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Part Beauty, Part Hooey: That's A Wrap On 'True Detective'

Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) had a lot to say about life, philosophy and beer on HBO's <em>True Detective</em>, which wrapped its first season Sunday night.
Lacey Terrell
Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) had a lot to say about life, philosophy and beer on HBO's True Detective, which wrapped its first season Sunday night.

[This piece contains a detailed discussion of Sunday night'sTrue Detectivefinale. If you haven't seen it and you plan to see it and you don't want to know what happens, stop reading.]

[Seriously, information ahoy.]

Spoiler alert: The dirty-faced, crazy-talking, disheveled impoverished guy did it.

Because we are talking about True Detective, this tells you very little, since Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) spent most of these eight episodes moving through a landscape of desperately poor, semi-coherent, literally unwashed people who might or might not be monsters. And in the end, one of them was. And after an almost comically lengthy sequence in which Rust, gun at the ready, tracked him through a labyrinthine maze of increasingly intricate wooden structures, he knifed Russ, put a hatchet in Marty, and then got shot in the head. The bad guy died, and the good guys lived.

Marty's wife and daughters returned to him, and he and Rust lived to share a lovely talk about near-death experiences in which Rust essentially ended (once you made out what the heck that last line even was) on a vaguely positive note.

There was a lot to admire about True Detective: As many before me have stated, it contained two of the best performances television's celebrated "golden age" has offered from Harrelson and McConaughey, and its tone and aesthetic were often gorgeously realized, as in a stunning shot of a road weaving through an array of forked white trees.

Creator Nic Pizzolatto knew exactly what he was going for when it comes to tone, and he went for it consistently, skillfully and inventively. The car chats between Rust and Marty, in which Rust was allowed to echo the great philosophers and Marty was allowed, at times, to put a pin in his grandiose blather, were fantastic from the start, and they kept being fantastic right through the reunion of the two in the 2012 scenes. (I particularly enjoyed Rust's self-consciously poetic reference to humanity as "sentient meat," followed by Marty's puzzled, "What's scented meat?" Indeed, Marty. Indeed.) He's an enormously stylish writer and, together with director Cary Fukunaga, he created a gorgeously immersive universe.

But True Detective is still a detective show, and it devoted a lot of real estate to its central mystery, which ultimately led to little more than "a monster in the woods did it." Little things that seemed like clues — the repetitions of five figures standing in a circle, the now notorious "yellow king" business, the mystical chattering from various witnesses — just sort of turned out to mean "a bunch of crazy people used to do crazy, monstrous stuff out in the woods." Certainly, the false resolution to the case in 1995 allowed for a couple of critical character moments, particularly Rust saving Marty from being prosecuted for blowing a guy's head off in anger. But an awful lot of time was spent mucking around with some pretty cliched visions of drug dealers who sort of had nothing to do with anything.

I don't think Pizzolatto cared at all about the drug stuff in the early-middle part of the show, which is why those episodes got so slack and dull. The personal stories at that time weren't at their best, either; they were focused on Marty's affair and his violent beating of a guy who made the mistake of being with a woman Marty believed he owned. Other than the heavily hyped long take at the end of the fourth episode that wound its way through the disastrous undercover operation, the show didn't really make a lot of headway between the end of the pilot and the fifth episode, at which point it became more about the complicated interplay between Marty and Rust, and thus became instantly more interesting. In the end, it was gripping in the pilot, slow in episodes 2 to 4, terrific in episodes 5 to 7, and very ordinary in the finale.

What True Detective felt, in the end, was unedited. It felt like it needed another pass, where someone could have told Pizzolatto when Rust was tipping over from an intriguing portrait into a caricature, and when there needed to be a little more story in the story.

Pizzolatto told Alan Sepinwall after the finale that to believe Rust is full of it is to believe Nietzsche is full of it:

For people who thought Cohle's philosophy was simply hogwash, be aware that you're calling Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche hogwash. Just be aware of that. That is not, in fact, a college freshman stoned eating a pizza talking about life; that's Arthur Schopenhauer's thoughts on life.

With all due respect to Pizzolatto's commitment to great philosophers, college freshmen have, in fact, been known to get stoned, eat pizza, quite correctly quote Nietzsche, and still be utterly full of patoot. The issue was never whether the substance of Rust's philosophy was invalid; it was whether Rust's way of talking about it felt more sophisticated or more affected — more like a philosopher or more like a dialogue writer. The very long "time is a flat circle" conversation, for instance, amounted to a very long interpretation of the idea of history repeating itself, which, without more, isn't something one necessarily needs to hear a character explain in great detail while the show surrounds it with indicators of portent.

Kept in perspective, as a very uneven but ultimately highly creative passion project that features some of the best acting you'll see on any screen of any size this year, True Detective is entirely successful. What it isn't is great. To make great television is to understand its episodic structure and to pace it properly. To make a great mystery is to make the conclusion seem like a culmination of the work that has gone into the solution rather than a sense that time expired, so the monster on the hook at the time the music stops is as good a solution to the mystery as any other.

We'd be lucky to have more showrunners as ambitious as Pizzolatto was about trying to say something about good and evil and philosophy, and certainly to have directors as skilled as Fukunaga at creating memorable visuals. But there turned out to be less here than sometimes met the eye, and in the end, a lot of evidentiary traps were set and never sprung.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.