The Shocking Twist Ending of True Detective

There won’t be one… or at least that’s my prediction. 

(Spoilers Ahead. Obviously.)

True Detective’s writer, Nic Pizzolatto, told BuzzFeed this week that the killer is definitely not one of the two protagonists. Don’t expect a giant twist ending either. Pizzolatto also explained that he hates that kind of writing:

“I just thought that such a revelation would be terrible, obvious writing. For me, the worst writing generally just ‘flips’ things: this person’s really a traitor; it was all a dream; etc. Nothing is so ruinous as a forced ‘twist,’ I think.”

So there you go. We’re probably not going to get any astounding unmaskings tonight. I’m fine with that. To me, the identity of the Yellow King was never the point of True Detective anyway.  I don’t view this series as a solvable puzzle. True Detective has never actually been a “detective show.” It’s the story of Rustin Cohle and Martin Hart, two deeply broken men who just happen to be police detectives.

A Man Must Have A Code

At its core, the show is an elaborate character study. We’re not supposed to be trying to figure out who-done-it. We’re exploring the detectives’ lives as they unfold across two decades. 

Hart vs. Cohle

Both characters have self-inflicted moral codes that they wear like suits of armor. In the early episodes, their codes are polar opposites. Rust and Marty want very different things out of life, and nearly every line of dialogue is designed to let the viewer know that.

As the show has developed, we’ve been peeling back the lies that both men tell themselves. In many ways, early Cohle and Hart are fooling themselves. They are trying to fit their true natures into pre-defined roles that they feel are “correct.” By tonight’s finale, the great reveal will be seeing how much both men have come to depend on each other and reject their “desired” codes.

To me, the murder is the least important aspect of the show.  It’s not “the point.” Cohle continually states that “this has all happened before” and “time is a flat circle.” The players are inconsequential. The cycle is inescapable.

I don’t think that’s a reference to the fact that the events of True Detective take place over 18 years. I think it’s saying that horrible things will always occur, and someone needs to at least try to stop them from happening again.

The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.“The world needs bad men, we keep the other bad men from the door.”

But they won’t. They might stop this iteration, but another horrible thing will happen tomorrow. Murders happen down by the bayou all the time.

Rustin Cohle and Thomas Ligotti

Rust in the mirror








In the world of True Detective, Rustin Cohle is the man you paid to see. At first glance, Cohle resembles the typical “brilliant-yet-flawed master sleuth” archetype; however, unlike Sherlock Holmes or Gil Grissom, Rustin Cohle was designed to be severely mistrusted by the viewers. The man spouts constant cruel and pessimistic one-liners, often to people who are just trying to be helpful. And then there are the hallucinations like birds flying in a spiral formation and the possible ghost of his daughter. Is Rust really seeing these things? Is he crazy? Are these visions real, or a product of drug use and insomnia?

Either way, Cohle floats through scenes, with a 100-yard stare, constantly drifting into some half dream-state.  He’s legitimately hard to get a read on, and even harder to trust.

I believe author Thomas Ligotti is the key to understanding Rustin Cohle. This name started popping up in interviews with Nic Pizzolatto, and clearly there’s some influence/inspiration for Cohle’s characteristics there. Ligotti is a horror writer whose work consists of bleak, nihilistic tales, often dealing with unseen forces beyond human comprehension. Usually, the main focus of his work is the idea that human life is completely insignificant and the universe doesn’t care if we die.

Thomas Ligotti

Thomas Ligotti. His short stories are worth reading. Here, you can start with The Red Tower.

More important than his fiction is Ligotti’s philosophical manifesto, The Conspiracy Against The Human Race.  This book is a pitch-black treatise on the meaningless nature of human life.  In it, Ligotti asserts that there is absolutely no god, as human religions understand it. Existence and consciousness are a curse. According to Ligotti, we would all be better off if we had never been born. Failing that, human beings should not reproduce.

Here are a few choice quotes from Ligotti’s book:

“We want there to be more to it than that, or to think there is. This is the tragedy: Consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are—hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones.”

“…eventually every god loses its mystery because it has become overqualified for its job. After a god’s mystery is gone, arguments for its reality begin. Logic steps in to resuscitate what has been bled of its healthful vagueness. Finally, another “living god” is consigned to the mortuary of scholars.”

“For optimists, human life never needs justification, no matter how much hurt piles up, because they can always tell themselves that things will get better. For pessimists, there is no amount of happiness—should such a thing as happiness even obtain for human beings except as a misconception—that can compensate us for life’s hurt.”

Sound like someone we know?  The Conspiracy Against The Human Race might as well be called The Secret Diary of Rustin Cohle.


I believe that the crux of Cohle’s character is that, from episode 1, he has tried to be as detached from his feelings and society as the author of this book. The problem is that he can’t stick to it. He has too much compassion, and his mask is cracking.  Cohle claims to not care about anyone, yet he clearly shows concern when pressed.

There’s a brilliant interview with Matthew McConaughey in Rolling Stone that goes through the “four stages of Rustin Cohle,” basically shining a light on his character’s journey.

By last week’s episode, we’ve learned that Cohle feels he has a great cosmic debt to repay, and he wants to finish his final mission before moving on to “what’s next.”

Marty Hart and You

Hart's Rage








Marty is a bit more “by-the-numbers,” but he’s only mildly less compelling than his partner. He’s a strange beast, always barely keeping his explosive rage at bay. Hart’s code is everything to him and his inability to live by it has torn his family apart.

Marty wants to believe his family is the most important thing, yet he cheats on his wife and neglects his kids. Marty wants to believe that religion is an important part of a healthy life, though his behavior is often wildly hypocritical.

He’s a deep, conflicted man, but he’s just “normal” enough that he feels like “one of us” along for the ride. Rust is the one with the supernatural ability to make anyone confess. Rust is the man who walks into a crime scene and starts spouting incredible theories. Marty’s down-to-earth deductive abilities make pale in comparison to Cohle’s.

The real use of Marty as a character is his relationship to the viewer. He serves as an audience surrogate. Sure, Marty and Rust are both narrating the story, but realistically, we’re mostly watching this world through Marty’s eyes. He is—on the surface, at least—a “regular-type” dude. Even if he’s lying to himself, he’s telling lies that many viewers tell themselves on a daily basis.

Hart desperately wants to live the proper American life. At first glance, he’s succeeding. He has normal friends and habits. He has a wife and kids. He’s reasonably a normal person at work.

Meanwhile, Marty’s partner Cohle lives in an empty dwelling with a stack of murder books, a box full of guns and a mattress. His interactions with others seem cold and distant. He makes bizarre nihilistic statements almost as though he’s narrating his own film noir.

This place is like someone’s memory of a town — and the memory’s fading.”

Marty reacts “properly” to Cohle. Point-for-point, his reactions are the funniest and most endearing parts of the show. Every single time Rust does or says something strange, Marty’s eyes immediately flair up with barely-choked-down fury or utter disbelief.


When it comes down to it, everyone is watching this show for Cohle’s craziness, but we need Marty to put it in perspective.

Think about the Children

Another major character development point is Rust and Marty’s attitudes and reactions to children.  Both of them have a soft spot for kids.

Rust makes antinatalist statements about how human beings should stop reproducing and welcome oblivion. But we know he doesn’t truly feel this way. In fact, he’s essentially ruined his life on a mad quest to stop the crimes against children that have been wronged by the “Yellow King” killer(s). He made absolutely sure to check the house for the small boy during the raid, telling him to hide in the bathtub. 

Finally, let’s not forget how he nonchalantly told the woman who murdered her children that “If you get the chance, you should kill yourself” before casually stepping out of the room. (Coincidentally, that’s how I end all of my voicemail messages these days.)


Rust’s early career was ruined after he lost control and executed a tweaker that had been injecting a baby with drugs. That’s not even mentioning the fact that the entire basis of his character is a man who was clearly driven to despair by the death of his own child. Cohle certainly cares about children a lot more than he lets on.

Marty’s feelings on kids are less subtle. He is openly worried about their well-being. After all, Hart is the one who completely lost control after finding the captive children.

He knows that the “right” way to live is to be a good family man, but he oddly turned out to be a neglectful father who has become completely estranged from his kids. Throughout the series, there have been some glaring “trouble ahead” red flags with one of his daughters, but he just puts it out of his mind and focuses on his own selfish desires. Like most things in Hart’s life, he can see the shape of the idea that he’s reaching for, but he just can’t seem to grab it.

The 2012 version of Marty has been utterly beaten. He threw away a very promising police career after seeing a microwaved infant. It’s a strong parallel to the tweaker crime that heavily contributed to Cohle’s downfall. Both men threw it all away at the sight of a lifeless baby. Both men were brought down by their concern for children. Both men are now on a suicidal quest to avenge the children they saw on “the tape.” For being so very different, both of them are slowly discovering that their actual moral codes are surprisingly in-tune.

As we enter tonight’s finale, there is an enormously good chance that neither of our protagonists will survive. They’re heading against forces that are beyond their control.

I don’t think there will be “a twist.” I don’t think we’ll have any great secrets unveiled. The lawnmower man is probably the Yellow King. The Tuttle family is probably a bunch of creepy cultists.

I’ll be watching to see the final act of Cohle and Hart’s partnership. Hopefully there’s some redemption waiting for them, but maybe there isn’t. If time is a flat circle and the universe actually doesn’t care, then our heroes could be unceremoniously killed and the Yellow King crimes could just as easily continue, unpunished.

We could find out tonight that I’m completely off base here, but whatever. That’s not the point either.