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Was TRUE DETECTIVE The Next Great Horror Show? Who Cares?

Editor’s note: This article contains minor spoilers for the finale of True Detective.

A few weeks back I posed the question on Nerdist.com “Is True Detective the Next Great Horror Show?” In that article, written right after Episode 2, I discussed the tone of the series in the first few episodes and explored the mythos of Robert W. Chambers’ The King In Yellow, an anthology of short stories that if you watched Season 1 or if you have the internet, I’m sure you’re all too familiar with at this point.

As I write weeks later having discussed the show at length with friends and even tried to convert a few new viewers (how apropos!) I struggle to really answer the question: “Is True Detective the Next Great Horror Show?” Well, yes and no, but in the end, it really doesn’t seem to matter, does it?

What we learned during last night’s finale, which was in such high demand that it crashed HBO GO, is that ultimately, this wasn’t a story of good triumphing over evil or writing the big wrongs of the universe, it was about two guys. That’s it. No more, no less.

“Two guys?!” you’ll say. “But! But! The Yellow King and Maggie and Marty’s daughter and Rust’s dad! We never answered all the questions!” I hear you yelling at your computer. Yeah, and just like life – real life – we never will.

I had said from the beginning that this was the first time I had been disappointed that I couldn’t have access to all eight episodes at once a la the Netflix binge-watch model. The reason was not because I was impatient and wanted it all right now, but because I couldn’t figure out what story show creator Nic Pizzolatto was telling. There are serious horror elements that speak to my taste as a genre nut. There are clues and references that call for an active viewing experience, which was perfect fodder for the obsessive nature of the internet. There is an element of exposing some of the south (where I’m from) for its mistreatment of people in lower classes and its willingness to sweep dirt that could incriminate the religious and powerful under the rug. The show wasn’t afraid to create a systematic villain – whether it’s organized religion or the government — but it’s not an overtly political show. I found myself telling a friend, “I just need to watch the finale so I can go back and watch it all again knowing what kind of show I’m watching,” which for some reason made sense to him. But every scene, every glance, every inflection could be interpreted a multitude of ways and that’s what it comes down to. The fun of True Detective’s Season One is also ultimately what the show was about: the intensely rich and beautifully textured characters.

Pizzolatto had said in previous interviews that “the show isn’t trying to outsmart you” and that Rust and Marty aren’t the anti-heroes you’ve been seeing on cable lately. He told The Daily Beast, “I think they’re both actually heroic in the sense that they’re not corrupt men… They’re honest cops. There are moments throughout the series where they could let the case go, but they don’t. So they may not be moral exemplars, but I do think they’re heroes.”

So what does that all mean? If the show isn’t trying to outsmart me or Keyser Söze my ass, what IS it trying to do? At the end of the day, True Detective was this: whatever you wanted it to be.

For the first time in a long time, a series let the viewer decide. I think how you saw this show is mostly based on what you, as a viewer, brought to the table. People who watch my True Detective chat show know that I would not give up the idea of Marty being involved with these murders. It sounds a bit far-fetched, sure, but I just couldn’t trust him. Even in the end, when he and Rust were talking outside the hospital, part of me was waiting for him to shank Rust because he had been evil the whole time. I know that sounds silly and it’s not my own ego coming forth because I simply had to be right. But I’m sure that somewhere down the line, a smooth, smart, charming womanizer got under my skin and I’ve never let it go and I brought that to my viewing experience. I’m sure there are people who got hung up on Maggie or Hart’s mistress or Cohle or the two detectives, Gilbough and Papania, who were interrogating them for whatever reason that they bring to the table.

And then, the ending. They live. It’s kind of like when The Grandson finds out that Prince Humperdinck lives in The Princess Bride.

Who gets Humperdinck?

I don’t understand.

Who gets Prince Humperdinck? At the end! Someone’s gotta do it. Is it Inigo? Who?!

Nobody. Nobody gets him. He lives.

You mean he WINS?! Jesus, Grandpa, what did you read me this thing for?!

It’s a hard lesson that The Grandson in both the movie and the outstanding novel (go pick up a copy – seriously, it’s like an extended cut of the movie IN YOUR MIND!) has to learn at a young age. And it’s something that we had to learn last night on True Detective too. Rust and Marty make it. Errol William Childress, the “Spaghetti Monster,” does not. The Tuttles get away with it. Someone else will wear The Yellow King’s crown because The Yellow King could be anybody. It’s all kind of frustrating.

But for those who realize that the stakes of season one were a soul, that of Rustin Cohle, and that soul was rescued from The Yellow King’s grasp and was brought back from the brink of Carcosa, they should find themselves satisfied. For those who knew that Marty Hart was a good man somewhere inside, they find him reunited with his family. And then, as Cohle so tragically expressed, they have to go on living. With the knowledge of what evil exists out in the world and what they themselves are capable of, for better or worse. It’s very Buffy “Once More With Feeling,” isn’t it?

In this case, I don’t find myself sold a false bill of goods. I could see how some might call foul but those who do, aren’t paying attention. Marty says early on, “You don’t pick your parents and you don’t pick your partner.” When it comes down to it, they’re talking about family. And that’s what Season One was about. Family. A broken family like Marty’s, a corrupt literal and systematic family like The Tuttles, a departed family like Rust’s and a monstrous family like The Childress clan. My hat is off to the entire cast and crew of True Detective for giving something I didn’t expect.

What did you think of True Detective and its finale? Let us know in the comments below.

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9 comments

  • We did see The Yellow King in the final room, it was a sculpture made of human bones and deer parts. To whoever they brought in there dosed on LSD and meth it may have appeared as a living creature. Really though it was a disgusting and twisted piece of artwork made by a hillbilly scumbag (or scumbags).

    Does anyone know why Childress spoke with a weird accent like he was an aristocrat? (I know the obvious joke there)

  • It was exactly as gothic and supernatural as it deserved, that is to say, not really at all. We live in a world of dark and scary monsters, and sometimes, the guys in white hats have to get a little gray to slay them. The story reminded me so very much of “Red Dragon”, with the monster slain, but not without horrific damage to the hero. I loved “Red Dragon”, and I loved “True Detective” too.

  • I loved the finale and True Detective in general. I think if more people read the interviews that Pizzolatto gave about the show, they would understand the finale more. The acting, writing, setting, it all blew me away. Even though this setup was only meant for one season, I could’ve personally watched at least another whole season done this way!

  • It was a horror story. And a police procedural, and a hard-baked noir, and a buddy story, and and and…. That was what made it so appealing. Sure, it had its flaws, but I’ve never seen a TV show turn into a cultural phenomenon on that scale in such a short period of time.

    For what it’s worth, here is my still-sorting-out-my-thoughts review after watching last night’s finale:

    http://michaelmhughes.com/wordpress/true-detective-season-one-finale-review/

  • I was too invested in them finding the man with scars in a surprise,”holy shit” ending that I didn’t believe it was him at the end of the last episode. Why show him before the end of the season? That’s going to take the wind out of the suspense. That can’t be him. Then as this episode went on, well, I guess that IS him. Huh. So…what the hell? Now we know it’s him and we’re just waiting around for the detectives to find him and get him. Booooriiing. I was expecting way more than that. BUT we see afterwards it’s not really about that, it’s about the two guys and through them and the story, about us and life and nature. It was an unexpected unfolding and pretty cool. I really hope the whole Yellow King and extended family turns out to be quite bigger than just the south and the next season and each season after will see different detectives throughout maybe the world uncovering their little piece of this group and maybe a crazy, giant finale at the very end of the series that pulls all the seasons together and then we finally see THE Yellow King. But maybe not.

  • Pizzolatto said they were “honest cops”? Let’s look at some key events. First, the “Mogadishu” episode (#4) was an off-book operation that caused a whole community to erupt in chaos, with many people seriously injured or died. Second, covering up the emotionally clouded killing of suspects vital to solving the case, and allowing more horrible crimes to slip by as a result. The overall story was interesting, but not worth breaking the internet for.