The job of a critic is always to judge art by what it is, not what you’d like it to be. After seeing much of the criticism of the inaugural season finale to HBO’s newest hit show, “True Detective,” it’s a line of thought that I wish more regular viewers would adopt.
This commentary will, obviously, contain some spoilers for the season. You have been warned.
When the story of detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey, in a career-best performance) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) effectively came to a close last Sunday night, people were deflated. Despite the allusions to H.P. Lovecraft-esque literature, monologues that ruminated on the metaphysical and an overall atmosphere that was as eerie and foreboding as the television medium has ever seen, the resolution to the narrative was decidedly grounded and realistic. Too many lingering questions were left unanswered, too much of the larger conspiracy left unraveled.
Having every branch of the (decades-wide) conspiracy was never going to happen, of course.
Show runner and lead writer Nic Pizzolatto (via Det. Hart) pretty much said so outright. Nor was there ever going to be a big, supernatural reveal. That’s not the type of story Pizzolatto was interested in telling.
I can kind of see where some people were coming from, though, at least in their expectation of a supernatural ending or reveal.
Louisiana is an inherently creepy place (I’m saying this as a native of the state who lived there for 15 years). There’s an atmosphere and aura about the state that is often unsettling, especially once you get into the isolated areas out in the marshland areas where Cohle and Hart were often forced to trek. And the show’s depiction of those areas and the weirdos who inhabit them was uncanny.
It’d be easy to assume and expect in a show as stylish as this that they’d go the supernatural route. It’d deliver a big, mind-bending ending, the kind that viewers are ravenous for in this golden age of television.
Beyond the surface talk of Yellow Kings and time being a flat circle, you’ll see that Pizzolatto, from the beginning, was after a resolution that was grounded and entirely character-based, which is what we got.
But a resolution that’s grounded and entirely character-based isn’t what makes for good speculation, and that’s where things really seem to have gone astray. If you went through your Facebook feed or Twitter in the weeks after the show’s debut (and especially in the week leading up to the finale) you probably couldn’t go more than a few scrolls without seeing some new wild speculation or theory about what was really going on in the show. Was Cohle going to commit suicide in the final episode? Was Marty really the killer? Was Cohle really the killer? Do all the metaphysical monologues by Cohle mean we’re going to flash forward 50 years to see the events simply repeating themselves? Was everything leading up to the arrival of some supernatural force known as the Yellow King?
People seemed to get so wrapped up in being certain where things were going to go that they fell prey to the detective’s curse that Cohle himself talks about, where the actual solution is right under your nose. (Was Pizzolatto trying to remind viewers not to get too wrapped up in fan theories?) Insinuation, texture and tonal layering is not always in direct correlation to what’s actually going on.
So when the ending came and went and no suicide was had, no Cthulu-esque monsters emerged and time and space were not folded into themselves so the sequence could repeat, people were disappointed. Which is a shame, because what we got was one of the most on-point endings I’ve seen, especially for a show’s first season from an unproven writer new to the medium. From the beginning, this was a story driven by these two very flawed but very driven men. And the resolution we got was squared completely on who they were and what they accomplished. It’s hard to ask for a better ending than that.
If anything, the lack of a supernatural motivation for the narrative’s evils is even more frightening than having demons or monsters be the source. With the supernatural, you can either hand wave it away or simply say there will always be light to counterbalance or cancel the darkness, depending on your beliefs. But when it’s simply evil men doing evil things, that’s far more unsettling.
My overall point is that it’s fun to speculate and get caught up in a fresh piece of well-made entertainment. I love speculating on and discussing this kind of stuff with my friends as much as anyone. But maybe it’s time to realize that not everything has to be wrapped up with a bow or blow our minds with a huge twist ending. Sometimes a simple coda with two ragged detectives in a hospital parking lot is all that’s really needed.