The two traits that could have helped them identify Childress as their target were hidden when he was (very briefly) interviewed by Rust: The scars were covered by dirt, and his height was not noticeable because he was seated on a lawnmower. Adding on to this, it was his victims who reported Childress as being "disfiguringly scarred"; victims of traumatic, violent crimes often exaggerate unique features of the perpetrator.
The Spaghetti Monster-drawing: The green ears were an exaggeration of smudges of green paint on his face, just as the spaghetti beard was an exaggeration of his scars.
As for your tirade against the supposedly pointless red herrings, I disagree with your assertion that they were that. Rust's time with the bikers led to the confrontation with and subsequent killing of Ledoux - which turned it into a dead end in the hunt of Childress, creating the moral debt,
but eliminating two people whose theme was parallel to that of Childress - and the interrogation of Geraci was a dead end in terms of catching Childress but shed more light on the extent of the conspiracy. Both were valuable to the narrative: The former justified its extension, and the latter gave it depth. Both added value. That they in the end didn't contribute to the capture of Childress does not make them pointless.
The Green Ears-connection: Why
he had green paint on his ears is not important (Maybe he put his ears up against the wall to listen to the people inside), but how Hart and Rust made the connection is. It is weak, but not unimaginable:
- They are stuck without any lead. Rust has been looking at the same crap for years, and Hart (fresh eyes) is only just getting up-to-speed on Rust's material. Rust mentions "green" in a sentence, making Hart recall the green ears on the drawing of the spaghetti monster which they were looking at earlier while he is looking at a picture amongst many of a house with walls of a faded green colour.
- Green ears could either be 1) fake green ears, 2) green earmuffs, or 3) green paint on/around ears
- #1 is silly. Moving on with the assumption that #2 or #3 is correct, they need to find a non-suspicious reason for the killer to be in the neighbourhood. The only non-suspicious reasons for #2 and #3 is that the killer was a painter or someone who would wear green earmuffs to work.
- Sticking to #2. The natural consequence of this is to look at the canvassing photos to find out when the aforementioned green house was painted; if it could have been painted around the time of the kidnapping. And boom, they find their lead.
Rust, episode 5: “You know the detective’s curse? The solution was right under my nose, but I was paying attention to the wrong clues?”
Can you elaborate on what expectations "the show explicitly set"?
I hated Lost for its ending because I felt many mysteries were left unexplained - the bad luck associated with the numbers
, for example. The writers also admitted making shit up as they saw fit in order to drive the main story along.
But I enjoy the loose ends of True Detective. In fact, I would have enjoyed the show less if it served viewers the answer to every mystery on a dish. Instead, due to the quality of the writing, they have been able to leave some things for the viewers to figure out themselves.
My favourite loose end in TD is the hints about Hart's daughter having been witness to or victim of something gruesome, since she is aware of the symbolism and ritual of the cult.