It is rare for a show's finale to live up to the sum of its parts. Most of the time, fans are left to accept an ending, focus on the things that worked, and forgive the things that didn't. Most of the time, the hype and expectations are so high that a show can't help but let its fans down. That is why the season finale of True Detective was such an incredible feat.
A show with so much mystery and intrigue could have tripped over its own threads many times over in its final hour, but True Detective gracefully glided over it all with a suspensful, atmospheric finale that still left time at the end for revisiting of some existential themes, closure for the main characters, and even a little bit of a happy ending!
For a show that made its name on southern pacing, True D wasted no time getting down to business in this final episode of its first season. The story bounces between Detectives Hart (Harrelson) and Cohle (McConaughey), who kick things off with some actual detective work, and our new found serial killer, played by Glenn Fleshler, who deserves a nod for crafting such a memorable, terrifying villain in only half an episode.
Once Hart and Cohle get on their suspect's trail it doesn't take them long to track him down. After a brief set up, it is off to the showdown.
I doubt there was anything writer Nick Pizzolatto or director Cary Fukunaga could have done to make the final confrontation sequence more intense. The sense of foreboding was palpable as you watched Cohle chase the Yellow King through the ruins of "Carcosa", a place possibly even more horrifying than its literary origins.
The fear and suspense the audience feels during these moments are noticably more intense than that of your typical finale because of the nature of True Detective. It is a somber, masochistic show where characters constantly hurt themselves and others. Everyone is lost. And we've only known them for one season. It all helps to make the idea of our heroes failing and the wicked villain continuing to rule his broken down kingdom with impunity that much more horribly possible.
It's much more plausible for an audience that Woody Harrleson could die at the hand of a malevolent maniac in a show after seven episodes than it it is Bryan Cranston gets offe'd by some nazis after we've grown with him over five seasons.
This alone was enough to make the finale great. It could have faded to black when the light of that flair burnt out and no one would have complained. But True Detective was not done with us.
First, we look at what our heroes got for their reward of "saving the day". Hart is traumatized to the point of tears when his estranged family comes to visit him and Cohle, looking like a hillbilly Jesus, sits dazed looking out his window to the universe as he contemplates what he could've done differently, what he could've done better.
Then we get a brief but haunting tour of the evil Hart and Cohle endured throughout their journey. Carcosa, Reggie Ledoux's stronghold, and the cornfield where the investigation started 20+ years earlier all still remain, completely intact, unchanged. They are Ledoux's "flat circle", destined to exist forever untouched in the memories of those who witnessed them.
All of this was right in line with the eerie slow burn of True D, a show made of creepy, pulpy goodness. But it was the final scene of the season that set the show apartment. After enduring criticism for being ovewrought and even sexist, An emotional, grounded monologue from Cohle brought everything back to what the show had really been all about: two broken people trying to do the right thing in spite of their demons. We don't always love them, a lot of the time we don't even like them, but we understand them.
The shear ambition of this final scene was enough to admire True Detective and Pizzolatto, and it was more than enough to warrant a reset button for the second season.
Possibly more amazing than anything, was on a series so dark, so gleefully devoid of relief, the audience was given the final theme of the show, from the most miserable character on the show no less. Rust Cohle consider's Hart's lament for the struggles of light in the darkness of the night sky and responds, "Once there was only dark. Seems to me the light's winning." The theme of hope.