True Detective – Season One: Is the Light Truly Winning?

[For this post, Thought Pollution staffer Liam Green and guest contributor Pete Krowiak teamed up to tackle the overarching themes of the now-complete first season of HBO’s anthology series True Detective. WARNING: Spoilers throughout.] 

True Detective has made a great point of emphasizing time and how it is represented or misrepresented. Now that it’s all said and done, what’s the show’s overall statement on this theme?

Pete: The very framework of the show demonstrates the prime role time and memory are going to have in our understanding of the characters’ journeys. Ultimately, these things will be manipulated, either by human elements or nature.

From the human side, there’s the interview format – Detectives Gilbough and Papania relying on Rust, Marty and Maggie’s memories, which any investigator can tell you can be flawed. Even without that, there’s the manipulation that Rust and Marty enact – fixing crime scenes, corroborating their stories, leaving out large chunks of what happened (that trip to Ginger’s, anyone?). Then, consider that Gilbough and Papania don’t tell Rust and Marty why exactly they want to talk to them, being cagey about it at first.

The irony is that while time is something we share, like being in the locked room, it’s subject to quite a bit of distance. As a shared experience, it certainly can leave something lacking or make one lonely. Tie into that your own mortality, and the world becomes that much more of an unstable place, despite whatever concreteness we want to give it.

Nature even presents its own problems when it comes to truth and reality, or at least how we perceive them. Nature obscures our endeavors, albeit ambivalently. Brush eventually grows over the things we create – the world takes it back. Furthermore, the kind of liminal space that the marshy country used in the show presents more opportunity to allow things to be unstable or hidden. Tied to that is the effect of hurricanes, which are mentioned in connection to records a number of times in the show. We wrote things down to remember, and now that’s gone, whether it was just perception or not.

Liam: I think one of the major takeaways regarding time, memory, record-keeping and storytelling is that while the latter three can be altered, the former cannot. All the examples that you mention, Pete, prove the malleability of supposedly “official” accounts, and of storytelling. The cover-ups of the child disappearances by the empowered Tuttles and Childresses, from Reverend Billy Lee to Sheriff William, exemplify the same thing. Regarding memory, victims like the trans prostitute Johnny Joanie whom Rust questions in 2010 and the half-catatonic child Kelly do their best to suppress memories of their rapes.

Time, however, is irreversible and linear, despite True Detective’s structure and Rust’s allusion to the Nietzschean philosophy that it’s a flat circle. The damage (and in some small instances, repair) that time enforces on these characters cannot be undone. This is evident most obviously in Rust’s decline and Marty’s loneliness and regret as an older man. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s readily apparent in the vile kingdom of Carcosa that Errol Childress has created for himself and his sister-wife, which is overrun with accrued filth, festooned with the detritus of unspeakable acts. While it makes him no less responsible for his murders and cruelties and no less evil, it can’t be denied that Errol is the end result of choices made, decades ago, by old Sam Tuttle to force his perversions on others. The damage done to our man with the scars is more than just physical and sexual abuse. It’s the festering expansion of generational evil.

 

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Pete: The problem with time is that what results is the rest: “memory, record-keeping and storytelling.” This is our attempt to manipulate time and our perception of it. Or at least have some grasp of it. And to attempt that is to have a grasp of reality, which may, ultimately, be faulty. Look at Sam Tuttle’s old former maid saying there is no death, and the ideas of Carcosa, and the flat circle. These are all examples of trying to deal with time and how it creates you.

Rust sort of starts with this idea, with his (apparent) notions of meaninglessness. He even hates the idea in that one episode where he points out the Nietzsche shit Reggie Ledoux spouts. I think that it’s an easy place to fall. Do you think Rust, at that moment, believes that? I don’t. Why would he? Why go through all of that unless he had to? The real question is why he felt he had to. It’s a penance. Staring at Christ on the cross, and considering giving yourself up that way, and yet having no way to be as sure of it. The very act of living is its own kind of sacrifice, in a way. The pointlessness of existence that he espouses almost acts as a fallback position. Why bother?

Still, they both feel a sense of duty of which they are unsure (well, aside from covering each others’ asses). That grows together as they become both less and more sure, as things become less concrete except for the thing they have to do. Two dudes perceiving what they ought to do, without knowing exactly what that means. Perhaps that’s just a function of our “programming.” But, in the end, they did find some reward. It may not have been complete, but it was something. And perhaps that sense of optimism Rust discovered in the end was there all along, though dormant.

Because the solution to these crimes was decidedly of the real world, what can be drawn from the symbolism and mythology under the show’s surface?

Liam: Ultimately it didn’t matter that we never had Carcosa concretely explained to us – what matters is the real-world consequences of the Tuttles and Childresses believing in it (the murders/rapes/abductions/cover-ups). From writer-showrunner Nic Pizzolatto’s perspective, is an idea meant, I think, to symbolize our need to create bogeymen within fictional narratives as stand-ins for evil’s banality. Writers of imaginative fiction envision nightmare realms and noir conspiracies, because those things are easier to get an audience to stomach than the idea of perversion accrued over time and informed by social, political and economic realities.

The mythology adds an intriguing layer of weirdness under everything, but I’m fine that it didn’t come to the forefront. For those who weren’t fine with that, if you want, you could probably choose to interpret the vortex hallucination Rust has just before Errol attacks him at the center of the Carcosa-fort as the real Carcosa, the realm from which the Childress-Tuttle-Ledoux axis of evil received its inspiration. But I’m pretty positive Pizzolatto just meant it to be Rust’s synesthesia.

Pete: This goes back to my earlier thoughts on time/perception/shared experiences. I, for one, tried to avoid the Lost-like obsessions people had with symbolism and the like. I had a feeling it would either drive me crazy, lead me down the wrong path, or both. I just wanted to take in the show as it was. But, for those who did do so, they became just as wrapped up in the confusion and potentially false impressions as Rust in his storage unit. And that’s perfectly fine. I’ve certainly done my fair share of deep interpretation and it can be a great way to take something in, whether it be a novel, poem or TV show.

But, for some reason in this case, I had a feeling a lot of it was going to be a red herring. And that’s not necessarily Pizzolatto’s fault. He may not have intended the deep symbolism that people were seeking/found but, rather, more of a general ambiance. Images repeating themselves to set a tone or mood. I completely agree with what you saying that it ultimately didn’t matter. Although, I can also see why people would be underwhelmed. I don’t want to seem like I’m making excuses because I liked the show. If you bother to appear to be weaving such a complicated tapestry, the observer is going to want to see the thing come together as a whole. While we’re players in the game in the sense that we’re viewers, some may still feel as though they deserve more complete and true closure than was offered to the residents of Louisiana.

But, when you think about it, the main characters didn’t end up with the full story either. And even Rust was prone to visions, which could account for the vortex. Furthermore a bunch of crazed people believed in The Yellow King to one degree or another (even people in our real world sought him out, in a way). Others believe in the Christian God. It all points to reality and the stories contained within it being inherently flawed and incomplete. And yet, we tend to believe.

The show took plenty of heat for its lack of a female perspective, and for the portrayal of the woman characters it did contain. But at the same time, was it saying anything all that positive about masculinity?

Liam: As Pizzolatto has now said about 60 times, True Detective was intended to be the story of Rust and Marty, and all other characters would be secondary/tertiary to that, regardless of sex. It’s fair to say, if you want, that such a decision makes for a limited perspective, but then you have to say that about No Country for Old Men for focusing almost entirely on three characters to the detriment of others, or Greenberg, or any other story that’s done something similar.

THAT SAID, the show did its critics no favors by having only one major woman character, Maggie, who is granted any agency or full perspective by becoming one of the unreliable narrators in episode 6. Marty’s two girlfriends, Lisa and Beth, are sidled with unfavorable stereotypes – scorned homewrecker and sexpot. Those are unpleasant tropes that offer ammunition for the Emily Nussbaums and Salon critics of the world who look for such things. Marty’s own daughters and Rust’s girlfriend are largely ignored (something I doubt director Cary Fukunaga intended, he’s alluded to deleted scenes covering these characters, and one showed up on Vulture but was taken down).

I stand by my initial conviction that the show is a clear critique of machismo and alpha masculinity. Marty is a sexist character for six episodes, and a genuine misogynist in some instances, and in the seventh, it’s obvious that he knows how this and other retrograde attitudes have brought him to the isolation in which he resides. Based on how he ends up, you’d have to be high as fuck to think the show had anything good to say about his sins. In Rust’s case, he can only see women as victims or mother figures, and this helps contribute to his decline and despair as well. He relates poorly to women because he relates poorly to everyone, but while he is never specifically sexist, he’s definitely dismissive. In the case of the child-killing woman in Ep. 6, he’s genuinely cruel, encouraging her suicide (although he’s far from the only person who might do that). True Detective is not remotely enamored of the conservative, patriarchal Southern society that allows its central evil to blossom. It has its problems with its female characters – that cannot be disputed. But making blanket statements claiming that it endorses or genuinely glamorizes misogyny amounts to outrage-masturbation.

Pete: I generally agree. For example, I don’t think a story absolutely HAS to have primary female characters. I mean, for Christ’s sake, Lawrence of Arabia is one of my favorite movies of all time. Sometimes a story isn’t about women or doesn’t involve them. However, as you said, there are some real issues with the females in the show. My may point is this: If you’re going to have women play a role, then at least do it well. There were other characters in the show who played those same background/secondary roles that didn’t feel as mechanical, even if they were only there as cogs for the plot.

And perhaps that was the intent because it was from the perspective of these two ultra-male figures. If that was Pizzolatto’s purpose, then fine. But, if so, I think he may have gotten a little too clever for his own good. There are ways of showing that point in a much better way. You bring up No Country for Old Men (which, granted, may not be dealing with the same themes). Look at how that story treats Carla Jean Moss. While a secondary character, and one that’s buffeted by the will of the men around her, she strikes me as a fully realized person. And I want to believe that Michelle Monaghan is far too good of an actress to be incapable of doing the same.

However, there may be one conceptual piece of “evidence” that lends itself to the whole “this is how these guys see them, so this is why you see them this way” defense. Namely, the interview format. Are we to assume that scenes we see outside of the interviews are the actual, objective things that happened? Or are they their memories of them? I think I may be reaching here, but I think it’s worth considering. However, I don’t want to stretch a defense. There’s no overt indication of this that I can remember. And those “real time” scenes are presented as what happened, without any indication otherwise.

Among other things, True Detective is a specific portrait of a regional culture – what bearing does this have on its ultimate thematic conclusion?

Liam: I think it’s pretty clear that the sociocultural norms endemic to the Louisiana Bayou and much of the South have a fucking lot with what ultimately happens in this story. Now, the sort of power abuses and economic depression that characterize the villains’ actions here can happen in any place that’s been forgotten by politics or the economy (such as the north of England, where the horrific and superlative Red Riding, a story that clearly helped inspire this one, takes place). But the South adds the specter of religious dogma to the equation. It adds the factor of a very specific, provincial classism that doesn’t exist quite the same way in all other parts of the country.

More than almost anything else, this show is about the exertion of blighted, dogmatic will by the rich and powerful over the poor and weak, who are often willfully ignorant or mere products of their poisoned environment. They are cloaked in their bank accounts and gold crucifixes and badges. Errol and the Ledoux brothers may have existed in squalor and been outlaws, but their predecessors and accomplices were not – they occupied the Louisiana power structure. And those within that structure used their influence to try and cover up the deeds of Errol and Reggie, as well as their own. The line that Rust says to describe himself in Ep. 2, as his version of a joke – “I’m police, I can do terrible things to people with impunity” – is the unspoken Tuttle-Childress credo. Just occasionally swap “police” for “clergy” or “politician.” Rust skirts the edge of madness because he’s almost squashed under the thumb of the great evil with which this story is centrally concerned. Marty doesn’t fully acknowledge its existence until the very end, at which point he comes to the weary conclusion that he and Rust will “never get ‘em all.”

Pete: I think this is a great question because it basically brings together everything we’ve already discussed. For example, the region itself lends toward obfuscation. Swamps are difficult to navigate and are good at hiding things. They’re murky, and there’s something prehistoric about them. (One could say the same thing about some of these people’s belief systems.) The physical space itself lends to a kind of provincialism, as I think you sort of alluded to in your answer. The story spans for more than a decade, but what’s really changed? Oh … right. You can’t smoke in the cop shop anymore. But, otherwise, the bayou doesn’t give up its boggy ground easy.

If anything, those in control have either gotten more powerful or died (ultimately the only equalizer). And even with the reckoning, if that’s what it can be called, brought by Marty and Rust, the play continues. Like a flood, the waters of past beliefs recede slowly to reveal the real ground. If they ever do at all.

Change comes through individual realization. Look, I’m assuming that a lot of that society hasn’t changed a ton throughout the course of the show. However, I know Rust and Marty changed, whether they intended to or not. It may have taken crippling regret and loneliness, time and, hell, a few near-death experiences, but eventually they learned what was important. The funny thing is that, like Marty said before, it was under their noses all along.

I think that’s how regions can change. People go through life and have time and experiences shape their perceptions. They come to realize that they don’t want to be on the wrong side of history. And as that happens, death comes to sweep away older notions. But, again, at such a petty pace. So slow that you may not think anything is changing at all.

More than anything else, this is a televised piece of filmmaking. Lastly, let’s look at that – how did the direction succeed or fail (or both) throughout? The performances? The writing?

Liam: I’ll start with the direction of Cary Fukunaga. For me it was uniformly superb. I can poke small holes in other things, but Fukunaga’s camerawork and directorial eye never made a false move. He didn’t use any annoying devices – no jump cuts or time-lapse or other gimmickry. Everything, including the already-legendary tracking shot, was done in service of the story. (In that instance, it put you on the razor’s edge of that moment – Rust/Crash is coked off his fucking gourd, keeping relatively cool but letting out periodic roars of frustration, echoing the way viewers are screaming at their bloody screens like, “WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING HERE?!”) The journeys through the basement of the abandoned school, and later into the Carcosa Errol created for himself, had me feeling true terror. And the quiet moments, like Rust’s calm interrogations, the penitent conversation between Marty and Maggie and the final scene under the stars, were filmed with casual restraint, subtle camera moves/cuts and medium/wide shots.

Regarding the performances, Matthew McConaughey created a character who enters the pop culture pantheon alongside fictional titans like Daenerys Targaryen, Walter White, Tony Soprano and Clarice Starling. Woody Harrelson was often damned with faint praise by comparison to McConaughey, but he excelled in the more difficult part – his character is fairly unpleasant/unsympathetic for most of the series. The supporting characters often did a great deal with a little bit, too. Consider Glenn Fleshler and Ann Dowd as Errol and his sister-wife, who gave surprising pathos to what could’ve been evil inbred-hick cliches. Or Paul Ben-Victor of The Wire (Spiros Vondas, anyone?) spewing colorful put-downs of Rust and Marty as their CO in Ep. 6 while being believable as a police supervisor. Or Shea Whigham as a flamboyant but honest preacher who’s brought down by the one institution – Christianity – he felt wouldn’t fail him. And, last but far from least, Michelle Monaghan as Maggie, who received two dimensions on paper (in what we saw, maybe deleted scenes had more) but worked hard to successfully make them three on the screen.

Finally, the writing and story. It was a tale of crime and family and (subtle) sociopolitical commentary about a particular time and place and sort of flawed humanity. Subtle because in spite of its critics’ claims that it went for grandiose things it couldn’t grasp, it didn’t seem overly weighty or pretentious. Those things were rich background to a well-executed, brilliantly acted crime story. Occasionally Pizzolatto’s dialogue would seem too on-the-nose, or downright cringeworthy (Marty’s second girlfriend Beth basically reciting porn lines – yikes). But other times it’d seem natural to the point where it felt like it’d been waiting for Pizzolatto to discover it, like the banter between Rust and Ginger in the biker bar from Ep. 4, or those incredibly moving scenes in Ep. 7 where Marty and Rust confront exactly who they are through conversing upon their 10-year reunion.

Plot-wise, it’d be a lie to say the show didn’t employ tropes. It did. Every good crime story does, whether it’s a unassailable classic like Chinatown or a truly radical, almost alien police miniseries like Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake. Some of these tropes were uncomfortable or presented with mixed results – like Marty’s mistresses or the occasional lapses into (albeit well-done) buddy-cop shit. But it’s all in the execution. The late (and greatest of all time) film critic Roger Ebert said that it wasn’t what a movie was about, it’s how it was about it. With True Detective, an unprecedented level of quality in terms of direction and acting, paired with an authorial voice that has room for growth but is still strong and distinct, elevated things we’d seen before in other ways to levels of quality and emotional effect that I never expected. While imperfect, it was truly exceptional in so many ways, and I can’t wait for the new story of season 2.

 

Pete: Where do I even begin? I think you summed up a lot of what I would say pretty well. But, lemme add a few things. First of all, it’s fantastic to see Matthew McConaughey finally do some real shit. Why the hell do I care? Because every single time I’d see a preview of one of his terrible romantic comedies, I’d always think to myself, “Seriously, what the hell is this guy doing? He’s so much more talented than that.” I also want to give both him and Woody Harrelson credit for backing something like this. And both of their performances were wonderful.

I was hooked by this story from jump. It could be because I’m a sucker for these kinds of police procedurals. But, it’s not like I watch every one that comes knocking on the glass door in my living room. I generally enjoyed the pacing of it and the narrative framework. The whole idea of us watching a story being told harkens back to ancient ideas seen in Homer and Plato. (Before you say it, relax, people. I’m not elevating this to the level of the epics or dialogues.) While a few probably have complained that some of the dialogue and theoretical notions behind it were a bit heavy-handed (and lending themselves to parody), I have to disagree. I think it’s that people are more used to watching these shows and movies about “bad men as antihero” and being shown these kinds of thoughts through actions. It was nice to actually hear them given a voice.

It’s not often that a show can amass such a large number of followers in such a short time. Perhaps this wasn’t intended, but the way everything was laid out created this almost cult-like obsession with it, which I found ironic given the subject matter of the show. This much I know: I don’t usually rewatch shows. I don’t usually reread books. Life feels too short. But I sure as hell have rewatched episodes of this series. While that’s a kind of tautology (I like it because I like it), there are plenty of things I’ve enjoyed that I didn’t bother doing that with.

Granted, it wasn’t perfect. It had its lulls and moments that were a bit too obvious (looking at you, Ep. 6). And we’ve already brought up how female characters were portrayed and how many may have been disappointed by not having all the metaphorical dots connected for them in the end. That’s why I’m glad I watched it the way I did. Because doing so let me see it as the character-driven detective story it is.

Liam Green and Pete Krowiak can be reached via Twitter – @liamchgreen and @peterkrowiak, respectively.

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