Nic Pizzolatto, the breakout writer and showrunner behind HBO’s character-study-masquerading-as-cop-drama True Detective, has been adamant in interviews that Detective is not a show as interested in serial killers or grand conspiracies as it is in telling the story of its two central characters, Rust Cohle (portrayed brilliantly by Matthew McConaughey 2.0) and Marty Hart (portrayed just as brilliantly by Woody Harrelson). Certainly, the underlying themes of TD—chief among them being Pizzolatto’s obsession with down-south mysticism—inform the story of these two, but the chief concern has always been the psyches of our two captivating leads. When viewed through that lens—that of a character study—, it’s clear that True Detective’s season finale this past Sunday was not only captivating, thrilling television, but a complete and utter success in what it set out to do.
There was plenty of entertainment in the episode: Errol’s sexual relationship with his half-sister is chilling and almost darkly humorous in a Twin Peaks kind of way as he offers to “make flowers” with her, the scene in which Rust asks if he seems like “more of a talker or a doer” before shots are fired from a sniper in the distance evokes a pivotal scene from Breaking Bad’s finale (before he drives off with a friendly “L’chaim, fatass”), and the production design and camera work of the heart-stopping sequence in which Rust chases Errol through the woods is gorgeous and brilliant in a The-Shining-meets-Pan’s-Labyrinth kind of way (a quick side note to give credit to Cary Fukunaga for the brilliant technical work he did all season long: the color palette of this season was perfectly rendered, the camera movement was graceful and methodical, and all the extreme long shots—not to be confused with the long take at the end of episode four—of the bayou were gorgeously filmed).
But the brilliance of this finale starts with the end (time being a flat circle and all that); the last 15 minutes of the episode (everything that happens after Errol is shot in the head by Rust) are nothing short of a perfect way to end this season-long story, particularly the incredibly moving closing lines, delivered by Cohle: “If you ask me, the light’s winning.” As Pizzolatto repeatedly states in intereviews, in True Detective, the two central characters—the experiences they’ve been through and the ways in which they’ve changed over the course of a decade and a half—have always taken precedent over the identity of the Yellow King or how far and wide the Carcosa cult and Tuttle cover-up conspiracy spread. In this regard, there is a hugely important, yet relatively subtle, tonal shift that takes place in the seventh episode of the season, when Rust asks Marty about his personal life. As a viewer, the immediate reaction to this is probably one of surprise; you might even find yourself trying to formulate some ideas on what Rust’s ulterior motives might’ve been to ask Marty about his personal life. Even Marty himself comments on how much of a change this represents for Rust, as the Rust Cohle of 1995 or even (perhaps especially) the Rust Cohle of 2002 would never in a million years ask Marty (or any other co-worker for that matter) about his personal life.
Looking back on that moment now after the finale, it seems likely that after all Rust had seen and been through and lost, and after all the time he spent ruminating on that loss and that experience, he realizes that Marty is the closest thing to a friend he has in this world. What’s so beautiful about these last two episodes is how much Marty and Rust have changed over the years, and how that change has made them realize how much they really mean to each other. There are two separate moments in the finale that illustrate these changes quite poignantly.
The first is with Marty. The book on Marty, throughout the entire life of the season, has been that he’s not the best detective; that he is smart, and could be a great detective if he had a different psychological constitution, but that he all too often succumbs to his vices and lets things fall to the wayside (his family, his smarts, his temper). Marty’s always had the potential to be a great detective, though, which is what makes it so poignant when he makes the breakthrough in the case—the green paint on the house—, noticing a detail so obscure that even Super Detective Rust Cohle can’t muster up anything to say other than, “Fuuuuuuck you.” Marty ends up doing detective work that even Cohle can only stand and admire, detective work that 1995 Marty wouldn’t have or couldn’t have done.
The second is with Rust. This one’s fairly obvious. The show had been gradually building to big changes in Rust’s character over the last two episodes, and the final scene perfectly shows the viewer how those changes were cemented in Rust. Here’s a man who has spent a decade and a half believing that everything is meaningless, that human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution, that time is a flat circle…then that man nearly dies and he feels the warmth of God and the presence of his dead daughter and father in a near-death experience. This might not work so well if the viewer wasn’t already seeing changes in Rust in the way he deals with and talks to Marty, but when he breaks down crying, it’s not because he’s been wrong about everything he’s ever believed. He breaks down crying because it’s all about the grief he feels over his dead daughter, and it’s always been about that grief. What’s been buried under Rust’s nihilism for a long, long time is his deep, deep love for his daughter; the nihilism is just a coping mechanism, and it takes going to the brink of death for Rust to realize that his love for his daughter was what permutated everything for him. The things Rust has been through, including nearly dying, are liable to change a man, and I think they certainly changed Rust, which makes it devastatingly beautiful when Rust argues to Marty that “the light’s winning.” Compare that with the nihilistic grandstanding Rust engages in in the first episode; here’s a display of unfiltered optimism from a character who has been loudly, stubbornly, vehemently nihilistic for a long, long time.
This change that Rust goes through–along with the aforementioned changes Marty goes through from episode one to the finale–, finally realizing that the important people in his life like Marty and his dead daughter are why life matters, ARE the arc of True Detective. The greatest accomplishment of this show’s instant-classic of a first season is the portrayal of Rust Cohle’s journey from cold-hearded nihilist to a man who can’t help but nod at the interconnectedness of humanity, that we live this life for the ones we love. This show is and always has been about these two characters, and if the vast ideological and personal changes these two men go through, their going through hell and back to realize how damn important they are to each other and how much they love each other…if that’s not satisfying enough, if that’s not enough of a “twist,” well then you were just watching the show the wrong damn way. It may’ve been more satisfying to the part in all of us that craves clean resolution to see Rust and Marty take down the Tuttles and pull the curtain back on the entire cult and resulting cover-up, but as Marty eloquently says to Rust in the hospital: “We ain’t gonna get ‘em all. That ain’t what kind of world this is. But we got ours.” So did we.