Despite its heavy references to a 19th century work of horror, True Detective does not appear on its surface to be supernatural show. But the show's controversial ending is particularly brilliant if you read the entire season as a battle between two men and a powerful supernatural entity.
True Detective has been a surprising show in a number of ways. It encourages viewers to root for Rust Cohle, a protagonist who espouses a nihilistic philosophy. Fans raced to buy copies of Robert W. Chambers' 1895 book The King in Yellow when they learned that it was a key textual reference for the series. But perhaps nothing was as surprising as that ending.
Television viewers have come to expect certain things from their endings. They expect twists. They expect certain questions answered. They expect a reinforcement of the show's themes.
I'm not sure anyone expected Rust Cohle to emerge from his ordeal with a firm sense of spirituality and a sense that all was right with the world. It was one of the reasons that, after the season finale aired, we asked, "What the hell kind of ending is that?" Cohle's spiritual awakening felt abrupt, like a deus ex machina.
Or maybe a diabolus ex machina.
Cohle's turnabout didn't seem to fit with the rest of the series. Was True Detective trying to tell us that the small victory of taking down Errol Childress represented the power of light over darkness? Really?
I couldn't say the ending wasn't effective. It worked on my brain as I tried to puzzle how all the pieces fit together. I thought about Chambers' book and the framing story of The King in Yellow. I thought about HP Lovecraft, whose writings were inspired by Chambers and who wrote about indifferent cosmic forces and inherited guilt. I went back and watched the season again, seeing how the episodes played in close succession.
I began to wonder: What if something truly supernatural happened to Rust in Carcosa, but it was something sinister? The pieces started to click into place.
I'm reluctant to say that there is any one absolute reading of True Detective. It's a highly textual show, and there is a lot to read into it. (Plus, I am relying on the text, while some commenters note that certain aspects of my analysis are explained differently by the producers.) However, the events of the finale that seem odd or disappointing make a great deal of sense if you view it as a supernatural show, one whose true nature is never revealed to our protagonists.
Rust drops a lot of what he views as truths about the world throughout the season, but there are some quotes that have particular resonance. Marty, despite his intense discomfort with Rust's philosophy, at one point seeks Rust's assurance that he isn't a bad person for having an affair. "The world needs bad men," Rust tells Marty. "We keep the other bad men from the door."
Marty and Rust are both bad men, although their badness comes in very different flavors. Marty cheats on and lies to his wife; he fails to notice that something deeply disturbing is going on with one of his daughters. He breaks into his mistress' house and beats up her boyfriend. Over the course of the season, we learn that Rust has been involved in some very shady dealings as an undercover narcotics agent. He has killed people. He's a drug addict. He tells the women that he encounters that they should be afraid of him. He and Marty perform an off-the-books operation to nab Ginger. Rust certainly does these things because he thinks they're good, although perhaps he thinks they're right.
As bad men, Marty and Rust make progress on their case. They kill DeWall and Reggie Ledoux. They find a pair of kidnapped children. They close their case.
After that, their paths diverge. In a deleted scene, we get a hint of what Rust gave up when he decided not to marry Maggie's friend Laurie. Laurie tries to poke holes in Rust's philosophy, and if they stayed together and had children, that would mean a shift in that philosophy. (I actually wonder if the scene was dropped because it implied that Rust's philosophy could be anything other than the truth.) Instead, he goes to Alaska and replaces his barbiturate habit with alcohol. When he returns to Louisiana, he's still a bad man.
Marty, however, reforms for a while. He stops drinking, recommits to his wife, joins the Promise Keepers. It all falls apart eventually, and in a particularly icky way. He encounters a girl he met during the Dora Lange investigation, a girl who had been a teenaged prostitute. When he first met that girl, he asked her madam if she wouldn't become damaged later on in life. But when the girl, now of legal age, propositions him, he has no qualms about sleeping with her. When he learns that his daughter is having a threesome with two boys, his first response is violence; he still fails to investigate the possible abuse she once suffered. It all leads to the dissolution of his marriage, of his family. By the time he encounters Rust again, Marty is a bad man and ready to confront the other bad men in the world.
Now if you were a being who could be thwarted by bad men, what would you do?
One of our initial disappointments with the season finale was with the revelation of the Childress family, who seemed to embody the worst stereotypes of rural Southerners: inbred, violent, plagued by mental deficiency. When Papania and Gilbough start to explain everything to Marty, he holds up a hand and tells them that he doesn't want to hear it. It's a sort of comical moment because it thwarts the conventions of the denouement while also echoing what we're all thinking: We don't want to hear about it. We don't need to know anything more about these inbred psychos.
That's part of the genius of True Detective. Everything about the Childress family makes you want to turn away, to close the book on them. But even aside from the incest and the child murder, the Childress family is pretty freaking weird. At one point, Errol Childress starts speaking in an English accent for no apparent reason. His sister seems to spew prophecies of doom. The family patriarch is kept chained to a bed. And there's the small detail of the pagan altar on their property.
Why an English accent? The name "Childress" is English, not Louisiana French like Ledoux or Theriot. (Chillingly, it's associated with an older English word for "orphanage.") Considering the strong themes of inherited guilt that exist in cosmic horror, it's possible that the Childress family has some form of inherited evil in their lineage that goes back to England. The Yellow King may not be a person at all. It may be a supernatural entity. The Childress family may not be simply a group of inbred hicks; they may be a bloodline. (Edit: Several folks have noted that Errol was aping the movie on TV, so the accent doesn't work as part of my tinfoil hat theory.)
The creepiest thing that Errol does while speaking in his English accent is to sex up his (at least) half-sister while asking her to tell him about the time their grandfather raped her. It's disturbing, but it makes more sense if Errol is possessed by the Yellow King. The Yellow King, through Errol, is not just listening to a recitation of family horrors, but also reliving one of his own past conquests, when Errol's grandfather served as a vessel for the Yellow King. I began writing Errol family fan fiction in my head, imagining that Errol's father once tried to destroy the Yellow King and has been imprisoned and tortured for his failure.
The idea of the Yellow King as a supernatural entity fits with Errol's sister's warning: "[He's a]ll around us, before you were born and after you die." She describes "him" (and we're meant to think it's Errol) as pervasive and eternal. It's easy to write her off as crazy, but she would know better than anybody, wouldn't she? She has been close to this evil all of her life.
And if she knows the truth, her apparent madness also makes sense. In The King in Yellow, we read only the first act of the play that serves as the framing story. Anyone who views the second act of the play, we are told, will go mad. This isn't because it's a poor play; quite the contrary, it's because it's a true play. The madness comes from glimpsing some sort of truth about the world.
The story of the Childress family is hiding just beneath the surface of the final episode, and it's clear that we're seeing just a tiny part of a long, horrifying epic. We get hints that it reaches far beyond Errol and his Ledoux allies, perhaps touching the highest places in Louisiana government. But the last word on the matter has nothing to do with people. After Marty and Rust wake in the hospital, the camera returns to the Errol family estate and moves across the swamplands, to the Ledoux meth lab, before settling on the dark tree where Dora Lange was discovered. The places are now devoid of people, but they still sit there, as if some invisible force is waiting for the next round.
The idea of the Yellow King as a supernatural entity also helps explain the events of the finale's climax. As Rust chases Errol toward the altar, Errol calls Rust "little priest," suggesting that Rust is espousing some genuine truths. When Rust reaches the altar, he looks up into the skylight and glimpses something cosmic, the opening of Carcosa. Rust's glimpses are explained as drug-induced hallucinations, although he claims he hasn't experienced such a hallucination since he stopped doing drugs. Does Rust finally see the true nature of the world in that moment? Is his apparent spiritual conversion a form of madness?
I actually suspect that what happens next is more significant. If you're anything like me, when Rust pulled the knife from his gut, you screamed at the television, "No! Don't do that!" After all, the weapon is helping to keep the blood inside his body. Instead, Rust spills his own blood at the altar of the Yellow King, effectively making a sacrifice to the entity.
Immediately after making that blood sacrifice, Rust blacks out and has his spiritual "awakening." When he wakes again in the hospital, he's no longer the bad man he was and no longer a threat to the Yellow King.
"People... so god damn frail they'd rather put a coin in the wishing well than buy dinner," Rust tells his interviewers. Before his conversion, Rust viewed religion as an opiate, and it does seem that the Yellow King hides himself behind religion. Dora Lange started on her path to doom when she started attending church. Rust and Marty's investigation is put in jeopardy when a task force comes in to investigate "Anti-Christian" crimes. From Rust's perspective, religion leaves people too content. He and Marty are malcontents, bad men driven to work for what is right.
Most character in True Detective don't notice that the Yellow King is present in their lives, but he is everywhere. As fans began asking "Who is the Yellow King?" they found signs all over the place. There were theories that Marty was the Yellow King because the King's spiral appears among the children's drawings in his home and at one point he puts his hands over his head in a way that resembles a crown of antlers. In another frame, Rust is driving and a yellow crown from a nearby business appears above him. These aren't accidents; they were deliberately placed there by the producers. (Edit: Apparently the spiral in Marty's home is an accident! A weirdly coincidental one.) And I would argue that they aren't red herrings designed to trick viewers into suspecting our heroes; instead they are signs that the Yellow King is watching, that he exists not as a human person but as an unseen entity always lurking in the background.
There are signs, too, that the Yellow King is present in things that are, on their surface, Christian. In his essay connecting True Detective to The King in Yellow, Michael M. Hughes notes that the name of the revivalist tent preacher Joel Theriot evokes the occultist Aleister Crowley and that he makes the sign of the cross in reverse, suggesting a taint in his religion.
In the wake of Rust's blood sacrifice, the Yellow King exerts power over Rust and turns him into exactly the sort of person Rust once denigrated, a person at peace. After Rust describes his near-death experience to Marty, Marty reminds Rust that he used to look up into the sky and tell stories about the stars. It's another interesting "little priest" moment for Rust—him spinning stories about the bright stars when the Yellow King is linked to the rising of black stars. Rust now views that as "the oldest story…light versus dark." Marty looks up and replies, "[I]t appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory." But as the two men hobble back to Marty's car, Rust finishes with, "Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light's winning."
Should we believe this newfound optimism? It's interesting that, in the very next shot, we see the night sky that Marty and Rust were just discussing. What do we see?
No stars. In fact, the only light we see in this scene isn't cosmic; it's from human-made lighting. Rust can't actually see the true, cosmic light because it is hidden in light pollution, hidden by human-made light just as the true struggle against the Yellow King is hidden behind human religion. Rust may have scored a point against the Yellow King, but it appears that the cosmic entity has knocked Rust off the chessboard.