In the end, there is only the darkness and the light. There is no Rustin Cohle, there is no Martin Hart. There’s not a Reggie Ledoux or an Errol William Childress. There’s no Maggie, no Lisa, no Beth. No Yellow King or Green-Eared Spaghetti Monster, either. They’re all a part of one larger entity or the other, this darkness and lightness that have always been there, forever grappling for supremacy. At times, the light feels like nothing more than a single flare blazing through the night sky. At others, it’s the infinite number of stars dotting the inky blackness. (It’s a beautiful coincidence that “Form And Void” aired opposite the premiere of the new Cosmos.) One side never manages to come out on top of the other for very long.
These are big terms for kicking off the discussion of True Detective’s first season—but this is a big episode, and it makes its full weight felt. They also make an important distinction: In many of these eight episodes, True Detective felt like the most nihilistic show on TV. It was grim and gritty and delved into the evil doings of evil men without a lick of varnish. In “Who Goes There” and “Haunted Houses,” the story followed tangents that showed the protagonists had a bit of evil in them as well. But the conclusion reminds the viewer that the words of a man with six Lone Star tallboys in his belly aren’t necessarily gospel—no matter how profound they may sound.
There’s more light in the universe than 2012 Rust wanted to see, because the universe had shown him a lifetime of the dark. Human beings may be creatures of habit, but that doesn’t mean we have to repeat those cycles Rust was so obsessed with back in “The Secret Fate Of All Life.” We do, as Rust tells Marty in “Form And Void,” have a choice. We can hole up in our locked rooms, or we can reach out to others, team up with another retired cop and a sniper with a grudge and help kick against the darkness. This first season of True Detective doesn’t declare the glass half-full, but it doesn’t declare the glass half-empty, either. To me, the big, pleasant surprise of this finale is that it says the existence of the glass and its ability to hold any amount of water are wonders enough.
“Form And Void” is appropriately huge—though it plays thrillingly with objects large and small alike. The end of the season’s central mystery drops Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson into the sprawling mess of the Childress homestead, but that setting quickly turns claustrophobic. Rust chases his personal minotaur through a maze whose passages expand and contract at random, cutting a path across wide-open courtyards and densely packed canopies. When he arrives at the heart of The Yellow King’s personal Carcosa, the stick sculptures/devil traps have taken on massive proportions—all the better to sell the sensation that Rust is a fly in the spider’s web. That climax, the show’s most exciting sequence since “Who Goes There,” strikes the proper balance between reality and the supernatural. The rambling taunts from Errol echo through the chambers like he’s some sort of goblin king in yellow, but it’s just as likely that he’s hiding in the shadows, like he’s always been, barely out of Rust’s reach.
The killer is present tonight, and his presence is terrifying. Glenn Fleshler, previously seen cutting grass in “The Locked Room” and “After You’ve Gone,” cuts an intimidating figure in the finale, lording over untamed acres, a queen who might be a blood relative, and a father who don’t feel much like moving these days—the better to make sure no one challenges the younger Childress’ reign. Like True Detective’s other glimpses of genuinely evil people—Reggie Ledoux, Ginger and his biker buddies—the opening scenes of “Form And Void” go a long way toward illustrating the difference between someone who’s come into close contact with darkness (like Rust and Marty) and someone who’s full of the stuff (like Errol). For all of Rust’s bad-man posturing, he couldn’t be the genuine article, because the genuine article has found ways to hide in plain sight. The Childresses managed to work their way up and down the Gulf Coast in the guise of handymen, jacks-of-all-trades who were given easy access to their victims via student bodies and church congregations. Errol marks his latest hunting ground in a shade of yellow as noticeable as any totem he’s left at a crime scene, and yet no one pays him any mind. He’s as much a part of the landscape as the darkness that creeps in after the sunset fades from Cary Fukunaga and Adam Arkapaw’s view. The monster at the end of the dream only lets the real chaos flow forth when he’s at home, in an environment he’s convinced himself he can control.
But what I really love about “Form And Void” is that it doesn’t matter who The Yellow King was or how he was discovered. It’s not some unseen force that steps forward in the final minutes; it’s not any of the too obvious suspects bandied about in the various True Detective theories. His identity comes out in the most mundane manner, a discovery made because Marty’s brain makes the right connection at the right time. The key that unlocks True Detective season one is a shade of paint. Turns out Marty was right about that detective’s curse: The solution was under the investigators’ noses (and all over the killer’s ears) this whole time.
To me, this speaks volumes to the True Detective mania surrounding this first season, an Easter-egg hunt that exceeds anything that Nic Pizzolatto could’ve considered when he pitched his series to HBO. (He spent the days leading up to the finale letting people know he didn’t consider a lot of the wilder theories about the series, either, purposely placing Papania and Gilbough’s encounter with Errol at the end of episode seven “to end any audience theorizing that Cohle or Hart was the killer.”) It’s fun to speculate, so long as the speculation doesn’t overshadow its source—because all these clues, all this evidence, they don’t mean jack. By the letter of the law, the Marie Fontenot tape and the reams of information Hart and Cohle compiled will help the survivors move on. But to the viewer and the characters, the most intense, trivial aspects of the investigation are the closest True Detective comes to having an equivalent to the play in The King In Yellow. They’re little details that draw us in deeper and deeper until all we can think or talk about comes out like the babbling of someone obsessed with the geography of Carcosa or the lineage of its monarchy.
And in all of that you miss what really matters. Rust and Marty put all this hard work in, spent some part of three different decades combing Louisiana for Dora Lange’s murderer—and the one interview they actually needed to conduct was with the guy who shakes the paint down at Home Depot. Marty nicely sums up this position in his debriefing with Papania and Gilbough: “Really man, I don’t want to hear it.” Biographical info, statistics, the expositional stuff that dragged “After You’ve Gone” down—this isn’t why True Detective will stand out as some of 2014’s best TV.
Not that I’m in a rush to anoint True Detective as an all-time great. I have enjoyed its first eight episodes, I will miss it while it’s away, but it isn’t unassailable. It’s a very good treatment of material that’s as old as the medium itself, but it struggles with some of the regressive politics it feels intended to dismantle. (Marty’s on good behavior in “Form And Void,” going no further than chaste hand holding with his ex-wife. Maybe the guy really has changed.) Any legacy True Detective might have will be tied up in the tension that’s gloriously restored by the finale. In the car ride to the nursing home, the conflict between Rust and Marty has dissipated, but there’s always going to be tension between the two. This seeps into other aspects of “Form And Void,” taking fullest hold in the white-knuckle race through Errol’s maze. They can feel there’s an ending on the horizon, and everything in that first half of the episode—an hour neatly divided by what happens before and after Marty turns off of a paved road and onto a dirt path—is portentous.
This show loves its dualities, and the struggle between darkness and light is all tangled up in a similar war of humans versus nature. After McConaughey and Harrelson, the third lead in “Form And Void” may as well be the Louisiana wilderness: The landscape photography in season one reaches its apex in the lush greenness that wants to reclaim the Childress compound. Parts of the foot chase between Rust and Errol look like they were shot on location in a tropical jungle. True Detective is littered with mankind’s attempts to assert its dominance over wilderness; Mo Ryan saw this in the oil refineries that are the show’s constant backdrop, and I think the bird’s-eye view of the highway in “Form And Void” serves a similar purpose. So many in the show’s world want to deny their animalistic instinct, “taming” it through routine and structure until it leaps forth in the lust and rage that characterizes Marty in 1995. That’s the importance of Rust’s near-death epiphany: An acknowledgement that he isn’t separate from the natural world, that he’s still a part of everything and everything is still a part of him. True Detective doesn’t want its characters to assert that connection—because that’s what leads the members of so-called “upstanding” Southern families to form pagan death cults. Instead, by embracing his status as a part of a larger whole without cynicism, Rust finally feels that whole embrace him in return.
I suspect there’s much dissecting of “Form And Void” yet to be done, and I look forward to reading other interpretations of the shots that bridge the final interactions between Hart and Cohle. It’s a stunning illustration of Rust’s “flat circle,” a rewind through the season’s most pivotal outdoor settings: The Childress house, Ledoux’s hideout, the Dora Lange crime scene. All of these places are connected; all of these places continue to exist on the same plane. If we choose to believe an inebriated Rustin Cohle, everything that’s ever happened in those places, good or bad, will keep happening there for eternity. We’ll never have complete confirmation of this, because truth is a property that keeps slipping through these characters’ hands: As the newscast summary tells us, Steve Geraci or someone in a similar position has managed to keep the Tuttle family’s connection to Childress a secret. The best we can hope for are hunches, flashes of memory that fade quickly. Rust swears he’s tasted the aluminum and ash before; Marty is told Bill Childress is “all around us, before you were born and after you die.” The Yellow King’s calling card is a spiral, but what is the cluster of stars Rust sees before Errol attacks him if not a spiral as well? On some level, everything in True Detective forms a circle; everything in True Detective is connected. You can take that as a death sentence, or you can interpret it as a brotherhood of man type of thing. For the time being, the story Rust and Marty are making up while looking at the stars is more of the latter. The light claims one more victory, all the while acknowledging that it can’t hold off defeat forever.
Episode grade: A-
Season grade: A-
- Was anybody able to make out the tune that Errol whistled throughout the episode? It made for a mighty chilling indication that he was hanging around all those kids at the playground.
- The flat circle, as represented by my hastily typed notes: “he’s been going after this dude for 117 years”
- So nice to see Hart and Cohle, No. 1 couple of 2014, getting back to the business of barely understanding one another:
- So ends The A.V. Club’s coverage of True Detective’s first season. Thanks for coming here in such overwhelming numbers every week as we watched this weird, wonderful little show unfold. It certainly took me by surprise, and I hope the show and these reviews kicked off some enjoyable discussions (even when opinions inevitably differed). I’ll be back when HBO hands down its all-but-guaranteed renewal notice—until then, take solace in the fact that we’re always watching and discussing every episode of True Detective that has been made and will ever be made, forever and ever.