‘True Detective’s’ predictable, simplistic finale

Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in a scene from HBO's "True Detective" (Credit: Jim Bridges/HBO)
Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in a scene from HBO’s “True Detective” (Credit: Jim Bridges/HBO)

Editor’s note: Alyssa Rosenberg is PostOpinions’s new culture blogger. Her own blog will be launching in the coming days. This post discusses the season finale of “True Detective” in extensive detail.

As the final episode of the first season of HBO’s hit anthology series “True Detective” approached this Sunday, the show’s obsessive audience puzzled over what might happen when former detectives Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) caught up to the serial killer they’d been chasing across Louisiana for almost two decades. Would Marty, the genial Louisiana native, turn out to be the killer, hiding his brilliant scheme by playing the dummy to his more philosophically inclined partner? Would Marty and Rust finally learn that the secret they’d repeatedly missed had been obvious all along to the women they routinely abuse and ignore? Or, in keeping with the show’s many references to the Carcosa mythos, a concept shared among horror and fantasy writers for more than a century, would monsters from another world appear on the shores of the Louisiana bayou?

In an interview before the series finale, series creator Nic Pizzolatto suggested something even weightier than an interlocking literary game. Explaining the stakes that Rust and Marty were facing as they reached the end stage of their quest, Pizzolatto told BuzzFeed’s Kate Aurthur: “I think given the amorphous nature of the evil they’re pursuing, its historical roots in culture and government, they would have to be willing to die to fully pursue their absolute justice.”

Sussing out the “historical roots in culture and government” of sex crimes and the biases that let them go unprosecuted is a fascinating goal for any show to set itself. And it would have been a particularly strong mission statement for “True Detective.” The show was shot in Louisiana, and in its early episodes it showed some real signs of interest in what happens to the working poor when they become disabled by accidents or exposed to the compounds produced in the region’s chemical refineries. And Pizzolatto has described this season of “True Detective” — any that follow would have different characters and a different case — as “a close, two-person point-of-view show.” That’s an interesting opportunity to explore how two white, middle-class men might have been hobbled by their perspectives into blaming poor men for rich men’s crimes and coverups. A confrontation between two such men, the forces they’re aligned against and their own views of the world would be a fraught and original encounter.

But the finale of “True Detective” didn’t do any of that. Instead, we got a predictable crime story that even the show’s most ardent defenders are going to be hard-put to argue is a clever examination of the genre, or of political power in Louisiana. The real killer of Dora Lange (Amanda Rose Batz), the first victim Rust and Marty investigated, turns out to be Errol Childress (Glenn Fleshler), the son of former sheriff Ted Childress. That relationship might have been enough to protect Errol, but he had other connections. Ted Childress was the unacknowledged son of Sam Tuttle, a powerful Louisiana patriarch. As a result, the Childresses were related to Billy Lee Tuttle (Jay O. Sanders), Sam Tuttle’s son and a powerful minister who tried to interfere with Rust and Marty’s initial investigation into the serial killings in 1995. And Ted’s cousin was  Eddie Tuttle, who served first as Louisiana governor and then as senator.

That’s a rich web of power and family to explore, but “True Detective” leaves most of its revelations for the last hour of the show, leaving little time to meditate on specific relationships or Louisiana politics. Sheriff Childress covered up for Errol during the 1995 case, altering a missing persons case file to say that the report was made “in error.” His deputy sheriff, Steve Geraci, admits this all to Rust and Marty in the final episode, excusing his lack of curiosity about the change by telling the two men, “There’s a chain of command. No reason to change it. I just follow what the big man says. It’s how this all works.”

That’s awfully anemic writing on a theme that’s familiar to anyone with a bedtime late enough to let them stay up for “True Detective.” And Geraci’s speech gives us no particular insight into what it might mean to be the “big man” Childress apparently was in the specific time and place that was Louisiana in 1995. We certainly don’t get any insight into why Rust and Marty weren’t curious at the time that Billy Lee Tuttle wanted to gain control of their case by assigning it to a task force. Rust may end up castigating himself for not having identified Errol as the killer earlier. But he and Marty were, in their own ways, just as willing to look away from the Tuttles and Childress as Geraci, a man they threaten for his cowardice and blindness.

Rust and Marty don’t show any more curiosity about a woman (the spectacular and underused Ann Dowd) they find with Errol, who appears to have some sort of intellectual disability — and neither does “True Detective.” As the police swam in to the Childress family estate, she sits, terrified, among the wreckage of Errol’s mad fantasies, utterly alone. Detective Thomas Papania (Tory Kittles) later tells Marty that she was “at least a half sister” to Errol, substituting a lazy stereotype about Southern incest for any insight into how she, and Errol’s dead victims, could go so utterly missing, or have been so invisible in the first place.

Marty and Rust may have unhealthy relationships with women. But “True Detective” doesn’t actually show any more interest in the vanished women than they did. The show took time to demonstrate that the stories Rust and Marty told other detectives were lies, and even to linger as Marty narrated his way through a public records database. But it couldn’t make space in its eight episodes to give these women’s lives more purpose than as catalysts for Rust and Marty’s redemptions. Dora Lange emerges only in stories her ex tells about her. Prostitutes, domestic workers and chemical plant employees offer links in an investigative chain and are never heard from again.

Even Marty’s much put-upon ex-wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan) and estranged daughters ultimately showed up in the hospital to provide Marty with a tangible reward for his follow-through. Given that “True Detective” has strongly implied from its earliest episodes that Marty’s older daughter Audrey (Madison Wolfe) might have been a victim of abuse, or at least a witness to it, this disinterest in her inner life or the truth of what happened to her is particularly off-putting. In the world of “True Detective,” a man can do pretty much anything short of turning a woman into a paraphilic love map or trapping her in a house of horrors, and still deserve tender ministrations. And even as “True Detective” reacts in disgust to men who treat women as disposable, it also acts the same way toward Audrey, and to anyone who might have lived to receive the justice Dora Lange was denied.

After Errol’s been killed and the case has gone national, we see a credulous news anchor telling her audience that reporting “discredited rumors that the accused was, in any way, related to Louisiana Senator Edmund Tuttle.” The Tuttles don’t even have to be tainted by association with a crooked branch in their family tree, much less take responsibility for any complicity they might have had in Errol’s crimes. Rust is discouraged, because he and Marty both know from a horrifying videotape that Errol wasn’t the only person involved in the ritual abuse of young women–he was just the last surviving member of his horrifying little community. But Marty bucks him up by insisting that he and Rust did their share and shouldn’t fret over the justice that’s eluded them. “We ain’t never gonna get ‘em all. That ain’t what kind of world it is,” Marty says. “But we got ours.”

That, apparently, is supposed to be enough to satisfy us. “Once there was only dark,” Rust tells Marty as the two men look up at the stars. “If you ask me, the light’s winning.” But telling us that the powerful will get off, and that there’s nothing to learn about why it happens so why bother, is a view of politics even blacker and more tangled than the Lair of Crazy Errol built in an old French fort. The Rusts and Martys of that world end up recovering in the hospital with the luxury to reach those cynical conclusions. The Dora Langes of it end up dead.

Read more:

“True Detective” finale crashes HBO GO

Meet the band behind the “True Detective” theme song

Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.
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