Well, it's over. After eight weeks, two great performances, brilliant direction, and endless speculation, True Detective came to an end tonight with a superb episode. It may disappoint people who were hoping for earth-shattering relevations, but this was a brilliant hour of television with the best-written dialogue of the series.
Indeed, what was so striking about Sunday's show was that despite having to wrap up a big mystery and explain some of the things that have been hinted at over the past seven hours (and 18 years), the creators of the show afforded plenty of time to quiet scenes of the two protagonists talking. Not only did these scenes add an extra layer of depth to a convoluted but powerful series, but they also called for a reappraisal of Woody Harrelson's character, Marty Hart.
But first, the other stuff: the mystery was solved in just about the way it seemed that it would be after episode seven, thus putting all the more colorful (and enjoyable) theories about surprise killers to rest. It's true that the lead which Marty discovered to crack the case was flimsy in the extreme—green paint on a house? really?—but it didn't upset the dramatic course of the episode. The early scenes with the bizarre killer and his lover/half-sister were creepy, but also more familiar from other serial killer shows and movies. (These wackos usually disappoint.)
Still, the central (twenty-minute!) suspense/action section was a triumph of directing and tension; how many times have you seen a similar scene in a cop movie, and how many of them were this good? The director's superb camerawork gave the entire stretch a texture and range normally lacking in scenes of men searching through dark rooms (or, in this case, caves).
As for the resolution, it was nice to see smart protagonists who actually go to the press when they have information, and it was a relief that the political corruption angle was not lingered over. (I don't think powerful people would stand by child rapists caught on tape.) The plot reminded me of last year's wonderful movie Prisoners, which wasn't interested in conspiracies but did display a fascination with how victimized children lead to more victimized children. (This is also a theme of Mystic River.)
One of the especially nice things about the episode was the humor. Even the kidnapped sheriff has an amusing line, asking what on earth McConaughey, in the midst of a strange comment, actually means. (McConaughey, I believe, eventually yells "L'chaim, fat-ass" at the sheriff.)
For me, however, the best part of the show was Harrelson's performance. The wonderful scene in which he stumbles upon the house clue was invigorating but also bittersweet; for just a moment, we see that he would have been a good cop if he hadn't wasted his prime years on sex and booze. (He also knows just what to say to McConaughey once the latter starts crying in the final scene of the show.) Marty emerges, then, as a deeper creation than we were at first led to believe: wounded, wasted, but ultimately not a total stick. (Harrelson also had a terrific, alternately comic and tense scene with McConaughey, where they are driving and discussing his ex-wife.)
As for those wasted years, they were summoned most powerfully in the brief glimpse we see of his ex-wife and daughters visiting him in the hospital. Some people may complain that this was another scene with women given very little to do, but I read it differently: even in his moment of triumph, he still doesn't have a real relationship with his family.
In sum, the episode hightlighted the two most superb aspects of the show. The first is that, with music and camerawork and arresting locations, it created a real, identifiable, and fascinating world—recognizable but different from our own. This is escapism at its very best. And second, this episode confirmed that the show remains one of the best examples of that tired genre: the buddy cop movie/show. When will we next see detectives who have a relationship as intense, complex, and strange as these two? Well, next season would be nice.