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‘True Detective’: Horror and noir as told by Nietzsche

Mar 10, 2014

From “The Long Bright Dark” to “Form And Void,” the first incredible season of “True Detective” has come to its mind-ripping and spectacular conclusion, and with it so ends one of the greatest seasons of any show in television history.

Let’s start with the obvious spoiler disclaimer. So see yourselves out if you’re somehow reading this before watching the finale. You sickos.

Slated as a murder mystery led by a couple of weedhead, good ole boys, “True Detective” turned into a macabre sensation. It’s neo-noir unlike any other. With Matthew McConaughey (“Frailty,” “Tip Toes”) and Woody Harrelson (“Natural Born Killers,” “Cheers”) you can’t go wrong. But add in the greatest television writing since “Mad Men” in creator and showrunner Nick Pizzolatto, and “Sin Nombre” director Cary Fukunaga, and the two best performances of the leading men’s careers and you have the makings of a modern classic.

“I’d consider myself a realist, alright? But in philosophical terms I’m what’s called a pessimist… I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep 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… We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, that accretion of sensory experience and feelings, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody’s nobody… I think the honorable thing for our species to do is to deny our programming. Stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction – one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal… ”

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McConaughey’s portrayal as the haunted, drunken, drug-addled, chain-smoking, deep south Sherlock-esque Detective Rustin Cohle has been made even more iconic, given his Oscar win for “Dallas Buyers Club” and what has been dubbed “The McConaissance.” He preaches atheistic nihilism like a high priest of downerism. Tony Soprano never talked about negative capability and Brane Theory. Cohle is told twice in the first two episodes by two different characters to “shut the fuck up.” Cohle’s whimsical soliloquies have been the subject of much discussion and some disdain, but his bleak worldview not only informs the show’s major structure and themes, but upstages his partner, Marty Hart (Harrelson), the old-fashioned everyman and self described “regular type dude…with a big-ass dick.” Make no mistake, both men are operating at the highest levels of their careers, but McConaughey does outshine Harrelson. But only by a hair.

“They welcomed it. Not at first, but right there in the last instant. It’s an unmistakable relief, see, because they were afraid and now they saw for the very first time how easy it was to just let go. And they saw in that last nanosecond, they saw what they were, that you, yourself, this whole big drama, it was never anything but a jerry-rig of presumption and dumb will and you could just let go finally now that you didn’t have to hold on so tight. To realize that all your life, all your love, all your hate, all your memory, all your pain, it was all the same thing. It was all the same dream. A dream that you had inside a locked room. A dream about being a person… And like a lot of dreams, there’s a monster at the end of it.”

The show revolves around the investigation by our detectives of a series of ritual murders/human sacrifices committed by a satanic/ pagan cult/family with deep ties to the power centers of the Louisiana state government and evangelical establishment, and an especially deranged sense of Courir de Mardi Gras . It takes place over three time periods: the first in 1995, where Cohle and Hart hunt down Dora Lang’s killer, the infinitely creepy Reggie Ledoux; the second in 2002, as their partnership and careers split asunder just as Cohle discovers a wider group of perpetrators were involved in a much larger body count; the last one in 2012, as Cohle and Hart are being by interviewed by two state murder investigators who think Cohle may be involved in the killings that are still happening. In contrast to Cohle’s atheism, the cult, as it is slowly and deliberately revealed throughout the series, worships a figure called the Yellow King who exists in the imagined supernatural realm of cosmic horror, Carcosa. The King in Yellow and Carcosa are borrowed from an old series of “weird fiction” stories by Robert W. Chambers that would later inform HP Lovecraft’s style. It’s the darkest literary territory imaginable, complete with child snuff films and a “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”meets “No Country For Old Men” feel. Fertile ground for premium cable television.

It’s a hell of a thing to have a protagonist with Cohle’s dark philosophy and twisted views be more compelling, and in a way scarier, than the enigmatic Yellow King. Some of the very cult members Cohle hunts find his vibe and lack of philosophy to be disturbing. While one of the villains, Reverend Billy Lee Tuttle, helped to open charter schools to combat the “secular, globalized education system” (and provide fresh meat for his cult), Cohle is talking about physics, the fourth dimension, and about how time is a flat circle. While some may complain about Cohle Philosophy 101, there has never been another show where such topics are brought up and treated as everyday things. It was Cohle’s grimly nonchalant musings that I will miss most in the future iterations of the show.

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The incredible sweeping overhead shots of Louisiana’s landscape throughout the series give the audience the view from the fourth dimension while making us wonder about what kind of evil might be committed in the surrounding swamps. The constant shots of the oil and gas refineries that choke the state give us a more immediate menace of industrial degradation. And the stellar musical selections by T Bone Burnett are as haunting as the action on the screen.

Let’s not even talk about the six minute tracking shot that blew viewers minds with the most ambitious action and camerawork in television history. Afterward, I was so amped that I couldn’t watch “Girls.” I had to turn on the Olympics just to decompress. And I hate the Olympics and love “Girls.”

“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.”

I have never seen such a consistent and fevered conversation take place on social media. People were tweeting their Yellow King theories without hashtags or context and yet everyone knew what everyone else was talking about. Even President Obama was obsessed with it. Despite all of the crazy Reddit-fueled conspiracies and myriad of clues and coincidences concerning the supposed whodunit, the story was, as Nick Pizzolatto said, a relatively straightforward manhunt story with two flawed but traditional heroes. Cohle wasn’t the killer. Neither was Marty. There was no supernatural monster. The monster was just a twisted man. After a hand-to-hand final battle with the monster in the heart of Carcosa, Cohle glimpsed the real secret truth of the universe. In the end, in what he thought were his dying moments, Cohle witnessed a small part of the Greater Story that he had up until that time refused to acknowledge. That under all the fragile life he loathed a current of love flowed through it. So did an eternal struggle of good vs evil. This was true horror, as the only true horror humans can know is the evil they commit against themselves and each other. And after eight hours of the darkest story on television, there was something of an optimistic ending.

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The structure of the series itself mirrors Cohle’s rambling. The action in 1995 intertwines with the storylines of 2002 and 2012, leading the viewer to experience the story according to Cohle’s flat circle. It also follows the model set forth in the pilot episode of the HBO classic, “The Sopranos.” In that pilot the majority of the action takes place in stories told by its main character. Only after the stage has been set in the first ¾ of the episode does the story enter into its final movement in its most modern timeline. It’s an inspired choice that Pizzolatto plays out across the eight episodes of “True Detective.” The last two episodes were the final act of the twisted story.

Pizzolatto also, in a way, borrows a little from “Deadwood” as well. Deadwood wasn’t just a western. It was a meditation on societal order and government rising from lawlessness. “True Detective” is not just some police/serial killer procedural. It’s an investigation into the darkest reaches of philosophical motivation. Its setting and story, as excellent as they are, merely serve as the vehicle and host for an examination of what Cohle calls “something deep and dark.”

“It’s like in this universe, 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 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 it’s a circle.”

“True Detective” started on Golden Globes night during the playoffs, quietly snuck into the popular culture zeitgeist, and by the end of the season, proved to be HBO’s finest show since “The Wire.” Nick Pizzolatto has said numerous times that his series is modeled after some of the shows from HBO’s golden age and has mentioned his love for the network’s Three Davids (David Chase, David Milch, and David Simon). His appreciation for HBO dramas is pretty evident. HBO alums in the cast are pulled from such shows as “Deadwood,” “The Wire,” “Boardwalk Empire,”  “Treme,”  “Veep,” “Luck,” and “Game Change.” 

Beyond the cast, there are other subtle HBO references on the show, like when Cohle says “sheeeeeeit” a la Clay Davis from “The Wire.” Or when he quotes the same Corinthians verse mentioned by Reverend Smith in “Deadwood.” Both Hart and Cohle are partial to Jameson, not unlike Jimmy McNulty. The gorgeously eerie credit sequence even seems like an homage to “Deadwood” and “Carnivale.” Lastly, the HBO classic that “True Detective” seems most evocative of is the acclaimed documentary series “Paradise Lost.

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I have to admit, when the trailers for “True Detective” began last year, I nothing-ed the show. I had no opinion whatsoever. The advertising campaign reminded me of the trailers for “Drive.” The studio and advertisers obviously didn’t know what they had, what the audience reaction would be, or how to sell it. I knew from the buzz that it would be decent, but had no clue what a television event it would become. Since the first 20 minutes, I have been hopelessly obsessed with this show. I have probably annoyed my twitter followers more than usual with my constant tweeting of episode recaps. I have watched each new episode a handful of times every week. I have binged the entire season at least three times. And I’m not alone.

This is punk rock TV, built as a short-term run for ultimate dramatic success.  An anthology structure allows for no filler episodes that a ten-or-more-episodes season would normally have, so everything that happens is needed to power the story toward its intentionally finite conclusion. It’s a ballsy move and it will be interesting to see where Pizzolatto decides to take the new story in season two, and if the magic of season one can be duplicated. Also, given the loose ends in season one and the light vs dark struggle Cohle alluded to in the final moments, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the name “Tuttle” mentioned in a completely different story next season. We’ll see…

“I could feel my definition… fading. And beneath that darkness there was another kind. It was deeper. Warm. Like a substance. I could feel, man. And I knew. I knew my daughter waited for me there. It’s so clear. I could feel her. I could feel a piece of my Pop too. It was like I was a part of everything that I ever loved. And we were all, the three of us, just fading out. And all I had to do was let go. And I did. I said, “Darkness… yeah.” And I disappeared. But I could still feel her love there. And more than before. And nothing. Nothing but that love… And then I woke up.”

I haven’t been this thoroughly entertained by a series since “Mad Men” began in 2007, and there is a certain level of sadness that Cohle and Hart’s story has come to its end. There’s no way to really describe that perfectly satisfied feeling at the end of every episode. The content was exhausting, disturbing, haunting and challenging. “True Detective” was so beautifully and expertly told that all that was left to do at the end was to sit back in complete satisfaction, knowing the last hour was spent watching the best television had to offer.

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