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The Good, the Bad, & the Scarred: Inside HBO’s TRUE DETECTIVE Finale

I realize that I’m a day or two later than most reviews of the finale of HBO’s magnificent series True Detective, starring the brilliant Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey (in what will probably be an Emmy-winning & Golden Globe-winning performance, though Woody deserves one of each as well), but I wanted to watch the Finale a second time to make sure I understood everything before I commented on what was the Good, the Bad, and the Scarred in the conclusion to this ground-breaking show.

(I’ve intentionally attempted not to include any spoilers or to alert you to any that do appear, but there are some hints throughout that might give you some ideas, so if you haven’t seen the Finale yet, read this post after you’ve seen it at least once, if not twice.) I’ll start and end with the Good, since that predominates in True Detective’s episode 8 Finale.

The Good

  • Marty’s and Rust’s chemistry is still magnificent, though their roles have slightly changed after 10 years apart. Marty is more of a True Detective now, as Rust always was, though episode 7 did show that Marty took some convincing to help Rust “pay the debt.” (I’ve read that Harrelson and McConaughey are friends in real life, and have great chemistry: that sort of thing doesn’t always transfer to the screen, but in this instance, it does, and each pushes the other — whether scripted or improvised — to Emmy- and Golden Globe-worthy performances.)
  • Rust, whether due to his 8-year-stint as an alcoholic in Alaska or due to Marty’s improvement as a detective, is less the leader and innovator in the Finale. Instead, the two are more equal partners, which was a nice development. Rust still has the slight edge in some scenes, like the sniper episode, but otherwise, they’re pretty much equals in the Finale, even “consulting” each other on whether a “witness / suspect” is telling the truth and is believable.
Marty & Rust in Rust's Storage Unit, where's he's continued investigating the rapes/murders and the missing women & children

Marty & Rust in Rust’s Storage Unit, where’s he’s continued investigating the rapes/murders and the missing women & children

  • There’s still humor in their scenes together. When discussing, for the first and only time, what happened between Maggie and Cohle ten years previously, Marty claims that Rust is judgmental, Rust counters that “as sentient meat” all humans are judgmental. After a beat, Marty glances over at Rust and asks, “What’s scented meat?” That’s signature Marty and Rust comedy at its best.
  • The atmosphere, especially when they get to “the place”, is creepier than creepy, and that alone adds enough intensity to have viewers holding their breath and jumping at everything that goes bump in the house while the episode is on. This small excerpt, called “This is the Place,” can’t even begin to give you an idea of the claustrophobic intensity and Urgency (though the “This is Carcosa” clip later in this post helps establish it).

(By the way, I would have loved to have seen this episode in a theatre instead of on my tiny little TV screen. Wowza! It would’ve given me a heart attack, probably, it’s so fierce in its entirety.)

  • The inside of the house. Whew. I know I’ll never look at dolls in the same way again.
  • The “making flowers” scene. Brilliant new metaphor for something so shocking and horrifying that I won’t even tell you about it. If you’ve seen it, you know. If you haven’t, it would be too dreadful a Spoiler, and you’d never forgive me. But let’s just say that “planting the seed” might never be viewed in the same way again. And great performances by these particular male and female actors in this scene/ episode/ finale.
  • The unexpected events in the plot, which I won’t reveal because they would be spoilers, but they involve a knife, a hatchet, and awesome head-butting.
  • Woody Harrelson’s acting, especially in the hospital scene. Who knew that he could do as good a job as Matthew McConaughey? Woody’s stint as the clueless bartender on Cheers, as well as his good ol’ boy persona in True Detective probably led many to believe that Harrelson is not actually acting but merely playing himself. The hospital scene where he keeps repeating, “I’m fine,” should convince any viewers that Woody is a fine actor in his own right (even if McConaughey does tend to outshine him in this series).
  • Oscar-winning American musician, songwriter, soundtrack and album producer T. Bone Burnett’s choices for the music for the series have been brilliant, as they were again in the Finale.

The Bad
I hate to be a spoil-sport because I know, from the Twitter feed and the number of blogs and articles praising the Finale, that so many fans simply saw absolutely nothing wrong with the last episode, but there was some major bad writing going on, which seriously flawed the Finale of True Detective.


  • Let’s start with the fact that as early as episode 3, viewers began mentioning — on forums, on Twitter, and in formal blogs — exactly who they believed the main killer was. And they were absolutely right. That’s sad.

There should have been a lot of suspects equally presented since the entire premise of the show was that there were a great many suspects, some of them politically powerful in Louisiana where the show is set, who were not only conspiring to keep the rapes, murders, and disappearances of women and children hidden, but who were also actively conspiring to stop Rust’s continued, undercover investigation into the 1995 Dora Lange murder and associated cases by implicating Rust himself.

Even I suspected the Lawnmower Man, who first appeared in episode 3, and was more obviously a suspect at the end of episode 7, but I didn’t want to believe that writer Nic Pizzolatto would stoop to so obvious a character and weak plot ploy. Not given the vast conspiracy theory, set-up, and then revelations about the Tuttle family, with its powerful political connections.

Unfortunately, I was wrong.

The writer did go for the blatantly obvious, though now, in post-Finale interviews — i.e., in hindsight and in response to some of the viewers’ negative or mocking criticisms — Pizzolatto is defending his choice of the obvious suspect by claiming the show was really not about the rapes and murders and disappearances of women and children at all, that the series wasn’t a whodunnit, in actuality, but merely an exploration of Rust’s and Marty’s relationship — professional and personal.

My response to that is, Nice try, Nic Pizzolatto, but it didn’t work, and you know it. Unfortunately, the obvious suspect was the main killer, if not the only one, and certainly not the one politically powerful enough to implicate Rust, manipulate the State Police or the media, but that doesn’t make it any less bad writing to have the obvious suspect — the Lawnmower Man — introduced as early as episode 3 — as the killer.

(I’m actually shocked that someone at HBO let this sort of bad writing get through without insisting on some changes, but maybe they gave Pizzolatto carte blanche. Or maybe they didn’t suspect how sophisticated their viewers would be. Either way, bad call on writer Pizzolatto’s part, as well as on HBO’s. Never insult your audience by assuming that it is not intelligent, clever, and sophisticated. Always assume your audience is intelligent though it may be uninformed about your topic.)

Given this scene in episode 3, and given Rust’s ferocious skills at detection, it’s just plain bad writing that Rust didn’t notice the scars on Lawnmower Man’s face — which go all the way up to his cheekbones on the right side, and his beard in this scene is just on the bottom of his chin, and his head is turned full-face to Rust in episode 3 even if he is sitting down on the lawnmower so that Rust “doesn’t notice how big he is” (as he mourns in the Finale).

The scars on Lawnmower Man — Errol Childress, an illegitimate relation of the Tuttle family, whose own birth was never even recorded — are so obvious in the Finale when he’s painting the school that even a little kid stares at him constantly, and intelligent viewers wonder how on earth Rust could ever have “not noticed the scars” even if, as he claims in the Finale, Errol’s “face was dirty.” No amount of dirt, camouflage paint, or pancake-makeup could cover those scars, which are deep enough into the skin and muscle to leave dents which go to the character’s bone structure.

Bad writing.

End of Spoiler.

The greatest number of The Bad comes, again, from bad writing, and I’m stunned that no one at HBO called Pizzolatto on this. There are loose ends and plot holes, which the writer may now, after the viewer complaints are pouring in, call “red herrings,” but are simply not that at all. Red herrings would have been other suspects presented more fully so that viewers actually believed they could be the killers, not the knowledge of sexual (sometimes violent) behaviour by little girls that is never explained. And some other things which aren’t explained.

  • None of the sexually explicit drawings or staged scenes (Barbie doll gang-rape) by Marty’s daughter Audrey are explained or tied in to the Finale whatsoever, so we have no idea how an obviously sexually assaulted child knows such things. And actor Michelle Monaghan’s comments that Audrey’s actions are “due to Marty’s lack of presence in the family” simply don’t ring true. A child can act out if a parent is “missing” but explicit sexual knowledge, especially of violent sexual acts, only comes one way: by being a victim, or by observing victimization. This was an extremely important unanswered question, vital to Audrey’s later “rebellion” and sexual promiscuity.
7-year-old Audrey's Barbie doll gang-rape scene, which Marty sees, frowns out, then goes and eats dinner

7-year-old Audrey’s Barbie doll gang-rape scene, which Marty sees, frowns out, then goes and eats dinner

  • The spiral hanging on Marty’s wall, drawn, I believe, on a paper plate, is exactly the same spiral on Dora Lange’s body, claimed to be on Reggie Ledoux’s body by cell-mate Charlie Lange (though it’s not: Ledoux has a pentagram tattoo, while Lawnmower man has what appears to be a scar in that spiral shape on his upper middle back). How one of Marty’s children would have drawn such a spiral, and how Marty could have possibly missed it hanging on the wall of their living room area (he stands right in front of it before the fight with Rust over Rust’s having mowed his lawn) is beyond credibility. Huge plot hole.
The Dora Lange spiral drawn on a paper plate, hanging in Marty's house

The Dora Lange spiral drawn on a paper plate, hanging in Marty’s house

  • Maggie’s manipulative and intentional cruelty toward Rust and Marty when she seduces Rust and has sex with him and then tells Marty immediately afterward, in order to destroy her marriage as well as their partnership & friendship, is never shown anywhere else in the entire series, or explained in the Finale. It’s alluded to once when Marty says, “Even your Mother thinks you’re a ball-buster.”

And, sorry, Michelle Monaghan, I don’t believe your interpretation of Maggie’s behaviour as “clever, cunning, good, or strong” nor do I see her “protecting Marty from his co-dependent relationship with Rust”, and I certainly don’t see her as “devastated for using Rust as a scapegoat to end her marriage with Marty.” I don’t know whether Monaghan thought those things up herself, or the director suggested it when she asked for “her motivation” for seducing Rust. But the actor Monaghan thinks Maggie is not only fully developed, but complex and interesting.

That’s certainly one of the reasons why I was drawn to the character because she really is the grounding force within the series. I consider her to be kind of one of the most emotional of all the characters, and she’s very real. I like that this is a woman who could navigate two men, or try to have a relationship with her husband under the circumstances and yet be able to forge a relationship with somebody she finds truly engaging and interesting, that being Rust. I appreciate her devotion to her family. [In Episode 6] she really decides for herself that this is the only way to get ultimately what she wants, which is freedom from Marty.

I stand by my original interpretation of Maggie: that she is a manipulative, predatory, deceitful, vicious, cruel, selfish femme fatale modeled after classic — not contemporary — noir-crime fiction (à la James Cain, Cornell Woolrich, and Jim Thompson, to mention a few) where the females are just as morally “ugly” as the males, are “objects” or “prizes” to be won, and usually triumph over the males because they’re ethically and morally more vicious, cruel, manipulative, predatory, and deceitful than the male protagonists and narrators. [See my post “Why HBO’s True Detective is not Misogynistic” for details.]

Other writers call Maggie a Medusa in this vicious scene.

  • The identity of “The Yellow King” and the meaning of “Carcosa” are never revealed. When a writer uses literary allusions — as Pizzolatto is clearly doing, since “The King in Yellow” and “Carcosa” appear in horror literature as early as the mid-19th century — the purpose of using said allusions is to give the reader all the information that’s already out there, without the author’s having to write it all again and bore readers by repeating information they already know.

For example, when Reggie Ledoux says, “Time is a flat circle,” and Rust responds, “Okay, Nietzsche. Shut the fuck up” in episode 5, it is an allusion to the famous German philosopher. We’ve probably all heard of him even if we haven’t read his work. Most of us know his most famous and oft-quoted sayings, such as “God is dead,” or “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” or “When you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back into you.”

In fact, True Detective, with its DarknessBecomesYou website, seems to be modeled after this last famous quote of Nietzsche’s since the main characters, who are looking into the abyss on a daily basis, do then perform some dark deeds themselves (like when Marty illegally shoots Ledoux, and Rust helps him cover up this breach of law enforcement protocol).

However, if the literary, cultural, artistic, or contemporary allusion is obscure, or lost on the audience, then the writer is responsible for making it clear to them at some point. In the case of True Detective, that would have been the Finale — since no one knows what it is beforehand — when Rust and Marty confront the Scarred Man they have been seeking.

Many viewers, however, questioned the identity of “The Yellow King” and the location of “Carcosa” after viewing the Finale, clearly indicating that the original literary allusion of “The King in Yellow” and “Carcosa” have been lost to most modern readers and to the viewers of True Detective. Even though I had looked up those terms prior to the Finale, and understood them in their original, multiple literary uses, I still don’t understand who the Yellow King was or what his meaning to the show is, or where/ what Carcosa was though I watched the Finale twice.

(Someone on the twitter was kind enough to call me “an idiot” for not knowing that the Yellow King was the “yellow skeleton in the final room” of Scarred Errol a.k.a. Lawnmower Man’s labyrinth: I didn’t even see any “yellow skeleton” upon second viewing of the episode. Meanwhile, others tweeted that the Yellow King was other people or things, including the Scarred Errol himself, so I’m not the only one who couldn’t figure it out; I suppose those viewers got called “idiots,” too).

And where, exactly, is Carcosa? What is Carcosa? I still don’t know, and I researched all the literary references. If it’s the Scarred Errol’s labyrinth — the Killing Grounds — then how does Sam Tuttle’s former housekeeper of 19 years knows about it (episode 7), repeating, “You know Carcosa? Rejoice: death is not the end” after Rust shows her his drawings of the wooden “devil’s nests [nets?]”?

That is, how does the housekeeper know about the Killing Grounds, if that’s what Carcosa is, yet remain alive? Are we to believe that she is one of the conspirators who has been keeping the identity of the serial rapists/ murderers secret all these 30 years?

Some people claimed that Scarred Errol says “Welcome to Carcosa,” and though we do hear those words in his voice as Rust is searching through the labyrinth, we have no evidence that Scarred Errol is actually saying them since Rust has just recently admitted to Marty that he still sees, hears, and tastes things that are not there (“What’s wrong with my brain can’t be fixed,” he says in the car — or something similar to that — indicating that he’s lied to the new investigators about no longer hallucinating). Maybe Rust is hallucinating in the labyrinth. After all, he’s already said he “tastes aluminum ash” as he and Marty are pulling up to Scarred Errol’s house, and that “[he’s] tasted it before.”

Even the article “The Crazy Mythology that Explains True Detective” didn’t make these allusions any clearer to me. In fact, that article confused me more by assuming that I understood how the “crazy mythology,” which is from horror literature, was related to the HBO series. I don’t understand it, and many other viewers have admitted that they don’t either.

Very bad writing on Pizzolatto’s part that he uses but never explains allusions that (a) most of the audience doesn’t recognize, and (b) audience members who’ve researched The Yellow King or Carcossa still don’t understand the allusions in terms of Pizzolatto’s True Detective. Readers or viewers should not have to do outside research — not even on HBO’s site for the show — to discover the meaning of The Yellow King and Carcosa. That defeats the very purpose of an allusion.

  • Although highly amusing in the car scene when they’re searching for the church, detectives Gilbough and Papania, who are re-investigating the Dora Lange murder 17 years after it took place, and blaming Cohle for it and all the other murders — and whom I didn’t even realize had names — are bumbling idiots, at the very least. They’re so silly, they interrupt someone (Scarred Errol a.k.a. Lawnmower Man) whom they’ve asked for directions when he’s giving them additional information that they did not request. What kind of detectives are these?

Did they get promoted simply because of Affirmative Action? Are they just meant to serve as dramatic (comedic) foils for the true True Detectives Hart and Cohle? More important is a question for all those bloggers, reporters, and tweeters who complained about the misogyny in the series: why isn’t this portrayal of these two African-American detectives being denounced as racism? These detectives are not only cardboard characters, they’re buffoons.

  • What happened to Ginger? Last we saw of him, he was duct-taped and bound behind the seat of Rust’s truck, getting his mostly bald head slammed into the side of the truck after he cursed and threatened Rust as Rust was speeding to Reggie and Duvall Ledoux’s place in the wilderness. The last we heard of Ginger, Rust tells Marty that Ginger’s in a ditch somewhere after Marty asks about him.

But what we don’t know is whether Ginger is dead or alive in that ditch. If he’s alive, why didn’t he and his fellow bikers come after “Crash” — as they knew Rust when he was undercover and had infiltrated their gang? If Ginger’s dead, why didn’t the fellow bikers, who were present when Rust kidnapped Ginger, come after “Crash” / Rust?

(Okay, so this isn’t a very big hole in the plot, but my boyfriend really wants to know what happened to Ginger, so I’m including it here, for his sake.)

  • The Green-Eared Spaghetti Monster who chased the little girl through the woods had “green ears” because he’d painted a house and gotten paint on them? What kind of incompetent house-painter gets green paint on his ears but not anywhere else (the girl only mentioned his ears)?

According to professional painter Alan of the All Los Angeles Painting Company, this simply would not happen. His answer to the question about whether house painters ever get paint just on their ears is this:

Sometimes? Not normally. You might get a few drops on them. Unless you’re a member of the Three Stooges, or something. When you’re an experienced painter, no, it’s very rare. Unlesssss—never mind, no. No, any level of experience, and it wouldn’t happen, unless you were spraying all over and you weren’t wearing a mask. And then you would have paint everywhere, not just on your ears.

That piece of information that Cohle and Hart spend a significant portion of the Finale “connecting” and investigating is so stupid that if a former student of mine had written it in a creative writing class, I simply would have been honest with him and told him that it didn’t work. Because it’s ludicrous. And it made me laugh out loud, which was not the writer’s intention, as far as I can determine. Also, it was really boring in the final episode and took up too much time which could have been spent filling in other, more imperative plot holes and loose ends.

  • Scarred Errol’s constant change of accent, not just from different Louisiana dialects, but from American to British English. I mean, whassup widdat? I don’t get it at all. And since writer Nic Pizzolatto had to make up a story about it for interviewers who kept questioning him about it, that means it wasn’t clear in the show itself.
  • How, exactly, did Scarred Errol get so scarred? The old woman housekeeper for the Tuttles says she thinks the boy’s Daddy did it to him. Errol himself says, in a monologue, “For all that was done to me, I do to…” But he never tells us explicitly about the scars, and I, for one, wonder how only 3/4 of his face got scarred and not his neck, and without his hair, eyelashes, and eyebrows getting singed off, which would normally happen in such severe burn cases. Did somebody take a blowtorch to him?
  • And the thing that ruined the Finale of True Detective for me, and disappointed many viewers (as expressed on social media, where they mocked the final scene, questioned it, complained about it) was Rust’s unexpected and uncharacteristic transformation from nihilist-pessimist-realist to optimist in the final scene of the series. It was completely unbelievable (except, apparently, for those viewers who wanted a Happily Ever After ending, and I can’t imagine why those people would have been watching a show that begins with the ritualistic rape, torture, murder, and display of a woman in the first place).

Spoiler Alert
In the final scene, Marty and Rust discuss the stars in the night sky as a metaphor for the darkness the two of them have been fighting in season one of True Detective: the rape, murder, disappearances of women and children; the conspiracies to hide the crimes while simultaneously protecting the murderers; the vast involvement of politically important personages in the crimes and the conspiracy.

Let me recap those final lines, since, as many viewers have noted and complained, McConaughey mumbles many of Rust’s lines:

“You’re looking at it wrong,” says Rust. “Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light’s winning.” And Marty chuckles.

Even if we fall for Rust’s unbelievable and uncharacteristic transformation (after he’s just spent some considerable time explaining the “darker darkness” where his dead daughter and father were waiting for him (while he was in a coma after surgery) and where he himself attempted to join them by “letting go”), this metaphor of the stars in the night sky simply doesn’t work for the series as a whole.

For one thing, if you look at any night sky, whether in Alaska or Louisiana or from Big Rock Candy Mountain where I write this or from anywhere else that I know of, the dark does spatially cover much more area than the tiny pinpricks of light put out by the stars. That means the dark is “winning.”

Metaphorically, it also doesn’t work. Let’s ask all the victims of the masked rapists and murderers of True Detective — of whom Reggie Ledoux, Duvall Ledoux, and Scarred Errol Childress a.k.a. Lawnmower Man represent only a small group (Marty tries to reassure Rust in the hospital that though they “didn’t get them all, we got ours”) — whether the light is winning? I think all those tortured, raped, and murdered women and children would shout a resounding No since they are the evidence that the dark is what is winning, both in this series, and probably in the world itself (though the latter is not what I’m discussing here).

Maybe, maybe, maybe that final line would have worked if Marty had said it.
But probably not.

End of Spoiler

  • Finally, the last of The Bad. If you have to interview writer Nic Pizzolatto, the series Costume Designer, Professional Painters, etc., then write an article about it called True Detective FAQs: The HBO Series Finale’s Biggest Questions Answered” to answer all the questions raised by The Bad that I’ve listed here, that means I’m not the only one who didn’t find the Finale to HBO’s splendid series True Detective entirely satisfactory.

And that kind of bad writing is the baddest of The Bad.

The Scarred
Basically, virtually every major or important character in the series is seriously scarred, though only Errol-Lawnmower Man’s scars are made a subject of discussion and detective work.

The Good, the Bad, and the Scarred
You might think, given the amount of space I’ve devoted to the Bad in this post, that I don’t like HBO’s True Detective. You would be wrong. I’m only talking about the Finale here, which I found ultimately disappointing, though some parts of it were stunningly intense, dramatically effective, and emotionally satisfying.

I think True Detective is one of the best series on television in years, as I’ve indicated in previous posts and in many tweets. The writing, except in a few instances, was top-notch, as was the acting, the production itself, and the storyline. But then, I’m a sucker for intellectually and artistically challenging drama, whether it’s in a book, a film, or a television series.

It’s just that, after spending months completely devoted to watching and discussing True Detective, its characters, its acting, and its writing, the unsatisfactory parts of the Finale, well, to put it most simply, they scarred me.

So I’ll end with another piece of The Good, as I promised: the song that played over the final credits to the series Finale, which someone erroneously posted was written by T. Bone Burnett, (with the lyrics on T. Bone’s website). Performed by The Hat, featuring Father John Misty and S. I. Istwa,“The Angry River.”

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