True Detective was one of the best series to emerge from HBO this year, if not the best. With top notch performances from Woody Harrelson, Matthew McConaughey, Michelle Monaghan and an extended cast where even the cameo appearances included excellent actors, excellent direction from Cary Fukunaga and incredible writing from Nic Pizzolatto, True Detective delivered a refinement of a new trend in TV. The show was as close to a novel as anything that's been attempted before. And like a great novel, it's ultimately about the emotional journey of the protagonists. Viewers who were disappointed or confused by the ending were expecting something that wasn't really there, most likely due to a surface reading of the material and assumptions about the typical twists and turns of both typical genre fiction and the kinds of shows that end up on TV.
On the surface, True Detective looked like a lot of other genre shows that fans have obsessed about. The various dangling threads of the supernatural in Twin Peaks. The endless fan theories and mysteries of Lost. The speculation about season 1 of Heroes. True Detective had all of these things in spades.
But unlike these other genre shows, those details were inconsequential to the real story. This is one of the primary reasons why the show's ending works as well as it does. A viewer only ends up dissatisfied or confused by the ending if they were searching for the typical tropes of the material. The genius of True Detective is that it's both simultaneously a deconstruction of the police procedural, while being one of the best examples of the genre.
Police procedurals typically feature tough talking, ostensibly moral characters and macho tropes. Whether the detective is male or female doesn't matter; they will act in a gruff manner to get justice, and rarely show emotions beyond anger or outright cynicism.
Take Law and Order's 5th season episode, "Precious." In this episode, the detectives discover a serial killer hidden inside a seemingly normal family. Within less than sixty minutes, and a few days of time, a serial killer is caught and justice is served, leaving the detectives a little more cynical but otherwise unchanged by the experience. Diagnosis Murder has a similar story in The Killer Within; the serial killer is caught within a short amount of time, within the space of a single episode.
Part of this trope is the idea of the ubercompetence of the detectives at the heart of the story. In 'Girl with the Dragon Tattoo', Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander are able to discover the identity of a serial killer within a family with the space of a few weeks. In this, they both play up their own knowledge and skills, while simultaneously painting a picture of incompetence; if a journalist and a hacker could uncover a deep mystery like this in a few days, why couldn't the police?
Twin Peaks, itself an early example of a subverted police procedural, still stuck to one of the primary tropes of this type of drama. Namely, that Laura Palmer's killer (himself a serial killer) is still discovered within a short period of time by the ubercompetent male detective (in this case, Agent Cooper).
In reality, most murders are only solved if the killer is discovered within 48 hours. As time moves past that window, the chances of catching the killer is reduced, as physical evidence disappears, memories fade, and leads grow cold. True Detective plays with the convention of uncovering a killer within a short period of time by following this solid trope of the police procedural. Within a few episodes (and only a few weeks of story time), Marty and Rust find the killer. They also rescue some children.
The first genre subversions occur within those opening episodes. Rust is shown to be damaged and an alcoholic. Marty is shown to have issues as well. Both live in a world where maleness rules the roost, and the women around them suffer for it. However, it's not just the women who suffer in this ultramacho world; Rust's issues seem to stem directly from this. The world of True Detective is in despair. The shootout is also a subversion of the police procedural. We see, in the future, Rust and Marty both lie to the detectives. These are not the stoic cops they seem to be.
In the real world, serial killers are rarely, if ever, caught within the 48 hr window for finding a murderer. In fact, the quest to catch a serial killer usually ends after a few decades of painstaking work. The Green River Killer, Ted Bundy, BTK, an endless list of real murderers that required almost twenty years of work to catch. Real serial killers are often great at covering their tracks and hiding in plain site.
In a second major inversion of the police procedural, and with a nod to the reality of serial murder, it takes Rust and Marty almost twenty years of 'real' time to catch the killer. And like many real life serial killers, the murderer was hiding in plain site.
Ultimately, this leads to a key consideration about True Detective; namely, what was this show about? If you followed the macguffins, the fake leads, or tried to box the show into the typical genre conventions, then there should have been twist after twist, building up to one of two twist endings.
Stereotypical ending 1 would've been the death of Rust and possibly Marty. In truly macho fashion, like soldiers off to war, they would've died for their cause, both unchanged in soul, but leaving the world a better place. This is the kind of ending typically reserved for male-focused action movies, like Saving Private Ryan or Gladiator.
Stereotypical ending 2 would've been a twist, with some previously unconsidered character revealed as the killer or villain amongst them all along. This character would've been either a lead, or important supporting character. This is the kind of ending that movies like Scream, The Usual Suspects, and most M. Night Shyamalan movies end with.
Based on the genre and tropes that True Detective was (on the surface) miming, the natural ending would've been either scenario.
However, True Detective was never a show about a serial killer. True Detective was always a show about the corrossion that false machismo and male dominance brings to both the people who practice it and the world around them. It's ultimatley about two human beings who as younger men live up to the false, macho identity foisted onto them by genre conventions (ie, tough cops with no emotions), who learn to break away from this mold.
In the end, it looks like a stereotypical ending is coming. Both heroes, still clinging to their macho identities, are nearly dead. With a nod to real serial killers, the murderer was indeed hiding in plain site for decades.
But the heroes live. They both end up in the same hospital, with similar wounds.
Marty is the first one to be healed. He's stuck in a hospital bed. His wife and children visit him. He cries with real emotion. In the very next scene, he's out of the hospital bed, joking. He's been healed through real emotion.
Rust, the stoic master of zen cynicsm, is still stuck in a hospital bed, in his gown. He's unable to walk. Marty, himself fully healed and more in touch with his emotions, wheels him outside, helping his friend. He gives his friend Rust a gift. Rust, finally, allows himself to feel the anguish of his daughter's death. He bursts into tears.
And immediately after he cries, Marty is able to help Rust stand and get out of the wheelchair. Rust, too, is now healed by learning how to feel real emotion.
Once both men have gone through this, they realize the world isn't such a dark place. The show ends on a note of hope.
And the process of genre subversion is completed.
True Detective is a strange animal; it's a detective show that uses the conceits, structures and conventions of the cop show to make a larger point. Namely, that living as a macho carricature is an awful way to exist. It's only by living as a fully realized person, in touch with your emotions, that a person can truly live.
When was the last time you saw that on TV?