Home > Reviews, Television > Television Review: True Detective – Season One

Television Review: True Detective – Season One

True Detective – Season One (HBO; 2014)

One hesitates when faced with the task of writing about HBO’s buzzy bayou crime drama True Detective, which has already had so much digital ink spilled about it that finding new and worthwhile things to say (even at the end of its run) seems a total folly. Yet it’s a testament to the richness, depth, and tantalizing symbology that novelist Nic Pizzolatto’s neo-Southern Gothic twist on the hard-boiled serial murder mystery genre is imbued with that it could support such a weighty pile of discussion, speculation, praise, criticism, and internet meme-ry without collapsing. That the show’s narrative and even thematic conclusions proved more conventional and less fascinatingly obtuse than early episodes may have promised does not far reduce the compelling nature of the eight-episode ride True Detective provided to willing viewers.

It’s difficult to properly discuss either those narrative or thematic elements of True Detective without entering deeply into plot-spoiling detail, so like most things that are difficult, I won’t even try to do that. The first season of True Detective (future seasons will focus on different characters, locations, and cases, anthology-style) follows the forking paths of a 17-year murder investigation by two Louisiana State Criminal Investigation Division (CID) detectives. It begins in 1995 (although Pizzolatto is fond of philosophically opining that nothing ever begins and nothing ever ends). Detectives Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) are called out to a field beneath a sprawling old tree in rural Louisiana to process a bizarre and disturbing crime scene. An unidentified young woman is dead, her body arranged ritualistically facing the tree in a crouching position surrounded by cat’s-cradle-like twig latticework totems, a pair of stag antlers strapped to her head, stab wounds on her belly, and a spiral symbol drawn on her back.

The investigative effort to find the woman’s killer will cost the men nearly two decades, not to mention their jobs, Marty’s stable family life, Rust’s mental health, their sense of moral equilibrium, and quite nearly their lives. The sprawling rhizomatic case will encompass obscure symbols, revivalist preachers, billionaire politically-connected church leaders, drug-dealing biker gangs and meth cooks, missing children, Mardi Gras rituals, and a sinister “Yellow King” inhabiting a castle of nightmares called Carcosa.

Much of True Detective‘s appeal can be put down to the acclaimed duelling lead performances of Harrelson and McConaughey. Their names are literalizations of their contrasting natures. Marty Hart, though he affects the assumptions of mainstream masculinity redolent of the hero cop, is in fact governed by roiling emotions and desires that he is wholly out of touch with and poorly-equipped to negotiate. This leads him to make a total mess of his life, distancing himself from his intelligent wife and his daughters before fatally wounding his relationship to all of them with two unwise pleasure-seeking affairs with younger women. Though he affects the devil-may-care pose of the tough-as-nails alpha male, he does not have the stomach for the harsh realities of his job, and witnessing depraved treatment of children in particular leads him to look away from key evidence, make rash and costly decisions, and eventually leave the force entirely.

Hart clashes and sparks with Rust Cohle, his partner from Texas with a dark past of narcotics undercover work, a meticulous intellect and investigative eye for details and connections, and an aloof, philosophical, and misanthropic approach to his fellow human beings. His name suggests stubborn earthiness and flinty decay, and in the hands of a lesser actor (or writer) Rust Cohle could have been a crabby downer. But McConaughey, who won a Best Actor Oscar in the middle of True Detective‘s triumphal broadcast run, is blazing bright at the moment, and his trademarked Texan drawl sharpens even as it drifts into abstraction here. His quasi-academic expostulations on religious belief (which he deeply disdains) at the beginning of the third episode cap a series of ragged sage lectures that leave the less intellectually-curious Marty amusingly befuddled, in the mode of the car conversations meme linked above. These speeches drop away as the case becomes hotter and as Cohle becomes more disillusioned, but his oddball savant aura never loses the glow they imparted. Still, despite their opposing viewpoints and the considerable friction in their relationship, Hart and Cohle are eventually the only people who can understand (and simply stand) each other, and each needs the other to purge the stain on their lives that the unresolved case has left.

The earlier episodes of the serial are framed by the unreliable-narrator device of interviews conducted with off-the-force Hart and Cohle in 2012 by State detectives (Michael Potts and Tory Kittles) concerning the events of 1995 and later of 2002, when the partners fell out and Cohle quit the State CID. Cohle, who pursued the case with a particular obsessiveness, treats the cops and their leading questions (they believe he could be a suspect in what is now clearly a series of murders) with casual disdain, smoking and drinking in the interview room, carving human silhouettes from the empties, and engaging in the sort of philosophically nihilistic tangents that so frustrated his former partner. Not only Cohle but Hart and Hart’s ex-wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan) all wilfully mislead the detectives with versions of events often drastically different than those shown in the scenes from the periods being discussed.

In addition to destabilizing the certainties of the narrative with this device, Pizzolatto dots his jagged plot with red herrings, unexpected (and unexpectable) turns, and tantalizing but never-expounded-upon symbols and literary references. The showcase clues and stings that tend to end episodes on fascinating highs often turn into dead ends or insignificant detours in the early minutes of the following installment. A twig latticework “devil’s trap” in the backyard playhouse of relatives of a long-missing girl connects her to the antler murder, but a graphic video later establishes the connection without a doubt; an illegal shakedown of a doughy sheriff (Michael Harney) on Marty’s boat yields nothing useful beyond another hint at the official cover-up that Cohle paranoidly suspects. Most notably, a tremendous, intense, and technically-masterful sequence (embedded at the end of the post) of an undercover heist that Cohle must escape with a biker gang hostage in order to make a big break in the case leads to a false tidy conclusion that directs the detectives away from the larger target for another 12 years.

Pizzolatto’s recurring but abtruse symbols cluster insistently around one key point of reference in particular: Robert W. Chambers’ 1895 short story collection The King in Yellow, a pioneering work of supernatural horror in American literature. Inspired by Ambrose Bierce and Edgar Allen Poe and in turn inspiring H.P. Lovecraft’s similar but more developed Cthulhu Mythos, Chambers’ stories referenced the titular, shadowy, macabre king as well as a ficitional play about him whose subject matter and language drives anyone who reads it to madness. The fragments of the play that Chambers presents include references to the King in Yellow’s strange and sinister realm Carcosa (where “the shadows lengthen” and songs die) as well as an important snatch of dialogue: “You, sir, should unmask.” All of these details are dotted throughout True Detective like breadcrumbs, converging at the last in Cohle and Hart’s climactic face-off with the serial killer in his own dank Carcosa.

If these signs and symbols don’t wind up signifiying as much as imaginative fans hoped they might, then perhaps that was the point; the fault may not be in the stars, but in ourselves. What Lovecraft plucked from Chambers’ haunting sketches for his ever-expanding Cthulhu Mythos is the power of suggestion carried by eerie, vague symbols in the horror reader’s mind, the likelihood that whatever terrible reality they can imagine will be far more terrifying than any that a writer lays out for them. True Detective‘s plot becomes more contrived and more conventionally generic in both its implications and its results as it drags on; this is especially true of the Marty-Maggie-Rust triangle and the choice that sunders all three in 2002. Pizzolatto, for all of his literary references and novelistic social detail and lovely turns of phrase in dialogue, is hardly immune to the unsavoury, conventional sensationalist elements of the genre. His previous TV writing work was, after all, for AMC’s tonally similar but increasingly lamentable The Killing.

But True Detective is both a more entertaining and infinitely more artistically significant piece of television than the American adaptation of a moody Danish murder mystery whose unflattering example it works very hard not to emulate. This is not only down to the quality of the writing and performances, but stems from the manner in which practically everything presented onscreen through the eight-episode run becomes a symbol of a society not merely in decline but one actively denying a long and ongoing catastrophe. A thematic staple of the Southern Gothic genre, indeed perhaps its foundational metaphor, is that the fundamental moral degradation of the society of the American South is manifested as fresh corporeal degradations with deep symbolic roots to the lamentable past. A system of dehumanizing and exploitative slave labour is the foundation for a class structure based on aristocratic privilege, is defended in a failed rebellious war, and then is romanticized as noble by subsequent generations. Southern Gothic, from Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, represents the irruptions of the past’s disavowed horrors into a derelict present. Ghost stories are more plentiful in the South, you might say, because the ghosts there are more restless for being unburied.

true-detective1As Alexis Madrigal’s Atlantic Monthly article on the landscapes of True Detective makes clear, however, the haunted past of Louisiana is not far away but terribly close and contemporary and immediate. The first season was directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga and shot by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, and their exquisite and striking composition of Louisiana’s locations and landscapes are the real revelation, both aesthetically and symbolically. The settings are alternately dilapidated and voided; homes and offices are either bursting, Borgesian archives overflowing with detritus or have become ruins by abandonment or due to their destruction by hurricanes; in either case, their function is dubious. Cohle calls the planet “all one ghetto… a giant gutter in outer space”, but he might as well have been talking about the blasted but rugged-beautiful scenery of the Pelican State and its profound and resonant existential swirl. The jawdropping epic tableau of the second episode’s final scene, seen to the left, is like a stark symbolist painting metaphorizing not only the Louisianan but the American condition: a ruined church with its roof caved in, its steeple and stained-glass window staring across wetlands towards the ominous industrial skyline of a petrochemical refinery.

The landscapes and settings of True Detective, its truest and greatest accomplishment, have a deeper signification linked to the recurring image of the spiral sign. The spiral becomes a motif in the dialogue too: “Time is a flat circle,” Cohle says, and it soon becomes clear that much of the show is constructed as a visionary literalization of that philosophical nugget. Cohle espies these spirals everywhere (he’s a synesthete, by the way, and sometimes has quasi-hallucinatory waking visions), but most notably as he and Hart approach the broken-down church and a murmuration of birds fleetingly coalesce into one. He sees another more vividly detailed spiral in the domed chamber of Carcosa before the King in Yellow attacks him, a galactic-cloud universe with shades of green. Indeed, Carcosa itself, a seeming Civil War-era stone fortress filled with creepy, poky twig sculptural patterns (an embodiment of the core of Southern Gothic), is just such a shape. Cohle navigates it in a rough spiral pattern until reaching the psychic and physical horror of its centre, and his escape and recovery from what occurs there dispels just enough of his enlightened pessimism to allow in glimmers of hope, like flickering star points in a black night sky.

The bridge between Carcosa’s climactic nadir of evil and the denouement’s pillowy landing of cold comfort is a vital series of panoramas of the various locations of the narrative’s horrors. These landscape shots seem almost to spiral back through time and space to the great tree in the isolated field where the girl with the antlers was found, but we travel to them through neither time nor space. They are the final thesis statement of True Detective‘s existential view of time as a flat circle, where places play host to traumas and then endure beyond the scope of those events, containing their memory but letting it fade with disaffection. It’s a circle that connects damaged cops and mothers and career criminals and crooked leaders and murder victims and lost girls and psychotic killers and all the rest of us frightened sentient mammals and offers no special regard for any. Our precious distinctions and desires and anxieties sink into the sprawling bayou of time and drown, leaving no intelligible sign of their presence in this everchanging gutter in outer space. Only in memory, the history in our heads, does anything linger, and that too is finite. Just as Lovecraft’s mythos suggested monstrous inhuman forces that operated heedless of human agency, so True Detective gestures to similar implications. That all of these profound meanings and dark hints intermix in the generic stew of True Detective speaks to the rare power and resonance of this rare television series.

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Categories: Reviews, Television
  1. May 1, 2014 at 1:30 pm

    Have you taken a look at the The Visionary Work of Gustave Moreau and it’s symbolist art?

  1. April 18, 2014 at 12:03 pm
  2. August 28, 2014 at 6:07 pm
  3. September 20, 2014 at 6:21 pm
  4. February 15, 2015 at 10:49 am
  5. June 16, 2015 at 9:25 pm
  6. August 15, 2015 at 10:01 am

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