Spoiler-Filled Review and Musings: True Detective

I repeat: lots of SPOILERS here but I’ll place them after the cut.

"Time Is A Flat Circle," illustration by Ibrahim Moustapha, 2014Edmund and I just finished the first season of Cary Joji Fukunaga and Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective; we’d saved it all because we had been told by friends that it was very good but the pace was slow. Since I end up having a hard time remembering who was what and what went on when this sort of show is stretched over many weeks, I wanted to watch it all over the course of a few nights.

I liked the visuals, the non-linear story-telling, the foreshadowing, the casting, the soundtrack, the editing, and the attention to detail. I always have a measure of trouble understanding some of the dialogue when thick Southern accents and mumbling are involved, but it wasn’t too bad.

I appreciated the references and influences in both the writing and the cinematography. I found it interesting that the show has sparked a good number of high-quality fan art homages, from classic illustration to tongue-in-cheek mash-ups.

On the down side, as with most shows of this type and especially on HBO, it fails to do more than squeak a pass on the Bechdel test when two little girls chatter to one another in one episode. There are relatively few female characters (except as dead bodies), and they are not all that important to the plot; they are there to cast light on the two male protagonists’ mindsets. And being an HBO series, there is plenty of gratuitous female nudity and sex workers.

That’s it for the non-spoiler section.

"The Yellow King's Clue," mashup by Todd SpenceOf course, the main thing that captured us nerds’ attention was the use of direct references, starting with Episode 2, to The King in Yellow and Lost Carcosa.

The Yellow King and his lost city of Carcosa have a long and illustrious history of geeky homages, influences, borrowings, re-imaginings, and oblique references. You can trace them from Ambrose Bierce and Marcel Schwob  (and maybe even to Edgar Allan Poe) to the man who first shaped the mythos, Robert W. Chambers. They have been reused by H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, and of course the several generations of horror and fantasy writers (and game designers) they have influenced.

So points for picking the perfect motifs to tease obsessive fans into trying to puzzle out each episode’s secret meaning. Instant viral value. The online magazine The Escapist has a good overview of the deliberate way in which a recent category of mini-series have tried to engage fan speculation from week to week as a device to grow a show’s popularity:

Criticism of “classy” television (i.e. shows that usually air on cable, have abbreviated seasons clearly pre-built for Netflix viewing, draft talent from movies, etc) is often an odd beast right now; trained by the teeth-cutting many of its top practitioners did on Sopranos, The Wire and especially Lost to regard a central narrative as secondary to callbacks, clues and self-flattering literate allusions (“Oooh! That’s from Chambers’ The King in Yellow! I’ve read that!”) that function both as a personal conversation between the show creators and fans/journos who “get it” and as a way to generate content in the weeks between new episodes.

The article goes on to add that despite using these tricks, True Detective delivers “a solution that made sense, answered the relevant questions and – as a bonus! – broadly tied-in with overarching themes introduced throughout the main narrative.” I certainly agree on the latter part; the narrative themes are present throughout and tie the show together to provide unity.

One of the themes is the conflicting world views of the protagonists, Marty Hart (played by Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey). Hart thinks the murders are the work of a mundane killer, if maybe a serial killer; while Cohle believes there are darker forces at work and the murders are the work of cultists. It turns out, as The  Escapist points out, that they’re both right.

Under all this are the philosophical threads of human connection versus exploitation versus isolation; the meaning of human life in a universe where there is no such thing as a loving fatherly god and his benevolent guardian angels; the inevitable loss of innocence; moral “turning point” moments; the nature of individual and collective responsibility; sacrifice; and of course masks that protect us from the outside world but also protect others from us.

Yellow King: Rust Cohle, by Lisa Larson-Walker, 2014However, I’m not so sure whether the solution to the investigation made that much sense unless it is revisited in subsequent seasons. (Each season of the show will feature a different cast of characters and story, but no word has been released on whether these will be connected—perhaps like Chambers’ stories were connected by the thread of the King in Yellow.)

First of all, I didn’t understand why the victims and witnesses referred to a Yellow King at all. Was Spaghetti Monster/Childress supposed to be this Yellow King? And why would Dora have come under his influence but been free enough to write about him in her journal before she was finally captured?

There is a slightly better explanation for Carcosa, the labyrinthine structure of the final episode. (What is that thing anyway, an old cistern and aqueduct system? an antique fort? old grain warehouse?) But still, it’s tenuous.

I like the ambiguity about whether Childress is just another warped but mundane serial murderer or whether he actually had something supernatural going on. But at the same time, the way the crimes were committed looks too different from, ahem, “true crime” to allow the ambiguity to persist. The fact that there are many different types of victims captured under different circumstances and treated differently argues against a “regular” killer. It screams at us that there is more to this than an obsessive killer’s needs to repeat the same motif to perfection. I expect, because of the systematic clue-dropping during the show, that this is not merely a dead end (pun intended.)

Finally, Rust Cohle’s road to Damascus moment at the end, and the sudden resolution of the whole nihilist shades-of-grey questions into a light-and-dark universe seemed a bit too jarring to fit with the themes explored until then.

Comments? Ideas? Observations? Speculations?

Illustrations: “Time Is A Flat Circle” by Ibrahim Moustapha, 2014. “The Yellow King’s Clue” by Todd Spence, 2014. “Yellow King: Rust Cohle” by Lisa Larson-Walker, 2014.

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