I’m happy to admit I was wrong: In the end, True Detective was a show that invoked the tired old cliche that any woman who had the temerity to grow past the idealized age of innocence ended up on screen as flat, barely characterized stereotype: As Janet Turley put it, they are all “spiteful jezebels, scorned wives, or dead whores”. Worse, the character growth exhibited by the two men at the end of the series is illustrated by using the women as props. In the end, daughters (both dead and alive) and ex-wives exist mainly to bathe the errant men in their forgiveness, and not much else. I predicted, “The solution will be right under their noses, but they missed it because they don’t really see women.” I was wrong. In the world of True Detective, it’s unfortunate that men don’t really see women, but it was ultimately no big deal and men would be forgiven for it anyway.
That is too bad, because I found the ambiguous and outright humanist ending to be interesting, but it was, structurally, one that excludes women from full inclusion, relegating them to the role of voiceless props who exist only to prop up men. The women don’t really matter at all, and could have been completely left out of the last episode without altering the story in any way, because the real story was about Rust and Marty overcoming their own bullshit, to a large degree, by befriending each other. I liked that ending, because it suggested that the best way to find some measure of peace in a universe that spins out of our control is to turn to the people in your life, and focus on caring for them and understanding them. By invoking the women and then shuffling them off the screen, it only ended up undercutting that interesting theme by suggesting that women aren’t really included.
Marty and Rust are both men who spend most of the series full of shit. Rust uses full-of-shit half-baked philosophizing in order to feel some measure of control, and Marty falls back on the more traditional method of wallowing in the performance of masculinity to convince himself that he, by being The Man, is in control. (You can imagine him, at his lowest points, nodding along to the ridiculous idea that Putin invaded the Ukraine at Obama, to punish him for wearing bicycle helmets, as per Sean Hannity’s theory.) Eventually, the inadequacy of their bullshit to make them feel better catches up with them, and so they turn to this unfinished business of undercovering what is obviously a widespread conspiracy of murder and sacrifice, in hopes that this will make them feel that control.
In the end, however, they don’t achieve that goal. But we’re meant to believe that they’ve both found some measure of peace because they did what they could. That’s what the last scene about the light and the darkness was about, accepting that no one person can fix everything, but if everyone just does what they can, there will be a cumulative effect. More importantly, they finally discovered each other. The implication is that there will always be mysteries we can never solve—who is the Yellow King, how expansive is this conspiracy, what role did our serial killer play in it?—but as long as we can find real, meaningful relationships in our lives, then it is easier to live with not knowing and not controlling everything. Not an earth-shattering revelation, by any means, but there’s a lot of truth in it anyway.
As for the actual mystery itself, the viewer is left in basically the same position as Rust and Marty: You know it’s bigger, but how much so will remain a mystery. There are multiple signposts suggesting the tentacles of the conspiracy have reached even into Marty’s home, such as his daughter’s gang rape scene with the Barbies, the recurring images of swirls in his home, and the fact that his daughter drew a picture that just happens to be the mural in the mental hospital. There’s the fact that they run across a number of the women who were students in the picture, and they never put that together, either. Maybe it’s all just a coincidence. Maybe it’s not. We, the viewers, will never know. You’re forced to live in the same space as Rust and Marty on this front, and the question is whether or not you’re okay with it.