It’s All About the Green Ears: True Detective Season One Finale Review

Going into tonight’s finale, one thing was certain: if it was the best finale we’d ever seen, that’d be fantastic, but even if it was a total flop, it’d be hard to take away my all of my affection for True Detective.

Why?

Well, because despite always being sure to voice my criticisms (my very first review made mention to the fact that this series seemed fine to sacrifice focus on the case in order to zero in more on character development and Rust Cohle monologues), it’s been a fun, trippy ride. Superb performances, remarkable visuals and an uncanny ability to bring a new perspective to the crime genre that’s been mostly spinning its tires for years now. True Detective was a truly unique show with a fresh approach and an intoxicating, addictive quality that destined it to become the pop culture obsession it grew into within a few weeks of its run.

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true detective form 1One of the things that I mentioned in my initial review is that most TV critics receive and watch several episodes of any given series in advance (I believe it was 4 or 5 in the case of True Detective) while yours truly is just a humble TV watcher, not operating in any sort of official capacity so I don’t enjoy those perks. Instead, I watched True Detective week to week and after the first week—and even the second—I kept thinking, “Ok, this is good, the performances are great, but I still don’t know if it’s quite as good as so many critics are saying it is” ; but with each passing episode, it became more engrossing and hypnotic and any quibbles I had were quickly silenced.

I bring this up because after tonight’s finale, the quibbles have been resurrected and I realize that the honeymoon really should have been over a couple of weeks ago. By episode six and certainly be last week’s outing, it became more and more clear that everything we had built True Detective up in our minds to be was a little bit grander than what it was actually aspiring to achieve.

There’s no doubt that Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson were mesmerizing to watch together (or apart, for that matter) and that there were a lot of fascinating ideas sprung into this orbit (much of it espoused by 2012 Rust Cohle as he was interrogated, but many of the themes tucked into the narrative itself were intriguing as well), but ultimately, it didn’t amount to much more than a minor shrug.

To say “Form and Void” is a disappointment would be entirely accurate and it’s an episode that—while unable to take away from the fun we’ve had with True Detective this winter—solidifies my nagging suspicion that the pedestal we built for this series was several stories too high to begin with.

Going into the episode, I had hoped for the story of the masked men in the video to unravel as a barrage of shocking thrills, but I expected a tidier, more conventional ending based on how things had been building. Then, we were treated to the horrifying true detective form 2opening scene that finds Errol Childress tending to his dead father and then coming inside to be one half of the most disturbing sexual scene in recent memory (maybe ever).

The tone that scene set gave me another idea; perhaps they’ll play this final episode as a bit of a horror film (it was reminiscent of the classic “Home” episode of The X-Files). Rust and Marty tracking down Childress while we receive chilling intel on just how exactly this monster operates. The brief scene where he was painting at the school seemed to confirm that approach, but then the episode took a sharp turn to the mundane.

Rust and Marty’s investigation picks up on the boat with Steve who seems equally as appalled at the tape as they are and suddenly becomes more cooperative (moaning on and on about the chain of command in order to convince them and himself that this wasn’t his fault), but this mood quickly changes when Rust refuses to return his gun and phone and conveys a list of threats of what he’ll face if anything happens to them. This was, obviously, incredibly similar to a scene with Walter White in the Breaking Bad finale—only in this case, Rust’s boss from the bar was on hand to see his threats through (Badger and Skinny Pete weren’t good enough?)

It was a fun, if somewhat campy and familiar, way to get things started, but like I said, a sharp turn towards the mundane awaited us.

There was absolutely nothing compelling about how Marty figured out the guy with the green ears may have been painting one of the homes they had canvassed and then they tracked down Errol’s address with boring ease. Soon enough, they show up as his home and for a few minutes, there’s actual tension.

Then, it becomes a little goofy and very monotonous. Marty’s putting a gun to the head of Errol’s half-sister/backwoods-cliché lover demanding her to tell him where her phone is while Rust chases Errol through a maze of “Carcosa”, blindly following his voice where ever it may lead him. Now, I get that Rust was prepared to die for this case, but he’s never been a stupid guy. This didn’t even true detective form 3seem like determined, reckless Rust; he was just being dumb to continue to follow Errol’s voice further and further into the mysterious structures.

Unsurprisingly, he has an inopportune hallucination after a clunky mention of them was worked into conversation earlier in the episode. While distracted, Errol attacks him and Marty finally arrives on the scene a few minutes too late. While Errol attacks Marty, Rust is, preposterously enough, able to reach for his gun and get off a shot to Errol’s head before collapsing back down on the ground.

There was no real tension in these scenes for me; I knew that Rust or Marty could have very well died because the series will reboot with new characters next season and while I thought that anything-could-happen vibe would work as an advantage, it just cheapened the stakes in this case. Not to mention, as the climax built, it became more obvious that this finale would just be about the capture of Errol Childress and that deflated a lot of my interest.

Nothing about the pursuit was especially gripping and although I was glad to see Errol go down, the final showdown felt weakly choreographed. It wasn’t an especially good sequence in any way; it wasn’t fun, it wasn’t scary, it wasn’t exciting, it wasn’t surprising, etc.,

But to my great joy, the episode wasn’t over….

Wait. I take that back. The episode was totally over as the last fifteen minutes tacked onto this episode meandered on without much significance at all.

true detective form 5We learn from the news that the Tuttles have efficiently severed any ties they had to the Childress family and Marty assures Rust (who survives, implausibly enough) that this counts as a win for them because they caught THEIR guy. Seems like a small victory to me, given the horrors they witnessed on the video tape and the knowledge that Errol was just one part (the leader, I guess?) of some insane cult that’s been taking part in unthinkable acts for years. It certainly wasn’t a satisfying ending to me and I couldn’t see how Marty—or, especially, Rust—would be satisfied either.

Before Rust awakes, there’s a brief appearance by Marty’s family in an emotional scene in which Harrelson, once again, does fantastic work. It’s hard to watch him struggle for the words to say and be simultaneously overjoyed and heartbroken to see his family, knowing they’re almost entirely absent from his life at this point and only at the hospital now out of obligation.

Their appearance, to me, only reignited my frustration that they incorporated so many odd instances with his eldest daughter throughout the season only to leave those threads hanging. My advice to Marty: once you get out of the hospital, please find out who molested your daughter because something bad very clearly happened to her.

Lastly, we get a scene between Marty and Rust where they talk about stars and the afterlife…I guess? Now, before this, we got a few good scenes between these two. When Rust first awakes and—given both of theirs’ inability to show real emotion—they let each other know they care by bickering and cursing at one another. Earlier, before raiding Errol’s home, they have a heart to heart about what happened with Maggie and it’s both funny, sweet and brimming with that biting banter that endeared us to these characters so early on.

But that final scene fell so flat for me. A lot of what Rust spewed throughout the season could be classified as mumbo-jumbo by some (and it certainly got rambly), but there were poignant and relevant ideas presented; some intriguing themes that revealed a lot about him and seemed to offer commentary on the very show we were watching.

The final scene where Rust talks about what he felt when he almost died and Marty redirects him towards talking about the stars and lights vs dark, it just awfully heavy-handed. It was like they wanted to end the series on a bit of hopeful note, but also wanted to be introspective and talky, as is this show’s way. It just felt pretentious and empty; a bit of a hollow note to leave us with

true detective form 4Watching “Form and Void”, as the minutes wore on and my disappointment set in, I couldn’t help but think about how we did this to ourselves. The most interesting parts of True Detective—besides two stellar lead performances, nothing can undo those—were the parts we colored in ourselves. The crazy fan theories and wild speculation (Rust is the killer! No, wait, Marty’s the killer! Maggie’s father is involved! Let’s analyze these literary references! There’s so much symbolism in this show, it MUST mean something!)  that transformed a lazily straight-forward case into a mind-blowing mystery.

We were the ones so captivated by McConaughey and Harrelson that we made excuses when they marginalized every other character that was introduced and made them all into one-dimensional stereotypes (some viewed them as sexism, but that’s an inaccurate way to look at a problem that plagued every other character that wasn’t Hart or Cohle, regardless of gender). I’m all for a narrowly-focused show that digs deep into two characters, but not at the expense of coloring in the world around them. The half-hearted work done with everyone from girlfriends to children to detectives to villains really hurt the series as it progressed and that shortcoming was very much felt tonight.

In the end, True Detective was a show peppered with greatness, but not a great show. There were a lot of moments where we focused on the two leads and the pepper came down hard, and other points where everything was much more bland and formulaic. And as much as we ignored that fact throughout the series—getting caught up in the fun of our new fixation—those faults could not be ignored tonight as our enthusiastic commitment to this series was rewarded with an altogether underwhelming finale.

Hey, I said it impossible to take away ALL my affection for the show. Turns out it was totally possible to take away SOME of it.

My podcast co-host had a very different reaction to the finale. Hear our discussion HERE

9 thoughts on “It’s All About the Green Ears: True Detective Season One Finale Review

  1. It felt like a season final rather than the end of an entire mini-series. Do you think that this was the original intention? Also, do you think this show was re written to downplay the cult/religious institution angle?

    At the end of the day, the symbolism that so engaged so much of the audience was entirely and deliberately placed by its creators so they must take all the responsibility for it ultimately.

    However, the narrative and the striking visual narrative (where much of the symbolism originated) always seemed intriguingly at odds with one another. I believe the fact that these two elements never seemed to come together in the end is the source of my discontent. The visual narrative challenged us to look deeper at what we were seeing and seemed to be saying that something is going on that is not readily apparent.

    This comes from the best Film Noir traditions but ultimately the whole thing petered out to a more pedestrian ending with the Eureka moment regarding the green ears coming across like an old fashioned picture about the origins of a popular song. “Wait a second, wait a second, Bob, last night you were dreaming of a WHITE Christmas? Scoot over on the piano bench a sec! I think you may be on to something.”

    Nic Pizzolatto has discussed that he prefers TV over film because of the higher degree of control it affords the writer, whereas film favors the director over the writer. I wonder how the director, Cary Fukunaga, feels about this? No mention of his return in season 2 and it as already been discussed that they do not want a single director again for all episodes. Writers tend to favour words over images to tell the story whereas a director will tend to favour the opposite, regardless, both need to tell the same story.

    Perhaps these two are a real life Rust and Marty?

    • Hmm interesting thought and great analysis, Ian. I think we’re on the same page and you’re absolutely right–fans may have ran wild with theories, but Pizzolatto weighed the show down with prominent symbolism and it’s his fault we would hope for something more out of it. It was a fun journey but a a bit of a letdown in the end.

  2. As a deconstruction of the police procedural and a glowing recommendation of the afterlife, “True Detective” soared to a great conclusion last night. I do agree: the visual narrative lent itself to a much deeper story, one that only existed in the psyche of Rust Cohle. I also get the frustration of being “given” questions that weren’t answered. I do believe, however, that the brilliance of last night’s finale, as well as the show as a whole, was its contentment to let the viewer make it something that it never was, all the while pulling off quite a psychological stunner: the depressed nihilist realizes there’s more to life. He “sees the light”, if you will. This deception is greater than any plot twist heard on the internet. Is it as entertaining as Marty Hart being the murderer or a Fight Club-esque twist? Not even close. That doesn’t deteriorate from what True Detective accomplished, in its scope and sequence. It’s easily been the best tv I’ve watched this year.

    • Really appreciate your insights. Your comments and others like it I’ve read have made me appreciate the concluding scenes a bit more. It hasn’t drastically changed my opinion of the finale, but I understand the perspective of those who do. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Beautiful acting, beautiful sets, beautiful music don’t make up for lazy writing and loose ends. What a waste of my time. Extremely disappointed, won’t be watching season 2. All form and void, no substance that is… I prefer a good story anyday.

    • This is an anthology series meaning they can completely screw up one season and get it perfect the next. I don’t see why one should stop watching because it didn’t live up to (there unrealistic) standards for one season.

  4. I enjoyed this series from start to finish. It was well written, amazingly directed, brilliantly acted. The layers in the story lent themselves to the multiple theories online and were a product of viewers imaginations and I believe that is exactly the way Nic Pizzolatto hoped the audiences would do. Run off on conspiracy theory tangents that we are prone to do. The best stories are usually the most simple ones. There wasn’t a need for things to be spelt out or wrapped up as they were actually being done all the way through the 8 episodes. Marty while talking to the detectives in 2012 said that sometimes you miss what is happening right under your nose. The Audrey issue didn’t need to be clarified. He missed how his lifestyle was impacting on his family, how the dissapearences affected the local children. The conspiracy of cover ups was actually revealed from episode 1 when Tuttle wanted his own task force set up to handle the murder. We know that over the years the powers that be were Tuttles & Childress. We saw how Errol found his victims when we saw him painting the school in the last episode. What more did we need spelt out? Cohle or Marty could have been killed in the final episode but that is what audiences have come to expect – Game of Thrones, Walking Dead etc. Given that it is an anthology it was more surprising to keep both alive. Maybe it’s because I’m an Australian and don’t need to look for a conspiracy theory in everything or need shows to be over the Top. Example the Australian Rake vs US Rake. I thought the show ended just as it started – unexpected and understated. Season 2 can’t come soon enough.

  5. This is an excellent, fair and honest summation. It underscores and validates my sentiments precisely, but wow, try taking this honest expression to some of the blogs like Slate and you’ll get your head bitten off and your posts censored. I’m glad I found you analysis because I was beginning to feel like I was in Carcosa…as though I was insane for having any negative thoughts about this over-hyped show.

    I did quite a bot of posting about it over at the HBO site. Here’s a link. Check it out if you have the time. I created several threads over there. They haven’t been too popular. Apparently people only want to hear about the bunnies, George (Of Mice And Men).

    http://talk.hbo.com/t5/True-Detective/I-m-ready-Are-you/m-p/348646#U348646

    Also, at Slate a poster named BobbyLaw clamped onto me and effectively told me I had no right to be disappointed and if I was it was because of my “sad little issues” and not a failing of the show. I responded as follows but Slate won’t post the reply. Go figure.

    No Jack, apparently you’re not reading Bobby Law’s (Nic Naylor’s) message clearly. If we’re disappointed, we have no right to be. It’s because of our “sad little issues.” It’s because of “Nihilism” and wanting to drag everyone down into our sad, miserable world. The message is “you’re going to eat this crap sandwich and love it. Don’t you realize there are children starving in Africa and you have the nerve to complain your sandwich stinks? You and your sad, little issues.” LOL!! Yeah, that’s it. I knew there was a reason I didn’t like it. And that’s just it. Do I even have to have a reason the latter two and a half episodes left a nasty taste of aluminum in my mouth (I hate when that happens, don’t you?)…that my premium ham, mortadella, salami, provolone and olive tapenade between two slices of sublime Italian Bread transformed into something inedible and toxic? I don’t have to present an airtight case before the court. When it comes to judging a television series it’s enough to say thumbs up or thumbs down. It’s enough to say it didn’t sit well with you. It’s enough to say it doesn’t measure up to the high bar set by Breaking Bad. It’s not alright to blame the person who’s disappointed and imply they have no right to be as BobbyLegaleze is doing here.

    But since we’re bringing up “issues.” How many of you are considering Louisiana for your next vacation destination? I don’t know about you, but Season 1 made it look like a paradise; a fun-filled adventure for the entire family and the blindfold and antlers come free as part of the offer. I mean, seriously, some wanker has the temerity to say anyone criticizing this show has “sad, little issues” considering the content of this show? Irony much? Serendipitous satire much? I’d say NP has issues with his childhood home and they’re not sad or little, imo, they’re glorious, wonderful, happy and very LARGE issues and thank goodness for that. Without NP’s issues, there would have never been a TD to lure me and punk me. When it was good, it was great. When it was bad, it sucked. But it did move me, and without its issues, without NP sharing his issues in a story, that never would have happened, so please, more issues whether they’re sad and little or happy and big, because “issues” make for great theater if they’re not bungled by conventionalism.

    • Haha, I loved your comment and I’m not surprised it wasn’t well received by other commenters at Slate. There’s a lot of truth in what you’re saying. NP’s issue fueled the show and were present throughout; a lot of his answers in interviews clearly reveal he’s still dealing with things from his childhood. Your last line about issues making great theater when they’re not bungled by conventionalism is a great description of what happened with TD. After reading more and more from people that enjoyed the finale, I understand their perpective a little better, but there’s no denying that there was a lot about it that became very mundane and ordinary by the end.

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