True Detective isn’t Genre, it’s a Show About Nothing

True Detective has been on the air for six weeks now, and has already kicked up enough internet speculation, breathless hype, inevitable backlash, and Cthulhu mythos research to… wait. Wait, that last one seems out of place here.

The fact that the show introduced some Cthulhu Mythos started off a giant wave of internet speculation, and I’m sure someone else at Tor.com will get to that in time. But personally, I don’t think the Mythos matters here, because there may be a far more terrifying truth at the center of the show. Be warned: there will be spoilers for those who are not caught up through Episode 6. (Why aren’t you caught up through Episode 6?)

For those of you who have not yet drunk the Kool-Aid spiked with Lone Star, True Detective starts as a seeming procedural. A pair of detectives, partnered for only three months, are sent to investigate a gruesome murder outside of a small Louisiana town. The two men don’t particularly like each other. Marty Hart is an uncomplicated family man who likes drinking with friends and telling stories about old girlfriends; Rustin Cohle is an introverted nihilist who, when asked, will launch into very long diatribes that puncture holes in conventional religion, the value of family, and even the notion of the self.

As we learn, neither of these initial impressions is true—both men prove far more complicated—and the murder itself may be the product of a cult, or possibly a drug/sex/child abuse ring that leads all the way to the governor of Louisiana. The show jumps between three points in time—1995, 2002, and 2012—to give us different angles on the case. The revelations about Hart and Cohle mirror the show’s increasing depth, in which religious imagery, Southern Gothic atmosphere, and drug flashbacks all combine to create a somewhat surrealist atmosphere over the first couple of episodes, with every indication that we’re supposed to be following along. The writer and director give us more than enough clues to play along at home, as the explosion of theories and articles can attest. Then the show swerves in a new direction. The case is apparently solved, and the show becomes a character study. Any sense of a traditional cop show is left far behind as we delve more into Rust and Marty’s lives. But then, has the case been solved? Can it be solved?

It’s the references to Robert W. Chambers’ King in Yellow that really lit up the internet. The Yellow King is a character in a play discussed in Chambers’ book of stories, and the play drives people insane if they see even a few moments of Act II. This theme and several of the characters were picked up by H.P. Lovecraft, and gradually spread across a large strain of weird fiction. Chambers’ book also refers to a city called “lost Carcosa” which first appeared in an 1891 Ambrose Bierce story, “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” before gaining life across a whole range of speculative fiction. True Detective took this imagery and ran with it, giving us characters who claim to live in Carcosa, have black stars tattooed on their necks, twin suns, and, most damningly, a “green-eared spaghetti-faced man” who looks pretty tentacle-y.

Yes, the symbolic imagery is even found in Marty’s house.

But as the show continues, the references to Lovecraft and Chambers wane, and instead the show becomes a more explicit examination of Southern Gothic traditions, cop shows, and drug culture. Then, in its latest episode, it puts all of that on the backburner to focus on masculinity and gender roles. This leads me to the conclusion that the show is not going to end, as I once hoped, with a terrifying showdown between man and Elder God.

I’ve been hearing dimly about the McConnaisance, and when I saw the ads for True Detective pop up in subway stations I was vaguely surprised that those two guys were on a TV show. But then I read Michael M. Hughes’ now-infamous io9 article, and watched a couple episodes, and fell in love with Rust Cohle like I was pretty much programmed to do—not because I’m a meat puppet, but because it’s exhilarating to meet a character who jumps from the Garden of Gethsemane to the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement in about half a sentence—and what got to me wasn’t the Mythos elements, but just how rabidly the fanbase grabbed onto those elements.

Hands up, who had heard of Robert Chambers seven weeks ago? Oh, wait, I forgot, this is Tor.com—probably a lot of you’ve read him. So I’ll ask instead—did you ever expect The King in Yellow to vault up the Amazon bestseller list like a bunny in a competitive hopping competition? Did you ever think you’d log onto a subreddit to have a spirited discussion about Dagon the Fish God of the Philistines? Well, sure, but did you think the discussion would be inspired by a mainstream cop show?

I allowed myself to go down the rabbit hole of theories, speculation, sub-reddits, True Detective Conversations, and what is still most interesting to me is why people have latched onto it. Woody Harrelson’s character is an examination of masculinity we’ve seen before. We’ve certainly seen women objectified through abuse and murder before, and we’ve also seen shows that have their cake and eat it too, to borrow a phrase, by commenting on objectification while showing lots of tits. For the record I think TD is commenting on a society that only has a few roles for women (virgin, whore, reformed whore) by showing that in the end, the only tool they have to try to create equilibrium for themselves is the manipulation of sex. In my experience, this is simply a fact in certain areas of America; TD is not throwing its female characters under the bro bus. I also think that the characters’ view of women is going to be key to the mystery, assuming it gets solved.

So again, why? And why with the Lovecraft?

The show is about deconstruction, and the thwarting of expectation. Rust says himself that there’s no fulfillment in life, and in one respect, at least, I think the show will adopt his worldview; I don’t think we’re getting the resolution people want, and I think that’s the whole point.

We see a crucifix over Rust’s bed and assume, along with Marty, that he’s religious, only to find that he thinks religion is a sham, and his reason for contemplating Jesus’ death is much darker. We see Marty and his family, and at first think that he has a stable home life, only to find that he’s destroying that life at every opportunity. (Plus, there are plenty of dark hints that at least one of the kids is being abused.) Even the obvious plot device of Maggie’s infidelity with Rust is challenged by the way she is in charge of the situation, from how she calculates the affair, to the way she immediately confronts Marty with the knowledge. True Detective gives us a murder that has all the expected trappings of a cult or serial killer, but what if, true to the show’s MO so far, this expectation is subverted or denied? What if these are just random murders? What if they’re not murders at all, but assisted suicide? What would that say about the world of True Detective? And what does it say about the audience that we’re hungry for a show that explodes the neat conventions of the procedural?

The purpose of a procedural, much like a hero’s quest or a typical “gunfighter vs. sheriff” type Western, is to demonstrate the order of society. We see a crime, or the aftermath of one, and then we watch people solve the crime, give the victims some closure, and piece their society back together. Where it was once Columbo or Miss Marple, we now have two different misanthropic Sherlocks, David Tennant’s acidic Alec Hardy, and hell, even Tom Mison’s haunted Ichabod Crane. With this background, Rust Cohle’s nihilism feels less like revolution than natural progression. Yet even in their stories, D.I. Hardy, for all of his anger, succeeds in helping the community of Broadchurch to heal from the death of Danny Lattimer. Sherlock might not care about Russell Tovey’s Henry Knight, but his intervention helps the guy move on with his life. And Ichabod Crane’s whole mission is to stop the Apocalypse, and preserve the world. Marty Hart and Rust Cohle are different: Marty ultimately only cares about himself, and one can imagine Rust watching the Horsemen ride down the street while swigging a Lone Star and nodding, “That’s a start.”

Here is where True Detective is interesting, possibly even revolutionary. I think this may be a detective show about the impossibility of solving a crime, providing closure, fixing society, healing wounds—basically an anti-procedural. What does it mean when, of the two men who are supposed to mend a rift in society, one lives in mindless pursuit of pleasure, and one actively roots for all of humanity to join hands and walk off into the sunset?

I think this ties in with why people ran with the Chambers and the Yellow King theories, and why the fanbase has become so instantly obsessive. Rather than face the total chaos, the show has given us a possible face—that of Hastur or Dagon, or even Cthulhu himself—and rather than relying on the detectives to solve the crime, we are ourselves taking to the internet to pore over clues that range from a little silly to truly terrifying. People can embrace the meaningless void by putting a face on it. Watching children get tortured or marriages fall apart is awful, and listening to Rust talk about why the self is only an illusion isn’t much more fun, but fixating on a tentacle god gives people a physical embodiment of the chaos that the show is promising. It makes it less scary, somehow, to give it a face, even if it’s a face that will drive you mad.

People who grew up with Twin Peaks and The X-Files have been trained to look for patterns in their weird mysteries; is True Detective is giving us the illusion of meaning in a meaningless universe? Is it trying to make us do all the work? At this point, I feel like the theories the fans have come up with are going to be more intricate and stylish, and possibly even more emotionally satisfying, than anything the next two episodes can produce. I’ll admit that the only satisfying conclusion for me will be Rust Cohle looking directly at the camera and admitting he’s a fictional character on an HBO show.

But then there’s that second season… once you go full Duck Amuck, how can you ever come back?


Leah Schnelbach spent her youth crisscrossing the Gulf Coast and the southern Appalachians in a variety of shitboxes (often with The Handsome Family on the radio) and this show makes her homesick. Tweet at her!

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