So roughly seventy years after everyone else I watched True Detective. It’s too good a show to not talk about, so here I am. I like to stay topical, I think my past articles prove that. What’s more topical than Gamera? Anyways, I wanted to scribe some of my thoughts on what is surely one of the best shows I’ve watched in a while.
One of the things I heard a lot going into True Detective: “you’re going to hate the ending.” Almost no one I talked to stood by the ending of the series. Which oftentimes will turn me off watching a show completely. Certainly it’s kept me from watching Lost. Who wants to put the time into something that’s ultimately going to frustrate? That being said the devout few who stood by the series in its entirety convinced me it was at least worth a shot.
So I went in with high enough expectations, to be honest.
And I loved the show, through and through, including the end. A lot of the response to the ending seems to stem from misplaced expectations. Whether it was the core of fans who desperately tried to guess a “reveal” that ultimately never happened or fans who expected a more confrontational, possible Lovecraftian ending. The first camp didn’t really know what show they were watching, to be honest. The show never relied on reveals. It was never that kind of detective story. As fun as fan theories might be for the fans they didn’t accurately reflect the goals of the show. The second camp of people were actually more aware of what kind of show they were watching, they caught on to the meta moments and disturbing bubbling subtext, and mistook it for text. But they ultimately missed the same characteristic the first camp did, which is that the series is very much based in reality. Carcossa was never going to be a tentacled monstrosity.
The way the show incorporated meta moments was key to understanding the ending. True Detective displayed an undeniable desire to poke and prod at the edge of the frame containing it. For one thing characters were frequently aware of the way the events of the show, the story, was distorting time. Rust’s speech about seeing time from a fourth dimensional perspective is clearly about the way we the audience is experiencing the show. Because the story revolves around Carcossa and the Yellow King other characters speak of Carcossa in frightened whispers as “the demon that eats time” or some such thing. There’s even a scene where the two leads basically sit down and discuss the fact that the moments of their life that don’t make it onscreen are really boring. It’s amazing, and more than anything it struck me as being a brilliant technique the show was employing.
Check out this quote from Lovecraft about fear of the unknown:
A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a
seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.
That sort of nails the show’s tone perfectly.
That meta level to the narrative meshed perfectly with the thematic concerns of the show. The show tackles issues revolving around faith, abuse of power, and the ultimate corruption of hierarchal systems, and that all that is basically caused by toxic masculinity. These are grand topics to tackle. To quote Melville “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.” This show strives to tackle mighty themes. And it did a lot of that through the bitter and cynical Rust.
Which is why a lot of fans felt betrayed by the ending, which almost shows Rust recanting on many of his previous statements. He talks about almost dying and believing he was going to meet his daughter, then he looks up at the stars and claims that “the light is winning.” It’s almost positive, and given that the show had previously tackled pretty hefty and depressing themes with little to no positivity it does initially seem jarring, a happy ending tacked on to a depressing work. It is, like everything in the show, a little more faceted than that. What the show does in its last moment is provide a counterpart to the problematic masculinity/hierarchy issues it spent a whole season discussing. One of the shows chief examples of this pollution came from the church. Similar problems may be presented at the police station, in Marty’s home life, and in local politics but the show’s main target was the church system. Having Rust, an outspoken atheist throughout the show, “find religion” at the end rubbed people the wrong way. I don’t think that’s what the show is advocating at all. I think Rust and the show present an alternative to the corrupt hierarchal approach to organized religion displayed in the rest of the show. True Detective seems to be advocating the idea that the healthiest kind of religion is about having a personal relationship with the unknown. Why not just believe what you truly believe and skip the part where you help pedophiles get rich?
After presenting this alternative Rust looks up at the stars. The show’s biggest fourth-wall breaking tool looks up at the stars. Except the stars are us, and what Rust is doing is breaking the fourth wall one more time. He looks up at the stars, after being confronted with the horrifying zenith of toxic masculinity and almost dying, and says the “light is winning.” He’s entreating the audience not to loose hope, and more importantly to try to remedy some of the things True Detective was really about.