Poster for True Detective season 1 (2014) is set in Louisiana. Image Source: HG Girl on Fire. The show's poster spawned a spoof meme, see: here, here, here.
America loves a morality tale, the deeper and darker, the better. Just as the '70s had Serpico, Mean Streets and Chinatown, the '80s had Blade Runner, Blue Velvet and Angel Heart, the '90s had L.A. Confidential and The Usual Suspects, and the '00s had No Country for Old Men and The Dark Knight as the definitive neo-noirs of those decades, the 2010s have Winter's Bone and the HBO television series True Detective. True Detective debuted in the USA and Canada on 12 January 2014 and debuted in the UK on Sky Atlantic on 22 February 2014. The second season begins in North America on 21 June 2015. Season 2 is set around the Los Angeles transportation system and involves a murder at the heart of a giant conspiracy.
The writing and vision for this series is incredible. True Detective makes the parallel UK drama, Broadchurch, pale in comparison. Broadchurch is strong in its own right and has somewhat similar initial premise: two quarreling detectives seek a murderer. But Broadchurch does not take the same risks.
True Detective season 2 (2015) is set around the Los Angeles transportation system, the venal conduit into the dark heart of the City of Angels. Season 2 stars Rachel McAdams, Vince Vaughn and Colin Farrell. Image Source: Mashable.
True Detective does exactly what a noir should do. The tension mounts, and as the characters' flaws deepen, the plot gets more feverish. The Toronto Sun remarks that True Detective, "makes every other police procedural drama seem faint and quaint by comparison. How are we supposed to watch 'regular' TV if HBO keeps dropping these sorts of live grenades in our laps?"
True Detective is not just a genre-hopping cop drama trying to shock its viewers, as with another Millennial series, The Fall. Like Twin Peaks, season 1 of this Lynchian show started off as police noir and ended up as a horror story. There are references in True Detective to H. P. Lovecraft's works and Blair Witch, which similarly involve rational investigations dragging the investigators' subconscious into a confrontation with an immense, malevolent, supernatural being or force.
There is a monster here, behind the police explorations of gritty streets and haunted bayous. The monster inhabits the dreams of this mundane world, but unfortunately for the characters, the monster has legs. It has a history. The Gen X writer of True Detective, Nic Pizzolatto, gives his horror deep roots. He presents this TV series as one story in a long line of stories about a much, much larger legend. True Detective is a metafictional continuation of the multi-authored Carcosa mythos, which started with an Ambrose Bierce short story, "An Inhabitant of Carcosa" also known as "Can Such Things Be?" (1891; read it here) and The King in Yellow (1895) by Robert W. Chambers. You can read The King in Yellow online here. For more on The King In Yellow and the Carcosa story: go here, here, here, here and here. You can see this series' connection with Chambers's stories drawn here and here. The metafiction continuity inspired so much chatter that some critics claimed that Pizzolatto had plagiarized, rather than continued, other authors' works.
In other words, True Detective is supposed to be part of, and continue, a fictional mythology about something terrible that once happened in an ancient lost city. In Bierce's work, that city, Carcosa, is described by someone who once lived there:
Along the shore the cloud waves break, The twin suns sink behind the lake, The shadows lengthen In Carcosa.Strange is the night where black stars rise, And strange moons circle through the skies, But stranger still is Lost Carcosa.Songs that the Hyades shall sing, Where flap the tatters of the King, Must die unheard in Dim Carcosa.Song of my soul, my voice is dead, Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed Shall dry and die in Lost Carcosa.
—"Cassilda's Song" in The King in Yellow Act 1, Scene 2
True Detective season 1 trailer (2014). Video Source: Youtube.
This is a story about the ancient spectres that haunt the hyper-modern soul of technological America. True Detective is a great show for people relaxing after a long day in the data cloud, because the show warns against the continual expansion of information. Anyone who digs deep into information, much less secret information - be they marketers or managers, whistleblowers or police detectives - acquires knowledge.
More knowledge opens a gnostic door to another, broader investigation. True Detective bears a cautionary gnostic message about detectives who uncover that growing body of information. Rather than knowledge telescoping the investigator (and viewers) up to ever greater stages of positive enlightenment, knowledge here expands down into ever-enlarged realms of horror. For example, the jaw-dropping and now-famous six-minute continuous shot in episode 4 of season 1, "Who Goes There?" portrays drug trade in Texas, in the Mexican-US borderland (see it here). It also shows the detectives symbolically opening the gate to Hell and stepping into its lobby. The world in episode 4 is shockingly criminal, corrupt and frightening. But it is nothing compared to where the detectives will go in this series, because that is clearly Pizzolatto's message. In season 1, the series' police detectives merely reached one anteroom of Hell.
Images Source: Geek Nation.
In season 1, Matthew McConaughey's character Rustin Cohle supplies the relentless, ethereal depressive voice of empty, grinding destiny. He is an ex-undercover cop, someone beyond world-weary, who has seen too much evil and still battles it. Evil gnaws at his soul and forces him to contemplate infinite futility. Forbes:
In a world full of drugs and murder, Cohle is a highly intelligent protagonist who never sleeps, because he no longer dares face his lurking nightmares. McConaughey is so perched on the edge of oblivion, his acting so fiercely precise, that we forgive him for spending a decade making romantic beach comedies with Kate Hudson. What makes McConaughey's performance here additionally unsettling is that, the last time anybody checked (before his recent film appearances), he looked like this:"Cohle carries a bleak view of the world, a bleaker view of human nature, and is prone to engaging in existential pronouncements about the futility of it all, Albert Camus in a suit from Men’s Warehouse."
Image Source: Hollywood.
America loves a golden boy, and both McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, who plays Cohle's partner Martin Hart in season 1, supply golden boys gone wrong. True Detective has a second warning for its Information Age viewers. The show warns against accepting appearances, against taking things at face value. Do not judge the book by its cover; do not believe that your superficial judgment of information is conclusive. Just because something looks good, or looks evil - is it? Information opens doors; but you cannot always know what kind of door you are opening because a fact, or a fragment of data, is often not what it seems to be.
Harrelson as Cohle's ex-partner Hart, interviewed after the main action of the story in 2012. Image Source: Geek Nation.
After films like Natural Born Killers (1994), and knowing his personal past, we would expect Harrelson to portray an obviously dark character. He has always been an actor who has been able to play up his blond good looks, and then flip them into something brutal and dangerous. Here, Harrelson's mixed message is more complex. He is overtly 'normal.' Harrelson's character is the golden boy grown up. He's not perfect, but on the surface, he is a God-fearing family man, likable, down to earth. His flaws make him more accessible. Forbes: "From the very outset, showrunner Nic Pizzolatto sets up Cohle as the inscrutable one, while Harrelson['s Martin Hart] tries to lead Cohle–and us–into believing that he’s got nothing to hide." Harrelson's character, Martin Hart, snarls: "I know the difference between an idea and a fact. You are incapable of admitting doubt." McConaughey's misfit, addicted, haunted cop is the perfect red herring, because Hart is the character with the skeleton in the closet; and he has an ambiguous relationship with truth and reality.
Michelle Monaghan plays the wife of Detective Martin Hart in True Detective season 1 (2014). Image Source: Hypable.
Hart's conventional life is wrong in all kinds of ways. Hart's daughter draws spirals in her room which also appear on the backs of the murder victims Hart is investigating. Does Hart's daughter channel and expose his subconscious to the world? She draws pornographic pictures at school, and Hart has a weakness for forbidden sex. He has several extra-marital affairs.
Image Source: Reddit.
Image Source: I09.
Hart at the rave, surrounded by yellow light. Image Source: Watchinga.
Cohle's apartment, tinged with a yellow filter. Image Source: hitfix.
Hart is surrounded by the colour yellow. The characters seek a central antagonist - the Yellow King. From I09 comments: "Take note, for instance, of the regular use of yellow—in Cohle's dim, depressing apartment and the smoky haze at the illegal warehouse rave. Yellow is visually linked to insanity, mental collapse, and decadence." Season 1's enormous crimes require an investigation that spans nearly two decades. And the crimes launch all the characters into a destabilizing spiral of madness. The question of the first season remains, after everything the detectives have seen and done, how do they stay heroic? How do they prevent themselves from becoming completely corrupted by the knowledge they acquire? How do they catch the killer? And if they do (which they do) does that answer the larger mystery they confront (no).
Image Source: I09.
McConaughey as an alcoholic Cohle, interviewed after the 17-year hunt for a killer. Image Source: Geek Nation.
Season 1 is set in three time periods: 1995, 2002 and 2012. The story's extended time span allows truth to catch up with the characters, making the show a morality tale. Why and how are the detectives still able to catch the killer, even after their sins and flaws have been exposed over the long run? How do they transcend their pasts? The question about transcendence is more complicated than Cohle and Hart just playing a long game. AV Club: "When you find heroism in a lie, it’s hard to get the truth to work for you down the line. Because in True Detective’s mind, it’s not a line—it’s a loop." What does this mean? A lot of sites and fans on social media speculated on True Detective's time loop and failed to reach a conclusion. The idea of life in a repeating loop, or 'eternal return,' was described by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), although it is much older than that: "If space is infinite, then cosmology tells us that our existence will recur an infinite number of times."
Nietzsche's eternal recurrence and True Detective. Video Source: Youtube.
Time Detective's drama, told in flashback, hinges on the investigation's aftermath, in which McConaughey's now-broken, reclusive alcoholic states: "Time is a flat circle." Cohle argues that, viewed from time's fourth dimension, human lives repeat round and round, on a never-ending circle that never stops:
This is Cohle speaking in the fifth episode, "The Secret Fate of All Life":"Why should I live in history, huh? ... Years: you ever heard of something called the m-brane theory, detectives? ... It’s like in this universe, you know we process time linearly, forward. But outside of our spacetime, from what would be a fourth-dimensional perspective, time wouldn’t exist. And from that vantage, could we attain it, we’d see [smashes beer can flat] our spacetime would look flattened, like a single sculpture with matter in a superposition of every place it ever occupied, our sentience just cycling through our lives like carts on a track. See, everything outside our dimension—that’s eternity. Eternity, looking down on us. Now, to us, it’s a sphere. But to them [holds up flattened beer can] it’s a circle."
And further:"In eternity, where there is no time, nothing can grow. Nothing can become. Nothing changes. So Death created time to grow the things that it would kill and you are reborn but into the same life that you've always been born into. I mean, how many times have we had this conversation, detectives? Well, who knows? When you can't remember your lives, you can't change your lives, and that is the terrible and the secret fate of all life. You're trapped by that nightmare you keep waking up into."
If we are just stuck on a loop, we can see why Cohle is so incredibly depressed. Horror emerges, in Cohle's view, from the awareness of being stuck on the loop, of knowing about the futility of human existence (with this remark, Pizzolatto lets his character implicitly acknowledge the work of Thomas Ligotti, here). So why does Cohle keep fighting to find the killer? Firstly, it is only with his near-crippling consciousness that Cohle (more than Hart, although he needs Hart's help) is able to track down the killer. Secondly, if we are doomed to relive this life over and over, would it not be better to live the best life we can? HuffPo confirmed this message in an analysis of episode 3:"F***, I don't want to know anything anymore. This is a world where nothing is solved. Someone once told me, 'Time is a flat circle.' Everything we've ever done or will do, we're gonna do over and over and over again. And that little boy and that little girl, they're gonna be in that room again and again and again forever."
This is why McConaughey's broken detective concludes that his work is part of an eternal battle of "light against dark." The small victory he wins with Hart becomes a flickering star that appears (on its loop in time) in a vast darkness. And furthermore - above and beyond morality - every little victory of light against dark is a key to a larger perspective, a step beyond the prison of limited consciousness.Rev. Theriot's ... sermon shown in episode 3, "The Locked Room," seems like a fairly typical "Jesus saves" revival message. The uncut version, available on HBO's official site, darknessbecomesyou.com, is a more sophisticated theological message that provides a skeleton key for decoding Rust's worldview.... Premise #1: Time is a flat circle and we are trapped in eternity, doomed to repeat our lives over and over again.Every murder victim, everyone who suffers from disease or poverty or injury is doomed to repeat the cycle of their existence. That is the Secret Fate of All Life. That is what Rust means by "time, death and futility."... Premise #2: Consciousness, therefore, is a tragic misstep in evolution. We are only trapped in history because we are aware of history.Rust believes we are trapped in a meaningless, thresher-like meat prison. He meditates on Gethsemane, the idea of allowing one's own crucifixion. He imagines he sees relief in the eyes of murder victims, feels gratitude at his daughter's painless death and muses that collective suicide is humanity's only hope of escape.The Reverend speaks of the rain, the grass, the mountains and other elements of nature being free of despair and that we should be, in the parlance, "like as unto them." What's the reason? They are free of consciousness. Hence the quote from Proverbs on the banner above the Reverend's pulpit: "Lean not on your own understanding."... Premise #3: Since we are conscious, our only escape from the prison of time is to gain a higher perspective of ourselves.Rust describes this idea in scientific terms, using M Brane Theory. Viewed from the outside, our universe is a singular, crystalline, timeless superposition of matter and energy. If we can achieve that perspective, we can transcend history.Rev. Theriot asks how it is possible for the world to forget itself, for us to have lost our timeless, eternal perspective on creation and describes our final realization of ourselves as a birthright from God: "In the end, we will find ourselves at the beginning. And at last, we will know ourselves. And our true faces will weep."In other words, we forget ourselves when we process time linearly, in a sphere. We see our true selves when we see the universe without time, as a flat circle.
There are three points of transcendence, moving up True Detective's spiral. The first is that the detectives in season 1 captured the killer in a small victory. The second is that the series now offers another perspective, another facet of a much larger story, in season 2. Finally, the last point of transcendence is the fourth dimension which Cohle describes. The people who look down on him and his fellow fictional characters, who view True Detective's time frame from a fourth-dimensional perspective, are of course, the show's viewers, social media fans, and TV critics. In that way, True Detective hints at how time's larger dimension looks down upon us all and reminds us to lead better lives.
Image Source: Upcoming Movies.
The murderer unmasked by half-way through the first season, Reginald Ledoux. His name translates as 'the Gentle King' but LeDoux is also a pun on LeDeux: 'the Second King.' Image Source: Geek Nation.
The real true detective - the 2005 Hosanna Church child sex abuse case upon which Pizzolatto likely based the first season of True Detective. The ritualistic Satanist child sex crimes took place in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, USA. Video Source: Vice via Youtube.
Caption for the above video: "Ten years ago, the town of Ponchatoula, Louisiana, was traumatized when a local church's secret Satan worship, ritualized child molestation, and animal sacrifices came to light. Rust Cohle may be a fictional character, and time may not really be a flat circle, but that sounds an awful lot like the events of the first season of HBO's hit True Detective. In this episode of our brand-new series The Real, we went down to Ponchatoula to meet Stuart Murphy and Tom Tedder, two law enforcement officials who helped put these terrible, true events in Ponchatoula's rearview mirror."
True Detective season 2 trailer (premieres 21 June 2015). Video Source: Youtube.