Well, it’s been a thrilling and unnerving eight weeks following True Detective on its first UK airing, and not just because of how much of a challenge it’s been to avoid online spoilers. No matter how careful one is, though, it’s been difficult to miss the sense that the first season finale, ‘Form and Void’, has divided opinion. I went into Saturday night’s final episode knowing that it was either a fitting conclusion to the best new TV show of 2014, or a bit of a disappointment. So which was it?
While it wasn’t quite perfect, I’m happy to say it was much more the former than the latter. The biggest surprise for me, in fact, was that there were no big surprises. While I was expecting some kind of twist, whether obvious (Cohle or Hart being the killer) or out-there (Maggie being the killer), I wasn’t prepared for there being no twist at all. The most shocking thing to me was that both Hart and Cohle were alive at the end of the episode.
Before we catch up with Rust and Marty for the last time, however, the beginning of the episode unexpectedly drops us into a day in the life of their quarry: serial killer, compulsive hoarder, Cary Grant impressionist and sister-lover Errol Childress. Considering that True Detective has up until now played its cards extremely close to its chest, this scene felt almost like a different show, pulling back the curtain to reveal the banality of the Yellow King’s evil. The reveal would feel like an anti-climax, were it not for the excellent middle-section of the episode, when Hart and Cohle finally track down their man.
This is where things really kick into high gear after eight episodes and two decades of the characters’ lives. It’s nice that it’s Hart for a change who makes the key breakthrough that leads the two to Childress’s ramshackle house. It’s in the middle of nowhere, and naturally out of range of cell phones. While Hart intimidates Childress’s spooky sister into telling him where the phone is so he can summon backup, Cohle pursues Childress through the woods to a ruined structure surrounded by verdant vegetation.
After all the build-up, it comes as a visceral jolt to the viewer that this is it: Carcosa, the home of the Yellow King. It doesn’t disappoint. True Detective’s set dressers should be up for an Emmy for creating what is probably the creepiest serial killer lair ever. A maze of ruined buildings infested with grander examples of the disturbing wicker art we’ve been seeing all series. Here, it overwhelms the old structure, woven around like spiderwebs with shrouded, almost cocooned bodies on display like insects who have wandered into the trap.
With the creepy old house, redneck incest and atmospherically intricate house of horrors, it’s easy to make the criticism that True Detective is falling back on standard horror tropes for its climax, but it’s hard to argue with the effectiveness with which it puts them to use.
There’s a satisfying showdown where Hart and Cohle are both seriously wounded before Cohle blows Childress’s head off as he prepares to deliver a killing blow to Hart. It’s tempting to think that the episode should have ended here, because in a lot of ways, the rest of the episode can’t hope to compete with the drama and horror of that middle twenty minutes.
There are loose ends to be tied up, of course, and most of those are done so satisfactorily: Hart’s family come to see him at hospital, and they all seem to be OK for once. Papania and Gilbough drop by to check on Marty and Rust, and thank them for finally closing the case. But one loose end goes resolutely untied, and this is the main disappointment I had with the episode.
The rest of the Carcosa cult go unpunished, including, it’s implied, a serving United States senator. While it’s commendable that creator Nic Pizzolatto committed to a one-season, closed-ended story, I wonder if the story behind the cult could have been developed further, given some more time. It’s almost as though the story was too big, even for eight hours of television. And story-wise, the willingness of the lead characters to just let things be didn’t quite ring true for me. Sure, bad people go punished all the time in real life, but I didn’t quite buy that Rust Cohle would be willing to leave it at that.
But then, he is a changed man following his near-death experience, as we discover in the poignant final scene. This was really the only way to end the series, with Hart and Cohle onscreen together for the last time. We realise that, despite the horror and violence of their experience in Carcosa, Cohle has emerged with a slightly less nihilistic view of the universe. ‘There’s only one story,’ he tells Hart. ‘Light versus dark.’ Perhaps it took an encounter with true darkness to remind him which side he was on.
Against all odds, the story ends on an optimistic note, and even stranger, it’s voiced by Cohle: ‘Once there was only dark . . . You ask me, the light’s winning.’ And perhaps Rust Cohle’s newfound optimism about the universe is just unlikely enough a development to count as that last-minute twist I was expecting.