Your theories were wrong. Well, probably.
HBO’s latest opus of small screen cinema, the Nic Pizzolatto-created, Cary Fukunaga-directed, and Matthew McConaughey- and Woody-Harrelson-starring True Detective, ended its first season last night (unless you were trying to watch the season finale on HBO GO, in which case you might still be watching the flat circle of time known as the loading screen endlessly unspool) and after eight weeks of obsessive viewing, the first season finale is already the subject of intense hyperbole.
The final episode, “Form and Void,” is less than a day old, and it’s already fiercely divisive – it was either the best possible ending or a tremendous letdown. The truth is, of course, somewhere in the middle – though that doesn’t mean that True Detective is not, on a whole, great entertainment. And although True Detective is the kind of often dense programming that benefits from closer reading and a few outside sources (“The Yellow King” post over at io9 remains essential), it’s also the kind that has suffered at the hand of relentless fan theorizing – because it’s those people who are most let down by its final conclusions.
Fan-crafted theorizing is fun enough – it’s a solid way to keep up audience engagement over a show’s run and even inject excitement into series that might be flailing on its own (see: that horrifying “dead mother” theory that’s been circulating amongst How I Met Your Mother fans, which is either entirely insane or decidedly brilliant) – but it can be troublesome when an audience becomes too obsessed with the possibilities and suddenly feels that the show is somehow beholden to them.
Basically, it’s easy to forget that most theories are fictions and are moot as they apply to the series in question. The kind of shows that kick up such rabid theorizing are often the ones that have a very specific endgame in mind (again, How I Met Your Mother is a prime example, Mad Men is also a fine one), and no matter how clever and meticulously crafted said theories are, they are not likely to influence the final result on the actual show.
True Detective is maybe even the best example of this – essentially a mini-series, the one-off storyline was never going to be influenced by even the best theories. This thing existed wholesale before anyone even saw it. And yet, it was also meant to be enjoyed over time (eight weeks, really) by its viewership, and told in such a niftily unfolding way that it all but begged for fans to start wondering what was going to happen. The problem is, too many people got attached to their fictions too soon.
Most theories centered on discovering who The Yellow King was (fair enough, as the central mystery of the series was about unmasking the villain), followed by a series of ideas as to who the so-called Five Horsemen were, along with a bevy of theories regarding the possible involvement of other characters on the show (a particularly well-conceived theory imagined that Michelle Monaghan’s character, Maggie Hart, and the rest of her family was far more central than she finally proved to be in “Form and Void”). Early on, theorists posited that either Marty or Rust was actually The Yellow King (the majority of theories held that Rust was the baddie – and his years-long drop off the grid sure didn’t help matters), but that was a theory that was debunked nearly as quickly as it started to gain traction.
In fact, most of the big mysteries of True Detective were pulled apart early on, and all of the pieces were in place for last night’s finale.
Even Pizzolatto himself seems a bit surprised by the influx of fan theories, telling BuzzFeed’s Kate Aurthur last week that he was always about concrete plans and the path of Rust and Marty, not twisted and convoluted theories. He told Aurthur:
“Going into the final episode, I wanted to end any audience theorizing that Cohle or Hart was the killer, and also provide a concrete face to the abstract evil they’re chasing. So, wild speculations aside, we showed the killer’s face in Episode 1. Though we know that as this ‘third man,’ whose face was scarred by his father, Errol is himself a revenant of great historical evil. There’s enough fragmentary history in Episode 7 that, like Hemingway’s iceberg, what is obscured can be discerned by what is visible. We have further context and dimension to explore with the killer, but the true questions now are whether Cohle and Hart succeed, what they will find, and whether they’ll make it out alive.”
For Pizzolatto, who created the show, it was always about Rust and Marty. He also shared, “The story was entirely planned around them reuniting to try and resolve this serial murderer case. I don’t really think either man sees it as a personal resolution, because neither one believes in resolution. I believe they recognize it as their duty, and as perhaps the only thing they’re good for.”
Moreover, Pizzolatto balks at the idea that a “twist” would reveal one of the guys as the baddie, saying “It was a little surprising, but not frustrating at all, just part of the experience of having people connect to the show. The possibility is built into the story, as it has to be credible that the 2012 PD suspect Cohle. I just thought that such a revelation would be terrible, obvious writing. For me, the worst writing generally just ‘flips’ things: this person’s really a traitor; it was all a dream; etc. Nothing is so ruinous as a forced ‘twist,’ I think.”
No twists were to be found in “Form and Void,” though plenty was left obscured, the sort of “conclusion” that might drive hardcore theorists insane (tie it all up!) but is actually more believable (and, conversely, more satisfying). The Yellow King was indeed Errol, the lawnmower-riding weirdo who has long lurked on the edges of the story. The Five Horsemen were vaguely referred to – some cast as assorted criminal and pedophiles, though none were named and the possibility that we “know” them remains high – refusing to put too fine a point on the end of the case. Maggie was vague at the end of the episode, with Monaghan standing slack-jawed and empty-eyed next to Marty’s hospital bed, either in shock at the situation or attempting to mask some deeper revelations (this scene should keep theorists chugging along for awhile, and that’s still kind of cool).
Even Senator Tuttle (a persistent presence of probable evil) was seemingly absolved of any involvement (via a voiceover newscast, of all things! the cruelty and the honesty of it all!), though any kind of DNA testing could and would change that rapidly.
Instead, what True Detective went for with its finale was a believable conclusion to the case that Marty and Rust have pursued for nearly two decades — they found the murderer — and a satisfying reunion of the duo, once ripped apart by personal and professional clashes. True Detective was never going to end with the dismantling of the state of Louisiana (because, let’s face it, the state as it’s portrayed in the series is pretty well gone), the wholesale victory of Rust and Marty, and the summation of everyone’s favorite theories.
The darkness was never going to be fully destroyed, it was only going to be pushed back a little. Or, as Rust tells us at the end of the final episode, “Well, once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.” The light of True Detective didn’t win as the first season concluded, but it started to win, and that’s a great place to begin.