The Empty Core of True Detective

03/10/2014 11:37 AM |

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Compared to fans, critics have been more measured in their responses to True Detective, the HBO show that concluded its self-contained first season last night, and I’m starting to see why: the finale’s centerpiece, a riveting and suspenseful confrontation in an overgrown maze of crumbling stone, was a masterpiece of horror set design, a triumph of visual storytelling. But beneath that impressive veneer, what was left besides Texas Chainsaw-style cliches? Sweaty, dirty countryfolk in their filthy, unkept home, with a preserved parental corpse a la Friday the 13th.

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“We ain’t gonna get ‘em all,” Woody Harrelson told his partner during the episode’s extended coda, highlighting man’s relative impotence in the battle against bad. “That’s not what kind of world this is.” And we knew that: the finale wasn’t disappointing, exactly, because the showrunner had said repeatedly that there would be no twists and no surprises—you knew who the killer was, and the last episode was just a matter of our heroes figuring out the same.

You could say the beginning of the episode was a little structurally misguided, showing us the workaday process that would get our detectives to the same place of knowledge as the audience. But it moved through this regrettably necessary exposition swiftly, at least: we got rid of Geraci on the boat posthaste, and almost before you knew it the heroes were out of the office and en route to the Lawnmower Man’s home, the odor of aluminum in the air akin to BOB’s sulfuric giveaway.

The visit finally to “Carcosa” was gripping, guns-out television, the satisfying indulgence of the show’s mystery then balanced out by bookending character-driven scenes: one last lecture on nihilism in the car (aw), plus post-confrontation convalescence. Besides giving Matthew McConaughey reason to shed a few Emmy-mugging tears, the final speech laid out the show’s thematic elementalism: its faceoff between light and dark, whichever one you think is winning depending on your point of view. (The show ultimately came out as optimistic.) It was an effective way to cover all the unanswered questions: there’s a lot of evil in the world, more maybe than we can ever know or understand, but the good guys are fighting the good fight, one small battle at a time. True Detective‘s first season was just one small piece of an enormous puzzle because that’s all we ever get to see in real life—one tree in an otherwise invisible forest.

At the same time, it felt reductive, boiling down the show’s expansive eeriness, the epic intimations that had made it so alluring suddenly pruned back. Rewatching a few episodes last night, I was struck by how writerly the show’s dialogue could be. (“The sound of a gaggle of hens.” “Yeah, you better watch your mouth or they’re gonna peck your eyes out.” HASHTAG PIZZOLATTO!) Writer-creator-showrunner Nic Pizzolatto has gotten a lot of the attention and credit for the show, but we should avoid that sort of television auteurism. The show demanded you watch it because of its two expert leads, who could take that dialogue and make it sound credible, just shy of naturalistic, but mostly because of director Cary Joji Fukunaga, whose creepy atmospherics turned a good mystery into must-see TV. From the first episode, True Detective haunted your thoughts with its unshakable imagery. Just don’t look too closely at what lies beneath.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart