Admirers of HBO’s True Detective had been expecting, in advance of its Finale, that Season One would stick its landing. Being a self-contained story arc, the True Detective season had an opportunity to avoid the hazards that beset other prestige dramas, which are conceived without foreseen conclusions and tend to end awkwardly. The results here are equivocal. This eighth and final episode arrives at a worthwhile insight about the nature of stories and the purpose of storytellingbut only once it has honored the same insight in the breach as well as the observance.
The house where lurks our villain, Errol Childress, is a messliterally and figuratively. Trash is everywhere. Equally rife are allusions to predecessor villains. Like Psycho’s Norman Bates, Errol lives in a towering gothic house and conceals a mummified parent, speaking to the corpse as if it were sentient. In the arrangement of Billy Childress’s corpse there is an echo, too, of one of Kevin Spacey’s crime scenes in Se7en. In the hall, Errol watches North by Northwest and mimics the voice of James Mason as Vandamm. Of course he is in a sexual relationship with his dim half-sister, in the tradition of numberless hillbilly villains before him.
These references call back to nothing that preceded them in the series. They answer no questions; they add no interest and no meaning. Being so numerous, they cannot add up to anything.
Errol had been both strange and frightening in his earlier guise as a somewhat-off Tuttle scion, neither claimed by the clan nor wholly disowned, given nominal employment mowing lawns at schools and cemeterieson the margins and overlooked, so finding opportunities for evil.
In Errol the lawnmower man, True Detective seemed to warn against overlooking people on the margins. There seemed to emerge a social version of the series’s epistemological theme (“the detective’s curse,” to focus on the wrong things): People who are pushed out of sight may or may not stay there. As Rust and Marty looked past Errol on his mower, and the 2012 detectives did likewise, and things happened in the Bayou that no one cared to look intoso the socially liminal may destroy us.
This is compelling villainy and proper to True Detective, which is so distinctively about the forgotten and forsaken Louisiana backwoods. Errol embodies all of thisor did. In the Finale, he embodies a jumble of pop references.
A more coherent use of iconography figures Rust as Jesus. Rust descends into hell (the catacombs by the Childress house) and returns to life. As he is revealed in his hospital bed, music swells. He is swathed in white and bathed in lightand finally his long hair and mustache seem justified, thematically if not aesthetically. His final scene is a resurrection scene: With his hospital gown white and loose, he rises from his wheelchair, shedding his shroud. “I don’t even belong here,” he tells Marty. Or, as One mightier put it: “Ye are of this world; I am not of this world.”
The conversation in the final scene immediately struck observers as highly significant. (Slate rushed a transcript of it.) Then the question arose: Had Rust, strident atheist, found God? Certainly he has converted away from his “sentient meat” doctrine (reiterated in this episode) and relatedly from his denial of an afterlife (reiterated in the previous episode). Suddenly, selves and souls are not illusoryand his daughter and his Pop are waiting for him on the other side. Pizzolatto says that Rust has not so much found God as found a form of optimism “purely based on physics.” (Quite how “physics” can teach that the souls of loved ones endure beyond death remains unclear.)
True Detective has not, then, revealed itself to be a Christian or religious series; but insofar as we are interested in whether it is an anti-Christian or anti-religious series, patently it is not. The “anti-Christian” interpretation was always a shallow one. Rust’s nihilism was always undercut, as philosophy, by its transparent psychological motivations. As Pizzolatto says, “he protests too much”that is, Rust never quite believed his own angst. Now his new philosophy and emotional state are marked as positive and transcendent by Christian iconography.
We note, too, an interesting reversal: Now it is Marty who condescends to Rust on these matters. To cheer him up, Marty encourages Rust to recall the stories he used to make up about the starsand viewers will recall Rust’s characterization of religion as the “stories” people tell themselves “just to get through the day.” Marty has adopted Rust’s old patronizing analysis, though with a gentler purpose. For Marty, any consoling interpretation of the cosmos is a pleasant fiction: “The dark has a lot more territory” than the light.
As in previous episodes (but with roles reversed), neither interlocutor may be “right” in this matter, but the smug guy looks more wrong. And so we side with Rust when he delivers his rebuttal: “Once there was only darkness. You ask me, the light’s winning.” This line, and the episode title “Form and Void,” send us back to Genesis 1: “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” (Pizzolatto: “If someone needs a book to read along with Season One of True Detective, I would recommend the King James Old Testament.”) They send us also to the New Testament: “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
As Rust says, everything boils down to “Just one story. The oldest. Light versus dark.” In True Detective there has been much self-consciousness about stories. Characters have been terribly invested in the stories they construct as heuristic or mythic tools, as ways of explaining thingswhether whodunnit or why we are here or where if anywhere we will go after death. Characters have stigmatized others’ stories as unsophisticated or unrighteous or what have you. But when Rust gets his Jesus makeover, the series seems to concede that the story of “Light versus dark” was best told “In the beginning,” and subsequent iterations are noise.
One wishes Pizzolatto had heeded his own insight instead of piling up allusions and backstories in his construction of the Childress house, as if pop-referentiality could make the story. Better late than never, though. Finally Rust and True Detective arrive at this wisdom, that the truest story is the simplest and the oldestindeed the onlystory ever told.
Julia Yost is a Ph.D candidate in English at Yale University.