The most controversial topic strafing the Net this week hasn’t been Putin’s grab for the Crimea; after all, since the dawn of the Industrial Age every Russian emperor’s mandate has been to secure access to a warm-water port, so is this really controversial? It hasn’t been the missing Malaysian Airlines flight, either (however, if I were Boeing’s PR department, I’d be in preemptory damage control mode right now — I’ve got a sneaky feeling that plane wasn’t flying right.)
Nay, nothing has ruffled more feathers this week than the ending of HBO’s True Detective.
If I were to imagine a word cloud rising from the chatter about the finale on Sunday, the leading adjective, the one in the center in the biggest font in the brightest magenta, would be “DISAPPOINTING.”
The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum — who, together with that magazine’s Richard Brody, defines the authoritative-yet-clueless entertainment writer better suited to scribbling hyperbolic copy for real-estate ads than commenting on film and TV — not only helped raise ‘disappointing’ to the top of the word cloud, she capped off a deliberately, annoyingly contrarian article about the finale with, “…it’s no fun to pan a show that people love (pleasure is an argument for itself, after all). But I’ll certainly be relieved when this series stops blocking people’s view of the other television that’s out there.”
Not for the first time, Nussbaum moved me to streams of ad hominem in The New Yorker Facebook comments section, a tirade that included the suspicion that Nussbaum’s editor might suffer from borderline personality disorder given how long she has been kept on despite the justifiably unpopular nature of her well-written tripe. Just as I called Andrew Sullivan’s demise from The Daily Beast correctly and relentlessly, and two years before it happened, I’m hopeful The New Yorker will come to its senses about terrible twosome Nussbaum and Brody.
I don’t consider myself clueless about filmed content. On the contrary, I know from experience how much thought and work goes into creating a near-masterpiece like True Detective. The fact the last episode appears to peter out is a deliberate stylistic choice on behalf of the show’s creator and sole writer, Nic Pizzollato, and director Cary Fukunaga, with the support of HBO’s supervising producer, who had the balls to agree that the season shouldn’t end with the usual cliffhanging denouement, with all of those many loose ends neatly tied up, preferably in a knot so tight the audience is gasping for more. It ended as it began: lyrically, thoughtfully, beautifully acted. (And that last bit was hard for me to admit because after his asinine, embarrassing Oscar acceptance speech I have taken to calling McConaughey’s every utterance and gesture ‘McDouchebaghery.’ I find him hard to watch now; I had to consciously distance myself from my repulsion to get through the True Detective finale.)
“I am certain there are people who found all this experimental and profound,” Nussbaum states with what seems like the seen-it-all yawn of a hungover sophomore at Oberlin College, before saying that the season in general was a “near-total wash” for her. Yes, it was “experimental” for all the aforementioned reasons, because it went against form and tradition but still retained the structural narrative elements, the character arcs, that make it solid drama. Yes, it was “profound,” genuinely so: there were moments during the middle of the season when, as I said to a producer of mine the other night, “I curled up hugging my legs, whimpering from the knowledge that I can never match that.” Please, bitch: Rusty’s existential monologue that cut between the interview room in the ‘present day’ and the revival-meeting tent ten years earlier? You’re looking forward to better than that? Go watch your precious Game of Thrones, Emily, don’t bother me. I have some serious rewrites to do.
The true ending of this season occurred shortly after they nabbed and killed the Yellow King in his fantastical briar throne room. The remaining twenty minutes are a coda; the heat of the drama is over, the build up was intense enough to whip most of the audience to a froth (so no “near-total wash,” there), the season had shot its wad. Time for a quiet moment or two. Again, this is a stylistic choice, a valid one in all entertainment arts, from classical music to literature to filmmaking; you are allowed an epilogue, and it is allowed to be integral to but discrete from what has come before.
Clearly Nussbaum prefers her season finales to feature impossibly white-haired young women hatching dragons after surviving the night in a bonfire the size of a small condominium, but I was fine with the “meditation” in True Detective about which she complains. That meditation had its own purposeful climax, albeit a gentle one: Rusty’s waking dream about his dead daughter. This worked superbly thanks to a surreal curve ball that was thrown just before the ‘real ending,’ when Rusty was taken off guard by the hallucination of a cosmic vortex hovering above the briar throne and nearly died as a result.
That oblique tie between the weird swirling supernova and Rusty’s final monologue about his daughter is what makes the ending work both intellectually and emotionally. It was completely unexpected as an ending, but that’s what makes it work even better.
I, too, wanted a mother-of-dragons, “Hell, yeah!” or, even better, “Oh, shit!” finale. Instead, they chose to end the season quietly, movingly. Indeed, Emily, it has always been about Rusty’s monologues. The action and the visuals have been accompanying illustrations for his philosophical discourse; that is valid. It might not be the ending we expected, it might not have delivered the kick we wanted, but it worked; it was both experimental and profound, and still on HBO.
Expecting a monumental finish, we didn’t realize that True Detective was all about the middle, about the process of getting to the finish. This, too, is valid, as I was taught in the first and only cinema studies class I ever took, at Wesleyan University, a very similar school to Nussbaum’s alma mater, Oberlin. I believe the professor’s name was Joe; at any rate, in my memory replay he is very Joe-ish. He was one of the legendary Jeanine Basinger’s main minions, her jester.
In the middle of every semester, Joe always gave a powerful lecture about cinematic narrative entitled, “The Middle is When.” He was one of the more eccentric teachers at a college so liberal it invented the term “politically correct.” This particular lecture was the cornerstone to his immense popularity with film students, and the theater in which the class took place was jammed for the event.
Joe had evidently given this lecture so many times that it had become almost entirely impressionistic; he made little sense to me as he paced the stage repeating, “The middle is when! The. Middle. Is. When!” with all of the theatrical passion of Tom Cruise yelling, “Respect the cock! Tame the cunt!” in Magnolia.
Still, even though it made no sense to me then, the lecture stayed with me, long after the lecturer’s name had vaporized into Joe-ish. I discovered its true meaning decades later when a script I was writing had “terrible second-act problems,” as a committee of producers put it. I’d never given much thought to the second act; it was what was sandwiched between a kicker first act and a killer ending, preferably an ending with a surprising twist, which nobody ever thought was half as clever as I did.
But now that middle was the make-or-break point of a script. It was as if all the bones in my body were broken and the skeleton was saying to me, “You see how vital I am? Without me there is no function!” The middle was making its when-ness known, painfully known.
After that experience, I am penitential to the second act. I revere and fear it on approach. At this point in my career, if I can’t pull a hearty first act out of the hat so fast that I can do it within hours of a pitch meeting, then I suck, and I don’t believe I suck. But wading into the second act, I now draw my vorpal sword; a story’s middle is my Jabberwock, my frumious Bandersnatch. I can become so caught in perfecting the second act that I will stay drunk for two weeks just to have enough Dutch courage to confront it without fear of perishing.
That certainly happened on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald I was commissioned to adapt, which goes into production next year. A lot of the drunken histrionics and insecurity emerged from the fact I had to put so much of a frumious ongoing romantic relationship into the script in order for it to work. But the rewriting and authenticity paid off: by the end of a fourth draft, I had an impregnable stone castle for a second act. (I do feel I should expense all of those bar tabs and liquor store bills on the production budget… writers…)
Now that I’d nailed the hardest part of that script, a new problem emerged: the ending. I thought it was perfectly fine; inadequate compared to the rest of the script, perhaps, but I figured that by the time we go into production, whoever will direct it — whether it’s me or someone else — will know what to do because the script will have evolved further. I even suggested shooting the ending a few different ways; this isn’t a huge production by any means, and we can afford to experiment with that scene. I was masking my laziness and indecision, perhaps, but I was also simply unsure. And this uncertainty about an ending was a first for me. The producers and I agreed on one thing: That it ended with the hero alone in the place where he was in the beginning of the film. But what were his actions?
“Endings are so difficult,” said the Exec Producer when we were brainstorming possibilities. Again, I’d never thought of them that way. He was one of the producers on a hit indie movie that has a similarly quiet ending to mine. “We struggled with that for months,” he said. Wow, I thought. And it’s just the hero walking away. Still, that simple walking away was a bit controversial, caused a few moans of disappointment and some head scratching.
So I changed it, over and over. I think I’ve nailed it now — no, I know I have. The Exec Producer agrees. The producer paying for the film, however, doesn’t. That’s a problem, but he’s agreed to let me shoot it my way, then we’ll try out a few others. And it may end up being as simple as the hero walking away.
Like my Fitzgerald project, True Detective made a conscious decision to be all about the middle. It’s not that it didn’t deliver — in terms of the when-ness of its middle, it more than delivered — it’s the ending that just didn’t live up to expectations. It wasn’t what we thought it was going to be; it was something entirely different. But surely shattering expectations is the strongest surprise twist ending of all.