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The Ending Of True Detective Season 1 Explained

In 2014, HBO released the first season of the anthology crime drama series True Detective, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga of No Time to Die and starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, respectively. Season 1's eight episodes were lauded by critics, earning an 87% on Rotten Tomatoes with a 100% Audience Score. The show currently has three seasons, with the possibility of a fourth season at some point. 

Set in Louisiana, True Detective season 1 features a split timeline that slowly comes together over the course of the season. Beginning in 1995, Rust and Marty are brought on to solve the murder of a young woman named Dora Lange that appears to be ritualistic in nature. As this unfolds, the series jumps through time to 2012 when Rust and Marty, no longer in contact with one another after a falling out in 2002, are brought in for questioning on their old case, now reopened. 

Over the course of the season, Rust and Marty face personal setbacks and moral questioning as the case gets more and more complicated. A conspiracy unfolds surrounding a rumored "Yellow King" and a fictional city called "Carcosa," and the detectives connect other missing persons cases or murders to Lange's case. In the season finale, everyone is brought up to speed in 2012. Teaming up once again, Rust and Marty finally figure out the identity of the serial killer they've been hunting for almost two decades.

Rust and Marty finally face off with the real killer

After many years and an intense degradation of optimism and belief in humanity, Rust and Marty now know who killed Lange and many others. Turns out they even met the man 17 years prior back in episode 3, as the person on the lawnmower who Rust talks to at the school. His name is Errol Childress, the grandson of Sam Tuttle. He is the man with the scars on his face, the tall man, and the green-eared spaghetti monster all in one.

The detectives arrive at the killer's home and force their way in. When Errol doesn't listen to Rust, and runs, Rust tracks the man through the house and across the property, seeing all the evidence of Errol's insanity. Eventually, the two arrive at a domed room that appears to be the mythical Carcosa. Rust then has a vision at the most inopportune moment, likely the result of years of drug use and other factors.

In the middle of experiencing the vision, Errol attacks Rust, viciously stabbing him in the stomach. Despite Errol's size and Rust's new injury, the detective holds his own until Marty arrives and shoots the killer in the shoulder. Of course, then Marty then suffers his own injury, as Errol turns his attention on the other man. As Errol tries to kill him, it looks like Marty has little chance of surviving. Luckily for him, Rust manages to stay conscious long enough to shoot Errol in the head.

The Tuttle family cult and the real life inspiration

With evidence from Errol's home, the police are able to connect the man with the Lange case and many others over the years. Unfortunately, they are unable to solidly connect the crimes with the rest of the Tuttle family. Throughout the case, Rust and Marty uncover a cult operating within the Tuttle family, of which Errol is a member. The group worships the Yellow King and Carcosa, performing ritual torture and sacrifice on children. This is evident in the video of Marie Fontenot's death that Rust finds in the possession of Reverend Tuttle (Jay O. Sanders). Despite having this piece of evidence, the police are unable to tie it to either the Tuttle megachurch or Senator Eddie Tuttle, leaving them free of consequence. At least for now. 

The real life origin of the Yellow King and Carcosa is a book of short stories by author Robert W. Chambers called The King in Yellow. The collection of dark stories revolves around a fictional in-universe play also called The King in Yellow that causes anyone who reads it to go mad (via Nerdist). Chambers depicts Carcosa in his work as an ancient, possibly cursed place. While he brought the term to the attention of a wider audience, Carcosa actually originated in the short story "An Inhabitant of Carcosa" by Ambrose Bierce. According to show creator Nic Pizzolatto, this source doesn't necessarily exist in True Detective's universe. In an interview with EW, he put it quite simply, saying, "To be clear, in our show, nobody is going to reference a book by Robert Chambers called The King In Yellow." The show leaves clues here and there pointing to connections, but it's up to viewers to interpret how the cult formed around these beliefs. 

Rust Cohle regains hope for the world

While the final episode wraps up the case, it also brings some resolution to the characters of Marty and Rust. Throughout the show, Rust is a stark nihilist with little hope in humanity, and this affects his relationships — or lack thereof — with those around him. As he recovers from his almost fatal encounter with Errol, Rust explains to Marty what it felt like being that close to death. Like the vision of oblivion he sees before he is stabbed, Rust says, "I could feel my definitions fading. And beneath that... darkness, there was another kind. It was — it was deeper, warm, you know, like a substance. I could feel, man, and I knew, I knew my daughter waited for me there." He talks about feeling like all he "had to do was let go," and he does. But despite all that, he wakes up, alive.

While it seems like Rust wants to die in that moment, his attitude after his survival is completely changed, as if that one moment feeling a connection to his deceased daughter gives him the motivation to live again. In the final moments of the season, Rust illustrates this newfound perspective, saying "Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light's winning." Does this mean that the man who continually scoffs at religion and faith has finally found meaning for his life and something to believe in? Well, that's up to your interpretation.

Marty Hart stays by Rust's side

Marty is just as self-destructive as Rust throughout the season, though it presents itself in different ways. Initially, his life looks picture perfect, but as the episodes continue, True Detective quickly reveals that it is anything but. In 1995, Marty is having an affair with a younger woman named Lisa (Alexandra Daddario) and going through a midlife crisis. Soon, his wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan) finds out, and she takes off with their daughters. 

Unsurprisingly, the one thing Marty manages to keep control over is his reputation at work, following strict regulations and maintaining good relationships with his colleagues. It's a good thing, because after Maggie leaves, this is all he has left. At the end of the season, Marty is still alone with his work, but with the help of Rust he finally solves the case that's been hounding him for years. 

Marty then stays with Rust as he recovers from his injuries, keeping a close eye on him and promising that his living situation once he gets out is all set up. As he listens to one last philosophical speech from Rust, the two appear to actually be friends now. Although the finale leaves no hints as to what the two detectives will do next, at least audiences can rest easy knowing they have each other.