The problem with serial killers and psychopaths in fiction, in general, is that they are banal. If you want to be realistic, the story remains the same: we make our own monsters, and the only mystery is why every tortured child doesn’t become like their abuser. But part of the point of True Detective is that we live in circles, and live out the same stories. With serial killers, it is just more distinct: ritualized reenactment of the story at the core of their being, through their own lens, and inflicted upon others.
The finale brings us full circle in many ways, and the spoilers are after the jump.
The banality of a psychopath is the first stop in this tidy tie-up, where we see The Scarred Man lingering over an unseen, bedridden charge, who turns out to be his Daddy. We know that his father gave him the scars across his face, and we are left to imagine the revenge Daddy will be subjected to. “The Lawnmower Man,” as some call him, is not all monster. He enjoys an old Cary Grant film, and even mimics his accent for his mentally challenged companion. The house looks like an episode of Hoarders, and their disturbing relationship is hinted at just enough to assure us that this is definitely the Green-Eared Spaghetti Man. “Tell me about Grandpa.”
The procedural scenes that catch Marty and Rust up to this point were rather tedious, and it's to the actors' credit that they made them somewhat compelling. The interrogation of Steve Geraci leads nowhere, and they horrify him with the videotape of Mary Fontenot's murder. He is guilty only of following orders, which he frames in almost religious terms: “Follow what the big man says! Chain of command!” This is more of the banality that we've come to expect. All that is required for evil to triumph is for “good men” to do nothing. It's somewhat refreshing for the protagonists of the show to be more colorful than the villains.
Rust's silent pal from the bar gets to be useful; he was a sniper, and he manages to convince Geraci that the crime fiction boilerplate Cohle feeds him is true: that if he talks, or if they disappear, packages containing the video and their findings will be sent to the press, FBI, and everyone in between, and they also pre-paid a sniper to kill him. So with that dead end, we follow them through some more unlikely police work that leads them to the Childress house, where the Scarred Man awaits.
Those courting “Yellow King” theories will be sorely disappointed. He isn't given a mention, and the closest we get is seeing Childress paint a schoolhouse yellow while leering at the children. When they show up at the house, we fall into the eddies of the Ledoux raid story repeating itself. They separate, with Marty asking the woman if he can use the phone while Cohle's hallucinations return and lead him to Childress hulking alone in a field. Marty kicks the door in for no reason, the dog runs out and is killed in a booby trap, and they are off on their own, clearing two different buildings, exactly like before.
My prediction for this episode was full circle—that Gilbough and Papania would be following them, stumble upon them investigating some gory Carcosan altars, find them slick with the entrails of the bad guys, and shoot them by mistake. Then cover it up, just like Rust and Cohle covered up the execution of Reggie Ledoux. The actual episode is not quite so circular. As before, Martin stumbles upon the horrors. The cruel father chained to a bed with his mouth sewn shut, with air fresheners hanging from the ceiling, in reference to the “Sloth” victim of Seven. He walks past a bathtub that is reminiscent of where Clarice Starling finds a rotted corpse in Silence of the Lambs.
And Cohle follows the Scarred Man through the overgrown ruins of a Civil War prison or bunker. It reminded me of Fort Mott, not far from the Delaware Memorial Bridge in New Jersey, which was built as a prison and battlement in the Civil War and used to house German prisoners during World War II. It's a great set piece, following Cohle as he descends into Carcosa, with dark whispers of the Scarred Man or his own shaken mind calling out to him: “What they have done to me, I will do to all the sons and daughters of man.”
As he approaches an altar of antlers, human skulls, and tree branches, Cohle sees a funnel of stars twirling from the ceiling, a tornado of space-time beckoning him to join the abyss. Is it the lure of Carcosa? He doesn't get to find out, as the Scarred Man strikes with a carpenter's hatchet and a hunting knife.
The partners face off against the hulking monster and after an exciting and bloody tussle, they barely escape with their lives. Gilbough and Papania show up hours later, as the wounded men hunker in an oubliette, a “locked room” shaped like an eyeball with a circular view of the empty sky above. Like two men trapped in one cyclopean skull.
In the hospital, Martin is reunited with his family and opens up to them. When Cohle wakes from his coma, he seems the same, but under the stars in his wheelchair, he confesses to Martin that he felt lured by the dark in the “ruins of Carcosa,” and that he felt the warmth of his lost daughter's love. Perhaps a temptation from dark forces, but more likely a mirror held up against the Scarred Man. Cohle, too, is tortured by an act in his past that makes him follow his own circle, avenging the dead no matter how it destroys him. This is something we've seen before, but it was handled well. The men know they have only killed one bad man, and not the five who tortured Childress into what he was; Martin falls into the same mindset Geraci had, “that's just the way things are.”
The detectives look up at the stars, and one says, “Looks like the dark has a lot more territory.”
And the other says “Once there was only dark. The light's winning.”
Cohle being optimistic? I'm not sure I bought that, but maybe his hallucinating mind thinking that Carcosa granted him audience with his daughter's soul was enough to break him from walking that particular circle until the end of his days.
Thomas Pluck writes unflinching fiction with heart. He is the author of Blade of Dishonor, an action thriller spanning Shogun-era Japan to WWII, and the editor of Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT, an anthology of crime fiction for charity. You can find him on Twitter as @thomaspluck.