Episode Title: “Form and Void”
Writer: Nic Pizzolatto
Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Previously on True Detective:
Episode 1.07 “After You’ve Gone”
It’s fitting that the season finale of “True Detective” crashed HBO GO because so many people wanted to see the last episode. This was essentially the final episode of “True Detective” as we’ve known it. A second season is inevitable, but for Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson), this is the end.
“Form and Void” was on just a few hours ago and there are already defenders and detractors endlessly debating the ending. It was always going to be that way. If “True Detective” had been a movie, there probably wouldn’t be any backlash for the ending. But when the audience has been thinking about their own potential endings for weeks and months at a time, it’s hard for any creator to live up to those expectations.
Landing the ending is always the hardest part on TV. Some finales just fall short of even reasonable expectations. For “True Detective” series creator Nic Pizzolatto, I can believe that this ending was his vision all along. On its own terms, “Form and Void” was a strong way to close out the story of Hart and Cohle on an unexpectedly hopeful note.
From this point on, there are full spoilers ahead for “Form and Void,” so if you missed the first season finale of “True Detective,” then you should probably skip this review or else you’ll catch an axe to the chest.
A few weeks back, T-mobile had some awkwardly introduced product placement on this show as Hart was seduced by Beth (Lili Simmons). This may not have been intentional, but it was hilarious that Hart and Cohle had no cell reception just when they needed it the most. That is kind of the T-mobile experience. It’s also one of the ultimate cop show cliches that leaves our two heroes as the only ones who can take down the Yellow King.
Is Errol (Glenn Fleshler) really the Yellow King? He’s clearly the man behind the 1995 and 2012 murders, but Errol is more of a pauper than a king. And it’s implied that several men from the Yellow King cult escaped justice. But as Hart tells Cohle, they got their guy. They just don’t live in a world where they can get all of them.
The early minutes of this episode broke the format of the series by showing us Errol’s point of view. One of the ways that “True Detective” distinguished itself this season was the way that it kept the killer as an unknowable entity even to the audience. Here we got a glimpse of Errol’s sick home life, which includes mistreating his dog, living in squalor, sleeping with his half-sister, and torturing his dead father.
Fleshler had a very menacing presence as Errol, particularly when he invited Cohle to die with him. Cohle and Hart followed Errol into the ruins of an old fort that he called Carcosa. This may very well have been the place where the Yellow King cult performed their rituals and killed their victims. The set design was convincingly nightmarish, as the killer’s stick sculptures actually became large obstacles in Cohle’s way.
The final confrontation between Errol and the two former police detectives didn’t go well for Cohle or Hart. Between the nasty knife wound that Cohle received and the ax to the chest that Hart got, it seemed like “True Detective’ was heading for even darker territory. This episode also featured the return of Cohle’s visions at the absolute worst time. Before Errol stabbed him, Cohle saw what could possibly have been an apocalyptic storm that connected this world to another realm.
Except there’s little room for supernatural evil when the banality of human evil was more than enough. The Yellow King cult could have been stopped years ago if the police had simply done their jobs. Instead, Sheriff Steve Geraci (Michael Harney) cried about following the chain of command when explaining himself at gunpoint to a very pissed off Hart and Cohle.
Once again, the stolen video tape from the late Billy Lee Tuttle (Jay O. Sanders) proved to be a transformative piece much like the King in Yellow play. Geraci’s screams and subsequent capitulations convinced Hart and Cohle that he may be telling the truth. But just in case, they kept his gun, his phone and they threatened him with sniper fire courtesy of Cohle’s friend and boss, Robert Doumain (Johnny McPhail). That was one of the few truly funny moments in the hour.
“Form and Void” also returned to something we haven’t seen in a few episodes: Hart and Cohle talking while driving. It was one of the biggest signs that their partnership had been restored, as Hart finally asked Cohle if he was going easy on him during their fight and Cohle kind of went easy on him again by saying that he wasn’t holding back.
When Cohle and Hart finally arrived at Errol’s home and realized that they had found their killer, the tension was palpable. It really felt like Hart and Cohle could have died, especially after Cohle’s wounds appeared to be fatal. But instead, both men save each other’s lives. 17 years earlier, Hart and Cohle came up with a heroic story to cover up Hart’s murder of Reggie Ledoux. Now, Hart and Cohle earned their victory after a harrowing ordeal.
Up to the end, Detectives Thomas Papania (Tory Kittles) and Maynard Gilbough (Michael Potts) were still convinced that Cohle was the real killer. We saw them contritely acknowledge their error to Hart, but Cohle never received an onscreen apology. Then again, he’d probably just flip them off.
In the aftermath of the Ledoux incident, Hart reunited with his estranged wife, Maggie (Michelle Monaghan). History slightly repeated itself when Maggie visited Hart in the hospital with their daughters, Audrey (Erin Moriarty) and Maisie (Brighton Sharbino). Except this time, Hart knew that it wouldn’t last. Hart was clearly moved by their visit, so much so that he actually cried in front of them. Just a few episodes back, Hart had a rare moment of self-reflection in which he said that his wife and daughters were the people he really wanted in his life. And he let them get away because of his selfishness. Cohle told Hart that “we all have a choice.” Hart just kept making the wrong choices.
It was amusing that the media reports about Errol’s death house identified both Hart and Cohle as “private investigators.” That probably sounds better than “washed up former police officers turned low rent Private Investigator and his friend, the part time bartender.” Every story has its narrative, even in the media. And while Hart and Cohle were out of commission, the Tuttle family apparently suppressed their connection to Errol. This irritated Cohle, but getting Errol was a victory that Hart can live with.
One of the more striking aspects of this episode is that the confrontation with Errol was wrapped up with almost twenty minutes left in the episode. That left us with an extended epilogue that closed the book on Hart and Cohle. We saw them flip each other off one last time, but now, more than ever before, Hart and Cohle have become friends. When Cohle broke down and cried about his near death experience, there was nothing cynical or false about the way that Hart comforted him.
In the previous episode, Cohle openly told Hart that he was ready to “tie off” his broken life of violence and pain. But Cohle’s expectations of an eternity in oblivion are shaken by the certainty that the daughter he lost was waiting for him on the other side… and he couldn’t join her. It may be that Cohle’s mind created that experience in what could have been his final moments as a way of calming himself. We all lie to ourselves at different points in our lives. Why should death be any different?
And yet, Cohle clung to that moment as something real. It gave Cohle something to believe in; which is more than he’s had in two decades. For someone as deeply cynical as Cohle, it was oddly uplifting to hear him share his notion that “Once there was only dark. If you ask me, light’s winning.” Cohle and Hart even got to limp off together into the proverbial sunset. It’s a much happier ending than I expected for either of them. But it felt right.
In a couple of months, “True Detective” will likely be amassing several Emmy nominations, including nods for McConaughey and Harrelson. I just hope that they don’t get stuck in the miniseries category. “True Detective” and its two leads deserve to be up against the best of the best in the main drama categories. Their wins wouldn’t be automatic, but that would be an acknowledgement that these eight episodes of “True Detective” have been exceptionally compelling television. And I’m eager to see how Pizzolatto intends to top the first season when “True Detective” eventually returns to HBO. This may be the birth of a long running franchise, if season 2 can be at least half as good as this season.