The closing installment of the hitherto brilliant True Detective may have disappointed some. There were all sorts of outlandish theories, complex and convoluted, some with only minimal support from prior episodes. Most notably, people thought that Maggie was going to be a killer, or her father, because her and Marty’s children arrayed their male dolls in a circle around a prostrate female one, re-enacting the show’s central, unseen cultic rape. The show is stronger without Maggie’s involvement – in that case, her children’s sexual acting-out is a plot clue, the result of a traumatic past. But the way things went down, the fact Carcosa can be reenacted in ‘innocent’ children is merely affirming Augustine contra Pelagius/Caelestius – i.e., we’re all sinful. Evil is not ‘out there’, but it’s part of seemingly normal or ‘innocent’ people, too.
And TD was never a plot show – given the choice between fancy plot and close, unsettling study of human nature, Pizzolatto & co. would take the latter every time. We were given two characters, one who wanted to pretend evil was only ‘out there’ and was proven wrong by his daughters, his wife, and especially himself at every turn. The other, Rust, knew evil was in himself and in everyone, and this knowledge opened his eyes, allowed him to be the honest and perceptive and, well, true detective. He could read clues, he knew immediately when they had arrived at Errol’s house that they were in the right place, and he could get a confession with remarkable ease – all because his willingness to face the evil in himself made an adept student of the human heart.
Getting down into episode 8, the camerawork featured uncomfortably close shots of the characters, getting at a sense of entrapment, limited perspective, and confinement; juxtaposed with panned-out, wide-open, at at times Hitchcockian overhead shots, emphasizing vulnerability. In terms of suspense, the camerawork made the chase through Carcosa work, and thematically, the interspersed close and far away shots created an eerie air of two embattled, lost characters trying to come to grips with a threatening world much bigger than they are. When the final threat does emerge – knife in the gut and a poised hammer – it’s a masterful fulfillment of the vulnerability which has been building for, well, close to twenty minutes.
The long, vulnerable shots work because the close shots seem so confining; the characters’ perspectives are so limited. And although Rust is a student of the heart because he is unwilling to shy away from manifest evil, he’s also deeply attracted to it, as we saw at the close of episode 5. And the central question the show’s original viewers – the two interrogators – are asking is, how much can someone become fascinated by evil before they start to fetishize it? We see Rust flirting with that line over and over; when they arrive on Errol’s property, Rust tells Marty to clear the big house. He knows that the real menace, the strange and grotesque, is lurking near the shed out back, the woods – Rust is a purveyor of the fringes, and he wants something which will shock all public sensibility.
Rust is drawn toward Carcosa. In the final chase scene, he cannot help himself. He knows he is alone and vulnerable, but he must race through the labyrinth because at its center lies wisdom. A victim himself, with his daughter’s death, Rust is more concerned with what negates human categories than what affirms them – in short, with the abject. But how much evil can someone bear? Rust sees his final vision, one in which the entire cosmos comes together and makes sense. That final instance almost kills him – enraptured, he cannot see the King coming at his side.
A major theme of the series has been storytelling. How do you tell a story, and what makes a good one? Rust’s danger is that he assumes the story beforehand and then maneuvers all the clues to fit it – a danger of which Marty and the interrogators frequently warn us. Rust tells the story by assuming the worst and running with it, and he’s rarely wrong. But in his search to find evil – rather like Walker Percy’s Lancelot – Rust starts to believe in it, believes it has a reality which contains some secret of life. Carcosa is the form of evil, its lines and hallways and embalmed corpses, the projection, as if on a canvas, of the mind of a deranged man. This form, like something from a nightmare, also extracts the worst from our human subconscious, and then makes us watch it, over and over, like the sheriff watching the movie at gunpoint. The videotape scene alludes to Robert Chambers’s The King in Yellow, a fictional play which causes insanity or despair in people who read it. Can the human heart handle undistilled evil? As Rust orbits the maze of Carcosa, coming closer and closer to the truth, will he be able to handle evil’s essence when it appears? That essence turns out to be a cosmic void (Nietzsche’s abyss); it looks almost as if human beings are the underside of a black hole. At that instant, he is attacked and nearly killed.
After his recovery, Cohle has undergone a transformation. He’s touched some primal point in his near-death experience, somewhere where love, not death and violence and nothingness, is the fundamental truth. He says he felt his “definitions” slipping away, implying some idea along the lines of a Gnostic melding into oneness with Love, or the Force, or something like that. Regardless of how weak on ‘the body’ Christianity might accuse such a view of being, it took Rust being reduced to nothing before he could stand in awe of the Contraption, a vision of God or truth or…Something.
Light versus darkness is the only story, Rust decides. We’re not just narrating our own lives in whatever self-justifying way we want to or, even if we are, there is ultimately something true, the (almost Manichean) battle of good versus evil. And Rust is right – there could be only darkness, with humans only giving form to a great void at the heart of life. But once Rust fulfills his quest to know evil – not just know it in his cynical, abstract, psychological way but to know by experiencing something akin to pure evil – once he does this, he can appreciate what’s good. And this season True Detective did, theoretically, do that for us, too. Some knowledge of good and evil is inevitable, and knowing ourselves may not, as the two interrogators suggest, imply that we will become more guilty. The opposite may well be the case, and if that’s so, then True Detective has done all of us a deep service.