I realize this is quite a while after the fact, but after reading a few reactions to the True Detective finale which seemed to miss much of the point, I’d like to offer an alternative explanation.
Obviously, if you haven’t watched the show, you shouldn’t read this. Instead, go watch the show.
The main sticking points for most people seem to be:
- Rust’s conversion to optimism at the very end seems unlikely and out-of-character.
- The Yellow King is just a bunch of sticks with, like, some cobwebs on it, and that’s lame.
- Various plot points are left unaddressed, like the Pharmacy Thief’s prison suicide.
From one internet person:
I was disappointed… Not to go over old ground but the last line really bugs me. You can argue to what extent Rust will do a complete about turn and declare “the light’s winning” but it didn’t work for me and left a sour taste in my mouth. I’ve heard people say it was him saying it half jokingly for Harts benefit, or entirely genuinely because of everything he’s been through but I just think it felt unnecessarily on the nose and hopeful which wasn’t earned IMO.
The underlying core of this show has always been cosmic horror – the kind of vague, uneasy nothingness that suffuses human experience. Rust speaks to this through most of the show: human beings are creatures that “shouldn’t exist,” both part of and apart from nature due to our consciousness. We can feel pain, but also be aware that we feel pain; and because of this unique “ability,” we are the only beings in the universe that can truly suffer. There’s nothing beyond that fact, and no cure. We’re fucked.
I think most people feel that this philosophical thread is dropped at the end of the show, with Rust converting to a happier state of mind, having seen visions of his father and his daughter while dying. This is probably the most obvious interpretation of what happened, since all that is required is for us to take Rust at his word. This final narrative is thus the “rational” one: nothing supernatural, there is something beyond this world of suffering. The End.
Let’s back up a moment, however, and stop taking Rust at his word (he is, after all, an unreliable narrator). Instead, let’s trust what we see.
Rust and Marty confront Errol in “Carcosa,” shown to be nothing more than some piece of abandoned infrastructure, just like the still and silent industrial landscape the detectives spend most of the show exploring. Here is where Errol convinced his victims (and followers) that The Yellow King existed: drugged, hallucinating, they were led through a winding path of horrors until they confronted what must have seemed like a nightmare given life. Rust experiences something similar.
But then, Rust isn’t drugged – and he isn’t hallucinating.
Though Rust hallucinates throughout the show, he hasn’t hallucinated in years by the time he catches up with Errol. The visions just gradually “stopped” after he got clean. When Rust enters Carcosa, he is as clear of mind as he has ever been.
When Rust enters the final chamber, and turns the corner to see The Yellow King – just a a scarecrow, just a collection of sticks and bones – he most likely felt a moment of relief. So much build up. So much terror, and anguish. So much death. Finally, the world is rooted in the real: something containable. Fakery.
And then, he glances up.
There, just above the bones, eating a hole in the ceiling, is Nothing. A howling void; a long, outstretched funnel of unimaginable space, a point in the universe where Truth has punctured our world of illusions and made itself manifest. An impersonal force, then: there is Nothing beyond. There is darkness, and death, and cold – and it doesn’t give a shit about Dora Lange, or Rust’s daughter, or Marty’s infidelity, or whether Errol kills or is killed. There is just a Hole in the Universe.
What happens next is just Rust’s programming: someone tries to kill him, he kills them. An autonomic nervous system successfully defends itself and preserves it’s ability to spread it’s genetic material.
But that’s all it is. The Hole is still there, and it will always be there – and now, Rust knows that.
Before, Rust was a philosopher; he thought, and he guessed, and he surmised. Now, he is a Knower of Truth. He has seen things that the human mind – the pathetic interweaving of sense perceptions and memories that passes for human consciousness – cannot, and should not, know. You can’t eat dinner, kiss the wife, drive a car, hold a job, and know that There Is A Hole In The Universe at the same time. You can’t Live and Know – it has to be one, or the other.
But now, he can’t die, either – because he knows what’s out there. It isn’t nothingness – it’s Nothing. And that’s so, so much worse.
The visions of his daughter, his conversion to optimism, his acceptance of the world – that’s not a victory. That is the ultimate defeat of a man who always told himself that he “stood witness,” a man who took some little bit of pride in the fact that he, alone, was willing to face the world as it was. He is broken in two, his capacity for truth overwhelmed by the utter horror – the impersonal, unfeeling, indescribable terror – of the universe as it truly is.
Errol wasn’t the cult – he was a victim of the cult, desperate to escape this world and the cycle of reincarnation he felt trapped him here. Errol was sloppy, emotional, dramatic, stricken by poverty; the cult is secretive, hidden, powerful. And so, in the end, what have our heroes won? The cult survives. The only connection the detectives had to the cult is now dead. Marty is a shell of the man he was, incapable of overcoming his own base urges.
And Rust is running away from the only thing he had left in this life: his willingness to see.
In the end, True Detective was what it always said it was: a flat circle. No one wins. There is no victory over Truth.