This post contains spoilers for the first season of True Detective.
The moderate, qualified disappointment being expressed about the ending of the first season of HBO’s True Detective, and with it the end of that storyline and characters, seemed highly predictable to me from the earliest stages of the show’s ecstatic critical reaction. You could argue that this is merely a consequence of that very ecstasy. The serial format of current middlebrow television, and the enormous attention devoted to these shows by professionals and amateurs alike, are uniquely suited to producing disappointment. But I actually think the problem lies in the limits of True Detective‘s real genre, which is puzzlebox fiction.
Early in Lost‘s run, when it was attracted reviews as rapturous as the first episodes of True Detective, I argued that the show would inevitably disappoint its fans. Early on, both Lost‘s creators and its many supporters argued endlessly that the show would not turn into Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s brilliant, notoriously maddening mystery series. But as I argued at the time, Lost‘s real analog was not Twin Peaks, but rather The X-Files, and I suspected it would suffer the same fate. Each were based on the development of complex mythologies, and each rewarded viewers with small nuggets of revelation that provided limited answers to existing mysteries. The problem for X-Files, and for Lost, is that this dramatic architecture is essentially a pyramid scheme: you can never pay off as many answers as you’ve built mysteries, because once you run out of mysteries, there’s no more show. So X-Files would constantly entice viewers with incredibly! important! episodes! that revealed the truths! But in order to keep the show going, they also had to create brand new mysteries as they solved old ones. I remember sitting in the theater, feeling cheated by the first X-Files movie. Some old mysteries were paid off, but on net I didn’t feel any closer to the truth that Fox Mulder and Dana Scully had been chasing.
A similar dynamic afflicted Lost, and resulted in its ending, which is generally but not universally considered a disappointment. As I said at the time, this was an inevitable result of all the vast number of plot threads and mysteries and characters and developments that the show had spooled out for years. No ending could adequately address all of them, certainly not in a satisfying way. So the show’s creators decided simply to let them loose in an abstract, spiritual finale. The years of speculative theories (they’re in Purgatory, it’s a military experiment, they were abducted by aliens, they crashed on the Garden of Eden) presumed that there was a coherent, literal explanation to the mysteries, but instead the mysteries were ultimately of a more symbolic nature. Some people hated that and some enjoyed it. (I never liked the show, personally.)
I would argue that True Detective, despite its pedigree, its status as a limited-run series of 8 episodes, and its resolute dedication to realism, had the same problem as Lost. After all, the enormous public engagement and commentary on the show was largely dedicated to crackpot theories, the great fun of trying to piece together convoluted explanations of plot points both large and minute. That’s the fun of puzzlebox fiction, and why it has such obvious commercial appeal: the participatory nature of solving the puzzle fits perfectly in with the current way many people engage with fiction, which is by analyzing it in a way once reserved for critics and academics. The problem is that as you generate more and more outlandish theories, the expectations about the real conclusion become impossible to meet. Reality will always be a disappointment in relation to imagination. (I remember watching the original Hangover movie and realizing that the story was becoming less and less interesting as it went along; there was no explanation that could be nearly as funny as the possibility of the imagined explanation.) Lost and The X-Files at least had the advantage of taking place in explicitly fantasy universes; for a show as stuffed with realist self-importance as True Detective, any attempt to pay off all of the clues would have been too ridiculous. Thus the disappointment among some.
In the post-Shyamalan Hollywood, there’s a great market for intricate, twisty fiction that features improbable reversals and showy reveals. But there’s a supply problem: these stories are hard, really hard to pull off, and so most twist movies are usually bad. (Like, say, most of Shyamalan’s movies.) We are spoiled by once-in-a-generation genius like Chinatown into mistaking how difficult it is to stitch together these complex narratives without ending up with a totally implausible story. At its worst, you end up with Ocean’s Twelve, maybe the most insulting movie I’ve ever seen, where nobody particularly expects anything to make sense and plot twists and reversals are inserted with such breezy disdain for the audience that the movie seems to scold you for ever taking its plot seriously in the first place.
There’s been a movement afoot, recently, to dismiss complaints about plot holes and oversights as missing the point. (See, for example, this piece by Film Crit Hulk.) While I sympathize, and think that theme and character development are ultimately more important than strict adherence to plot logic, there are problems with this attitude. First, it’s particularly ill-suited as a defense when it comes to puzzlebox fiction, which is appealing in large measure precisely because of the intricacy and care of its plot points. You can’t hop from one foot to another. Second, it’s problematic in a world where the conventional wisdom is that character must always be revealed through plot– the ubiquitous “show, don’t tell” dictum that is still given out like wisdom from the mountain. If writers are obliged to only reveal character through plot, then plot has to matter. Indeed, the most frustrating aspect of lots of puzzlebox fiction is the way in which character motivations become nonsensical after one-too-many twists.
My own disappointment, ultimately, is more thematic than narrative: I find the notion that “the light is winning” to be entirely unearned and not supportable from the plot, and if it’s intended as a clearly false summation, that is not sold nearly well enough. But the plot problems are real problems. Chris Orr has a very effective consideration of what’s missing from the finale, most importantly and glaringly the total failure to really explain the extent of the show’s central conspiracy, and how exactly a clearly mentally-damaged landscaper who lives in squalor in the woods could have coexisted easily with the power players we are to believe were a part of the conspiracy. I do want to say, though, that Orr is setting himself up for future disappointment when he speaks about the finale’s failings as a specific problem with this show or this episode. It is no coincidence that the first few episodes were the best; they always are. It’s the inevitable outcome in puzzlebox fiction.
What’s ultimately to blame for all of this is neither the massive amounts of attention that we now devote to pop culture, or the failings of the show’s creators. It’s our persistent, forgivable belief in the omnipotence of the Great Artist, the frequently-unrewarded conviction that we have among us creators of such genius that they can square the circle and connect all of these many plot lines into a realistic, satisfying, and surprising conclusion. Every once in awhile, we get lucky in that regard. But generally, I think it’d be better if writers are a bit more careful about the narrative checks they write, and audiences a bit more self-defensively skeptical about the ones they expect to cash.
Update: If you’d like to read a great mystery that comments on the nature of mystery stories and chance in the way many people hoped True Detective would, I can’t recommend Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose highly enough. (Even if you don’t care about True Detective at all… I still highly recommend that book.)