With 8 episodes, the HBO mini series True Detective changed the television landscape. A couple years ago American Horror Story found success with a formula that made each season stand-alone and story-complete. Soon after, Netflix released House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, television seasons beholden to no advertiser, sweeps week, or seasonal dictates.
True Detective took it a step further. It consists of 8 hour-long episodes, too long to be a traditional mini-series, too short to be a season, and stars two lead characters who will not ever return. It should be mentioned that these two acting stars are Hollywood A-list actors, and that the two behind-the-camera stars are relative unknowns who had the creative control to do something original and unique.
True Detective proved that you can be deep, you can be good, and you can be popular all at the same time.
And oh my, was it ever popular. As the series progressed, and the mystery of Dora Lang’s gruesome murder sprawled into something more profoundly sinister, the internet was abuzz. Each episode was dissected and examined, each clue (or non-clue) studied. Elaborate theories were abound. Everyone was captivated – who was the Yellow King?
When the mystery was finally resolved, it was not in the way most expected. It turns out that the Yellow King was actually a clothesline for the real story at play. While everyone got caught up in the identity of the killer, they lost sight of the fact that True Detective is the story of two men hunting for a killer. No more, no less.
Marty Hart and Rust Cohle are the “bad men who keep other bad men from the door.” They are uniquely flawed, and… let’s be honest here, they are dicks. Both in the sense of the slang term for detective, and the slang term for someone who is being a dick. They aren’t your usual oil-and-water buddy cops from TV, they are oil-and-water cops who strongly dislike one another, but who work together because they are professionals and good at their jobs.
In episode one, the detectives catch the Lang case. The depth of the psychosis they see at the crime scene leads them on a ragged, often terrifying journey. This journey is what True Detective is about. The identity of the killer isn’t the point, the point is how the search for him changes and evolves these men.
The viewer became obsessed with the Yellow King just as Rust Cohle did. It consumed him, sent him into the old case files for hours of digging, and quickly pushed him over the edge. Of course, he was right on the edge in the first place, but still… as the Yellow King filled up the detective’s world, it did the same with the captivated audience. But is the Yellow King even a “who”? Or is it a “what”?
Over the weeks, more bodies were found. The sprawl grew. The detectives became more focused, and more adversarial. The case was getting out of hand.
And yet, the case was never the whole show. We followed these cops in their lives, or what little lives they had. Marty was a family man, and a pathological cheater with a strong taste of alcohol. He has two daughters we got to meet, one of whom seemingly had a dark secret (one of the plot strands the show maddeningly never pays off, unfortunately). Rust on the other hand was a despondent loner, addicted to pills and constantly awash in depression and self-pity masked as contempt. These are not good men, they are complicated men.
In many ways, True Detective is just a good, old fashioned cop show. There is a case, troubled cops, a naggy wife, a Captain always yelling at them to wrap it up, there are gunfights, plot twists, and serial killers. Those words could be used to describe almost any law enforcement tv show since Hill Street Blues.
The difference is depth. True Detective gave stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson the time and space to get into the skins of Rust and Marty and make them real human beings. It took commitment, both from the writers and the actors, to invest themselves into these men. The payoff is right there on the screen, every episode – the individual performances and their combined chemistry are engrossing, and makes them feel real.
That feeling allowed viewers to connect with these characters in ways they weren’t used to. And it was this connection that made the Yellow King seem so very important.
The first mention of the Yellow King is in Dora Lang’s diary, and then the name comes up (or is referred to obliquely) time and again. The name is tied to a cult that does unspeakable things to women and children, and is the center of a web of legends about horror and bloodshed in the bayou. After a certain point, the Yellow King started to seem supernatural.
The show smartly plays against this, giving us a big “reveal” of the killer’s identity as a throw-away bit at the end of an episode. There was no dramatic “duh-duh-DUHHHHHH” music, it was very matter-of-fact, and actually subtle enough that some people might not even have noticed it. They subverted the very concept of a Big Reveal by showing us the monster as being a country boy on a lawnmower. And that’s because the killer they catch is not the Yellow King… and indeed there probably isn’t a Yellow King after all.
True Detective is a story. And every story needs a bad guy. After chasing this boogeyman for 20 years, he has been so built up there is no way to effectively pay it off… or so you’d think.
In truth, when we finally spend some time with the madman in the final episode, it delivers completely. In a short but harrowing bit of work, actor Glenn Fleshler creates one of the most skin-crawling psychopaths television has ever seen. The man oozes malevolence, and in just a few minutes of screen time he becomes absolutely unforgettable. Even the way he just looks at the children of the schoolyard will give you shivers.
For a series with such a sterling build-up, having a finale that didn’t blow the doors off would have been a disappointment. And in its final run, True Detective managed to ratchet up the intensity one last time, and send Rust and Marty into the mouth of Hell to find their killer. It’s very cinematic, and Fleshler really helps make it work with his monstrous, larger-than-life character.
The quest to find the Yellow King needed what most dreams have “a monster at the end of it.” And it delivered. But what makes the show so good – and I think it’s an easy call to say it’s one of the best things every made for television – is the quest itself.
But while Fleshler is the killer they have been searching for, the man at the center of this mystery, he isn’t the Yellow King. There is no Yellow King… not in the flesh and blood sense, anyway. When Cohle ventures into Carcosa, what the madman calls his killing lair, he sees a regal throne made of bones and sticks, crowned with skulls and adorned with yellow fabric. This is the Yellow King we have been hearing about.
Either the Yellow King is a deity worshipped by the cult, or was the masked figurehead of the cult at one point. It’s not clear either way, and ultimately doesn’t matter. The point is, the killer doesn’t think he IS the Yellow King, but instead he kills IN SERVICE OF the Yellow King.
And what of the rest of the cult? Personally, I think they are in the wind. Fleshler’s character has re-created the cult in his own mind, rebuilt Carcosa, fashioned a throne for the Yellow King, and lives out his sickening fantasies under the umbrella of this grand “religion.” He isn’t bringing victims to the Tuttle family any more. Perhaps inspired by the Army, he has become a Cult of One. One and a half, if you count his special lady friend.
The Yellow King, all along, has been a concept and not a person. But the cops can’t have a final confrontation with a concept, so instead they resolve the case by doing battle with the human personification of that concept; the demon in human skin who commits atrocity in the name of the Yellow King.
And then the show displays its genius one final time, because after the case is finished, the two detectives spend some quiet time together at the end. They show how they have evolved, how facing the devil himself has brought them closer to God and changed who they are as men.
The show ends on a sweet note – one might even say it’s the happiest ending possible – focused on the two men it was always about. By the time the starshine fades into closing credits, they have already started to forget about the Yellow King… and so have we.