'True Detective' post-mortem: Unraveling the mysteries

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Image Credit: Michele K. Short /HBO

“Certain experiences you can’t survive, and afterward, you don’t fully exist, even if you failed to die. Everything that happened…is still happening, only now it’s 20 years later, and what happened is just story.”—from the novel Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto

“Strange is the night where black stars rise.” – from The King In Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

True Detective is many things at once—an immersive character study, a gripping head-trippy murder mystery, a psychological profile of the anti-hero zeitgeist, a tour de force for Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. But simply and deeply, it is a story about two men telling a story. Rust Cohle (McConaughey) is a flickering ghost of a man who works four days a week and spends the other three drinking himself numb. Martin Hart (Harrelson) is a healthy-living P.I. whose good-old-boy humility, Bible Belt faith, and family man virtue belies so much hypocrisy. Both were detectives once—and for seven years, partners—and the tale they tell concerns a journey into some seriously noir woods, literally and metaphorically, that wrecked them and haunts them still. The more they talk, the more we see who they are, even as we wonder how much of what they’re saying is really true.

An eight-episode anthology franchise similar to American Horror Story, in which each season spins a different yarn with a different cast, True Detective takes its title from the pioneering pulp magazine True Detective, the king of the so-called “Dickbooks,” which launched the true crime category in 1928 at the dawn of the golden age of the pulps, and folded in 1995 after decades of chasing grittier, grimier degrees of “realism,” dead-ending in a gutter of smutty sleaze. But HBO’s True Detective is not homage; the association is ironic. The pulp wallowed in sensationalism; the show, while disturbing, does not. The pulp was “true” in that it profiled real-life crime; the show, all fiction, is concerned with philosophical truth and honesty. The pulp celebrated heroism and made icons out of its villains; the show deconstructs both heroic character and what Joseph Conrad called “the fascination with abomination.” True Detective isn’t just one more roll in the anti-hero mire — it’s a show about the long bright dark of this protracted anti-hero age, and maybe, a yearning for its end. It’s a show noisy with meaningful themes — lots of chatter about history, memory, identity, religion, time, death, futility–while also being about two men (and a culture) afflicted with meaninglessness. “There are broader ideas at work here,” the philosophical and impish Cohle says in episode three. “Namely: What is owed between us and society for our mutual illusions.” One wonders if True Detective counts among those shared fantasies the pop culture we consume together.

HBO’s True Detective is the creation of crime writer Nic Pizzolatto, and the first work in television for Cary Joji Fukunaga, the director of Sin Nombre and Jane Eyre. Together, they have built a fluid, many-layered narrative that’s as intimate as a confession and as sinister as a nightmare. Occasionally, the story can be as confusing as a dream (especially episode four, though, to be fair, it was supplied to critics in unfinished form); I recommend just rolling with it. Growing pains aside, Pizzolatto and Fukunaga make for a killer creative team. Hopefully the whole season is as strong as the first four episodes.

Fortunately, the drama has a pair of seasoned, magnetic stars that keep you grounded and pull you through when the story gets hazy. True Detective marks a return for Harrelson, the former Cheers star and two-time Oscar nominee, and a departure for McConaughey, whose recent movie performances (Magic MikeMudDallas Buyers ClubThe Wolf of Wall Street) have been so next-level adventurous and impressive it feels like we’re rediscovering him all over again. By the end of the first chapter, you’re already bumming that you only get eight episodes with them.

The storytelling is a double helix of complementary voices and, possibly, competing agendas. We meet the gaunt, burnt-out Cohle and puffy, put-together Hart as middle-aged men in the spring of 2012 as they give separate interviews on different days to a pair of Louisiana police detectives named Papania (Tory Kittles) and Gilbough (Michael Potts). Each episode toggles between the interviews, and back and forth in time, from Cohle and Hart holding court in a conference room, to the events of January 1995, in which Cohle and Hart investigated the alleged “occult-ritual murder” of a young woman named Dora Lange, a prostitute. The purpose of the interviews? Part of the mystery. Papania and Gilbough reveal to one of the ex-detectives (but not the other) that they are investigating a new homicide that has many similarities to the Lange case that Cohle and Hart allegedly solved—in allegedly heroic fashion—back in their leaner, hungrier days. Are the next-gen detectives simply looking to their predecessors for insight, or do they suspect them of some involvement in this 17-years-later slaying? Are Cohle and Hart trying to guide Papania and Gilbough toward the truth, or away from it? A game of true confession—or high-stakes fibbing—is afoot.

Prodded by Papania and Gilbough, Cohle and Hart produce a chronicle of the Dora Lang investigation, and more, a portrait of the men they used to be. Hart in ’95: A decent detective of good reputation, but falling apart in every other area of his life; a closed-off husband to his longtime sweetheart, Maggie* (Michelle Monaghan), who yearned for deeper connection; a withdrawn father to two young, precocious daughters; a Christian, but a flimsy and badly behaved one. Hart wasn’t prone to critical introspection, and this flaw was ruining him, his marriage, and his family. How much does this man have in common with the Hart of 2012? TBD.

*True Detective has been criticized for its lack of strong female characters. But I accept that this is a story about two men, their relationship to each other, themselves and their history. Another season, another story might be — should be — about other perspectives; that is one the great creative opportunities this anthology franchise format offers. Season one uses its few women to express exhaustion with male archetypes and modes of masculinity we wish to see retired. That doesn’t make them any more impressive or admirable. But they have their value.

The Cohle of ’95 was already a haunted soul: Divorced; a deceased child; a sealed-record past packed with trauma and horror. He was a Texas outsider suspected by his peers of being Internal Affairs. They nicknamed him “The Taxman” because of his want to write notes—lots and lots of notes—in an oversized, ledger-like journal. The devil is in the details, of course. As Cohle reminds us, you never know “which one down the line makes you go ‘Ah!’ and breaks the case.” But apparently the Dora Lang casework is gone—ruined by Hurricane Rita, we’re told. Hmmm.

And so Cohle and Hart must create a new record of the case by recollecting it. We must trust them, then, to not go Verbal Kint, the trickster chronicler of The Usual Suspects, and remake history with bias and subversive agenda. The hermeneutical threat of unreliable narrators is complimented by the ways the story dramatizes the theme of epistemology — how we know what we know. The stories of the past told by many of the the characters are compromised in various ways — cultural influence, media framing, mental illness, more. At one point, the medical examiner recommends that Cohle and Hart consult an anthropologist for insight into a few clues that reminds him of primitive art. They never do, and instead, rely solely on their own understanding and experience, such as it is, for better and worse.

The Dora Lange murder mystery is itself a stir of cultural echoes, recent and ancient. Her naked, blindfolded, stabbed body—branded with a downward spiral tattoo—is found in a section of sugarcane burn-off in the Louisiana sticks. She is posed in a kneeling position, as if praying, amid the exposed roots of a magnificent tree and affixed with a crown made of antlers. It can be seen as more Murdered Girl TV or baroquely religious serial killer misogyny (See: Laura Palmer, Twin Peaks; Rosie Larsen, The Killing), or, as I do, a meta representation of both tropes.

Near the corpse: tiny traps of twigs and sticks; “devil nets,” according to a local preacher, designed to keep Satan at bay. But he’s pulling this devilish detail from some bygone tale from his youth about a God-fearing lady “who had some of that Santeria in her.” The devil trap is a clue to a mystery—and, as I saw it, a metaphor for ignorance, for people who think they understand their culture/themselves, but don’t. Cohle ’95 finds another devil trap in another location in episode 1, but in episode 2, Cohle ‘12 tells us: “Yeah, nobody knew why that thing was in the playhouse.” His theory is that the villain—or someone—was engaging in coded gameplay, having “a conversation” with the detectives. That’s True Detective, too: a subtle conversation with the culture, about culture, and how well we know it, among many other things. (HBO recently sent these devil traps to critics and TV reporters as a promo item — a “conversation” starter. Well played.)

Cohle and Hart analyze Lange’s desecrated/maligned body through their respective worldviews and make loaded correlations. “Looks Satanic,” says Hart, a Christian, albeit not a terribly bright one. “They had a 20/20 on it a few years back.” Hart is surely referring to a segment of the ABC news magazine from 1985 called “The Devil Worshippers”—a key flashpoint in the media-sensationalized Satanic Ritual Abuse moral panic of the 1980s. Cohle—full of new ideas gleaned from books profiling the criminal mind—is more intellectually energized. He decodes the crime scene as an expression of perverse pathology and transgressive art: This is the work of a “metapsychotic” engaging in “fantasy enactment” by turning Dora into a “paraphilic lovemap.”* Fancy words, indeed, and you wonder if Cohle really understands them or if he’s talking over his head, like, say, a certain Doc Jensen I know. “Metapsychotic” — as Cohle uses the word — suggests a psycho who is self-conscious about killing, in the same way that Kevin Spacey’s serial killer in Seven turned his victims into sick, sermonizing expressions of his worldview.  But literally, “metapsychosis”  is an arcane term for psychic activity — the act of one mind working on another. A storyteller or a con man could be considered a “metapsychotic.” So could BOB, the itinerant demon who possessed weak-minded predator-pervert Leland Palmer and killed Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks. And is it just me, or doesn’t scraggly Rust Cohle circa 2012 kinda look like Matthew McConaughey doing a BOB impression?

*I am 38% convinced that “paraphillic lovemap” = lovingly crafted horror = horror legend H.P. Lovecraft, who lurks in the subtext, by association. More, later.

Cohle is convinced Lange is the first of many murders to come—or the latest in a series that has gone unnoticed, possibly the culmination of an evolving, awful body of work, so to speak. “Do you have a chapter in one of those books on jumping to conclusions?” quips Hart. “You attach an assumption to a piece of evidence, you start to bend the narrative to support it and prejudice yourself.” In other words, Hart is accusing Cohle of confirmation bias, which is all kinds of ironic. For starters, the aforementioned Satanic Ritual Abuse phenomenon was a tragic case study in errant confirmation bias, or so we see in retrospect. (Hindsight is 20/20, indeed.) Moreover, confirmation bias is a central tenet of the atheist complaint’s with religion. So to hear Hart, a Christian, accuse Cohle of this intellectual sin is a pretty sly touché, as Cohle is one pitiless, cold-hearted existential atheist.

Cohle’s most distinctive trait in the first three episodes –besides his chain smoking, beer guzzling, and arts and crafts in the 2012 scenes–is his rigorously bleak worldview. He considers himself a “realist,” though he concedes that technically, he is what eggheads would call a philosophical pessimist. Cohle’s identification with “realism” suggests he’s merely making dry-eyed observations of human behavior. But the more we learn about his horror-filled past, the more we should question how much his reason is prejudiced by his pain, and that grim blather is so much sound and fury, signifying anger with God. Cohle is a snakebit, devil-trapped Job without the deus ex machina ending to save him from spiraling into the full tilt “life is fleeting/empty/meaningless” despair of Ecclesiastes. In episode three, Cohle mocks the narcissism of religious pathology: “Surely this is all for me! Me! I … I … I am so f—ing important!” Perhaps the proud heretic protests too much.

At first, Cohle only opines when asked. Hart does, and immediately regrets it:

Cohle: “I think human consciousness was a tragic step in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law.”

Hart: “That sounds god f—ing awful, Rust!”

Cohle’s perspective here isn’t new. The fear that consciousness is but an accident of nature goes back to Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the father of the psychological detective novel (Crime and Punishment), and then even further: Cohle’s line is a Darwinian’s restatement of the oldest, most influential “true crime”/antihero story in the history of mankind—the Bible’s fall of man narrative, when humanity became fundamentally flawed and divorced from God and nature by becoming painfully self-aware and self-justifying after they disobeyed God and ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We are all God-awful, according to the religion that Hart believes. Notable, then, that Hart, short on book smarts, even about The Good Book that informs his religion, can’t respond to Cohle with anything but defensiveness and hostility:

Cohle: “We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self. A secretion of sensory experience and feeling. Programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when, in fact, nobody is anybody.”

Hart: “I wouldn’t go around spouting that s— if I was you. People around here don’t think that way. I don’t think that way.”

As True Detective progresses, Cohle’s wordy war against religious escalates and grows more ironic: He becomes meanly fundamentalist with his pretentious atheistic evangelizing. [Warning: Light SPOILERS from here to the end.] The state’s Christian bias, embodied by the governor’s brother, a prominent evangelist named Reverend Tuttle (Jay O. Sanders), gets his goat. Which is understandable. But a visit to a nomadic tent preacher — an example of “viral ministry,” to borrow a term from Hart — spurs Cohle to rudeness. He mocks the overweight, depressed-personality simpleton suckers who come to hear him; he skewers religion as a “fairy tale” to “get us through the day” but skews our experience of reality.  Cohle’s angry doubt is, like Hart’s easy faith, is his way of making sense of life’s horror — or running away from it.

This is where the self-aware aspect of True Detective really kicks in, because Cohle’s criticism of religion doubles—intentionally, I argue—as commentary about pop culture escapism. True Detective’s title — an implicit reference to the pulps — is your first clue that the show is interested in our relationship to stories. The second episode gives us another cool clue: Lange’s diary. But it contains absolutely no factual descriptions of her life, but rather ramblings about a fantasy world called Carcosa, a character called “The Yellow King,” and poetic lines like “strange is the night where black stars rise.” The detectives don’t know how to make sense of it … but we do. Because we have the Internet—or we have deep, geeky knowledge—and so we figure out before the characters do that all that fantasy language is pulled from The King In Yellow, a collection of short stories by Robert W. Chambers. Some of the stories make reference to a play, called “The King In Yellow” — about a ruined city called Carcosa on an alien world ruled by an evil entity named Hastur, the yellow king known by his yellow sign –and anyone who reads the play dies.  Chambers got the setting of “Carcosa” and the name “Hastur” from the works of Ambrose Bierce, the author of The Devil’s Dictionary and “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge,” a classic example of Unreliable Narrator storytelling. Just as Chambers was inspired by/took from another writer, many writers have been inspired/taken from Chambers, incorporating motifs, imagery and words from “The King In Yellow” to build their own idiosyncratic fantasy worlds. Most notably, H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos owes a major debt to “The King In Yellow.”

It would then appear, judging from her diary, a refuge of fantasy to help her get through the day,  that the fictitious Dora Lange was under the influence of a very real, very infectious fantasy world — a kind of “viral ministry,” you might say. Moreover, by co-opting “The King In Yellow,” True Detective becomes the latest in a long line of stories to have done so. Such a reference in this vaguely meta detective story about detective stories also reminds us — intentionally or not — of the wild, branching evolution of its genre/genres to which it belongs, as well as our own ignorance of it. This can be seen as a metaphor for other things, too, like our relationship to ourselves, our history, our religion, our stories. We need to be smarter cultural anthropologists — or rather, true detectives — about who we are.

Just as I have done here, True Detective likes to tease the future, too: We get coy, incomplete bits of info about events that occurred much later in the Cohle/Hart partnership/bromance. Strong suggestions of a love triangle; a near marriage; an event that caused Cohle and Hart to quit each other for good. We might get more intel on all of this. Regardless, the show captures our imagination for the seven-season series that this iteration of True Detective will never be.

Similarly, Cohle and Hart themselves occasionally—and suspiciously—try to skip the Dora Lange recap ahead to that heroic gunfight with the villain in the deep wilderness, only to be pulled back by Papania and Gilbough. Take it slow. Tell us EVERYTHING. Early episodes give us a couple fleeting flashes of that showdown, most memorably at the end of the third installment, in which the presumed villain is seen wearing only a gas mask and underwear. (A Breaking Bad homage?)

Telegraphing the finish makes the Dora Lange investigation less a tick-tock of procedural door knocking and clue crunching and more of a surreal roadtrip with tangents in space and time, in and out of the “psycho-sphere” (to borrow a Cohle-ism) of its characters and culture, all leading toward an inevitable, terrible, revelatory, transforming destination. Think: Apocalypse Now as rural neo-noir. I don’t think the allusion is a stretch or irrelevant; in fact, the story invites us to connect True Detective with other pieces of pop culture (the title is your first clue to this), and indulging this (unnecessary) scholarship yields enriching rewards. (More on this, later.) At a couple points, Cohle likens the “jungle” environs to Vietnam—or rather, stories about the Vietnam War, told to him by his father. The same way that Apocalypse Now was a series of checkpoint treks and sidebar adventures that brought Willard closer and closer to Kurtz? Ditto: True Detective. Sobering encounters with a fallen sports hero, a going-mad mother, preachers on the fringe. Stops at a derelict church, a hillbilly bordello, a swampy strip club biker bar—“Bada! Bing!” on the bayou, run by Sons of Anarchy. This quote from Heart of Darkness, the basis for Apocalypse Now, strikes me as apt: “In and out of rivers, streams of death in life…It was like a weary pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares.”

Along the way, Hart unravels recklessly — he’s a man losing his religion. But Cohle gains in swagger, dangerously so, as more and more of what they discover affirms his conception of the world. The first four episodes of True Detective form a provocative mythic arc: the fall of the self-righteous modern dick; the rise of the self-justifying post-modern dark knight. In episode three, Hart – increasingly filled with uneasy self-doubt — asks Cohle: “Do you ever wonder if you’re a bad man?” Cohle responds: “The world needs bad men [like us.] We keep the other bad men from the door.” Hart looks at him with chilled eyes that scream, The horror, the horror. Episode four – a fuzzy affair, in plot and theme, in which the detectives go rogue, leading to most ironic role reversal – turns the increasingly shady heroes inside out and leads to an anarchic set piece shot largely in shadow, making for a story that’s a creation myth for our anti-hero age. Perhaps the greater whole of the series will function as a bookend for the age. Strange is the night where black stars rise. But perhaps it’s time for their twilight.

Other notes from the Taxman’s ledger:

Realism and Pessimism, Art and Pulp, and the Psychosphere. At one point in the first episode, Cohle ’95 surveys the blighted landscape of Louisiana’s ghettos and says: “I have a bad taste in my mouth out here. Aluminum and ash. Like you can smell the psycho-sphere.” Cohle says this in the same scene when he calls himself “a Realist” even though philosophers would call him a Pessimist. Interesting: In the early 1900s, there was a school of art called “The Ashcan School,” a group of realists who painted images of everyday life, with an emphasis on the harsher aspects of early 20th century America. They were praised for their social conscience. Now, you could say something very similar about the true crime pulps of the 1930s like True Detective. They, too, wallowed in realism and misfortune. And as they moved beyond the thirties, the “Dickbooks” only got more graphic and lurid, becoming just twisted-ridiculous. A culture super-saturared with such bleak stuff precipitates a skewed representation or view or reality, pessimism, becoming cynicism.

But beware: Unreliable narrators may be here! Remember: The scenes in the past represent the story that the older Cohle and Hart are telling in the 2012 present. As it happens, Cohle tells his side of the story while guzzling cans of Lone Star beer (which he then carves into tin men figures over the first three episodes) and smokes. Beer cans and cigarettes; “aluminum and ash.” I immediately thought of the 1995 film The Usual Suspects, a yarn spun by an unreliable narrator, and how Verbal Kint sprinkled his story with bogus details inspired by objects in the interview room—including a cop’s coffee cup. As it happens, in True Detective, a cop gives Cohle a coffee cup to use as an ashtray. The cup bares the words “BIG HUG MUG”—an anagram for HUMBUG GIG. Moreover, during the first three episodes, the cup is shot from an angle so that only these letters are visible: BIG HU MU. “I HUMBUG.” Maybe I’m seeing things? Funny: “Seeing Things” is the title of the second episode.

Coincidences? NO, I THINK NOT.

Needless to say: You hooked me, True Detective. I’m totally lost.

Twitter: @EWDocJensen


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