It’s just one story. The oldest. Light versus dark.
Despite its dark as-outer-space subject matter, True Detective season one is a story about dark and tortured people becoming heroes. This is the first auteur-driven crime drama that’s premiered since the conclusion of Breaking Bad, so it’s notable. Less than a year ago, the Internet was on fire with cries that the golden age of television would end with the tale of Walter White, and that the conclusion of the greatest anti-hero story television could tell would only breed imitations.
We’ve been told that all the best protagonists are villains, that all the heroes of the small screen are punished by a dark world (usually with humiliation and death), that smart television equals nihilistic plus opportunistic when main characters are concerned. What Pizzolatto and his directorial partner have done with this education via anti-hero drama is fantastic, beautiful and intelligent. They have subverted the expectations of what a television protagonist can be in the modern realm of “good TV.”
All of this is to say: get ready for a happy ending, folks.
By the time “Form and Void” begins, we have sat through six hours of dark history, monstrous characters and myth-building and one hour of hoping for salvation from it.
The episode opens on the man with a scar on the bottom of his face, or as our true detectives know him: the spaghetti monster with green ears. He is in a room with the words “Yellow King” written all over the walls. He is speaking to a prisoner who has been chained to a bed. If the captive is good he’ll get water.
It’s the man from the end of the last episode that have Gilbough and Papania directions. He is the Yellow King that Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) have been chasing for seventeen years of darkness.
The King walks about his home shirtless. He affects a British accent and speaks like a mad lecturer, as the woman who lives with him (possibly his sister) asks him why he doesn’t “make flowers” on her anymore. He mourns how long it’s been since he has shown his sign, but gives in to the woman’s advances and fingers her while she tells him about their grandfather.
On the boat where we left them last week, Marty and Rust are interrogating Sheriff Steve Geraci about his involvement in signing off on the Fonteneaux murder. It’s not a torture scene. They show Geraci the horrors that he is responsible for by rolling the video tape of the little girl’s sacrificial death.
Marty has his back turned, staring off the stern of the boat in the same way that Rust stared at the painting of the Yellow Sign in the storage unit the last time we saw the tape roll. It’s a clever and resonant piece of blocking. The repetition underlines that Marty and Rust are on the same page for the first time in their careers. There will be no surprises from here on out about which side of the light versus dark debate they fall on when it comes to action.
Geraci screams when the tape gets to the part that can’t be recreated for television. He confesses to his in action, but blames it on the chain of command. He gives them their final lead: the sheriff of the time changed the Fonteneaux file to read as errant, claiming that it was all fine, his family was involved.
The Yellow King, meanwhile is giving us more privileged information, showing us how he stalks his prey. It’s recess at a parish school, and he is the one painting the building a fresh coat of yellow while staring down a cute little boy.
The detectives will connect those dots soon enough, but first they need to cover their asses. They blackmail Geraci into silence, saying they’ll release the tape as having been found in his possession. Just to make sure he’s cooperative, Rust throws in a seemingly empty threat of a sniper he’s hired to blow him away in the case of things going South.
The thing is: the sniper is real. Rust signals to his employer from the bar he tends and Geraci’s car has some nice new speed-holes punctured into the hood.
Back at the office of Hart Investigative Services, the detectives need to make the one last jump. They look to the past, trying with fresh eyes, to find a new detail in the Dora Lang case from 1995. Marty proves that he has truly made the transformation from bad detective to true detective by focusing on the green ear detail on the spaghetti monster sketch that still seems so absurd.
Almost immediately he finds the detail they missed all those years ago. Dora Lang’s home was painted green, and in a photo from the investigation, the colour looks freshly applied. Rust can’t believe he didn’t see it, but he is still more surprised that the new Marty is actually doing such good work.
On the way to the house in the picture, Marty and Rust have a heart to heart about their breaking point in 2002. It is a long scene that slows the show to a nice speed for reflection. It’s classic True Detective (if you can use that kind of term after only seven and a half albeit densely packed episodes), and it really highlights that even though these guys are on the same page, they are still fundamentally different characters.
Marty is quick to give Rust the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the matter of the affair with his ex-wife, but Cohle defines himself with the mistake that all three parties made. It isn’t a point of argument or contention anymore, it’s just two men, with worldviews, trying to best explain the same event to the other.
The boy who currently lives at the Dora Lang house points them to a retirement home where the old owner now lives and sure enough, the green paint was applied by a man with a scar across the bottom of his face. Rustin “The Taxman” Cohle asks the final question to break the case: did her husband pay his taxes?
The paper trail is direct. They find the name of Billy Childers, the father of the Yellow King, who did work all across the coast (right in line with the pins on Cohle’s map marking missing children). The case is solved, they just need to act out the ending.
Rust sets up a contingency plan with his boss at the bar. He puts the evidence in separate envelopes to be mailed to the right people in the event that he and Marty don’t resurface. The bearded men seal the deal and say goodbye with shots of liquor.
At the same time, Marty sits across from new detective Papania in a diner. Papania tries to warn him not to get involved with Rust, that the man is nuts and probably even the Yellow King. But instead of sounding like a real warning, we see it for what it’s always been: the proclamations of a man looking in the wrong direction. Marty just needs to know that if he calls Papania for help, he’ll come. Sure enough, Marty’s conviction sells it, and the operation is all set to go.
More car talk ensues on the way to the Childers residence. Rust has a synesthetic experience, tasting aluminum and ashes. Marty wants to know if his partner still sees visions, and though many things have changed in Rust, he doesn’t think those images will ever stop.
They pull up to the right house and Rust knows it. There’s no cellphone reception though, so Papania doesn’t get called. Marty takes the house to find a land line, while Rust stays back.
After getting blocked by the woman who lives there (“We got no phone”), Marty loses patience and on Rust’s cue breaks through the door. He searches for anything to make the call with and when he finds the flower lady cowering in the bathroom, who threatens the detective with the Yellow King’s reckoning, he sticks a gun in her face (“Where’s your fucking phone?”)
It’s the new Marty, so he doesn’t let his rage monster claim another victim. We don’t even see the rage chin that’s been so prominently featured throughout the season whenever it’s Woody Harrelson clobberin’ time. The beast within is transformed into whatever makes a lonely man good at his job.
Off screen he finds a phone and makes the Papania call, before going to catch up with Rust. Cohle found the King, and in his pursuit is led through the dark, overgrown catacombs of Carcosa (the real Carcosa this time), adorned with man-sized devil traps that make the underground passages into a weird forest. He follows the voice of the Yellow King into a circular chamber with an opening high up above his head and reality melts away.
It’s as close as anyone hoping for a sci-fi horror conclusion is going to get out of True Detective, which shows masterful restraint in handling its fantastical source material. The walls turn to the depths of outer space and Rust is captivated by a spiraling vortex: a three dimensional depiction of the Yellow Sign he has used to describe his flat-circle of a life.
During this moment of true revelation, Rust is stabbed by the villainous King with a menacing and weirdly affected “Take off your mask.” He headbutts his demented attacker away, but is left on the ground with a knife in his gut, buried to the hilt. Marty shows up just in time to have the Yellow King’s axe thrown into his shoulder, and just as it looks like this is one of those stories where the good guys lose, the spaghetti monster’s head explodes. Rust racks up a headshot, the police raid the house, and we jump to the hospital for an epilogue.
So, what was this show all about? It was a compelling mystery and nightmarish horror story, that’s for sure, but True Detective only used those aspects as a vehicle for a profound display of redemption and a strong argument for hope where optimism seems like a stretch.
Marty is the first to recover, Woody Harrelson putting a shiny button on his amazing season-long performance with this reassurance to his family, who have come to his side despite what he’s done to them. “I’m fine,” Harrelson lies repeatedly as he shows us how heartbreaking it is when a father cries.
Rust has kept his demons too, and when Marty visits him, hiding behind a comical sippy cup, the beaten up philosopher detective admits to having seen the scarred man in 95.
A montage of the various set pieces passes the time for us. Uninhabited spaces, ready for the scenes to be replayed every time the true detectives recount their story. A sweeping shot follows dozens of straight parallel lines drawn by rows of corn, ending in the flat circle where it all began: the tree where antlered and humiliated Dora Lang was found.
The final scene of the season has Marty visiting the wheelchair-bound Rust. He gives his partner a pack of Camels and they go for a friendly push under a night sky. Rustin confides in his friend what he experienced in the halls of Carcosa. He felt his daughter and wife waiting for him. He felt love and transcendence. He weeps. He’s not supposed to be here.
To comfort him, Marty asks Rust to tell him a story about the stars, like the kind he knows Rust used to make up in Alaska. Cohle only sees one story now: light versus dark.
“Dark has a lot more territory,” says Marty, speaking in his own approximation of his partner’s pessimistic language.
But here is where True Detective wins. As Marty agrees to help Rust go AWOL from Lafayette General hospital, the gumshoe in a nursing gown transforms the reality of the show with an inversion. The exploration horror that I praised the show for all season was all encompassing and dark. It was easy to get lost in and filled with the monsters contained inside these characters. By the end, the thing that made True Detective darkest – the potential that Rust and Marty were truly bad people – became the very aspect that put the bright stars of Pizzolatto and Fukunaga’s night sky.
True Detective is a triumph of genre storytelling because it doesn’t care about dark twists and turns as much as it cares about liberating its troubling and problematic central characters from the history that has trapped them in a metaphysical and moral void.
The exchange of the season says it all:
“You’re looking at it wrong, the sky thing,” mumbles McConaughey.
“Well, once there was only dark. And, you ask me: the light’s winning.”