The nation's desire to watch the final episode of "True Detective's" first season was so great that HBO's online streaming service, HBO Go, crashed on Sunday night. But those who did tune in to watch Louisiana detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) close in on a serial killer may have been disappointed. As Slate's Willa Paskin explains, "finales are under insane, constricting amounts of pressure in the Internet age, with thousands and thousands of people paying incredibly close attention to every single aspect of a show, hypothesizing en masse." While there are the rare finales that live up to expectations, television critics were generally disappointed by the show's inconsistent writing, its inability to wrap up loose ends and the clichéd ending that left the philosophical Rust finding God (or was it physics?).
To HitFix's Alan Sepinwall, the most interesting aspect of the series was the relationship between Cohle and Hart, not the serial killer, which left him disappointed about the sudden shift during the finale:
I entered the finale not really caring about whether Errol the Spaghetti Monster was also the Yellow King, whether Audrey Hart's doll crime scene tableaux would somehow tie into the case, whether Marty's father-in-law would somehow be part of the conspiracy, etc. I had no pet theories about the case; I cared much more that the story of Rust and Marty come to a satisfying conclusion than that the case they were investigating did. So the fact that this sprawling, complex investigation all boiled down to Errol Childress as a bogeyman in a really large haunted house — the overgrown Childress estate as the lost city of Carcosa — pursuing and being pursued by our heroes didn't really wreck things for me, because it was followed by a length epilogue that brought the show back to its focus on these two men and the ways they've been changed by the years and this case (and by the ways they haven't).
At the same time, because I cared so much more for the men than the story, the fact that so much of the finale dealt with a bogeyman in a haunted house was disappointing. Not enough to reduce my feelings about the season as a whole, but enough to remind me of some of the show's flaws, and to make me wish that somehow Pizzolatto had constructed the entire thing as a story being told in those interview rooms by Cohle and Hart. As was the case throughout these eight episodes, [director] Cary Fukunaga did beautiful, darkly original work shooting the Carcosa sequence — the way, for instance, Cohle's hallucinations returned at the absolute worst moment — so that it never felt exactly like a rehash of the denouement of every serial killer movie ever made. But it still felt more simplistic and formulaic than previous episodes had suggested. After the fact, Rust and Marty talk about how they didn't get all the members of the conspiracy, and the TV news reports suggest that the Tuttles have already shut down any attempts to connect them with the Childresses, but in the moment, a show that had been so very complex and strange so often boiled down to unkillable Rust Cohle in battle with the superhumanly strong monster Errol Childress.
In the Atlantic, Amy Sullivan summed up all the frustrating questions that went unanswered:
- So all that stuff with Marty’s daughter Audrey was just … coincidence? Or a red herring? A way of suggesting that there’s capital-E Evil like whatever went down at Carcosa but also run-of-the-mill perversion that harms kids all the time? Then why have her set up those figurines in precisely that way?
- We’re supposed to believe that Dora Lange was not just one of Errol’s victims, but was taught about someone called the Yellow King and read passages from Robert Chambers’s The King in Yellow? That’s some pretty involved mythology swirling around that ended up being essentially irrelevant to the case’s resolution.
- Was that tangent involving former CID colleague Steve Geraci important in any way to solving the case? Please tell me it wasn’t there just for the cynical purpose of having a character insist he was just doing his job, “chain of command,” blahedy-blah.
- So Rust was depressed and possibly prepared for suicide as he entered this final showdown. But now, despite the heartbreak of feeling he was denied a spiritual reunion with his daughter, despite the guilt of knowing he ran across the killer 17 years ago and that an untold number of victims died since then, now things are different and he can live with himself. Because…?
I vowed to watch the finale as a fan, not as someone trying to figure it all out. But even as a fan, I still found these dangling threads and implausibilities frustrating because the show practically begged us to get into the weeds, to wade into swampy waters. That’s okay if it winds up giving viewers some extra insight. But it’s another thing entirely if the show is just messing with us.
Willa Paskin voiced her frustrations at the emotional holes left by the finale, while David Haglund explained why he was generally comfortable with the wrap-up, in Slate:
Haglund: “Quite some time I’m gonna be thinking about you, Rust.” The corrupt sheriff Steve Geraci (Michael Harney) didn’t intend that line, one of my favorites from tonight’s finale, “Form and Void,” the way I do: He intends it as a threat. I think of it as my primary response to True Detective, and especially this episode. A lot of plot questions went more or less unanswered, which will bother some people, I’m sure. What was the nature of the conspiracy? Just how were the Tuttles involved? Who was the Yellow King?
But the show answered the questions it needed to, both in terms of the storyline and, especially, with regard to its two central characters. In the end, this series really was more about them—particularly Rust—than it was about the wheels-within-wheels murder mystery that propelled the narrative. Quite some time I’m gonna be thinking about him. What are you thinking about?
Paskin: But I am a little in awe of how totally snookered we all were. Boy, did we overthink this thing! The Internet’s theories about the case were so much more ingenious and captivating than what happened in tonight’s episode. They so much more neatly and plausibly tied up loose ends that the finale had no interest in. Maggie’s father-in-law, Audrey, even the Yellow King—not really relevant! Instead, we got a mansion out of Grey Gardens-meets-Deliverance deposited next to the largest catacomb this side of Europe. (Can you build that deep in the bayou? Or doesn’t the water come up? Or was the whole thing constructed just so Rust and Marty could stare up at a flat circle?) Also, it finally happened: Someone made Cary Grant super creepy.
Worse was the last character beat. I think maybe True Detective ended with Rust Cohle finding God? Talk me off the ledge.
None of these questions seemed to bother the A.V. Club's Erik Adams, however, who gave the finale high marks (an A-):
But what I really love about “Form And Void” is that it doesn’t matter who The Yellow King was or how he was discovered. It’s not some unseen force that steps forward in the final minutes; it’s not any of the too obvious suspects bandied about in the various True Detective theories. His identity comes out in the most mundane manner, a discovery made because Marty’s brain makes the right connection at the right time. The key that unlocks True Detective season one is a shade of paint. Turns out Marty was right about that detective’s curse: The solution was under the investigators’ noses (and all over the killer’s ears) this whole time.
To me, this speaks volumes to the True Detective mania surrounding this first season, an Easter-egg hunt that exceeds anything that Nic Pizzolatto could’ve considered when he pitched his series to HBO. (He spent the days leading up to the finale letting people know he didn’t consider a lot of the wilder theories about the series, either, purposely placing Papania and Gilbough’s encounter with Errol at the end of episode seven “to end any audience theorizing that Cohle or Hart was the killer.”) It’s fun to speculate, so long as the speculation doesn’t overshadow its source—because all these clues, all this evidence, they don’t mean jack. By the letter of the law, the Marie Fontenot tape and the reams of information Hart and Cohle compiled will help the survivors move on. But to the viewer and the characters, the most intense, trivial aspects of the investigation are the closest True Detective comes to having an equivalent to the play in The King In Yellow. They’re little details that draw us in deeper and deeper until all we can think or talk about comes out like the babbling of someone obsessed with the geography of Carcosa or the lineage of its monarchy.