Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Breaking down the True Detective Season 1 Finale

Sunday night (or Monday night, for poor souls like myself whose HBOgo panicked), HBO's first season of True Detective drew to a close. The reception of the episode was divided, and in many ways the finale was a crystallization of what people loved and hated about the show. Let's break it down.

Spoilers from here on in.

There are a lot of legitimate criticisms of the show.

  • The misogyny.

As many have correctly pointed out, this is a show about dead women that pretty much has no women in it. Poor Maggie, played well by the underutilized Michelle Monaghan, is essentially reduced to a plot device with no agency whose sole purpose is to create another time jump that ages Cohle to a grumpy prune. So much for the theory that she might be the mastermind.

  • The lack of character development.

While the finale corrects this in Cohle's case, Hart is literally the same character from episode one to eight. If we say that story should cause characters to grow, change, or at least make decisions, Hart is a complete failure.

  • The lack of clarity on what the heck is going on.

This one is on the border. On the one hand, I think it's more realistic that Hart and Cohle fail to take down all the bad guys. On the other, there are things that go unexplained that make less story sense unexplained. Number one on my list: Cohle's Alaska vacation. There's no bridge to take us through the emotional journey that causes him to return there - there's a fight with Hart, he quits his job, but what causes him to make that specific decision? What brings him back?

On the other hand, there are less compelling critiques as well.

  • The lack of clarity on what the heck is going on.

Hart and Cohle aren't supercops, but very flawed people. I think it makes sense that they wouldn't figure everything out. Not only that, but it's exciting to think that, rather than having a real supernatural element, there was a decision to create rich literary subtext for a television show. Many viewers are disappointed that some of the weird fiction motifs didn't "pan out" and were "just" used to give the story a more existential context. Rather than being disappointed, we should be excited that Pizzolatto wrote the show that way - it opens the door for even more literary television in the future. (Though I would not have minded a real spaghetti monster at the end, not every show can be Twin Peaks.)

  • The mystery's resolution was too simple.

As I posted about when trying to predict the show's ending, the resolution to the mystery didn't really matter as much as we thought it should. Personally, I could play episodes 1-3 on a loop for weeks and be happy.

  • The "happy" ending.

Most critiques I've read have interpreted Cohle's speech at the end of the finale as him coming to Jesus: the nihilist finally finds hope and faith. To me, the speech rang hollow - I got that same sinking feeling in my gut as at the end of the Bletchley Circle's season one finale. Cohle, rather than finding faith, has been so rattled by seeing the truth of the universe (the cruelty in Carcosa & the spiraling galaxy) that he retreats to his "programming." Compare Cohle's description of his beliefs, and his criticisms of religion, at the beginning of the season to his speech at the end. Cohle, having traveled to Carcosa and met the King in Yellow, retreats to madness. He can no longer reconcile with what he is, and has to fall back on the "stories about the stars" that he knows are false. It's a very, very dark ending: the nihilist loses because the world is so evil that he can't bear the truth.

The best thing about the True Detective finale? It's over. Season 2 (should we start calling them "series"?) will have all new characters - let's hope Pizzolatto gives us some female leads to prove us wrong.

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