A Good Man is Hard to Find: HBO’s “True Detective” (Spoilers) — Louis Beckett

 

After eight chapters of suspense in HBO’s True Detective — the quest to track down “The Yellow King” that spanned an uncharted bayou of evil — the show’s greatest surprise had nothing to do with crime-solving. It came when Rust (Matthew McConaughey), a devout nihilist throughout the series, admitted to Marty (Woody Harrelson) that, amid so much darkness, “the light’s winning.”

Despite the shocking displays of unspeakable horrors committed by the show’s killer, viewers were most shocked by that moment of grace capping the finale. NPR’s critic called it “hooey.” Two separate New Yorker reviewers skewered the ending, suggesting that the show’s popularity (demand for the finale crashed HBO GO) had just been a spell of delusion by the audience. A friend, similarly appalled by the conclusion, wrote to me during the credits: “Give me a break.”

McConaughey’s Rust had been a nihilistic hero for viewers. He spoke in dark, enigmatic fragments, insisting that “this is a world where nothing is solved” and that people are nothing more than “biological puppets.” Yet Rust (who slept with a crucifix above his bed) had a maniacal obsession with solving The Yellow King murders — a drive signaling that he was not convinced of his own nihilistic musings.

Unlike the indifferent man he professed to be, Rust also did not yawn at the revolting evils committed by the killer — they became calls to battle and, ultimately, his only reason for living. After over a decade, when Rust finally caught Errol Childress in his satanic “Carcosa,” a labyrinth out of the Inferno, Rust had a vision of a dark vortex, maybe a gate to Hell itself. Surviving that vision and the defeat of Childress, Rust had no choice but to realize the otherwordliness of his opposition to an otherworldliness of a totally different order. He had no choice but to see that he was not just a random biological puppet, but an agent of Light.

Like the NPR and New Yorker reviewers, one critic called this “the most boring thought to escape Rust’s lips in eight episodes. . . . Snore.”

Decades ago, Flannery O’Connor recognized our culture’s inability to appreciate moments like Rust’s epiphany. In her chilling classic, A Good Man is Hard to Find, a stranded family is murdered by a group of escaped convicts led by the mysterious “Misfit.” After the grandmother’s son and grandchildren are taken to the woods — after screaming and gunfire — she calls out to The Misfit. Without the slightest panic, she identifies him as “one of her own children.” The Misfit shoots her three times through the chest. . . and the story ends. It is not surprising that many readers misunderstood O’Connor’s vision, seeing the story as nothing more than a grotesque account of a family murdered on the way to Florida. She later wrote about such misinterpretations:

Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violence which precede and follow them. The devil’s greatest wile, Baudelaire has said, is to convince us that he does not exist. 

Now it is true that Rust’s starry night ramble was much clumsier than the grandmother’s “almost imperceptible” gesture of grace. It just wasn’t mysterious for Rust to declare that the “light is winning,” as if he were a play-by-play announcer. True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto, a man of the South and a teacher of O’Connor’s work, could have done better, especially considering the visual medium at his disposal and Director Cary Fukunaga’s magnificent depiction of a brooding bayou.

Still, it was mysterious indeed that Rust could have been so devoted to a certain view of the world (echoing Zarathustra’s “time is a flat circle”) and then come to hold the opposite view so quickly. The transition makes you want to go back and consider some of the more imperceptible moments of grace throughout the series that chipped away at his hardened soul. Skeptics don’t understand that a “conversion” never happens all at once, though it suddenly can occur to someone. It’s like the remark out of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited — you can wander to the ends of the earth but a “twitch upon the thread” can bring you back in an instant. When George Orwell read the passage in Brideshead in which Lord Marchmain crosses himself on his deathbed and “converts,” he complained: “Note that after all the veneer is bound to crack sooner or later. One cannot really be Catholic and grown-up.” Orwell’s sudden turn against Waugh reveals a reflexive prejudice, not insight — in that sense, it is the very opposite of a “conversion” moment.

True Detective actually dealt with related prejudices against Faith. A so-called Christian minister played a key role in Errol Childress’s satanic web, and snide remarks about God litter the show (e.g., Marty’s estranged wife preferred him before he “found God” because at least he had had a “sense of humor”). These references to humorless hypocrisy are everywhere in our world and sometimes they are justified, as they are in the series. But they are prejudices which, at least in part, were washed away by Rust’s baptism-by-hellfire, an encounter with an eternal reality.

Part of the problem with critics’ view of True Detective is that they did not understand the source of violence in the series to be anything more than a MacGuffin — incredibly enough, they did not feel the hellfire. Childress, despite the atrocities he committed, seemed like just another monster in the woods and not the all-too-real Lucifer that he was. At the Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg considered certain political injustices (a guilty but powerful family gets away scot-free) to be much worse than what “Crazy Errol” represented. This was not due to any failure by Pizzolatto or Fukunaga. Note — because this is a widespread, grave error of our age — Rosenberg sees evil as nothing more than mental illness.

Perhaps in anticipation of this reaction, Pizzolatto has Childress groan in the finale about people overlooking the meaning of his sinister designs: “Would that they had eyes to see!”

A nihilistic cool is in fashion today. In entertainment, it manifests itself in the snickering sarcasm of Judd Apatow’s “dramedy” genre and in the random meaninglessness of violence that drives films like No Country for Old Men. True Detective breaks from this trend. Pizzolatto has to tap into some terrible things to shock his characters (and his audience), but such violence, as the finale shows, reveals something. In her essay, O’Connor continued: “In my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work.” Nothing could better describe Rust’s transformation, but audiences and critics were not moved. Fans of nihilism, I guess, are more stubborn than the nihilists themselves.

The violence and conclusion of True Detective should remind viewers, in O’Connor’s words, that “reality is something to which we must be returned at considered cost.” Being “real” is so often associated with cynicism. Yes, the death and suffering and injustices are real. But True Detective is a rare example in our culture of a work that, albeit perhaps clumsily, tries instead to affirm the greater significance and hope of an eternal reality. 

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  1. DJ EJ Member
    DJ EJ
    @DJEJ

    This is the first essay I’ve read after watching the final episode of True Detective a couple weeks ago, and it will probably be the only one. I rarely, if ever, read reviews by TV or movie critics, and the quotes you cite from the WP, NPR, and New Yorker critics have convinced me again of the wisdom of that practice.

    However, your quotes from Flannery O’Connor, and the references to G.K. Chesterton and Evelyn Waugh have reminded me how much I loved the ending of True Detective. Generally, knowledge of Biblical imagery is sorely lacking today, no doubt also among professional critics, but I couldn’t help but hear the words of John 1 running through my head during Rust and Marty’s closing conversation: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (v.5) Forgiveness and grace were also alluded to in Marty’s breakdown in front of his ex-wife and daughters. The final fight by Rust and Marty against Childress also reminded me of “greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
    I greatly enjoyed your essay. Thank you.

    • #1
  2. GKC Inactive
    GKC
    @GKC

    I had come across another interview with Pizzolatto, maybe in the snapshots HBO has via its website following each episode,  wherein he begins alluding to Rust’s spiritual conversion but then in quick, knee-jerk type reaction pulls back with the disclaimer, “. . . not in a religious sense.”  The way he said it had me immediately think to myself, “huh?  No, don’t do it.  Don’t give into the critics, to the secular fundamentalists, who can’t tolerate any religious intimations in today’s television.”  It was almost as if he was ashamed.  

    The show was a gem.  The detective’s curse is to “focus on the wrong things.”  This was said time and again in the series.  Those on the margins are who matter, both good and bad.  And Rust, after descending into hell (the labyrinth or catacombs by the Childress house), in the hospital is bathed in light.  

    And yes, the quotes bring to mind not only John 1 but also Genesis:  the earth was without form . . . and darkness was upon it.  The oldest story, says Rust, Light versus dark.

    • #2
  3. user_407430 Contributor
    user_407430
    @RachelLu

    I was reading over multiple reviews trying to find if anyone had made the connection to O’Connor… were you the only one? It seemed almost like big, flashing signs to me, but none of the other reviews I read noted this. Didn’t know the director was a teacher of O’Connor, but it’s totally unsurprising.

    • #3
  4. Louis Beckett Contributor
    Louis Beckett
    @LouisBeckett

    Excellent points, GKC and EJ DJ. . . Genesis and the Gospel of John are great references — also (I realize there are probably many more of these!) The Book of Job and St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians.  Out of a storm, God tells Job: “Where were you when I founded the earth? . . . Have the gates of death been shown to you, or have you seen the gates of darkness? . . . What is the way to the dwelling of light, and darkness—where is its place?”  And St. Paul: “For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens.”

    Rachel — I hadn’t seen any other references to O’Connor, but I know Pizzolatto referred viewers to Faulkner, Conrad and the Old Testament as his sources of inspiration. Though I agree, the debt to O’Connor is fairly obvious; it just goes to show how illiterate our cultural “elite” really are. And how brilliant O’Connor was!

    EJ DJ — good point about Marty. I didn’t write much about him, but his moment of grace was just as important as Rust’s — and probably more moving.

    The show was a massive success for HBO — execs will look the other way on the finale, but hopefully Pizzolatto doesn’t do as GKC suggests and bail from some of the first season’s core themes.

    • #4
  5. wmartin Member
    wmartin
    @

    Louis Beckett:
    The show was a massive success for HBO — execs will look the other way on the finale, but hopefully Pizzolatto doesn’t do as GKC suggests and bail from some of the first season’s core themes.

     Pizzolatto will most likely be bullied into having some kind of feminist theme in the second season. There are already some signs of it in interviews I have read with him. The consensus among lefty critics was that True Detective had a “woman problem.” Hating Woody Harrelson’s character, in particular, became a kind of national pastime among feminists.

    • #5
  6. Virginia Farmboy Member
    Virginia Farmboy
    @

    I thoroughly enjoyed the ending, and in my mind it was the “redemption” of Marty and Rust that made it great. Even though the show seemed to have a prejudice against faith the underlying allusions to grace showed me that they weren’t bashing faith but rather showing that everyone is corruptible.

    Even though Rust’s “the light’s winning” line wasn’t what it could have been, it fit . I found his cynicism and nihilism to be annoying and along the lines something a freshmen in an introductory philosophy course would spout off.

    I wished I remembered it exactly (I’ll look it up later) but in the last episode Rust had one of his dark brooding moments when him and Marty were driving. It was a long rant involving some big words since Rust is so deep. Without skipping a beat Marty responds with “What do you mean _____”, he misheard Rust and conflated two words in his mind. It was one of the few times Marty didn’t engage Rust the philosopher and was subtle was of the show saying “You make no sense buddy”. A fitting way to end Rust’s last cynical moment of the show.

    • #6
  7. user_92524 Member
    user_92524
    @TonyMartyr

    Bravo!  Spot on the money, in every respect.  I was hooked by True Detective, and wondered how they would wind it up, because no earth-bound evil could qualify the brooding horror they had created.  It was all done beautifully in those last couple of lines and scenes.

    • #7
  8. user_529732 Inactive
    user_529732
    @ShelleyNolan

    Wow, your insight is great. So much food for thought. I must pass this on.

    • #8
  9. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Great analysis.  My take:  I enjoyed the end; but I thought that Marty was by far the more empathetic, compelling, and well-acted character.  Rust was a brilliant, tortured soul, (almost) flensed of all humanity by his obsession(s).   In the end, he seams to find it.  Marty is everyman.  He knows what right is, frequently falls short of the mark, and still struggles on (struggling not only with the case, but with the interpersonal relationships–good and ill–that keep him human).  Rust looks the ascetic throughout the arc of the timeline; Marty bears the ravages of time.  But Marty goes from being directed to “just type up the report because you’re nothing without me” to being the crackerjack investigator that makes the previously overlooked connection that breaks the case.  Rust is driven into the Carcosa because of his obsession.  Marty goes in after him because of his humanity.

    • #9
  10. user_512166 Inactive
    user_512166
    @Macduff

    Loved the article. And nicely said, Boss Mongo — that contrast of Marty and Rust. I felt it, but hadn’t had the words. Thanks.

    • #10
  11. Owl of Minerva Member
    Owl of Minerva
    @

    The last line of the season came from, of all things, a comic book. Turns out Pizzolatto is a big fan of comics and loved that line. It was where he started the whole series.

    A lot of these critics have a double fear. First, they fear that the old stories are true about the devil. The second fear is that their friends might judge them harshly for not rejecting the old stories absolutely enough.

    • #11
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