marty are able to stop him. When Errol says to Rust, “Come die with me, little priest,” the obvious thought is that Errol expects to die when the demon or Eldritch horror or whatever comes through the vortex. Perhaps he’s donating his own body as a vehicle? This also adds to the overall mythology—now that we’ve seen Errol, and seen how charismatic he can be, it’s easy to imagine him enticing his acolytes, LaDoux and Dewaal, and his eventual sacrifices, like Dora Lange, into going along with his rituals.
Because Rust is open to the supernatural in a way that Marty is not, Rust sees the true fight that is happening behind the purely material one. He achieves a spiritual reconciliation with his daughter, while Marty, fighting only on this plane, deals with the less-spiritually-inclined Mrs. Yellow King, and later reconciles with his living daughters. But we’re still in a rotten, vaguely Lovecraftian universe. They got their man, but the bad men are still out there, and the stars are still surrounded by darkness.
A friend suggested that part of the finale’s theme was the two layers of evil—human evil versus demonic evil—but I’ll add a third layer. There is the every day evil inflicted by Rust, Marty, and Maggie: ignoring the girls, sleeping around, manipulating suspects into confessions, allowing violence to become just another method rather than a last resort. There is the greater evil of people like Tuttle and the Ledoux boys: actively participating in a pedophilia ring, exploiting and torturing the innocent, leaving shattered lives in their wake. And then there’s the demonic evil of Errol: taking those cultic tendencies and pushing them as far as possible, in order to channel darker spirits and bring them into the world.
I think the show left this just ambiguous enough—Errol even says that only “those with eyes to see” will realize his ascension is coming. Rust clearly has those eyes, while Marty throughout the show has been willing to ignore and turn away from the darker parts of life. Maybe not the best trait in a homicide detective.
At Home with the King
What the fuck was up with that accent? It turns out that when he’s not ritualistically murdering women and children, painting schools, and having creepy sex with his wife/sister/second cousin/please I don’t even want to know, our Yellow King enjoys the films of Cary Grant. He also enjoys speaking in a weird sort of British-ish accent that would have been at home in a high society comedy of the 1930s. This is never explained. Cohle and Hart don’t ever hear this. It’s not just for his wife’s benefit. Does he have MPD? Is he just really smart? He has a larger, more defined version of the spiral branding that Ledoux had, so possibly he did that to Ledoux, or they both got it done together. His wife seems unafraid of him, but also knows about his hobby and Kingship. What is her role in all this? Can I also point out, and please forgive me: Errol and his wife share the only truly loving and consensual sexual act that happens in the entire show.
I am so, so sorry.
Spirals vs. Circles
Possibly, as my colleague Carl Engle-Laird pointed out, the pedophilia/Courir de Mardi Gras cult was a circle—grandfathers passing it on to sons and grandsons, and inflicting it on daughters and granddaughters, and Errol’s big mistake was to make it a spiral, focusing on adult women, enacting the rituals with increasing frequency, and never passing it on to anyone.
That we know of.
Green vs. Yellow
Most episodes were filmed with a yellow wash. This one was a bright, livid green, and never has spring and rebirth looked more malignant. That overgrown cistern/fort was horrible with vines and ferns crawling around like some Paleolithic landscape. The green paint finally explaining the green-eared spaghetti monster, although I still think noise-cancelling headphones are a better visual.
Sopranos and Lost in a Cage Match with Breaking Bad
A lot of people are pissed at the ending—the consensus seems to be that it should have ended with the gorgeous shot of the flare flying over the cistern, leaving the fate of the detectives uncertain.
Personally, I feel like the “ambiguous heavily symbolic ending” is really overdone at this point. Having some real closure was kind of cool, especially given all of the caveats folded in. Marty might be a better father going forward, but the stable, loving family he could have had will never be his. Rust believes he felt his daughter’s presence, but given how Rust’s brain works, how long will that certainty hold before he starts picking it apart? The two men have decided that they’re fighting for light, and that light is winning, but that doesn’t mean the darkness won’t always be with us.
Fun with Mirrors
Rust repeats his old one-eye-mirror meditation (with one eye swelled shut) but now, he sees himself floating in the stars outside his hospital room’s window.
Some Lingering Questions:
Was Audrey abused? What was up with those dolls and pictures? We never know. She’s willing to come visit her dad, even though possibly they haven’t talked in two years at that point. She’s on meds, she’s with a boy Maggie likes. We never learn anything more about Maisey at all. Of all the loose threads I think this one bugs me the most. There were so many connections to be made between the girls’ behavior and the larger case, that it ended up coloring my interpretation of their feelings for Marty, and their home life as a whole.
How widespread is the cult? Probably way more than we want to think about. There’s still a Tuttle in the Senate, there were always more guys in those photos and the infamous videotape, so now with the case blown open, either they’ll go deeper in hiding, or maybe Papania and Gilbough will follow up, but Marty’s ready to be done with it, and Rust may not be capable of much field work after this.
Where did the weird-ass theology come from? We never know. And that in the end, is the part that bugs me the most. (Surprise, the former religion student is annoyed that there wasn’t more religion.) Did Errol have more acolytes? Was this some mash up of Santeria and Voudon that somehow got passed down through generations, but that only a small pocket of people know about? How did Miss Dorothy know about it? Were the household staff indoctrinated as well as the children? Where are all these poor wrecked Tuttle/Childress child-brides, the mothers of all these boys? Why do so many of theses guys have facial scarring? Is it done ritualistically, to mark them in some way?
Was the star story monologue a vague shout-out to the return of Cosmos?
Two More Reasons to Love Rust Cohle:
“Once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winnin’.”
On that bitterly optimistic note, I’ll leave you with my last question: what do you think they’ll do for season 2 of True Detective?