Now that the final episode of True Detective is out of the box, it becomes clear that all the time we adepts spent delving into Robert W. Chambers and The King in Yellow would have been better spent doing . . . well, just about anything else. With its elaborately unsatisfying climax and deliberately hokey wrap up, True Detective brings to mind not The King in Yellow but The Pledge, Friedrich Durrenmatt’s “Requiem for the Detective Story,” which used the genre’s tropes to cock a leg over the very concept of the detective story.
In other words, I got suckered, just like you. Turns out that True Detective was meant all along to be nothing more than an eight-hour piss take. Rust Cohle’s nihilistic mumbo jumbo and the ominous hints about Carcosa were just bread crumbs leading us to a dead end. Throughout its eight-episode run, True Detective deliberately used the most hackneyed mystery story devices — the mismatched partners, the tormented genius detective, the perpetually angry supervisor — but burned through cliches with doomy swampland atmosphere, hints of something bigger and scarier just around the next corner, and, above all, the forceful acting of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey.
With the season finale, series creator Nic Pizzolatto trotted out every standard move from every serial killer tale you’ve seen since The Silence of the Lambs. The killer’s isolated house. The detective chasing the bad guy into his dungeon, when years of police training and simple common sense would have dictated securing the area and calling for backup. The bad guy’s disembodied voice taunting the detective as he picks his way through the chamber of horrors. (Nice set design, by the way.) The tormented genius getting a chance at inner peace and redemption. Even a cheesy joke at the end to show us the combative partners are now BFFs. When Marty’s family showed up in his hospital room, their fixed smiles and robotic stares had me expecting some kind of last minute explosion of weirdness. But that’s not what Pizzolatto was after.
Durrenmatt’s story showed a brilliant police detective who becomes obsessed with finding a serial child molester, long after the case is officially closed, and loses his mind when his foolproof plan to capture the killer goes unresolved. Durrenmatt’s point was that the random workings of chance played a bigger role in life than the insights of genius detectives. Point taken. I guess Pizzolatto’s point was that viewers may be intrigued by hints of real evil, but really what they want is a formulaic resolution and a cup of warm milk before bedtime. Point taken. Now go bug somebody else with your postmodern narrative critique.
There’s some undeniable nerve involved in creating a series that ends up giving its viewers the back of its hand. But if there is a second season of True Detective, I’m not so sure I’ll be around to see how it turns out. Fool me once . . . you know the rest. Or maybe you don’t. In that case, have fun with the second season.