Summing up HBO’s True Detective is not easy. It feels like eight months have gone by since I wrote my io9 article about the show’s literary allusions, not just a little over three weeks. In that time I’ve been caught up in a maelstrom of press, correspondence, and interviews—so much so that it has been difficult to work on my own writing. I’ve been living in Nic Pizzolatto’s densely layered world, which has blown up into an unprecedented cultural phenomenon. At times I almost seriously considered that that the show was a malign carrier wave for Robert W. Chambers’s The King in Yellow, driving its viewers into deep, recursive spirals as they teased apart anagrams, symbolism, and concocted outlandish theories (the show is a metaphor for the Vietnam war or the character of the King in Yellow is somehow related to Conway Twitty—just two off the top of my head).
And last night it all came to an end, with more false-ending fades-to-black than Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King. (Well, maybe not more—I didn’t really count. But it was close.)
So, obviously—spoilers ahead.
I haven’t read any reviews yet, because I want to sort this all out on my own after I gave it time to settle. My guess is that many viewers will be unsatisfied, particularly those who were hoping for some sort of colossal mindfuck or complex plot contrivance—Maggie being revealed as the King in Yellow, or Hart or Cohle turning out to be a member of the cult, or some other Twilight Zone-ish surprise. I realized early on that was not going to be the case, as the trajectory was pretty clear from the start—two antihero detectives facing their own failings as they were put to the ultimate test against a high-society cult and a human (but very Lovecraftian) monster. And ultimately, that’s what it came to, in the subterranean, corpse-riddled Hell of Carcosa.
In the end, it turned out to be something I wasn’t at all expecting: a story of redemption.
Something unexpected happened to our nihilistic, Nietzsche-spouting, functionally drunk ex-cop. It happened when he was in Carcosa, after he got a look at the incursion of pure cosmic horror in the vision of a spiral cloud pouring in through the oculus above. The oculus goes back to Neolithic times, and is often associated with a spiral. It is thought to represent the eyes of a god (or God). In this case, I think we can assume the god is one that would be more familiar to readers of Lovecraft than one drawn from classical mythology.
Viewers who look at this as “just another of Cohle’s hallucinations” are missing the point. This isn’t a fabrication of a drug addled mind, it’s a full-on experience of reality with what Aldous Huxley called the “reducing valve” of consciousness turned completely off. Cohle has met the literalization of the cold, dark, meaningless void. He is confronted by the dweller in the abyss, what occultist Aleister Crowley, in his Confessions, called Choronzon:
“The name of the Dweller in the Abyss is Choronzon, but he is not really an individual. The Abyss is empty of being; it is filled with all possible forms, each equally inane, each therefore evil in the only true sense of the word—that is, meaningless but malignant, in so far as it craves to become real. These forms swirl senselessly into haphazard heaps like dust devils, and each such chance aggregation asserts itself to be an individual and shrieks, “I am I!” though aware all the time that its elements have no true bond; so that the slightest disturbance dissipates the delusion just as a horseman, meeting a dust devil, brings it in showers of sand to the earth.”
And then, a knife wound carved deep in his gut, Cohle begins to die.
But he doesn’t die. And this is where the show surprised the hell out of me.
We find out, in the closing sequence outside the hospital, that Cohle had what is clearly a classical near-death experience (NDE). “Ah, I shouldn’t even fucking be here, Marty,” he says, smoking a Camel in a wheelchair outside of the hospital. And then:
“There was a moment—I know when I was under, in the dark, that something . . . whatever I’d been reduced to, you know, not even consciousness. It was a vague awareness in the dark, and I could—I could feel my definitions fading. And beneath that . . . darkness there was another kind. It was—it was deeper, warm, you know, like a substance. I could feel, man, and I knew my daughter waited for me there. So clear. I could feel her. I could feel . . . I could feel a piece of my pop, too. It was like I was a part of everything that I ever loved, and we were all, the three of us just—just fadin’ out. And all I had to do was let go. And I did. I said, ‘darkness, yeah, yeah.’ And I disappeared.
“But I could—I could still feel her love there, even more than before. There was nothing but that love.” He begins sobbing. “Then I woke up.”
Like many people who have had NDEs, the world they return to seems so much less real than where they believed they were going. I shouldn’t be here. I should be there. But I came back.
It is a testament to McConaughey’s bravura performance that he can pull off such an abrupt and believable transformation. This from the same character whose pessimism and nihilism ran so deep he said, “I think the honorable thing for our species to do is to deny our programming. Stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction—one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.” And after his return from death he’s relating an experience so deeply personal—and unimstakably real—that he sounds like he stepped out of Raymond Moody’s classic collection of NDEs, Life After Life. I’d even dare to call it a spiritual confession. But then he goes even further, explaining what he has been thinking while staring at his hospital window into the starry sky. It is one of my favorites sequences in the entire series.
Cohle is sitting up in his hospital bed, bloodied, bruised, and wide-eyed. The camera moves toward him, and suddenly we were seeing through his eyes as he stares out the window through his reflection at the starry sky. He is literally transcending himself.
“I’ll tell you Marty I’ve been up in that room looking out those windows every night here and just thinking . . . It’s just one story. The oldest.”
“What’s that?” Marty asks.
“Light versus dark.”
Marty replies with a very Cohle-like response: “Well . . . it appears to me like the dark has a whole lot more territory.”
To which Rust, shaking his head, replies, “Yeah. You’re right about that.” But something has clearly changed in him—this is Rust Cohle who has descended into the depths of Carcosa and returned a far different man. As Marty is holding him up and helping him walk away from the hospital, he says, “You know, you’re looking at it wrong, the . . . the sky thing.”
“How is that?” Marty asks.
“Once there was only dark,” Cohle says, looking up at the sky as he hobbles along in pain. “If you ask me, the light’s winning.”
For a show that turned off a lot of viewers and critics because of its relentless, Ligottian darkness (including this newspaper columnist I debated), it ended with a serious affirmation of the human spirit in its eternal (flat circle) struggle against the darkest, most horrific elements of our nature. Cohle comes to see that love is the glue that binds us all together, and that love is eternal and elemental—the evolutionary creative force that burns in the hearts of stars and pushes every sentient being to struggle against entropy and chaos. I found it interesting that the True Detective finale—entitled (with obvious biblical and cosmological allusions) Form and Void—was competing in its time slot against the rebooted Cosmos with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, a show aimed at evoking the sheer wonder of the cosmos (form and void) and the improbable miracle of human existence.
So it doesn’t matter to me that the King in Yellow was just a collection of skulls, bones, sticks, and antlers. I’m not bothered that Governor Tuttle and his cultist pals escaped prosecution. The show was about solving a mystery, but not a criminal one. It was about a human being facing the abyss and discovering that he’s bound together in a lattice with every other human being. That each of us will one day confront the abyss, and what matters is how we continue in spite of it. Some will call that maudlin. I understand that, but strongly disagree.
As the show’s creator, Nic Pizzolatto, explained to Alan Sepinwall at Hitfix:
“Considering what these characters had been through, it seemed hard to me to work out a way where they both live and they both exit the show to live better lives beyond the boundaries of these eight episodes. Now they are going to go on and live forever beyond the margins of the show, and our sense, at least, is they haven’t changed in any black to white way, but there is a sense that they have been delivered from the heart of darkness. They did not avert their eyes, whatever their failings as men. And that when they exit, they are in a different place.”
I could pick apart the show’s flaws, which are many and have been widely analyzed. But I won’t, because I made a decision some time ago to only write about things that move me, not the stuff that leaves me cold. How often do we get a chance to view entertainment that evokes so many deep conversations about philosophy, cosmology, spirituality, and does it in a stylish, riveting way with such powerful acting, direction, and cinematography? In eight episodes millions of people have been drawn deep into Carcosa. True Detective wrung us out, piqued our imaginations, opened us up to forgotten literature (and rocketed a neglected classic up the bestseller lists), showed us our worst nightmares without flinching, but then somehow it managed to lift us up. Light versus dark is the oldest story, from the primeval spark that ignited the universe to the choices we make every day to avert our eyes from things we don’t want to see—or to face them with bravery and compassion. The value of any tale is in the telling, and I, for one, am thankful to have gone along for this ride.