Before the finale of the first season of True Detective aired on Sunday, creator Nic Pizzolatto granted an interview about the ending to critic Alan Sepinwall of the website HitFix.
Among other things, he said: "This is a story that began with its ending in mind, that [detective Rust] Cohle would be articulating, without sentimentality or illusion, an actual kind of optimism. That line, ['If ] you ask me, the light's winning,' that was one of the key pieces of dialogue that existed at the very beginning of the series' conception. For me as a storyteller, I want to follow the characters and the story through what they organically demand. And it would have been the easiest thing in the world to kill one or both of these guys."
He also said: "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."
Yours truly was intrigued to read the "heart of darkness" reference, it being a continuing theme of my interpretation of the series. As it turned out, True Detective, if not a direct parallel to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, was in the end about encountering the darkest side of human nature, about stowing darkness in your heart – as Rust had done throughout in his cynicism – and transcending it.
To some it was an oddly uplifting ending – the killer caught, the heroes injured but surviving, and the most hard-hearted of the duo softened in his final, drawled remark: "Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light's winning."
Yes, it was odd and disappointing: a conclusion so conventional that it seemed the previous abundant weight gave way to whimsy, an ending calculated to not disturb viewers who always saw the show as two cops on the trail of a killer who would be caught in the end, with the cops feeling good about it. The evaporation of Cohle's nihilism felt like a swindle in the story's end. The ending diminished Rust's cynicism to mere glumness and it seemed to suggest he was glad to be alive – even high on his almost-sunny new philosophy.
Here's the key thing about True Detective – the journey was more compelling, complex and fascinating than the destination it arrived at. For all the vacancy in the final scene, the series had heft in its probing of darkness. It brooded on the perversity that exists beneath the surface of religious belief; it dwelt on corruption, not just among the powerful but among the powerless. It presented male rage in all its stark, selfish obstinance and offered insight into the sort of society that nourishes that rage.
In his remarks about the finale, Pizzolatto didn't mention the "post-industrial, end-of-empire thing" in America that he articulated in January regarding the series's thematic substructure. But it was a relentless theme right to the end.
The episode opened at the killer's almost-inaccessible, backwoods family home of people off the radar, gone rogue, distant from civilization both literally and figuratively: a place where, we were much reminded, there's no cellphone service.
The warren of buildings and cave-like structures was overgrown with grass, a signal of decay and of a post-wealth, post-industrial situation. It all looked like the remnants of some ancient society now forgotten, near-buried by nature.
And what the crime came down to, in the end, was the work of people existing in the squalor of decay and in caves, limited to finding significance in structures made of sticks and in putting daubs on a wall: profoundly primitive, near-Stone-Age people in their limited sophistication.
We saw a landscape gorgeously rendered but desolate, some of it ravaged by hurricanes and floods, some of it destroyed by the end of old industries. It's that set of images and leitmotifs that we can take away from the eight hours of True Detective.
The creator of the series may well have planned the concluding flash of optimism from the beginning. But he ensured that getting to that point was an unforgettable encounter with pessimism and the negative, with sour themes and a grim view of a society receding to primitivism.
In that context, the ending remains disappointing, with its uplifting touch. And yet, from the journey to that point, we know how flimsy the optimism is.
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