False Detectives, True Discourses, and Excessive Exegeses
I got caught up in the hype, got curious, and found a way to watch True Detective. It's my kind of thing: a dark crime story/police procedural/serial killer whatzit. Also, apparently the writer of the show, Nic Pizzolatto, is aware of some writers I like, and even one I know, Laird Barron. (Hi Laird! You rock!) What struck me right from the beginning was the marvelous music, selected and produced by the great T-Bone Burnett, and the cinematography by Adam Arkapaw, who shot one of my favorite movies of recent decades, Snowtown, and also the very good film Animal Kingdom and the marvelous Jane Campion TV show Top of the Lake. Something about Arkapaw's sensitivity to color, light, and framing is pure mainlined heroin to my aesthetic pleasure centers. If I found out he'd shot a Ron Howard movie, I'd even watch that.
So many other people have discussed the show that there are now, I'm sure, nearly as many words written about it as there are words in Wikipedia. My own opinion of the show is of no consequence, though for the curious, here's what I said about it on Jeff VanderMeer's Facebook page, where some discussion was going on: "I liked the music, cinematography, most of the acting and directing, but thought the writing was all over the place from pretty good to godawful. And episodes 7 and 8 were like the Goodyear blimp deflating mid-air and landing in a bayou of drivel. (The stars, the stars! Use the Force, Rust! The Yellow King is YOUR FATHER!!! Oh, wait...)"
Much more interesting to me is the discourse around the show. Why did this show inspire such a fanatical response? Why did we feel compelled to respond? Zeitgeist, genre, etc. probably all play into it, but a fuller answer would require some time and research, particularly about how the show was marketed and where and how it first caught on.
I'm enough of a pointy-headed academic to hope one day for a whole book about the construction of True Detective's appeal, something that doesn't neglect the material aspects: budgets, advertising, Twitter. I'd also like to see analyses of fan responses to mystery/crime shows — for instance, a comparison of fan speculations between seasons 2 and 3 of Sherlock and fan speculations about the mysteries of True Detective before the finale. The choice in season 3 of Sherlock to offer a relatively acceptable but not definitive answer to the mystery of how Sherlock lived was, I thought, quite smart, because even though the creators probably had (unlike Conan Doyle) an idea of an answer when they wrote Sherlock's "death", they realized by the time it came to write season 3 that no answer they could provide would be satisfying after two years of fan speculations.
True Detective took a different approach, partly because they didn't realize viewers would react the way they did, or that the show would be subject to so much ratiocination, and so they gave a rather ridiculous and clichéd end to the mystery, one that made not a whole lot of sense and tied up only the most obvious of loose ends. Pizzolatto's interest was more in the characters than the plot, or perhaps not even the characters so much as the mood and the projection of an idea of complexity rather than any actual complexity.
That's the great illusion the show tries to pull off: the illusion of depth. And it does pull it off, thanks to the excessive exegeses of viewers. The exegeses make the depth real — the excess is the depth supplementing the show's surface. Now that we have explored so many assumed clues, we have added a megatext (or megatexts), and so the show becomes vastly more than it was on its own. We have, as it were, colored in the lines, whether they were there for anybody else or not. I don't mean that as a criticism. Some texts invite obsessive interpretation. The process of interpreting widens the text for us, even if we choose to reject the interpretation. I thought most of the ideas about The Shining offered in the documentary Room 237 were bonkers — but I immediately watched The Shining yet again (20th viewing? 30th?) after listening to them all, and I loved the movie more than ever.
I am, myself, now falling into exegesis more than I intended. (It's fun to posit signs as wonders!) Really, what I wanted to do was collect a few writings about True Detective that I particularly liked, that got me thinking. The show has inspired some good writing about it. Here then, before they get lost in the din, are a few fragments I'll shore against these ruins........
Jacob Mikanowski at LA Review of Books:
The Southern Louisiana of True Detective is part truth and part myth. But just by showing so much of it, the show puts us in contact with its real history, even if it doesn’t spell everything out. But there are hints, especially on the margins. There’s the history of pollution, visible in the omnipresent cracking towers and in the condition of Dora Lange’s mother as well as the relative of another victim, a one-time baseball pitcher disabled by a series of strokes. There’s Louisiana’s French and Spanish past, glimpsed momentarily in the Courir and in a stray allusion by Rust to the Pirate Republic of Barataria. And then there’s the history of segregation and racism, barely present except for the suggestion that the schools most of the victims attended were a way around busing — like the “segregation academies” that sprang up in different parts of the Deep South as a response to Brown vs. the Board of Education.
In my dream version of the show, the detectives are historians or archivists. They could work equally well somewhere in the Mississippi Delta or Eastern Poland. The crimes they investigate are buried in the past, and the thing they realize eventually isn’t just that everyone knew, but that everyone was complicit. Coincidentally, while the first episodes aired, I happened to be reading Trouble in Mind, Leon Litwack’s magisterial history of the lives of Black Southerners under Jim Crow. And although I shouldn’t have been, I was shocked by his account of lynching — at how common it was, how popular, and how public. The audiences that gathered for lynchings were huge, and their appetite for suffering — burning and other tortures — as spectacle couldn’t be satisfied by mere killing. Children even played their own games of hanging and being hung. True Detective doesn’t go there — but in the sense it creates, of a past that infects the present, of ritualized violence that doesn’t end even after it officially disappears — it starts to open the door.
Dustin Rowles at Pajiba:
That is literary inefficiency, and while it’s easier to understand in the context of a longer season in the midst of a longer series where it’s often necessary to pad out the episodes, and where showrunners are often forced by more demanding production schedules to wing it along the way, Pizzolatto had only eight episodes to write and the ability to plan out the entire season in advance. The irony, of course, is that he still had all the ingredients necessary to create a more compelling ending, and yet he still he chose to stick with the simpler, “There’s a Monster in the End” storyline. It’s a shame, too, because Pizzolatto obviously has a deep understanding of literature, and yet he chose the television ending over the literary one. Unfortunately, it seems, he knows how to introduce literary allusions, but he doesn’t show us he knows how to utilize them.
Joseph Laycock at Religion Dispatches:
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a happy ending. But the final message of True Detective reinforces a dangerous mythology that’s already endemic in American popular culture. The brutal misogyny of the heroes, their willingness to commit all manner of felonies—this was not a Nietzchean tale of those who hunt monsters becoming monsters themselves. Instead, this is a moral universe where anything is justified as long as your opponent is “truly” evil and good “gains some territory.” This is about as far from Lovecraft’s cosmic horror as one can get.
Spencer Kornhaber at The Atlantic:
Certainly Marty’s violence and sexism isn’t appealing; certainly Rust deserves the eye rolls that other characters threw his way. But creating flawed heroes isn’t subversive—it’s doing exactly what any decent fiction writer is supposed to do. A subversion would have been to make those flaws figure into the main narrative in some unexpected but crucial way. Maybe the “good guys” botch the case. Or maybe, per the theories mentioned before, they’re connected to the murders in ways they don’t understand till it’s too late.
Instead, both main characters got a fair amount of vindication in the end. Marty’s family doesn’t seem to hate him quite as much anymore. Rust believes in the afterlife now. They both go backslapping into the night. All of this comes from them catching a killer of women and children. So for the zillionth time in Western pop culture, men (straight, white ones at that) get psychic rewards for valorously risking themselves on behalf of the weak.
Susan Elizabeth Shepard at The Hairpin:
If you're going to make a dead sex worker the inciting incident for your story, if one of the central characters is defined by his rage about the sexual purity of the women in his life, it needs to pay off in the form of story advancement and character development, otherwise it's just gratuitous, sensational, "edgy." And for the last several episodes, it's become clear that the only satisfying way for the mystery to end is for Rust or Marty to be the killer. But we're gonna get some dumb conspiracy of Louisiana good ol' boys who worship the devil, which is going to be unsatisfying and also not give the proper payoff to all that violence against women, which then becomes just so many witchy antler decorations with no clear meaning.
Matt Zoller Seitz at Vulure:
Marty's hypocritical attitude toward his wife and daughters is positively Scorsesean in its misogyny. Never for a moment does the show pretend that he's got the right idea about fidelity, fatherhood, or anything else related to the women who live under his roof. He's got a gangster's idea of manhood: I'll do what I please, and you do whatever I tell you. He's the king of his castle, everyone else is a serf. Rust, meanwhile, is haunted equally by the death of his daughter (and subsequent guilt over his failure to preserve his marriage afterward) and his rocky relationship with his father, to whose home state, Alaska, he briefly returned; he's destroyed by his inability to live up to an unrealistic standard of manly strength, goodness, and patience. It makes both dramatic and rhetorical sense that Marty and Rust's interrogators would be two black men, and that many of the detective's most mortifying and self-destructive moments stem from their inability to deal with women in an honest and non-condescending way. The show's disinterest in race relations and inability to resist gratuitous T&A shots damages its credibility greatly in this department, but the notion that True Detective is purely a white male supremacist fantasy is not remotely supported by the evidence.
Lili Loofbourow at LA Review of Books:
Ask a woman whether Errol Childress matches the monster at the end of our dreams — I doubt you’ll get many nods. But there is a monster we might dream about in True Detective, and he’s everything a monster should be: murderous, violent, deeply sympathetic, and totally adept at spinning the Cohles of the world to his side. Here’s to TV’s greatest and most affable monster, Marty Hart.
Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber:
Another interpretation, which seems to me to be equally plausible, is that the catharsis of the closing episode is false, and deliberately so. The darkness continues. Marty’s inattention to his family has had profound costs. The show strongly suggests that one of Marty’s daughters has been the victim of sexual abuse, in ways that mirror the detective story, just as the detective story mirrors the story of Marty’s family. Marty doesn’t seem aware of this at all. If Marty and Rust conclude that the light as winning, it is only because they fail to see the darkness that surrounds them, and cannot see it, so long as they continue to live in a world of purely brotherly camaraderie, a war of light against dark where one responds to male violence only with more violence and leaves women’s business to the women. Even when you are confronted with your true situation, you cannot necessarily free yourself from it. The detective’s curse means that you do not escape from Carcosa. You only think that you do because you are willfully blind to the Carcosa that surrounds you, the labyrinth made of the circle that is invisible and everlasting.