True Disappointment

10Mar14

Like many HBO viewers, I was excited for last night’s finale of True Detective. I found much of the season compelling and captivating television, creating a stylized sense of place, a foreboding mystery, innovative narrative techniques, and two engaging characters played by masterful screen actors. I am enthusiastic about the hybrid form of the serial anthology, with short seasons each telling a stand-alone story under a shared creative banner. However, nine hours before the finale aired, I tweeted the following:

jmittell
Trying to think of a season finale with as much weight as #TrueDetective has. The resolution could make season anything from OK to perfect.
3/9/14 12:02 PM

I did not mean to suggest that a bad finale would make the series bad, as nothing can retroactively invalidate the enjoyment found in watching previous episodes. However, a finale can invalidate certain open-ended issues about which a serial demands we withhold judgment until they are resolved—thus for Battlestar Galactica, a problematic finale takes little away from the entire series for me, but it does make the final season’s plotlines and Starbuck’s character arc seem weaker and more disappointing. In large part because it was designed as a single authored miniseries, True Detective had an unusually large number of these open-ended issues waiting to be resolved or confirmed in the finale. And I found pretty much every choice that the finale made disappointing enough to undo most of the good will I had granted it for the previous seven episodes—and infuriating enough to fuel an insomniac twitter rant last night. Spoilery fleshing out of that rant beneath the fold.

First and foremost, True Detective took the least interesting option to resolve the murder plot. The buildup was steeped in mystery and ambiguity, buttressed with literary allusions to supernatural and metafictional possibilities, suggesting grand conspiracies and larger powers at play. All of the momentum focused on larger evils, whether mystical, religious, or bureaucratic. But in the end, it’s just a crazy guy. And not only a crazy guy, but one with all the worst southern inbred stereotypes imaginable to forge a hackneyed stock character commonplace to the serial killer genre.

Yes, there was a larger familial conspiracy at play, but ultimately it was completely incoherent how all the pieces connected: how Dora Lange became part of this cult and then was murdered, how it all related (or didn’t) with the Tuttle churches, what it had to do with the Carcosa mythology, and most importantly, how crazy Erroll would be some sort of leader within this high-powered mystical cult to-be-named-later. If you give your protagonist a storage locker as a 3D conspiracy corkboard to connect the dots, you either owe your audience some sense of those connections, or you need to make the lack of coherence a relevant thematic storytelling element. Or maybe a Chinatown-like sense of impotency in the face of such engrained power. You can’t just distract us with creepy mazes of wooden craftwork and a clichéd axe fight, and then call it Case Closed. To be clear, I was not invested in any particular theories about the mystery. I just wanted there to be “mystery,” a sense of something bigger than what we got.

Or as an anonymous Wikipedian aptly summarized the finale: True Detective wikipedia

Second, the series was frequently critiqued for how it constructed flat female and African-American characters in orbit around the two tortured white men at the center—see Emily Nussbaum for the best such analysis I’ve read. In the responses to Emily’s piece, many fans and critics countered that the series was actually about that marginalization, critiquing the assumed centrality of the white male detective by making them so broken, so rejected, so decentered in their own lives. Well… the finale put them back into the narrative center, redeeming both characters through their heroic violence and lone-wolf detective work. The incredulous capper for me was when both the two black detectives and Marty’s ex-wife and estranged daughters all visit him in the hospital to tip their hats, make amends, and redeem his white male glory. Really?

Creator Nic Pizzolatto made claims about his goal being to upend the conventions of the television detective drama, but I saw the finale as a retreat to cliché and convention. In the end, the finale allowed True Detective to proclaim what it is ultimately about: two white guys finding redemption via a hackneyed serial killer mystery, gussied up by fine acting, well-crafted dialogue, a clever narrative device (which was sorely missed in the finale), and compelling visuals. That’s not enough for me, but maybe it is for you.

But since True Detective concluded with an optimistic note, let me offer my own point of light in the darkness: if you want to see a compelling character study of two broken men bonded by murder & darkness, shot with innovative visual style and told via layered sophisticated dialogue, you should be watching Hannibal.

Update: Just one additional note and some links to exemplary writings on the finale.

If you’re going to read anything about True Detective, my recommendation is Lili Loofbourow’s piece “Marty, the Monster.” Just a stunning work of criticism. Other critical takedowns worth checking out are from Alyssa Rosenberg and Emily Nussbaum.

The most impassioned defense of the series comes from Film Crit Hulk, who dismisses the types of critiques that I and others have made by saying that the show is ultimately not about these issues of plot or social issues, but thematic depth. Perhaps that was its intent, but I never found the show’s metaphysical ruminations all that interesting – it struck me as shallow dime-store philosophy that served to illustrate Cohle’s arrogance and emotional detachment rather than anything deeper. If you find that the eight hours add up to some significant meaning, good for you; but for me and other detractors, the meanings & style were not rich enough to redeem what ended up being sloppy and problematic plotting and representations.

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4 Responses to “True Disappointment”

  1. 1 mary

    Agree. Around Episode 4 I started thinking this was just another detective show. And it was. But with really great camera work that made everyone think that the cheesiness of the dialogue, with all of Rust’s speeches and all the uncharacteristically articulate diction of every single lowlife they ran into, was meant to be intentional, metafictional and profound. If the show had been better written no one would have thought it was groundbreaking.

  2. 2 Tom P

    While I understand and appreciate that some are disappointed in the finale of True Detective, I came away with a strong sense of satisfaction rather than disappointment. In my view, the story was always about the relationship between Hart and Cohle, two cops who ultimatey rise above their deep flaws as human beings to team up against evil and journey into the heart of darkness, thus saving each other’s life and soul. Cliched? Perhaps, but as Cohle suggests in the last episode, the story of light versus dark is the oldest story out there. The basic conventions of the television police procedural has been done over and over again tracing all the way back to Dragnet in the early ’50’s. It’s hard to imagine what could be truly groundbreaking in this genre. However, True Detective’s fine acting, well crafted dialogue and stunning cinematic visuals are nothing to dismissed. I suppose it comes down to expectations, and this series certainly exceeded mine in telling a very old story through a very familiar genre.


  1. 1 Lieberman, No Lie | “True Detective”: Flat Circles, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose
  2. 2 ‘True Detective’: el jarrón y el vacío | Diamantes en serie

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