True Detective’s finale: when symbols are just symbols / by Alec Kubas-Meyer

True Detective

[Spoilers ahoy, though less for what actually happened in Season 1 of True Detective than what people expected to happen.]

The True Detective finale rendered me speechless, but not for the reason I expected. I expected the internet’s theories of horrific depravity to come true and the final hour to be one final spiral down into a pit of hopelessness. I wasn’t sure it was the last thing I wanted to see before I fell asleep, but I needed to know what happened to Rust and Marty.

And then… it wasn’t that. The opening minutes were uncomfortable (and stylistically odd, since I believe that was the longest period of time the show had gone without either of its protagonists being onscreen), and the big climactic chase was tense, but when everything came down to it, the episode isn’t about the darkness. The final line makes that pretty explicit, as Rust, the guy who has thus far spoken exclusively in long-winded metaphors filled with doom and gloom, thinks that maybe the glass is half full. Or at least not quite so empty.

That’s interesting.

But I couldn’t help being a little bit disappointed, because in the days leading up to Sunday, I had followed the theories like everybody else, and I expected at least some of them to come true, but basically none of the did. People were expecting something far more complicated than they got, and while I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, it’s definitely an interesting thing.

But what makes it so interesting is how the most seemingly plausible theory of all (regarding Audrey’s childhood) was way off base.

The day after the finale aired, The Daily Beast ran an interview with Erin Moriarty, who played Audrey, talking about her role in the whole thing (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/03/10/true-detective-s-red-herring-actress-erin-moriarty-who-plays-marty-s-daughter-tells-all.html). In some ways, it was the most interesting thing I read that day, because it definitely answered a question that had was never supposed to be there.

When the credits rolled, I was still reasonably sure that all the evidence pointed to something weird that simply went unaddressed, but Moriarty’s responses made it pretty clear that the things everyone thought were clues of an abusive past were really just foreshadowing for the future in the series. Nothing particularly horrific had happened to her.

(And the fact that the “Five Horsemen” concept was kind of dropped was also interesting, although there were obviously more people to be had as part of the conspiracy who simply denied playing a part in it, and there was nothing the men could do to prove that final link.)

But this idea that while everything means something, not everything actual means what it at first, second, and even third glances might appear to is worth considering.

The drawings, dolls, crown, all of those things had pretty obvious implications if you believe that everything is a clear part of the world as opposed to just visual metaphor. While black stars were meaningful in a broader context, they spoke to a theme rather than an event. The drawings of spirals in the Hart household were not evidence of some physical poisoning of his family but of something more symbolic. It kind of makes sense that a show dripping with visual metaphor would have that, but it’s also kind of disappointing.

The viewers watching the show, some of whom probably felt pretty freaking smart for figuring out Nic Pizzollato’s tricks (ignoring the fact that he said really early on that he was not trying to trick or outsmart the viewer), were straight-up wrong. And some of these people had done digital equivalents to the crazy setups Rust had in his various living spaces. Obviously not everyone was wrong (it was the lawnmower man, after all), but it wasn’t just the guy who thought it was the dude running the Vietnamese restaurant who overanalyzed things.

In the end, it turned out that True Detective was kind of conventional. It’s not by-the-numbers, but by sticking firmly in reality it’s grounded in a way that many people didn’t expect, throwing off everybody’s scent. But to hear Pizzolatto talk about it (and I’ve been reading interviews with him and everybody else throughout this entire process), it was essentially done in a vacuum. A lot of these ideas never even occurred to him, and it was long finished by the time the series premiered.

People have come to expect to be tricked, and having a show that’s not trying to be tricky is actually kind of off-putting. I’m planning on doing a marathon rerun of the show soon, and I’m curious whether or not the 85% of the story from the first six episodes can be gleaned from a careful examination of the pilot.

But I’m more curious what impact this will have on television going forward. Will anthologies become more popular? Will we see other series take a one-writer/one-director approach? Will we just look back on the past two months fondly but realize that it had no real impact on television as a medium? I don’t know, but I hope that last one isn’t the case. If only because of the fascinating consistency brought on by the auteur-ish-ness of that combination, I’d like to see it tried elsewhere (and I expect to see it done again with the hopefully-inevitable Season 2).

But with that hopefully-inevitable next season, I wonder if people will get so invested. Pizzolatto has created a world where symbols are just symbols, and I don’t know how the Internet will handle that. If the follow up has anywhere near as many layers, people will probably spend an inordinate amount of brainpower trying to uncover all of that depth, only to find out that the answer had really been in front of them the whole time.

Or maybe it really will be the Vietnamese restaurant owner next time. You never know.