Full Circle: True Detective Proves Character Trumps Plot

By Daniel Ford

Contains spoilers, so avoid this post and the rest of social media until you’ve watched it.

Any finale that includes someone catching an ax in the chest is a successful one in my book.

While some may have be bummed last night after finding out none of their truly insane fan theories didn’t come to pass, I for one applaud HBO’s latest hit show "True Detective" for confirming something that I’ve believed for a long time.

Plot really doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t.

The mystery involving the creep-tastic Errol Childress—who for me was nudged into an upper tier of chilling bad guys after using multiple accents and having sex his half-sister in a house even “Hoarders” wouldn’t touch—was a vehicle for the audience to learn more about what really matters in any scripted television show or novel: The characters.

I would have watched eight episodes of Rust Cohle speaking Nietzsche-style gibberish, Marty Hart knocking bikers’ heads together and chasing “crazy pussy,” and all the plot points resolving off-camera. I’m also the guy who preferred to read Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov instead of going to the bar the first few weeks of my freshman year in college. I love probing human nature, so I devour television shows and novels with meaty, frothy, troubled, depressed, tortured, and devastatingly human main characters like some people consume a bucket of fried chicken. The fact that the supporting cast wasn’t as fully formed didn’t bother me because Rust and Marty were written and acted so beautifully (I stopped debating whether it was Matthew McConaughey or Woody Harrelson that was giving the best performance. Both flat out nailed it).

I’m willing to bet once I start Nic Pizzolatto’s novel Galveston, I’m going to end up caring more about the characters than what happens in the plot. There are just so many more places to explore when you’re taking a good hard look at someone’s character creation. Why does he drink that bottle of whiskey? What is driving her to make those bad (or good) decisions? Where is the main character left after the plot reaches its climax?

Denouements exist for a reason. It’s like cuddling after sex. You find out more about the person you’re sleeping with in the moments following the passion than during it. You not only use and appreciate that knowledge the next time around, but also every day in order to fully understand the person you’re with. That’s what makes the end with Rust and Marty talking together outside the hospital so special. You know exactly where the two men have been, and you can make an educated guess to where they’re going.

However, I’m not convinced it’s the optimistic end that James Poniewozik of Time and others might think it is. Broken men don’t heal after one win, and both Rust and Marty are more damaged now than they were at the start. The light might be winning, as Rust says, but the feeling of euphoria is always momentary. Rust is still an atheist alcoholic. Marty is still an asshole.

And what did we learn from Don Draper? Happiness is the moment before you want more happiness. After Rust and Marty caught, shot, and killed who they thought was their man earlier in the season, some form of normalcy set in (Rust even had a steady girlfriend). Even if Rust hadn’t learned that the Yellow King was still out there, how long do you really think that kind of contentment would have lasted for him?

As Poniewozik and Alan Sepinwall of HitFix point out, the show was not without flaws and those flaws certainly made an appearance in the last episode. But it proves that good things happen when you have a singular vision coming from one writer and one director (Give Cary Fukunaga all the Emmys right now please). It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it certainly outshined “House of Cards” because it managed to develop at least two three-dimensional characters while servicing a plot that didn’t involve the Vice President of the United States being revealed as the Yellow King (Sorry, I’m out on “House of Cards.” Forgo the Ambien and just turn on an episode of that self-indulgent, “I’m the greatest show on television” snooze-fest. I’d rather watch an hour of Jim and Maggie relationship drama on “The Newsroom.” And I loathe those characters).

Will “True Detective” end up being considered as great as shows like “The Wire,” “Mad Men,” and “Breaking Bad?” No, of course not. As I mentioned before, those shows had (have) more depth. However, my love for this particular show will be rooted in getting the chance to spend some time with two gloriously conflicted assholes that just happened to be chasing a serial killer. Had this show been a novel, I would have stayed up just as late to find out what I already knew.

The circle is indeed infinite and flat, and not even stopping the bad men at the door could get it to open up or deviate course.