I suppose this post needs a spoiler warning.
For me, the serial killer plot was always going to be a MacGuffin. At least, I hoped it was. Otherwise, True Detective would have been merely a well-made, excellently-acted procedural with lots of gore, a Criminal Minds with HBO-level violence. I would have watched that show, because Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson are so good in their roles, but I wouldn’t have called it a classic. Every minute we spent with Rust and Marty was well-spent, and if it took a murder case to bring them to the screen, then I’m fine with that.
But ultimately, there wasn’t much else to the show. Yes, the writing and direction and cinematography were excellent. But if that’s all you’ve got, you’ve just offered up another show about evil people doing evil things in ways that we are invited to enjoy vicariously. There had to be something more. It certainly wasn’t going to be found in the female characters, none of who had any depth at all. No, this was about Rust and Marty, and if those parts had been screwed up, all of the production values in the world couldn’t have saved it.
So the ultimate success of True Detective lies with McConaughey and Harrelson, along with Nic Pizzolatto, who wrote the series. They were fascinating, complex characters presented by two actors willing to go wherever the parts led them. Sure, McConaughey’s role was showier, but Harrelson matched him every step of the way.
There seem to be a million theories about what this or that meant, and if that’s your cup of tea, more power to you. I never cared about them. When the detectives were moving in on the killer in the finale, I was uninterested in the plot ramifications. I just wanted to know how events would be reflected in the lives of Rust and Marty. I’m with Alan Sepinwall, who argued that “the epilogue pivoted away from the case and instead showed that time and circumstance had genuinely changed these two men.” And I also agree with Alan that what we will remember about this season down the road is not the mystery plot, but the two characters and the actors who played them.
Grade for Season Finale: A-. Grade for Season One: A-.