If time is a flat circle, it shouldn’t matter when we watch the finale of HBO’s True Detective. But enough viewers tried to log on to HBO Go on Sunday night that it crashed the system, prompting a mild panic among subscribers and the rogue adult children borrowing their parents’ passwords.
Now that the pinwheel of death has stopped spinning on our screen, and many of the 11 million weekly viewers have followed True Detective through to the end, let’s get to Carcosa.
Scene 1. “I haven’t left my mark in a while.” No surprises here: The finale sets up a showdown with the “Obvious Killer,” who by now has as many aliases as victims. We know him as the Lawnmower Man, the tall man, the man with the scars, the green-eared spaghetti monster, and a possible Tuttle descendent. We see him in his ramshackle bayou home, standing shirtless — with the cult’s spiral icon burned into his back — over a body. “Daddy,” he says. Turns out the Lawnmower Man is also Errol Childress, son of former sheriff Ted Childress, who covered up the true nature of the Dora Lange murder in 1995. And “Daddy” has been a corpse tied to a bed for who knows how long.
The terror builds as we see inside Errol’s palace of pain, which could double as a Hoarders set. Of course the home of an incredibly creepy pedophilic serial killer is full of dolls. And of course Errol would speak with a fake British accent and take a family member as his lover. The green-eared spaghetti monster plays by his own rules. Errol crows “I haven’t left my mark in a while” as he pulls his half-sister onto his lap. He asks about “their grandfather” as he starts to pleasure her. It only gets worse from here.
“L’chiam, fatass.” Meanwhile, back on the fishing boat, Marty (Woody Harrelson) and Rust (Matthew McConaughey) question their former colleague, Sheriff Steve Geraci, at gunpoint. Rust has an ace in his pocket — the VHS tape documenting the cult’s molestation of 10-year-old Marie Fontenot — which gets Geraci to talk. (Babble, actually.) Geraci admits that the missing person’s report he filed on Marie back in the 1990s was altered by then-sheriff Ted Childress, so the trail went cold and he never did anything to fix it. “I was following the chain of command.” Rust doesn’t like that.
They take Geraci off the boat and warn him that a sniper will take action if Geraci does anything else to get in Rust and Marty’s way. To prove their point, shots fly out from the the banks of the bayou and tattoo Geraci’s Maserati. With two of the finest parting words in television — Rust: “L’chaim, fatass” — Rust and Marty pull away.
“Everyone has a choice.” It’s been a decade since Rust and Marty rode together as partners, and a lot has changed — beyond Rust’s hair length — since their first car conversation. Though in true macho Marty fashion, the thing that’s been eating him up since the partners split is whether or not Rust let Marty win their big fight. “It seems pretty damn arrogant to hold back in a fight with me,” Marty says, blustering. “You think you could have put me down?” Rust (I imagine) resists the eyeroll and replies, “You were so damn mad, Marty,” about Maggie, about life. And then something shifts. Marty actually shows some emotional awareness. He admits that Maggie took the blame for the affair with Rust that broke everyone up. He almost seems to forgive Rust. “Everyone has a choice,” Rust says, a recurring theme that ties things up neatly here. We can choose to be good, to be bad, to be shades of each. We can fix our mistakes. Redemption is possible, even for the “bad men.”
“You’re speaking in riddles to me, white man.” This scene between the younger black cop and Marty is kind of a throwaway, other than the cop’s amazing line. I would argue that the quote reinforces the cop’s continued ignorance, but to be honest, at this point Marty is kind of speaking in riddles. In a prior scene’s giant plot leap, Rust and Marty connect the green paint job on a house to the green ears on the spaghetti monster (sure, why not?); find the former owner of the house, who tells them the name of the painters (Childress and Sons, aha!). They then Google the Childress and Sons business license (if only they had the internet in 1995) and find an address for Errol Childress. The game’s afoot!
“This is Carcosa.” This is where shit gets terrifying. Rust and Marty pull up to Errol’s palace of pain, where Rust can practically smell the decades of fear and misery. Marty knocks on the door of the main house, while Rust stalks toward the shack where Daddy’s dead and Errol hides. Marty encounters the half-sister, who screams that Errol is “the worst of all.” Meanwhile, Rust peers around the shack, where he sees cult drawings graffitied onto the facade — and Errol, standing still, across the field. “Stop where you are!” Rust yells. To which Errol replies, coldly, menacingly: “No.” The chase begins.
Rust is on Errol’s heels while Marty trails behind. Errol leads Rust into a series of tunnels and chambers that look like remnants of a Roman temple. Errol taunts from within, calling out “This is Carcosa” as Rust passes by mummified remains of victims and piles of little girls’ dresses and children’s shoes. Ugh. Rust reaches what looks like the Yellow King’s throne room, complete with a sort-of Bone Throne with skulls as adornment. Rust looks up through the ceiling’s circular hole — an oculus dei, or eye of God in some churches — and has one of his hallucinations, seeming to see a tornado-shaped vortex in the sky. It’s the kind of thing that, you know, may distract you so you don’t notice the villain about to stab you in the stomach.
Errol plunges a knife into Rust’s gut and hoists him into the air. But Rust is enough of a badass to manage to head butt (I repeat: head butt) Errol multiple times and drop to the ground. Still, things look bad. Marty arrives and gets a hammer (or tomahawk?) to the chest, courtesy of Errol, while Rust bleeds out. But this isn’t some Greek tragedy — it’s cable television. So just when Marty looks like he’s done and Rust is heading to the great big tornado vortex in the sky, Rust manages to aim a gunshot to Errol’s head. Ding dong, the Yellow King is dead.
“It’s one story, the oldest: light versus dark.” Fast forward: Police reinforcements arrive at Errol’s place and Marty and Rust are in the hospital, with Rust in a (brief) coma. We learn that decades’ worth of missing persons are buried in Errol’s front yard, but we never find out more about the mythology of the cult. Instead, it all boils down to old-fashioned power plays by the Tuttle/Childress family and serial insanity. The darkness isn’t complicated, and I actually found that satisfying.
Rust and Marty both survive — which shocked me, given that neither character is slated to return next season — and the season closes with Marty pushing Rust in a wheelchair to get some air outside the hospital. They stare at the starry night sky and Rust muses on his near-death experience and the futility of man. Just like old times. “It’s one story, the oldest: light versus dark,” he says.
“It appears to me the dark has a lot more territory,” Marty says, looking up.
We circle back to the idea of light and dark, good men and bad men, and it reinforces that this show wasn’t really about clues and mythologies. It was about two men and all their flaws. And just as Marty starts to show some compassion and Rust finds some closure for the death of his daughter, we see signs of hope, of redemption. As Rust would say, “The light is winning.”
Image courtesy Jim Bridges/HBO.