True Detective season 1 finale

Review: A reflection on season one, and what we can hope for going forward.

With the first season of HBO’s True Detective wrapped up, and after a bevy of glowing reviews and eight weeks of almost constant gushing, I figure it’s time to take stock. What do I love so much about this unusual show? What drew me into the story, and why did I stick with it despite its difficulties and the disturbing messages about human nature and good vs. evil at its core? In fact, isn’t that the primary question of the show? Life can often be horrifying and onerous. Why do we stick with it? Is there a payoff? Does it matter?

In the final two chapters of this story, we moved outside the interrogation room into present day, and followed the detectives as they tied up 17-year-old loose ends. Because we had come to know them so well through the recollections and self-reflective meditations that made up the meat of the season’s content, all narrative about motive and mindset for their actions could be dropped away. We didn’t need any more explanation. We were already there, with them, inside their heads, as they took the final steps in solving the case.

We followed them to the storage unit, and we understood what they were each feeling. We saw Cohle’s eyes, his back turned as Hart watched the videotape of child abuse, and as he took that long drag on his cigarette, we understood. We understood the progress of Hart’s wordless emotion as he watched the video.

Then, suddenly, the dynamic between these two men -- arguably the central set piece of the show -- changed dramatically, and we understood that too. The thickset antagonism between them fell away, just like our need to hear someone tell us why. Their connection, their mutual moral debt, and their shared motive were solidified in that moment by everything that came before it. Finally, they were on the same page. Cohle’s obsessive personality took them there. Hart’s open-mindedness (matured over the course of the show) made their partnership possible. All that was left was to piece together the clues.


If the show’s opening chapters were almost entirely composed of well-executed character development, its final few chapters were mostly story driven -- but with an unusually thorough understanding of the cosmic stakes.

The murder itself (and ultimately, its solution) was fairly simple -- perhaps disappointingly so, for some. Crazy courir de Mardi Gras/voudon cult sacrificed and abused women and children, taking advantage of the chaos following natural disasters and the general ignorance of authorities as to the plight of the rural poor. As terrifying and cringeworthy as it is, it makes sense. There was nothing supernatural about it. There were no giant plot twists; contrary to my earlier predictions, neither Hart nor Cohle was involved. There was a mystery to be solved and a bad guy to be caught, plain and simple.

The truly compelling story was inside the heads of its characters, and in the cosmic meaning of their investigation and what they witnessed and experienced throughout it. That is what made this show so groundbreaking, and so radically different from most of its contemporaries, even in so-called “quality” television. The shrewd literary influences and existential elements that Pizzolatto and Fukunaga brought to their creative process, quoting from the literary supernatural horror genre and graphic novels, made the experience of watching this show much different than your average television viewing experience.

For one, it was much more emotionally taxing. Because of the depth of understanding conveyed by Cohle’s long monologues and the potent electricity between the detectives, my empathy sensors were operating on overdrive for an hour every week. Pizzolatto’s clear but substantial writing, combined Fukunaga’s brilliantly intimate direction allowed me to crawl inside the characters in a truly visceral communion. (Now, I ask: does that say something about the writing/directing of the show… or does it say something about me?)

It was also an intellectually stimulating journey the likes of which I’m not sure I’ve ever found on the small screen.

It was complicated, but I was more confused than stimulated. Same goes for Lost -- one of my all-time favorite series, and an originator of “made for the internet TV,” with all of its metaphors and biblical/philosophical references. Even Breaking Bad, which is widely considered the greatest feat of storytelling and production of the current Golden Age of television, didn’t leave me this mentally enraptured; equally emotionally taxed, maybe, but Vince Gilligan et. al’s writing just does not hold a candle to Pizzolatto’s. I’m afraid Heisenberg has been officially stripped of the title of "King of the Antiheroes."

Michael Calia at the Wall Street Journal predicted very early on that this kind of existential elucidation might make for some pretty revolutionary television.

“Millions of viewers are hearing Cohle’s worldview weekly, and many might just find that it makes some kind of troubling sense.” 

Certainly, any television that leaves its audience enlightened, for better or for worse, is a success in my book. There is enough mindless escapism on television to last us all a lifetime -- and there’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes escape is necessary and good. But a show than can bathe us in a sort of existential wash of philosophy and deep thinking, in a way that sticks with us after it ends and maybe even makes us surf the web or (oh my!) read a book to follow up on that spark of curiosity, is a more rare species of television.

In the season’s final moments, Hart -- ever the antagonist and emotionally reserved of the pair -- broke down, unsure of how to answer the ultimate question: “Are you okay?” Cohle, ever the cerebral, rustic, pragmatic type, whose emotional spectrum seemed heretofore to run from calm to angry and back again, broke down in anguished longing for the love of his dead daughter. If these men (especially Cohle) are being presented as the apotheosis of masculinity, as Emily Nussbaum’s earlier New Yorker piece suggested (in a deservedly skeptical manner, at the time), then True Detective, in its conclusion, can be credited with presenting at the very least a more nuanced position on possible incarnations of masculinity.

Sure, as Nussbaum’s critique of the finale lays out, there were many holes and unanswered questions. What was all that business with Hart’s daughter arranging her dolls into a gang rape? About those Tuttles -- are we okay with the fact that the master feeding the monster got away?

Here, I return to my initial question: does it matter? Really. In the scheme of this wide, atmospheric story about humanity and its evils, do we really need to know those answers to be satisfied? Sometimes, isn’t the opportunity to speculate and come to our own conclusions acceptable? I’m sure there is a great divide on this among fans and critics of the show, and it’s certainly a much broader debate than I’m prepared to handle right now. But my short answer for this narrow case is: I don’t think so. I personally am perfectly satisfied with an existential glossing over of the details in favor of a larger, big-picture “feeling.” Then again, that’s how I felt about the end of Lost, and I get a lot of flack for that.

Looking forward, there have been nearly infinite speculations as to the details of True Detective’s potential second season. Check out the Twitter hashtag #TrueDetectiveSeason2 for some insightful (and not-so-insightful, but mostly hilarious) conjecture.

Tim Molloy at The Wrap did a great roundup of the most salient rumors, prefacing his piece with the notion that, in fact, we don’t even know if there will be a second season at all. However, since the show was announced as an anthology (different plot, characters every season), and due to all the critical acclaim it has received, I think it’s safe to say we’ll be seeing more of it.

But what will “it” be exactly? Same setting? Same kind of story (buddy-cop-meets-existential-horror-and-stuff)? Will there even be two protagonists next time? Where will it be set? Who will star? Who will direct? Most importantly: what’s the premiere date I should put into my countdown app?!

Of course, I have a few thoughts of my own as to what I’d like to see. Naturally, I’m excited about the prospect (as revealed to HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall post-finale) of more fully-realized female characters. Ideally, they would be protagonists, but either way I’d like to see more women with agency throughout the show.

There is no shortage of discerning criticism on the shallowness of season one’s characterization of women as accessories to men’s stories. It’s an age-old problem in media. A quick Google search will net you thousands upon thousands of smart and rightful condemnations of an industry run by men, writing stories from male points of view and marginalizing female creators left and right, for decades.

I’m not a subscriber to the school of feminism that says a lack of fully-realized women is a deal breaker in terms of a show’s quality. In fact, I am completely on board with Willa Paskin’s earlier suggestion that the shallowness of True Detective’s women might be intentional (even though she later walked it back). It’s just another effect of that communion with the protagonists and their motives. These men treat their women like objects, so we are meant to see them that way. I’m not of the worn out school of creative feminism that says that “strong” women need to be ass-kickers, doing “man things” and asserting their “feminine agency.”

That said, I have this sneaking hunch that Pizzolatto has a previously unrevealed ability to create truly great female characters. She doesn’t have to be a brilliant solver of mysteries or a crime-fighting Buffy. She just has to have a story. Motives. Thoughts. Hopes. A rich inner life. Given how fully-realized Pizzolatto’s protagonists (albeit male) have been throughout the first season, I (dare I say it?) I trust him. His realization of female characters in a similarly dark, complex tableaux will certainly be a test of his quality as a creator, and a poor realization will really change my tune from serious gushing to serious groaning. However, if his season one characters are any indication, I think we can expect great things.

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