True Detective’s first season is an attempt to solve for a void. It contemplates a conundrum with so little hope of being answered that anything not sitting on the plane of the problem is flattened out until it approaches nothingness. You’ve perhaps heard the theory that objects pulled into a black hole flatten out into dim streaks of what they once were, collections of atoms spread out into things that were but no longer are. That’s how the central mystery on True Detective acts for its two main characters: They stare at it so long and race toward it so quickly that they are unable to perceive the atoms that make up anybody or anything else. They’re constantly being sucked into a space between spaces.
In both its best and worst moments, the first season of True Detective was an earnest paean to the things that exist in that negative space. It often felt as if the series took this tack thanks to the direction of Cary Joji Fukunaga, who directed all eight of the season’s episodes. Like a diligent student of the horror genre, Fukunaga was fond of filling the screen with things that weren’t seen, with darkness or emptiness that might contain the monsters at the end of the book, but, more likely than not, were simply the normal, non-supernatural darkness we find ourselves in every night. The season was always at its best when giving rise to possibility, to ideas of elemental corruption that proved more potent than the things that actually arrived. Perhaps, that is why so many cried foul on Twitter when the series’ central boogeyman was revealed to be simply some guy with a lawn mower and an ancestral estate that seemed to consist of nothing but negative space.
There were times when True Detective bit off more than it could chew in its first season, but it did so in the way overambitious first-season shows that don’t always know their own limitations often do. Particularly in the season’s lackluster sixth and seventh episodes—when creator and writer of all eight episodes Nic Pizzolatto dropped the mesmerizing framing device that held the first five episodes together and allowed for many a moment of unreliable narration—the show seemed to be solving its central mystery because it felt it had to, not because it had any particular desire to. It hinted and suggested at grand, overarching explanations for everything that happened, then, again, boiled down largely to one guy (albeit a terrifying guy). This sometimes created the sense that the show was two different stories on two different tracks, a surface one where everything was explainable and a deeper one, where everything was terrifyingly inexplicable. Everything about the show—its mystery, its storytelling technique, its approach to character development—was an iceberg, and it could have felt unsatisfying to have the heroes catch only its tip.
The most frequent criticism about this season has been its lack of “well-defined” female characters. This is a misleading statement. That there are no “well-defined” female characters on True Detective is the point. Both Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) are so trapped in a mire of dead bodies and snuffed-out lives that they are unable to see outside of themselves long enough to realize that the other people in their midst—male and female alike—that are living, breathing human beings who still need them. (This is particularly true when it comes to Marty and his wife and daughters.) Think, again, of that black hole. The closer Marty and Rust get to it, the more everybody else they know is a dim smear they can barely see for lack of light.
What I think these criticisms touch on that was a problem with the series was that it seemed slightly too impressed with its own originality, when it wasn’t doing anything (or offering up any characters) that several other series hadn’t already offered before. (Nearly everything here, for instance, is being done with just as much—if not more—panache on NBC’s Hannibal.) Marty and Rust were riffs on types we’ve seen since the cop show became a genre, and though Pizzolatto’s monologues had a beautiful musicality to them, the characters could never escape comparisons to all who had gone before. Thus, it became far too easy to go casting about for other figures within the series and not find them. The purposeful way that Pizzolatto built the supporting characters’ purposelessness was much easier to miss under these circumstances, and one presumes this will be the biggest course correction for season two.
Those complaints also arose, however, because True Detective could be crushingly self-serious. In its weakest hour—its seventh—it was simply a long series of scenes with characters telling each other things without any real humor or verve to lighten the mood. The season was so singularly focused on the evils that men can do—even the ostensibly good ones—that it rarely found time to leaven that tone with other ones. True Detective danced just ahead of being too stupid to believe for most of its first season, and I could understand all of those who looked at the finale and couldn’t get past, say, a long, earnest discussion between Rust and Marty about light versus dark, held underneath the stars. No matter how great the actors, no matter how great the dialogue, no matter how great the direction—it was all a little silly. Throughout the series, there were times—even in the best moments—when it felt like True Detective desperately needed Joel and the robots from Mystery Science Theater 3000 just offscreen to call it on its own bullshit.
And yet I loved True Detective in its best and worst moments, sometimes in spite of myself, and I think the exemplary finale pulled the story together in a way that befitted those first five episodes more than the two that followed. Part of the reason for this was the stellar execution, and part of it was the fact that this was just a fun, pulpy show to watch even when it turned into The Rust Cohle Explains Things Hour. Most of all, though, I think Pizzolatto, Fukunaga, and their actors were aware at all times that this whole thing was just a little ridiculous, and they rode that craziness to many of its logical conclusions. There were times in the season’s best episodes—its fourth and fifth—when it felt like all of the references to the Yellow King and Carcosa were going to lead to Cthulhu himself rising from the deeps, and it wouldn’t have fazed me one bit. The show took this material and sank its teeth into it.
Ultimately, what made this season work was its ability to hold its self-seriousness and its ridiculousness in tension for long stretches of time. It seemed to understand that the line between the heinous and the hilarious, particularly in a work of fiction, is not that hard to cross. It wasn’t a particularly funny show, though both of its stars had a fine time with the handful of one-liners parceled out to them over the course of the season, but it was a show that was able to take pure pulp material, like the idea of a cult of powerful men that preys upon women and children, and treat it with a kind of gravity that it might not get on a lot of other shows. Some part of True Detective understood that all of this was bizarre and maybe even a little goofy; the rest of it demanded that we look at these ideas with the kind of seriousness we might get out of a more straightforward crime procedural. It was a blend that could prove intoxicating.
This allowed the show to sidle up to the sorts of primal ideas that don’t always get talked about in pop culture without somebody winking off to the side to let viewers know they don’t have to take them too seriously. In its season finale, True Detective laid its final card down on the table and revealed that it didn’t want to be about just this story but about all stories—about light versus dark and good versus evil and maybe even a dash of God versus Satan. It not only talked directly about these issues, but it had the audacity to discuss it via a metaphor about stars. It was the sort of thing that would have gotten laughed out of the room in episode one, but in the finale, it was such a breath of ever-so-slight optimism that it felt strangely earned, as if the series had, by being so grim and self-serious and, yes, ridiculous, become one of the few shows on television capable of talking about these things. It wasn’t entirely a detective show; it was like an ersatz reinterpretation of Sunday School Bible stories, filtered through the lens of an incorrigible poonhound and a defeated nihilist.
In the end, that is why I liked the finale of True Detective enough to drag the whole series up significantly in my estimation: The hints of utter rot—mystical, religious, bureaucratic, and otherwise—ultimately boiled down to one man, but that was because that one man was the monster who surfaced. He was the only black hole Marty and Rust could pick out by noticing the absence at his center. (It’s telling that the detectives catch the void through a burst of color: notably, green, the traditional color of renewal.) The detective work fell by the wayside, and the heroes descended into hell, not to grab the Devil himself, but the one guy they could find. Yes, it was just the iceberg’s tip, but Marty and Rust were able to make the world slightly better by latching onto it. But what that tip stood for—the vast, stately, unspeakable bulk just beneath the surface—was ultimately unknowable and uncatchable, a darkness that was anything you wanted it to be. By embracing both its sometimes punishing self-seriousness and its tendency toward the ridiculous, True Detective found a way to season its grim story of man’s inhumanity to man with a sprinkle of optimism. But all the while, it remembers that, limbs churning underwater, Leviathan continues to swim.