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SPOILER ALERT: do not read this if you don't want a detailed critique of how True Detective ended Season One


Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson of True Detective. HBO photo

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True fans of HBO’s True Detective have seen the Season 1 finale by now -- many of them more than once no doubt.

So let’s talk about how creator/writer Nic Pizzolatto chose to end it, with the proviso that if you don’t want to know, DON’T READ ANY FURTHER.

It’s all a matter of opinion, of course. But in the grand scheme of TV history, some finales have played better than others. The last episodes of series such as The Fugitive, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Newhart, Six Feet Under, The Shield and The Larry Sanders Show (to name a few) generally have been applauded.

But the closers for Lost, Seinfeld, The Sopranos and Dexter are among those that received widely mixed reactions. Actually, in the case of Dexter, almost total condemnation -- and deservedly so.

True Detective had more leeway than any of the above. Lead actors Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson were signed for just one eight-episode arc, with the understanding that new actors and an entirely different locale would be deployed for Season 2. So their respective characters, Louisiana detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, had far less time to grow on viewers, making them more expendable in the process.

I’m not going to get into the intricacies of their crime-solving or any dangled loose ends. In the end, Rust and Marty prevailed, even if crazed, abused, scar-faced hillbilly Errol Childress likely was not “The Yellow King” at the head of a long history of brutal killings, including ritualistic child sacrifices. True Detective centered more on the disparate relationship of its two highly flawed principles than the whodunit hanging over them. But viewers had every right to expect a resolution -- and they got one.

In a pre-arranged interview with hitfix.com after Sunday’s finale, Pizzolatto told TV critic Alan Sepinwall that “it would have been the easiest thing in the world to kill one or both of these guys.”

Not sure about that. Although it would have made for a substantially darker ending, I think True Detective could have made a far bolder statement by letting both men die deep in the heart-of-darkness lair of Errol’s “Carcosa.” Each had been very seriously wounded by the elusive boogeyman who drove them apart and back together again. Only a bullet to the head from the gut-stabbed Rust stopped Errol from finishing off one man, then the other. Marty then crawled over to him. “He cut me pretty good,” said Rust while Marty bled along with him.

Dying together, as hard-won friends who had bucked all odds before getting their man, oddly also would have meant going in peace. They had slain some of their personal dragons and become blood brothers on the road to Carcosa. Their friendship now cut deeper than any wounds they had sustained or inflicted on one another. How perfectly imperfect -- to die undetected on an obscure, deeply hidden battlefield while authorities continued to play their various blame games.

But no. Marty had made a somewhat magic phone call before joining Rust in his chilling, prolonged pursuit of twisted Errol Childress. And so a veritable task force of cops somehow found them in the dark, with no address to go by other than somewhere off a very rural Highway 27. “Here! Here! We’re here!” Marty shouted from the bowels of the killer’s cave. The cavalry came to the rescue -- just like in the movies.

Both men convalesced in Lafayette General Hospital. They were lauded for a job well done, even though Rust remained in a coma while Marty was visited by his long-estranged wife and their two daughters.

“We didn’t get ‘em all,” Rust finally said upon returning to consciousness.

“And we ain’t gonna get ‘em all,” Marty told him. “That ain’t the kind of world it is. But we got ours.”

For me, that exchange would have had more impact as some of their last words to each other in the killer’s cave. True Detective instead played the born again, redemptive card, with the heretofore godless Rust talking about the vision he had of his daughter (and father) while lying in a coma.

“And all I had to do was let go,” he told Marty during their closing scene together outside the hospital. “And I did. I said, ‘Darkness -- yeah-h-h.’ And I disappeared. But I could still feel her love there, even more than before. There was nothin’ but that love. And I woke up.”

Rust was weeping at this point, giving McConaughey one last terrific scene to firm up the Emmy award he almost certainly will win to go along with his Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club. The new Rust also had a New Testament: “Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light’s winnin’. “

True Detective ended on that declaration, with the camera turning to the night sky for a final image of twinkling stars dotting the darkness.

For me it seemed too tacked on. Might Rust now become just the sort of preacher he so disdained? But for others -- perhaps many others -- this ending may have seemed heaven-sent.

Whatever your view, True Detective still boldly registered as a distinctive, original drama. Its images oftentimes were as arresting as the acting. The “journey” lasted for just eight hours, all of which were well-spent. The post-mortems will go on and on. Did it end well by not ending badly? Or would Rust and Marty locked in a shared death’s embrace have been truer to the nature of True Detective?

Answer me that.

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