A review of tonight's "True Detective" season finale coming up just as soon as I ask you what "scented meat" is...

"Once, there was only dark. If you ask me, the light's winning." -Cohle

When I interviewed "True Detective" creator Nic Pizzolatto before this season began, I asked him about how he expected to distinguish this show from the abundance of other serial killer dramas filling (or polluting, if you'd rather) primetime at the moment. We've seen by now that even though "True Detective" has many superficial elements and character types and plot devices in common with a lot of those shows (and other crime-adjacent dramas, like an early scene here that evoked the last episode of "Breaking Bad"), it is very much its own thing, and could not easily be compared to the others. "True Detective" and "Hannibal" both featured killers who displayed their victims' bodies with antlers, for instance, and I would never in a million years confuse the one with the other, because they're each so idiosyncratic and brilliant in wildly different ways.

But a part of that exchange stuck with me: when Pizzolatto said, "I have literally no interest in serial killers." The goal of the show was to tell two intense character portraits of these two cops as they worked together and then apart over 17 years, and it just happened that a serial killer case wound up being the subject that the author found most fruitful to do so.

I don't think that Pizzolatto then took a half-hearted approach to the plot itself, but the plot was never the most compelling part of the series. And the times when the show stripped away the monologues, the mysticism and the bending of time and space and told a relatively straightforward narrative about this case — I'm thinking of much of episode 6 in particular — were when it felt weakest. I loved hearing Rust wax philosophical about the nature of being, or seeing the look of confused disgust on Marty's face after one of his partner's soliloquies, or observing the many ways in which the stories our heroes told Gilbough and Papania diverged from what we were seeing, but I never felt all that invested in the identity of the Yellow King(*) or in how far and wide the conspiracy spread.

(*) And I don't think that learning the King's true identity in any way makes this fan theory from last week any less valid or thought-provoking. 

That turned out to simultaneously be a feature and a bug when it came to "Form and Void."

I entered the finale not really caring about whether Errol the Spaghetti Monster was also the Yellow King, whether Audrey Hart's doll crime scene tableaux would somehow tie into the case, whether Marty's father-in-law would somehow be part of the conspiracy, etc. I had no pet theories about the case; I cared much more that the story of Rust and Marty come to a satisfying conclusion than that the case they were investigating did. So the fact that this sprawling, complex investigation all boiled down to Errol Childress as a bogeyman in a really large haunted house — the overgrown Childress estate as the lost city of Carcosa — pursuing and being pursued by our heroes didn't really wreck things for me, because it was followed by a lengthy epilogue that brought the show back to its focus on these two men and the ways they've been changed by the years and this case (and by the ways they haven't).

At the same time, because I cared so much more for the men than the story, the fact that so much of the finale dealt with a bogeyman in a haunted house was disappointing. Not enough to reduce my feelings about the season as a whole, but enough to remind me of some of the show's flaws, and to make me wish that somehow Pizzolatto had constructed the entire thing as a story being told in those interview rooms by Cohle and Hart. As was the case throughout these eight episodes, Cary Fukunaga did beautiful, darkly original work shooting the Carcosa sequence — the way, for instance, Cohle's hallucinations returned at the absolute worst moment — so that it never felt exactly like a rehash of the denouement of every serial killer movie ever made. But it still felt more simplistic and formulaic than previous episodes had suggested. After the fact, Rust and Marty talk about how they didn't get all the members of the conspiracy, and the TV news reports suggest that the Tuttles have already shut down any attempts to connect them with the Childresses, but in the moment, a show that had been so very complex and strange so often boiled down to unkillable Rust Cohle in battle with the superhumanly strong monster Errol Childress.

And yet for all of the ways that the finale again evoked the notion of time as a flat circle, and history repeating itself — Rust and Marty even split up at the Childress home, just as they did at Ledoux and DeWall's compound in episode 5, though here it was Rust putting a bullet in the bad guy's head, and under far more dangerous circumstances —  I liked "Form and Void" in the end because the epilogue pivoted away from the case and instead showed that time and circumstance had genuinely changed these two men.

A month or so earlier in the show's timeline, Marty Hart was regaling Papania and Gilbough with stories of what a great cop he was and how he had his personal life figured out in a way that his haunted scarecrow of a partner never could. After going through the whole story of Dora Lange with the cops, and then after the things he and Rust uncovered in their new investigation, Marty's certainty and self-confidence are a thing of the past. He lies in his hospital bed, having survived Errol's attack and closed a case that could make him famous enough to actually write that true crime book he was lying about last week, and he has his ex-wife and estranged daughters all back together with them, and he can't keep the good ol' boy mask on anymore. His phrasing keeps going back and forth between different modes of time — "I'll be fine," and then "I am fine," on and on, like "the disc in the loop" Errol was rambling about in an earlier scene — before he simply breaks down. Maggie and the girls are there out of a certain level of personal obligation, but there's still a distance there, and Marty can sense it, just as he understands how all of that distance was created by himself and himself alone. It's a beautiful, difficult moment, and one of many reminders in the finale, and throughout the season, that Woody Harrelson's work shouldn't be underestimated just because Marty wasn't given to flowery rhetoric like his once and future partner.

Alan Sepinwall has been reviewing television since the mid-'90s, first for Tony Soprano's hometown paper, The Star-Ledger, and now for HitFix. His new book, "TV (The Book)" about the 100 greatest shows of all time, is available now. He can be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com