‘True Detective’ finale failed to live up to the show’s dark existential standard - The Buffalo News

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‘True Detective’ finale failed to live up to the show’s dark existential standard

Now we know.

The finale of “Breaking Bad” remains utterly unchallenged as the perfect finale for one of the great series in what is now routinely agreed to be a new 21st century “Golden Age” in television history.

Sunday’s HBO finale of “True Detective” didn’t even come close. It was certainly suspenseful and creepy enough as detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart traced serial killer Errol Childress through his overgrown (and underexplained) rural temple of slaughter “Carcosa.” And Matthew McConaughey had a final breakdown scene worthy of an Oscar winner as he told his partner, played by Woody Harrelson, about seeing his dead daughter on “the other side.”

But by the standards of the previous seven episodes, the finale of “True Detective” was nothing but a workmanlike wrap-up – just a few important steps up from hackwork.

However bizarre was the sudden adoption of a British accent by the actor who played the killer (Glenn Fleshler), he was nothing more than a standard slasher movie boogie man at the end – Michael Myers in a “Halloween” movie or Jason in a “Friday the 13th” movie, able to lift victims off the ground with one hand. Completely unexplored at the end was the cult of voodoo child murderers often referred to but, at the crucial moment, pitched into the wastebasket as being of no special plot interest.

Sorry, but to me, that’s a grotesque dereliction of moral duty. If a TV show is going to sacrifice children as a plot point, it owes its audience some elucidation of such evil. You don’t just fling it into the mix on the fly and get back to the business of creeping people out with a skulking chase through a vine-strewn rural labyrinth.

Predictably, of course, some disagreed, if you scoured the Web the first thing Monday morning. Andrew Romano in the Daily Beast called the finale “the perfect conclusion to a series that has come as close to perfect over the course of its eight all-too-brief episodes as any I can remember. … To tie things up in any other way would have betrayed what the first season was all about.”

I beg to differ. And I’m far from alone. New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum tweeted that it was disappointing. Killer Errol Childress, said Kevin P. Sullivan on the MTV website, was “nothing more than a lunatic capable of unspeakable evils” but maintained that he “never had to be more than that.” On any other show than “True Detective” I might have agreed.

It would, to be sure, be true in a slasher movie, but in a television show of such dark existential eloquence, it’s almost offensive.

I agree with all those who say that “True Detective” wasn’t really about a serial killer at all but about the relationship of two Louisiana state cops whose polarized selves manage to come together as a pair of men mutually haunted by ineradicable evil.

In the end, it wasn’t Cohle, that great poet of nocturnal triumph, who looked up into the night sky and said there’s a lot more blackness up there than light, it was Marty, the hypocritical family man. The show’s last line was Cohle saying in response that while once there was only dark, “you ask me, light’s winning.”

Which, frankly, I find a vastly less eloquent – and poetic – variation on a bit of throwaway metaphysics once offered to an interviewer by Thelonious Monk: “it’s always dark; otherwise, we wouldn’t need the sun.”

In the post-finale discussion of the show on the Atlantic Monthly website, writer Amy Sullivan admitted she couldn’t even understand Cohle’s last line at first hearing.

I couldn’t either. I needed help from other ears.

In that same discussion, Christopher Orr confided an unfulfilled prefinale predication that I was making, too – that one of the two men, most likely Cohle, would die before the end.

That, it seems to me, was the perfectly logical ending to a cable TV show able to immerse its viewers in a singular darkness. To have Rust prove, at the end, to be virtually “unkillable” even by the Boogie Man, is simply knee-jerk professional scriptwriting that betrayed the human fallibility show explored so brilliantly.

On a vastly lesser scale was one of the more promising buddy TV series on a conventional network – ABC’s “Mind Games,” whose pairing of Christian Slater and Steve Zahn was compelling on a much lower level than that of McConaughey and Harrelson but was still hugely interesting on its own.

I can’t tell you how much I wanted to like “Mind Games.” I’m happy to see Slater and Zahn in almost anything. But “Mind Games” turned into a thoughtless weekly combination of a couple of TV’s newest antiheroic cliches – the mentally disturbed prodigy (first seen in “House” and “Monk”) and the post-“Mad Men” firm specializing in manipulating people into doing what they don’t want to do (“House of Lies,” “The Crazy Ones”).

Put them together and Zahn’s overacting as Slater’s bipolar brother was one of the more insensitive portrayals of mental illness in recent memory. In addition, there is little, if anything, fundamentally appealing about the manipulation-for-hire task the two brothers have put themselves in business for.

However sympathetic their clients might be on the show, the brothers’ deceits in their cause just aren’t.

A disappointment to be sure.

Which makes “Mind Games” a minor network TV series but a major waste of two rather wonderful actors.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

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