The first season of True Detective is some of the best television I've ever seen (second only to Twin Peaks: The Return, as far as I'm concerned), but there's something I don't understand about the ending. Or rather, there's something I don't understand about how people see the ending. It seems that the general consensus was that the ending was disappointing, with the build-up towards the paranormal abandoned for a more-or-less mundane antagonist, with the larger conspiracy untouched, and with a seeming tonal shift for Matthew Mcconaughey's Rust Cohle that doesn't match his character in the preceding episodes. I've seen plenty of folks let down by it, or who feel the show was more drama than horror, or who chafed at the sudden character turn. Even the great Laird Barron has said an in interview that Cohle's remarks about how the light is winning rings untrue. Obviously I'm not here to tell Mr. Barron about horror -- the man knows his business better than I ever will -- but I have a different take on the ending, one I haven't seen anywhere else in the years since the season ended. In short, I'd argue that the ending is the perfect capstone in the downfall of Rust Cohle.
When makes Rust Cohle special, what makes him able to get confessions from suspects whom no other detective can crack, what puts him at the center of the story? It's his pessimism, his insight into the essential nature of the world, which is the classic reality of all cosmic horror; humanity is an aberration in an uncaring and inimical universe. Cohle, via the death of his daughter and his time spent undercover, has seen past the veil and truly understands what kind of story he's in; the show tells us this via Cohle himself in episode one, when he says of his philosophy that he "sees [himself] as a realist." He's not choosing to see things in the worst light, he's seeing them as they are. This is reflected in some of his hallucinations, like the Carcosa spiral made by the birds near the wrecked church at the end of episode two. As Cohle says, "back then, the visions... most of the time I was convinced, shit, I'd lost it. There were other times... I thought I was mainlining the secret truth of the universe." In a Lovecraftian reality, what's the difference?
Once Reggie and DeWall Ladoux are done for in episode five, leaving Marty and Cohle to believe the case is closed, we see Cohle try to settle down and live a more or less normal life. His renowned ability to get confessions leads to the tip that the Yellow King is still out there, and this is all it takes to start Cohle's downward spiral going again. Over the next several episodes we see how he's ended up a seemingly dissolute bartender in 2012, but of course we also learn he's been working the case on his own. Episode seven introduces Cohle's conspiracy cave, as well as the video tape of Marie Fontenot's ritual murder, an artifact of both unspeakable horror and forbidden knowledge in its proof of the conspiracy's existence. Marty tells Cohle he shouldn't have the tape; Cohle agrees about its evil nature, responding "nobody should have this," but he also tells Marty he "won't avert [his] eyes." Cohle's seen further into the void than ever, and he knows there's no going back. Until seeing the tape, Marty wasn't exactly convinced; it's precisely this forbidden knowledge that let him and Marty tackle the Yellow King, in the same way that Professor Armitage had to learn more than he ever wanted to from the Necronomicon in order to deal with the elder Whately sibling in The Dunwich Horror.
When Cohle and Marty arrive at Childress' farm for the climax in episode eight, Cohle immediately knows they're in the right place; he can recognize the taint, his "smelling the psychosphere." Childress, for his part, can recognize it too, calling Cohle "little priest" as he goads him on in the warrens of Carcosa. And, ultimately, that's exactly what Cohle has been; although he keeps "other bad men from the door," Cohle's philosophy of the universe is essentially the same as that of the Yellow King. He's only chosen to act differently based on that philosophy. And yet, after his vision of the spiral galaxy and the end of Childress, we're left with a very different Rust Cohle.
In the hospital, at first Cohle is dejected that the rest of the conspiracy is untouched (as is evident from the newscast that totally covers up any connection between the cult and the powerful Tuttle family). This is an issue that many viewers seemed to have too, but Marty tells all of us straight up: "that ain't what kind of world it is." Marty and Cohle have their small, personal victory over Childress, but that's all it is. There's no true winning here, no fixing what's wrong, because in a cosmic horror story it's reality itself that's wrong from our narrow human perspective. There's no way to change that status quo. Then, finally, there's the real meat of the ending: Cohle's monologue about feeling his daughter's love as he was dying, and his insistence at the end that Marty's "looking at the sky thing wrong." He tells us, "once there was only dark... You ask me, the light's winning." This is a statement totally in opposition to the Cohle we've come to know til now, one that seems to paint a rather sappy, discordant end to everything that's come before. I'd argue, though, that it's this contrast that is exactly the point. Cohle's flipped perspective here is showing us he's lost his pessimism, and with it his insight into the nature of reality. He's given up, whether by choice or because he finally had taken more than he could bear, and he's undergone a kind of anti-enlightenment into the affirmation-delivering mediocrity he'd spent the entire series deriding. Without the protective cocoon of this false hope, he'd be forced to acknowledge that their getting Childress and closing the case was ultimately meaningless, that the only thing their forbidden knowledge brought them was knowing first-hand just how evil their world is and how powerless they are in the face of it. We, the viewers, know this, and we're left to watch Cohle become a hopeful rube, the exact kind of deluded fool he despised. The old Cohle would likely have preferred to die than suffer this fate, but the new, optimistic Cohle can't even realize that. Despite the illusion of a relatively happy if atonal ending, what we really have is the only possible outcome besides death for the cosmic horror protagonist: The annihilation of his self and his understanding of his reality, the only thing he truly valued.