That wouldn’t be an issue, really, except that the show practically begs you to take it seriously, garlanding itself in faux-intellectual philosophizing, allusions to obscure “weird fiction,” and stylish auteurist trappings. But as many reviewers have pointed out, once you strip away the decoration, what’s left is much less interesting: a buddy cop show wherein our two flawed male antiheroes hunt a sinister bad guy who’s less a character than an amalgam of signifiers. (Creepy accent + incestuous leanings + evil inherited from one’s forefathers + hints of retardation = your typical Southern Gothic killer!) In the end, our heroes catch the killer without getting to the Root Cause of All Evil, in the process getting some enlightenment themselves. It’s tidy enough. And in True Detective’s defense, it’s the show director Cary Joji Fukunaga said we were getting all along. The disappointing thing is that that’s a much less interesting show than True Detective appeared, at times, to be. That show has been done before, and better.
To anyone who got caught up in the show’s mystery, there’s another thing that lends the finale an air of disappointment: the Internet’s theories and kabbalah-esque literary readings of the show were so much more compelling than what actually happened. Serialized dramas are obviously having a bit of a moment, and there's no shortage of outlets for devoted viewers and critics to dissect the most minute details of a show (or to pursue even the most unlikely story lines to their logical conclusion by reading the tea leaves, so to speak). The theorizing spreads like spores across the Internet, growing into a monster of its own. Forget recaps; we live in the age of the TV precap.
With that in mind, it’s difficult to envision what a “smart” ending to True Detective would have looked like. That the show didn’t reach the same heights set for it, ex-post facto, by its obsessive fans isn't really surprising. If it turned out the killer was some supernatural being, or Rust, the ending wouldn’t have met expectations either. For narrative reasons, the Yellow King was never going to be more than a red herring.
There’s an air of the spurned lover to many of the criticisms of the finale, especially among fans. Any mystery worth its uncertainty will create more narrative possibilities than it could ever account for in the end—that’s why endings are inevitably disappointing: one narrative choice has to be made, to the exclusion of all others. The spell cast by True Detective is seductive, right up until the end, when the spell breaks and you’re reminded that it was just a TV show, after all. Or, as Rust says: “It’s just one story—the oldest.”