The Final Truth of True Detective

Time turns out not to be a flat circle.

tfLots of spoilers here.

Given the nearly ecstatic reactions that greeted HBO’s True Detective in some quarters, it seems almost surly of me to say that I found it a good, generally entertaining show but not a great one.  That, however, was my final reaction. The list of pros and cons that I began with in my first blog held pretty much valid throughout. The style, structure and especially acting were all superb, giving the show the feeling of something great. But the plotting was unoriginal and finally rather bland and the showy philosophizing ultimately delivered less than met the eye (more on that below).

On top of this, while the final chase sequence had a wonderfully cool setting, I — and several people I asked — found it strangely lacking in any sort of suspense or emotion. At the end of the first season of Dexter, I remember actually standing up from the couch I was so tense and involved. Here, I mostly felt impatient to get on with it. I’m not sure why this should’ve been so. Maybe the heroes had become representative philosophical tropes rather than human beings, or maybe it was simply that they were both such isolated depressives that it didn’t really matter even to them whether they lived or died. Certainly the villain added nothing to the piece and the portentously referential conspiracy never really paid off. Carcosa, my eye.

In any case, to the very end, I kept wanting to love this series but only liked it. But then liking a show is no small thing. Indeed, while I suspect a lot of the over-the-top enthusiasm for the series was event-generated rather than content-generated, there’s nothing particularly wrong with that. The fact that the show was interesting enough to blog about and discuss and disagree over was a source of pleasure. I don’t want to seem negative about it at all. Watching was a fun experience.

As to the final dispensation of Matthew McConaughey’s nihilist detective Rust Cohle: my response was somewhat divided.

At the end of the story, Cohle has a redeeming mystical experience. Near death, or possibly beyond the border, he finds that his identity contains an irreducible and presumably eternal aspect that is bound together with everyone that he has ever loved. The only truly mystical experience of my own life was very similar (sans the whole stabbed-by-a-serial-killer business) so while the revelation struck me as a bit sudden and unearned, I certainly could identify with it.

But if you were paying attention to Cohle’s various philosophical speeches throughout the series, you know that this mystic moment, if we take it seriously, negates every single word he’s previously spoken. In the light of Cohle’s experience, it can no longer reasonably be held true that identity is an illusion gratefully surrendered at death, or that humanity is a tragic misstep in evolution, or even that time is a flat circle. Since it turns out we are, in fact, engaged in an eternal struggle between light and dark, Cohle has basically been talking complete crap this entire time.

This certainly explains the character’s central inconsistency: that, while a nihilist, he is obsessed with doing good and finding justice. It also explains why he drinks so much, since booze alleviates the tension of maintaining a philosophy that deep down we know to be untrue. Cohle’s revelation also makes us, the audience, feel that we have been engaged with an authorial voice that is bigger than its central character. This always broadens and deepens a work of art because it frees us from the oppressive sense that we are being lectured by an author who thinks he possesses the Absolute Truth — which we, of course, know he cannot.

So I not only personally approved of this plot turn, I also appreciated it.

And yet, on another level, I couldn’t help feeling that the religion Cohle was discovering here was the religion of elitism, what we might call Snobianity:  the belief that only a vague mystic spirituality amenable to the analytic maundering of intellectuals can possibly be held valid. (Atheist Sam Harris seems to me one of the high priests of this cult.) Why else did every simple Christian in the show turn out to be a loser or a child-molesting murderer? After all, it seems possible that even someone as stupid as a Christian might be just as linked to eternal love in the afterlife as an intellectual. The only difference is:  the stupid Christian knows it’s true beforehand, while the intellectual is likely to be taken by surprise.

It was almost as if writer Nic Pizzolatto wanted Cohle to have his hip, urbane, cynical persona and his mystic revelation too.  But of course the latter trumps the former entirely and renders hipness, urbanity and cynicism morally worthless.

Just saying.

Anyway, my final review: great acting and great style in a generally enjoyable show.

Previous Blogs on the Series:

Part I: The Real Mystery of HBO’s ‘True Detective’.

Part II: Who Is The True Detective?

Part III: The Babes of True Detective.

Tags: series