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.
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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One 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 opening 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 seem 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.
We 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
Watching “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