SPOILER ALERTS AHEAD! If you have not seen the season finale of True Detective yet, go watch it now then come back.
Judging from what I have read online and heard from friends, it seems part of the True Detective audience was a little let down by the series finale. The eighth and final episode unveiled no grand twist or revelation. Neither of the two protagonists, Marty Hart or Rust Cohle, was the mysterious Yellow King, or even involved at any level with the killings. There was no hidden connection between either's past or family and the evil lurking deep in the Bayou. If the viewer had explored around a bit in the literary and mythic context of the universe these characters live in, then they would have known the happy ending we received was the only way this series should or even could have concluded.
NicPizzolatto's tale is so rich in symbols and clues, so steeped in philosophy and so thought provoking that it that it allowed if not encouraged the imaginations of its audience to wander off toward the bizarrest possibilities. The Detectives Gilbough and Papania interviewing Hart and Cohle seem almost like stand-ins for the audience in the story. They have a strange murder to solve, somehow find a connection to the '95 case and are so mystified by what they hear about it that they are convinced there must be more to the story. They are right in that, and they have to probe deeper than the information in the reports to get the whole truth, but in their suspicion of Rust's possible involvement, they are as guilty as the audience in searching for what might be an easier answer in the wrong places.
We must keep sight of the fact that the name of the show is named "True" Detective. When Marty claims to be working on a book to get case files for he and Rust's investigation, he claims he's dabbling in the "true crime" genre. This spirit of authenticity is also reflected in the show's title which was also the name of a long running true crime magazine which, while sometimes fictionalized and always sensationalized, based its content on true criminals and true crimes. What made this program a phenomenon that captivated its audience was the portrayal of Cohle and Hart as complicated studies in characters, not one dimensional stock heroes or villains. This TV show wasn't even really about the murders or the Yellow King or Carcosa. The magnifying glass is really applied to these two main characters, their own separate personal problems and the relationship between them. They are as close to real people as we encounter on our various screens and watchers were so enthralled because Harrelson and McConaughey made those characters so interesting and yet still relatable. They are just like us struggling with their own beliefs, dealing with their own issues and failing to live up their own ideals when they get thrust into an arena of unspeakable evil.
I think some people so desperately wanted some major twist or for one of the two protagonists to be the Yellow King because it would have established one as the good guy and the other as the bad guy. They are both seriously flawed individuals, but turns out, they are both at root good men with their own ideas of responsibility. When we first meet Marty, he appears to be living the American Dream. He has a good job, a house, a hot wife and two adorable kids. We quickly learn that he has some demons lurking below the surface. His job is emotionally draining, so he compensates with alcohol and sexy young sidepieces. He justifies his behavior as necessary decompression from his stressful profession and tells himself it's for the good of the family. He wears the mask of happy family man and keeps telling himself everything is fine even as his life is falling into shambles around him. He can't look at the reality of his situation or take responsibility for his actions because he refuses to see how he's hurting the people around him.
Rust wears a different kind of mask, but his nihilism and cold, intellectual rationality is a front as well. He had a life much like Marty's until tragedy struck and he took a rapid spiral downward. He was forced to live a lie in his extended stint undercover. He built up a wall of philosophy and science to convince himself that it's all meaningless, to reinforce the denial of his cares, his pains and his own miserable true self beneath that imposing facade. He wants to convince others that he really knows everything about himself and life and the universe because it reaffirms the lie he tells himself that he really does know better than everyone else and has it all figured out. This is why Cohle so delights in pointing out how other people cling to their delusions. This doesn't fill the hole inside of him though and he operates under his own set of delusions he will not acknowledge. His assurance of the meaningless of it all rings more and more hollow as the plot progresses because it becomes so obvious that he does care; he cares about his lost daughter, cares about these other missing children that no one else seems to and ultimately cares about his partner.
The lives and philosophies of the two detectives are so directly opposed and clash so violently at times that we want the television to tell us which to approve of and which to condemn. Earlier, many thought Rust's affinity for darkness and taste in literature made him the likely suspect behind the murders. Toward the end of the series, I know others that were pointing the finger toward Marty because of his more mysterious motivations. We know a lot more about the events that made Rust the person he eventually becomes, but we know a lot less about Marty's past prior to when we meet him in 1995. We don't know what kind of man he really is and he never offers any explanation for his actions.
There was no such antihero in True Detective. An antihero can be recognized by a lack heroic qualities like courage or altruism and/or being inferior in intelligence, purpose or motivation. Neither of our two detectives fit this definition. Hart and Cohle have personal demons, just as we all do. Those demons don't make either of them bad people any more or less than people in general are. The tragic flaw is an essential part of the hero. The hero can't start off perfect, but has to overcome some weakness in his character in order to defeat the monster. There is no black and white dynamic between Hart and Cohle. They are both true heroes, just ones that each come with a healthy heaping of hamartia.
Again, this is True Detective, not Fake Detective or Fantasy Detective we are talking about here. If one of the them was revealed to be the Yellow King, or there was some other dramatic and unexpected twist, would it still be as true to life? In reality, it's always the most likely conclusion is the most probable one. One telling scene is when Marty brings up the classic detective's curse in his interview, the answer being right in front of your nose the whole time, but your attention was elsewhere. Both Marty and Rust were too preoccupied with the masks they wear in life to notice the answer was in fact right underneath their noses. Errol Childress may not seem to be the most logical suspect at face appearance, but once all the evidence shown to us, he is the only person that has a connection to the parish and schools, the Tuttle family, and the tall man with scars/ green spaghetti monster/ Yellow King stories. Had Cohle questioned the man cutting the grass at all, he may have noticed the scars back then early in the investigation.
I would never say Nic Pizzolatto made a mistake, because I think the show is masterful, but consider how different it would have been if the second to last episode didn't conclude with a close up of Childress and his facial scars. Cut out that scene, then how would viewers have reacted to the opening scene of the eighth episode? People would have lost their mind. Once you show him there, everyone knows he must be involved, but are still expecting a further development out of the finale. Take out that shot at the end of the penultimate episode though and I bet there are zero theories on the internet leading up to the finale saying that the seeming simpleton on the lawn mower is the best candidate for the Yellow King.
What else can we know about the world these characters inhabit based on the abundance of symbolism, motif and allusion? The direct reference to Robert W. Chambers' collection of stories, "The King in Yellow" provides the Yellow King and Carcosa. The supernatural and existential horror vibe that is present throughout the story line is very reminiscent of the work of HP Lovecraft. So, if Pizzolatto is incorporating elements and themes from these kinds of books, and also explicitly citing one, then what can these books tell us about Marty and Rust?
In Lovecraft's stories, evil is not something inside the protagonist. Evil is a strange, primordial, even alien force in the universe. The Old Gods, Cthullu and crew, are beings of terrible power older than Earth herself. The evil people are the ones who become seduced by their arcane, but natural, power and commit horrible acts to appease or summon these Old Ones. Lovecraft's protagonists are usually good, God-fearing people that happen to get a little too close to one of these beings or their cults and are pushed to the brink of madness and terror by what they witness.
That's our Hart and Cohle. Neither one of them could have been the killer in this mythos. They were just regular men who try to be good but usually fail. They just brush against one of these unknowable and irrational forces. They aren't able to face the scope of what they encountered and are eager to accept a more rational, if still horrible, solution. A meth lab connected to a biker gang kidnapping women and children was awful enough. Both of them were too busy with their own shit going on to recognize the totality of what they got a glimpse of. It was right there in front of them, but they refused to face up to the realities of the situation.
"The King in Yellow" refers to a play mentioned in Chambers' stories that produces madness in the audience if seen or read in its entirety. The only characters or dialogue from "The King in Yellow" that is shared with the reader is:
"Camilla: You, sir, should unmask.
Cassilda: Indeed it's time. We have all laid aside disguise but you.
Stranger: I wear no mask.
Camilla: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No mask!"
The evil in the world of True Detective wears no masks. It needs no double life. It is unmistakable when you meet it. It dwells deep in the Louisiana swamps beyond the reach of law and civilization. It is where humanity has no control over the raw power of nature. It is there that these ancient gods abide. Lovecraft believed humanity could only comprehend a small shred of cosmic existence. These gods and monsters represent the powers in the universe that can't be affected or even understood by mere men. It is not so much that these old gods are actually evil or hostile toward us, but that they are so beyond us that we are as inconsequential to them and their goals as insects are to us. The show did a phenomenal job recreating this mood of sinister awesomeness in nature with the wild, untamed filming locations used throughout the show, but especially so in the final showdown at Childress's personal Carcosa.
I, for one, thought the ending was great and it generally went as I expected. Our heroes overcome their flaws, remove their masks, look at themselves honestly in the mirror and are able to work together and catch the person most directly responsible for these killings, even as the shadowy figures behind the scenes slip away. As Rust says, "We didn't get em all, Marty,' and Marty says, 'We ain't going to. This isn't that kind of world." The Tuttle's, the men in masks in the video, the institutional corruption in the state and the church complicit in these killings will not be held responsible.
These deep rooted conspiracies parallel the unspeakable and unknowable power of Lovecraft's Old Ones. They exist outside the control and jurisdiction of ordinary people. One doesn't deal with these forces by taking them on directly, but by realizing that there are some things that are impossible for an individual to control and concentrating on the areas one still can have some influence. They paid their debt to society and Dora Lang and Marie Fonteneax and all the other victims. They did their part in taking down Errol Childress, who was probably the primary killer in recent times even if they won't touch the larger systematic conspiracy that the lawn mower man was just one product of. Good men, like Rust and Marty, do what is in their power to make the world a better place and that's all that can be expected out of them or anyone.
The best part of it was the super happy ending that was unexpected even to me. Marty and Rust prove themselves true heroes by getting over their egos and getting their man. They both suffer serious injuries, but live to see a brighter tomorrow. Their personality differences were so diametrically contrasted that their relationship brought these issues to the surface. Rust openly mocks the ideas of love or meaning while Marty clings to these illusions. Rust hides behind his pretense of apathy while still longing for what Marty possesses and pisses on. Cohle had to go through having a daughter die and seeing his marriage fall apart afterwards. He is jealous of his partner, we can see that in the scene when Rust brings back his partner's lawnmower and seems to be actually enjoying himself while drinking ice tea and hanging out with Marty's wife and kids.
Their reunion and cooperation are only possible because both men finally face up to what they were inside. Even in the early years, there was still always a mutual respect between them, so once that tension and animosity from their personality conflicts were removed, they found themselves completely capable to team up and finish the job. From that point, the bromance blossoms despite what that liar Matthew McConaughey said in an interview during the run up to the launch of the show; "Yeah, you’re never going to see us get chummy. There are no pink bows wrapping this up." (http://grantland.com/hollywood-prospectus/qa-true-detectives-matthew-mcconaughey-and-woody-harrelson-the-laurel-and-hardy-of-existential-despair/)
Rust's transformation shows a glimmer of hope in this bleak nightmare that is usually absent in the story cycle of Chambers or in Lovecraft's Cthullu mythos. The man who was so resolutely cool and atheist throughout the show has a near death experience as a result from his battle with Childress. As he is about to let go, he feels, clearly, unmistakably and tangibly, the love of his departed daughter. In the closing scene he talks about "The only story. The oldest; light vs. dark." Rust saw that light at the end of the tunnel he so despisingly mocked earlier. He has experienced that there is something good in life and in the universe although it may seem dominantly dark and unforgiving. As he says to close the series, "Once there was only dark. If you ask me the light's winning." The smallest candle is able to banish darkness, but no weight of darkness can smother even a newly kindled light.