How the 'True Detective' Finale Demonstrated That It's Great Small-Screen Cinema, But Lousy Literary TV
Even putting aside all the theories that didn’t come to fruition in the season finale of True Detective — and the expectations borne from them — there still has to be some lingering disappointment with the straightforwardness of the ending. As Rust Cohle noted in the coda, it’s all about lightness and dark, and that’s essentially what it came down to in the series: A very black and white, good guy vs. bad guy ending, and as if to reiterate who the good guys were, Marty Hart’s doting family — with whom he hasn’t had any real contact in two years — visited him in the hospital to show him support, lending even more credibility to the arguments about the thinness of the female characters all season long. Yes, it turns out, they were ornamentation: Boobs and pink panties and sexual conquests and doormats with which the ultimate male heroes could step upon and exploit.
But that’s not my biggest disappointment with the True Detective finale. My chief argument against the series was that it simply wasn’t literary enough.
Anton Chekhov was a major proponent of the economy of storytelling, which is to say: An author should not introduce elements into a story that are not necessary to it. Once Nic Pizzolatto introduced Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow, many of us had it in our minds that True Detective was more than simply two outstanding performances set against the backdrop a mystery. The King in Yellow invited literary comparisons, and once you invite those into the equation, it seems to me that you should be held to the standard of a great, efficient storyteller.
Pizzolatto didn’t meet that bar because much of what Pizzolatto introduced into his story wasn’t picked up again. Why, for instance, introduce Maggie’s father? Why include telltale signs of sexual abuse in Audrey? Why make such a huge deal out of the Yellow King? Why introduce the mystery behind the people who murdered Reverend Tuttle? Why include Rust Cohle’s hallucinations? Why were so many other details introduced and then never picked up again?
That is literary inefficiency, and while it’s easier to understand in the context of a longer season in the midst of a longer series where it’s often necessary to pad out the episodes, and where showrunners are often forced by more demanding production schedules to wing it along the way, Pizzolatto had only eight episodes to write and the ability to plan out the entire season in advance. The irony, of course, is that he still had all the ingredients necessary to create a more compelling ending, and yet he still he chose to stick with the simpler, “There’s a Monster in the End” storyline. It’s a shame, too, because Pizzolatto obviously has a deep understanding of literature, and yet he chose the television ending over the literary one. Unfortunately, it seems, he knows how to introduce literary allusions, but he doesn’t show us he knows how to utilize them.
Ultimately, the first season of True Detective works neither as great literary television, nor even as a great mystery. After seven and a half episodes and 17 years of investigating the same case, it’s something as random as the color of a painted house — something never introduced into the story before — that allowed Cohle and Hart to crack the case, only to spend the next 25 minutes engaged in a conventional manhunt that ended like so many movie and television shows do: In a trite, violent confrontation with a boogeyman that resulted in serious injuries but no deaths. It was noir with a fairly happy ending, one that saw Rust Cohle finally conquer his inner demons and feel something again. It was not entirely ineffective on an emotional level, but from an intellectual standpoint, True Detective fell short.
Still, while True Detective fails as great literary television, it nevertheless succeeds in fine cinematic TV, buoyed by remarkable performances from its two leads, outstanding direction, nice set pieces, and well-staged fight sequences. No doubt True Detective works very well as an eight-hour movie, albeit one with an anticlimactic ending, but many of us expected more. We expected the production values and talent we see in film, and the kind of mind behind it that we associate with great literature. Maybe television simply hasn’t evolved to that stage yet, which is a shame because it’s clear based on the reception and expectations of True Detective that we’re ready for it. Viewers not only want to be wowed by what they see on screen, but challenged by richer, more complicated and layered storytelling. The audience threw down the gauntlet, but the only thing Pizzolato could think to do with it was to use it to bludgeon the villain to death. In the end, True Detective was only surface deep, but a mighty shiny surface it was.