True Disappointment

Jason Mittell's picture

Like many HBO viewers, I was excited for last night’s finale of True Detective. I found much of the season compelling and captivating television, creating a stylized sense of place, a foreboding mystery, innovative narrative techniques, and two engaging characters played by masterful screen actors. I am enthusiastic about the hybrid form of the serial anthology, with short seasons each telling a stand-alone story under a shared creative banner. However, nine hours before the finale aired, I tweeted the following:

Trying to think of a season finale with as much weight as #TrueDetective has. The resolution could make season anything from OK to perfect.
3/9/14 12:02 PM

I did not mean to suggest that a bad finale would make the series bad, as nothing can retroactively invalidate the enjoyment found in watching previous episodes. However, a finale can invalidate certain open-ended issues about which a serial demands we withhold judgment until they are resolved—thus for Battlestar Galactica, a problematic finale takes little away from the entire series for me, but it does make the final season’s plotlines and Starbuck’s character arc seem weaker and more disappointing. In large part because it was designed as a single authored miniseries, True Detective had an unusually large number of these open-ended issues waiting to be resolved or confirmed in the finale. And I found pretty much every choice that the finale made disappointing enough to undo most of the good will I had granted it for the previous seven episodes—and infuriating enough to fuel an insomniac twitter rant last night. Spoilery fleshing out of that rant beneath the fold.

First and foremost, True Detective took the least interesting option to resolve the murder plot. The buildup was steeped in mystery and ambiguity, buttressed with literary allusions to supernatural and metafictional possibilities, suggesting grand conspiracies and larger powers at play. All of the momentum focused on larger evils, whether mystical, religious, or bureaucratic. But in the end, it’s just a crazy guy. And not only a crazy guy, but one with all the worst southern inbred stereotypes imaginable to forge a hackneyed stock character commonplace to the serial killer genre.

Yes, there was a larger familial conspiracy at play, but ultimately it was completely incoherent how all the pieces connected: how Dora Lange became part of this cult and then was murdered, how it all related (or didn’t) with the Tuttle churches, what it had to do with the Carcosa mythology, and most importantly, how crazy Erroll would be some sort of leader within this high-powered mystical cult to-be-named-later. If you give your protagonist a storage locker as a 3D conspiracy corkboard to connect the dots, you either owe your audience some sense of those connections, or you need to make the lack of coherence a relevant thematic storytelling element. Or maybe a Chinatown-like sense of impotency in the face of such engrained power. You can’t just distract us with creepy mazes of wooden craftwork and a clichéd axe fight, and then call it Case Closed. To be clear, I was not invested in any particular theories about the mystery. I just wanted there to be “mystery,” a sense of something bigger than what we got.

Or as an anonymous Wikipedian aptly summarized the finale:

Second, the series was frequently critiqued for how it constructed flat female and African-American characters in orbit around the two tortured white men at the center—see Emily Nussbaum for the best such analysis I’ve read. In the responses to Emily’s piece, many fans and critics countered that the series was actually about that marginalization, critiquing the assumed centrality of the white male detective by making them so broken, so rejected, so decentered in their own lives. Well… the finale put them back into the narrative center, redeeming both characters through their heroic violence and lone-wolf detective work. The incredulous capper for me was when both the two black detectives and Marty’s ex-wife and estranged daughters all visit him in the hospital to tip their hats, make amends, and redeem his white male glory. Really?

Creator Nic Pizzolatto made claims about his goal being to upend the conventions of the television detective drama, but I saw the finale as a retreat to cliché and convention. In the end, the finale allowed True Detective to proclaim what it is ultimately about: two white guys finding redemption via a hackneyed serial killer mystery, gussied up by fine acting, well-crafted dialogue, a clever narrative device (which was sorely missed in the finale), and compelling visuals. That’s not enough for me, but maybe it is for you.

But since True Detective concluded with an optimistic note, let me offer my own point of light in the darkness: if you want to see a compelling character study of two broken men bonded by murder & darkness, shot with innovative visual style and told via layered sophisticated dialogue, you should be watching Hannibal.

Filed under: Narrative, Television, TV Shows Tagged: finales, True Detective

Jason Mittell

Publication date (from feed): 

Mon, 10 Mar 2014 14:43:25 +0000