True Detective Season 1 Episode 8 Deconstructed

by: Michael Shields

In the closing moments of True Detective, a premise we never considered imaginable manifested itself, and a frenzied manhunt evolved into so much more…..

Throughout the entirety of this jaw-dropping inaugural season of True Detective, we kept harking back to Marty’s discussion about “The Detective’s Curse.” We knew it was poignant, that it possibly disclosed the fundamental truth about the story being ultimately told. We considered this idea about the answer being right in front of your face, while paying attention to the wrong clues, was not solely about the hunt for the killer. Yet, it is fascinating to think about the fact that the Spaghetti Monster was just sitting right there the whole time (“that’s whats bugging you?”), ready and willing to talk to the detectives as long as they wanted. And the hot-shot duo of detectives (both pairs) were always in a rush, their thoughts elsewhere and with presumably bigger fish to fry. This idea, a distant cousin of the reminder to always stop and smell the roses, isn’t solely a condemnation of Hart and Cohle, or Gilbough and Papania, but about people in general. About the tunnel vision that absorbs us as we become consumed in our daily routine. Everybody’s best opportunity in life has possibly walked right past them at some point, while they were too busy with something else. Rust and Cohle risked everything, to the point of becoming fully engrossed by their hunt for The Yellow King. And all the while the jester, the knowing fool, sat out in the open on his lawn mower and watched.

But it turns out that “The Detectives Curse” exemplified so much more. We spoke at length over the last eight weeks about what True Detective actually was. At its core we assumed it was a show lamenting on the numerous existential horrors of our reality. Many condemned the show as atheistic and misogynistic1, with a tone that was impossibly pessimistic. But it turns out they, like so many of us, were looking at the wrong clues. Because in hindsight, after an unanticipated turn of events to close out the first season, it is now evident that True Detective was about the last thing we expected – hope! And about a burgeoning, yet complicated, friendship.

Noir storytelling is unique in that there is always great despair in the heart of its heroes. For one reason or another, the protagonist of the story has been broken, losing hope and the belief that good can exist in our world. This despondency suggests that our hero did in fact once believe in something, but life’s anguish (Rust losing his daughter – the pain that fashioned the man we came to know) has hijacked their soul, and in some ways their will to live. True Detective delves into the idea of humanity’s colossal fall from grace, and the notion that those damned to misery desire to transcend their loss, and perchance find a measure of redemption. And as Rust came face to face with death, he finally found atonement in the form of a love he hadn’t felt in decades. Brilliant.

“Form and Void,” the title of this concluding episode, is a reference from the “Book of Genesis”: “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” I can hardly think of a more poetic and delicate way to describe nothingness, and it was this nothingness, this territorial darkness, that existed before all things. A darkness that manifests itself in the monsters who walk our Earth to this day. The Spaghetti Monster we became all too acquainted with in this finale, Father Billy strapped to the bed, lifeless and with his mouth sewn shut, and Errol’s half-sister who was evidently raped in her childhood by their grandfather. The sins of the fathers being repeated by their sons. “You know what they did to me?” Errol asked. “What I would do to all the sons and daughters of man.” “Form and Void” brought us to a season’s conclusion without corralling the five horseman, or bringing down the Tuttle family and their monstrous traditions, but as Hart suggested in a moment that felt, once again, as if he were talking directly to the audience – “we ain’t gonna get them all – that’s not the type of world it is – but we got ours.”

With fervency, the dial was amped up on spine-tingling suspense as our manhunt approached its zenith2, but “Form and Void” was also rife with more subtle and telling moments. The Spaghetti Monster demanded of Cohle to “Take off your mask!” Berating him to embrace the substance of who he is, to accept the darkness that is Man. But there was always good in Cohle, it was just cloaked by years of anger and hurt. And when his mask was finally excised, we were introduced to the man Cohle may have once been. And it wasn’t Cohle alone, we witnessed Marty change too, finally shedding his tough guy swagger, that vicegrip that prevented him to grow, as he let go and embraced all his emotional hurt, and in one of True Detective’s most affecting moments, wept in front of his family.

While distressing to some that Carcosa revealed itself as a series of twisted catacombs littered with lifesize stick sculptures, devil traps, and the clothing and bones of those murdered3, we should have seen the writing on the wall4. It was on us that we leapt down the speculative rabbit hole with reckless abandon. Nic Pizzolatto, the sole writer of the show, always declared his appreciation for a proper conclusion, and he professed his confusion about the theories running rampant on the internet…..

“I’ve enjoyed reading people theorize about what’s going to happen because it’s a sign that you’re connecting. But I’m also sort of surprised by how far afield they’re getting. Like, why do you think we’re tricking you? It’s because you’ve been abused as an audience for more than 20 years. I cannot think of anything more insulting as an audience than to go through eight weeks, eight hours with these people, and then to be told it was a lie—that what you were seeing wasn’t really what was happening. The show’s not trying to outsmart you.”

But he did have an ace up his sleeve. Although he left numerous loose ends dangling haphazardly about, he had a resolution in store for us that was unexpected, and positively beautiful.

“Form and Void” embraced within its climactic moments a montage that whisked us back, in reverse order, to the pivotal junctures of the series. From Errol’s frightening house of horrors, to Reggie LeDoux’s meth lab and dungeon, through the swamps and bayous, and ultimately back to the tree. The tree where it all began. A conscientious reminder of the magnitude of our travels, the scope of time we covered, and the emotional scars we amassed along the way. Like Rust declared, it has always been just one story. The story of light versus dark. But within that framework existed a multitude of narratives, a deluge of ideas and imagery that will titillate us and persist long after the show is done5.

With the culmination of True Detective, it was interesting to behold a story so aware of itself as a narrative. Where True Detective punctured the genre it embodied and became something so much more was in its exploration of storytelling itself. Rather than existing simply as a gritty crime drama where the core of its magnetism was weighed on its unexpected turns alone, it was an existential and philosophical anecdote about storytelling. The true reason for The King in Yellow’s inclusion wasn’t to heighten the intrigue in the whodunit, to reveal subtle clues and make us mad with inquiry. But rather, in the words of Nic Pizzolatto, it was there…..

“because it’s a story about a story, one that drives people to madness. Everything in True Detective is composed of questionable narratives, inner and outer, from Cohle’s view that identity is just a story we tell ourselves, to the stories about manhood that Hart tells about himself, to the not always truthful story they tell the detectives investigating them. So it made sense to me, at least to allude to an external narrative that is supposed to create insanity, or as I prefer, deranged enlightenment.”

True Detective’s self consciousness became most evident in Rust’s quasi-metaphysical interrogations and Hart’s excuse-laden accounts of the way things occurred. “You know why the story’s always the same 17 years gone? Because it only went down the one way.” And it was in the discussions amongst our heroes where we learned the most about the true design of the show, culminating outside the hospital under a star-filled sky. Where two friends spoke and bickered like an old married couple. And where clairvoyance struck a man so overcome with a stinging apathy towards humanity that death’s cold grip would have been a welcome release (“My life’s been a circle of violence and degradation, as long as I can remember. I’m ready to tie it off”). He spoke of one story, the oldest one ever written. Light vs. Dark. Good vs. Evil.

And it was in that revelation, that reckoning, where a story so riddled with skepticism, with despair, and disenchantment became a narrative about hope. A tale about perception, wherein it simply comes down to how you choose to look at things6. It is often so hard to see any light, any good in the world when a vast blanket of darkness is all that surrounds. But once upon a time, as Cohle so precociously declares, the universe was only darkness. But now, spread throughout that void is the warming glow of light. And there is victory in that, and ultimately a reason to believe.

What was so confusing, and inherently compelling, about True Detective is that we weren’t exactly sure the true aim of the anthology. We appropriately threw the word noir around. We discussed its merits in relation to crime dramas that preceded it, but that description was hardly adequate. There was something more here. It could be argued that True Detective is a horror story wrapped up in noir clothing. That it’s a trapped-in-time tale structured much like the spiral on Dora Lange’s back. An anecdote about two men who are doomed to tell and relive the same stories they’ve told themselves over and over again, with the answers never seeming to be found because much like the city of Carcosa, if they were to be found, they would vanish. The levels of complexity within the framework of True Detective was, in a word, astonishing.

True Detective rewrote the rules, altered the blueprint on what a great detective story could be – all while deceptively appearing as something that felt familiar. Comparable more to timeless literature than to traditional prime time television, True Detective was essentially an 8 hour film, a decidedly self-aware, periodically metafictional drama that achieved the impossible – it lived up to the hype. The project’s splendor substantiating the decision by a team of prodigious talents, from an astounding writer and director, to two actors at the peak of their talent and careers, all convening passionately upon its development.

With staggering intensity Cohle justified all his actions to Hart by stating, “I won’t avert my eyes.” This is true with True Detective as a whole, as it held its gaze steady, taking an uncompromising look at the seedy underbelly of our country. A world where gross misconduct runs amok and the powers that be just sweep hideous evil under the carpet. Never shying away, too, from the distress of humanity, the happy accident that we all found ourselves experiencing together. A joy deviously coupled with a life so often inflicted with unimaginable pain and heartache. Never shying away from the darkness that it attempts to shine a light upon, True Detective unveiled what lies just beneath the surface, as grotesque as it may be.

It wasn’t just that Cohle’s space-time speech echoed Nietzche’s eternal recurrence7 or that the series delved head first into Brane Cosmology. Or that True Detective explored in frightful detail the idea of Cosmic Fear8. It wasn’t that Nic Pizzolatto introduced so many of us to a compelling canon of weird fiction that has been influencing authors for a century now (Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow), that he brought to the mainstream Schopenhauer’s faith in “”transcendental ideality,” or that you could literally see the influence of such modern masters as David Simon (The Wire), David Chase (The Sopranos), and Michael Mann9. It’s that True Detective did ALL of this within the arc of an eight week show that remained captivating in a classic sense as well. Incredible.

True Detective was never an ensemble drama. It was never simply a whodunit crime parody. If we infatuated ourselves in the manhunt, and the often misleading clues, we could have potentially missed one of the most interesting character studies to ever grace the screen. One where the uttering of the words, “Fuck you man” (when Hart cracked the case) was a compliment of the highest order, and where the tax man, fittingly, got his man by perusing IRS records. And where two men with every reason in the world to not be friends, or successful partners, became just that. In the closing moments the premise of the show finally manifested itself. The narrative was never about more than the journey of two broken men, who railed against the injustices that some god or the world or whoever was in charge thrust upon them. Two men who picked each other up, and through each other, and the extraordinary experiences they shared, instead of becoming further jaded and damaged by the sickness that they witnessed, found redemption and a reason to live.

Who would have thought, that after all the discussion about The Yellow King, after all the theories and Easter egg hunts – at the core of True Detective was a story about two ordinary, yet inconceivable with in the scope of the narrative, concepts this entire time: It was about an unlikely friendship, and about a man overcome with despair finding a reason to believe. “Form and Void,” the culmination of this triumphant anthology was as creepy, introspective, suspenseful, and as riveting as any episode that came before it – but it was also beautiful, something True Detective had yet to be – and it was certainly worth the wait.

We were mislead. Darkness doesn’t become you. It can be conquered. In fact, the light’s already winning. If Rustin Cohle can find hope, perhaps the rest of us can as well.

  1. Showrunner Nic Pizzolatto has teased that Season 2 is going to be about “hard women, bad men and the secret occult history of the United States transportation system.” []
  2. Breaking into different accents while watching North by Northwest on television in his sketchy, hoarder house was peculiar. Gotta give Nic Pizzolatto credit for establishing depth of the villain in such a brief time frame. They wrote him as the prefect evil genius, one who was able to hide easily in plain sight by coming off as low functioning when in fact, he was the exact opposite. The nods to Hitchcock’s Psycho were particularly brilliant. []
  3. Filmed at Fort Macomb, on the the western shore of Chef Menteur Pass. []
  4. The set design within the labyrinths of Carcosa was intricate and flat out stunning. []
  5. “Quite some time I’m gonna be thinking about you, Rust,” the corrupt sheriff Steve Geraci told Cohle. Couldn’t agree more! []
  6. “Everyone has a choice.” – Rust in response to Marty acknowledging, ““When she told me, she told me not to blame you. She said it wasn’t your choice, that you were drunk and she made it happened.” []
  7. “All truth is crooked, time itself is a circle” – Nietzche []
  8. Pizzolatto has openly declared his love for existential horror and its most prominent authors, from Chambers and Lovecraft to modern gurus of the weird Laird Barron and Thomas Ligotti []
  9. The riveting conclusion to Episode 4 – the stash house raid – was a tribute to Michael Mann. []

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