“They’re called different things, but a lot of theory insists names are meaningless … I mean, angels, demons, monsters, whatever.”
As promised and predicted, the second season of True Detective retreated from the occult and weird fiction trappings of its first. Early last year, Pizzolatto told HitFix that the second season would be about “the secret occult history of the United States transportation system” before later retracting the concept. Is there an “occult history of the United States transportation system”? Unfortunately conspiracy theorist Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) will not be back from last season to tell us–he would be the one to know.
But where this “occult history” idea came from in the first place was speculated here on Tor.com in the article “Did We Just Learn the Plot of True Detective Season Two?,” which conjectured that The Crying of Lot 49 might provide the inspiration for the upcoming season. Salon picked up on the same suspicion, saying, “There also may be a hint of Thomas Pynchon’s peerless Southern California novel, The Crying of Lot 49, whose plot flows from the death of a real estate mogul and whose bizarre communication system parallels what Pizzolatto has called ‘the secret occult history of the United States transportation system.’” (Again, is there an “occult history of the United States transportation system”?)
Though not an occult novel per se, The Crying of Lot 49 does contain “a tiny intelligence…The Demon…in a box…sort[ing] out…molecules…to drive a heat engine…, causing perpetual motion.” Meanwhile, parallels to Pynchon’s two rival mail delivery services could be glimpsed in True Detective’s two warring transportation systems—the freeways that rule California versus high-speed rail’s bid for the future of the state. (Though to be accurate, it may be that the former interests see something lucrative in the latter and want to muscle in on that action.) It might also be that Pynchon’s secret postal service, “Trystero,” equals “Catalyst” (those “forces unseen”) in True Detective.
It almost feels like Pizzolatto is equating the labyrinthine L.A. cloverleaf interchanges and statewide highway system, and the gas-guzzling consumption that goes with it, to a deal made with the devil. Yet it is city manager Ben Caspere, the $68 billion high-speed rail facilitator, who dabbles in diabolism, or at least did in the first script reports. (One possible occult vestige left of this could be the Santa Muerte statue in Caspere’s “art” collection.)
The action in Pynchon’s novel is partly set in a fictitious town near Los Angeles named San Narciso “overlaid with access roads,” while True Detective is set in the fictionalized city of industry Vinci, also just outside Smogville. The “lot 49” stamp collection of the novel may serve a similar MacGuffin-esque function as the hard drive video footage that Detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) is searching for.
If Pizzolatto did, in fact, find inspiration in The Crying of Lot 49, it would explain his eccentric insistence on the usage of archaic Greek names this season. In Pynchon, the main character is a woman with the Sophocles-inspired name “Oedipa Maas.” In True Detective, the protagonist is a female detective whose full name is also from Sophocles, “Antigone.” (Her sister is Athena, and her father runs something called the Panticapaeum Institute.)
In Rich Cohen’s Vanity Fair article “Can Nic Pizzolatto, True Detective’s Uncompromising Auteur, Do It All Again?”, Pizzolatto even “described the new season as a detective story in the manner of Oedipus Rex, in which ‘the detective is searching and searching and searching, and the culprit is him.’”
Detective Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), in the first episode, visits her father, a guru who presides over a cultish Esalen-like “commune around Guerneville.” The historical Esalen Institute attracted a lunatic fringe, as well as a number of high-profile genre-related figures that included Aldous Huxley, Ray Bradbury, Joseph Campbell and, almost, Robert Heinlein. (Charles Manson too, according to his memoir Manson in His Own Words: The Shocking Confessions of ‘The Most Dangerous Man Alive.’) Incidentally, Esalen is also a place that months earlier drew Don Draper and provided the pivotal series climax for AMC’s Mad Men, a straightforward drama abounding in science fiction and horror homages—including some Manson references—throughout its seven seasons.
“Ruined dreams, this wasted land…”
In “Maybe Tomorrow,” Ani and Officer Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) interview a film director using the wasteland that is Vinci as the set of a “[s]ome collapse of civilization revenge flick” that could be a Road Warrior rip-off. (And in the same summer that Mad Max: Fury Road is released, no less.)
Pizzolatto described the landscapes of his novel Galveston and True Detective to Rich Cohen in Vanity Fair: “The [characters] inhabit a poisoned dystopia. It’s literally toxic…. These stories take place in areas where the revelation has already happened. The apocalypse has come and gone, and no one’s quite woken up to that fact.”
The high-speed rail corridor, properly diverted, offers the potential to revitalize industrial hellhole Vinci into a boomtown. Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) explains: “An undeveloped valley adjacent to the rail and the coastal highway has been purchased by several holding companies anticipating a commercial development that will be in line for hundreds of millions in federal grants. And the feds have guaranteed cost overages.” You can almost hear railroad baron Thomas Durant on AMC’s Hell on Wheels, played by Colm Meaney of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame, milking his rail race to California for all it’s worth: “[T]his undertaking is being subsidized by the enormous teat of the federal government. This never-ending, money-gushing nipple pays me $16,000 per mile, yet you…build…my…road…straight! You’re fired.”
Pulp Fictions and True Detective Stories
The original pulp magazine True Detective Mysteries featured ripped-from-the-headlines crime stories, and true to its magazine namesake, season two of the series is based loosely on Vernon and its history of corruption. (Prior to that, the first season was inspired by a 2005 Ponchatoula, Louisiana case of satanic animal sacrifice and child abuse.)
In the end, Chinatown and The Two Jakes, with their dense and layered real estate conspiracies—diverted water becomes diverted rail lines for Pizzolatto—are the most discernable pulp models for True Detective’s second season. Lindsay Blake, in her article “Sleuthing Out the Filming Locations in True Detective Season 2” for Los Angeles Magazine, uncovered location work at Sowden House, Hollywood Bowl, and Yamashiro Hollywood, some of the same locales that have appeared in classic crime films and television such as L.A. Confidential, Double Indemnity, and Perry Mason.
Mayor Chessani’s home in True Detective, the historic Sowden House, is where Pierce Patchett throws sex parties in James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential. Also in True Detective, psychiatrist Dr. Irving Pitlor (Rick Springfield) performs cosmetic surgeries and is at least as outré as L.A. Confidential’s Dr. Terry Lux, the man who alters girls to resemble movie stars for Patchett to pimp. Southern California Public Radio ran an article on their website, “Did The Long Goodbye inspire Rick Springfield’s character in True Detective,” drawing parallels between Dr. Pitlor and the Raymond Chandler character Dr. Verringer, and while Verringer is not a face-lifter, plastic surgery jobs do feature in Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (particularly with a postoperative character named Terry Lennox).
Verringer’s Sepulveda Canyon ranch, described as “a sort of art colony for writers and such,” also calls to mind the real-life Bohemian Grove and its artists, and yogi Elliot Bezzerides (David Morse) with his flock of “Good People,” as well as Chessani’s Lodge, on True Detective. There is even a character with a conspicuous ancient Greek name in Robert Altman’s film version of The Long Goodbye—David Carradine in the uncredited role of “Socrates.” The Altman film, parenthetically, has led to comparisons by several critics to the recent film adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice.
On top of all of True Detective’s subtle film noir nods, Det. Velcoro shares a father-son moment, in “Maybe Tomorrow,” with retired LAPD cop Eddie Velcoro (Fred Ward), together watching Kirk Douglas in Detective Story. More than noir and pulp, Pizzolatto is a self-professed student of Michael Mann’s contemporary police dramas, and like in Mann’s milieu, True Detective has its share of angst-ridden lawmen (including Farrell, Sonny Crockett from Mann’s Miami Vice feature film remake). The first season episode “Who Goes There” features one long tracking shot where Detective Cohle has to shoot his way in and out of a drug-ridden housing project, while season two (“Down Will Come”) showcases a war-zone street fusillade, both of which feel like the firefights of Heat or Public Enemies.
In reaction to the hostile response to his many literary allusions in season one, Pizzolatto went on the defensive early by insisting that “[t]here are no references or homages at all in True Detective Season 2.” Yet it is hard to not read the name “Ani Bezzerides” as a noir reference since his female detective shares the same last name as crime writer A. I. Bezzerides, author of novels like They Drive By Night, adapted into the George Raft-Humphrey Bogart film, and screenplays such as Kiss Me Deadly. In the Wall Street Journal, Pizzolatto resolutely denied any connection, saying “[t]here is no A. I. Bezzerides influence or homage whatsoever. I have seen the Jules Dassin film Thieves’ Highway but that is my sole exposure to his work. I saw the name in a California directory and liked it. That’s it. This show is certainly not putting his work in the spotlight, as his work has nothing to do with mine.”
Black Maps, Black Lodges, and Pink Rooms
From the menacing music that slowly builds at a low rumble throughout various scenes, and the murky cinematography itself, True Detective’s second season mostly has the feel of David Lynch’s L.A.-set Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway. There is, however, also a strong streak of Twin Peaks in parts, most obviously in the Conway Twitty and Lera Lynn music numbers in Frank Semyon’s Roadhouse-like private bar, the Black Rose.
In “Church in Ruins,” Ani goes deep cover to join a prostitution ring with access to a remote private sex club. There she is drugged with “molly,” and the nightmarish scene is shot like Laura Palmer’s Pink Room orgy in Fire Walk With Me. The harrowing evening even triggers memory recall of a childhood trauma, a Manson-esque mystery man reminiscent of BOB who could have wandered off the Esalen commune at Big Sur. Ani nonetheless bravely endures her descent to the underworld to rescue a missing person, the ungrateful Vera Machiado, from the degradation and death that claimed Tasha—and in Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer. (There is, in fact, also a lost “Laura.”)
Articles anticipating this full moon sex party before it aired compared it to the sinister bacchanal in Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut. Based on the 1926 novella Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler but updated to the present day, Kubrick’s Long Island estate debauchery sequence retains its period origins with an orgiastic masque filmed almost directly from Schnitzler. (“All the women … wore dark veils over their heads, faces and necks and black masks over their eyes, but otherwise they were completely naked.”)
In True Detective’s second season, masks are tied in to another orgy, this one off-screen. Caspere’s hard drive holding captured sex video of bigwigs in compromising positions gets Velcoro shotgunned by a figure wearing a Maltese Falcon-ish mask first seen in the city manager’s curiosity collection. In the first season, video of sacrificial woodland rites feature animal-masked cultists.
The setting of Eyes Wide Shut’s depraved masquerade ball that the Tom Cruise character infiltrates is, in the novel, probably a Masonic lodge as Vienna, the setting of the original story, was a hotbed of Freemasonry. In contrast, “Church in Ruins” was not a costumed affair as in Eyes Wide Shut and Traumnovelle, and the participants are simply business and political movers and shakers in high places cavorting with high-ticket call girls who could be straight from One Eyed Jack’s stable in Twin Peaks (where Audrey Horne went undercover and donned a cat mask). Yet it is all in keeping with what Den of Geek wrote about Pizzolatto avoiding anything obvious like the Illuminati “when a local Rotary Club can house as much felonious finance as any Freemason lodge.”
In a bizarre Vanity Fair article, Joanna Robinson connects the second season’s cabal to the Bohemian Grove, an actual California-based semi-secret club of persons of power and influence with a history of political clout. (One could almost envision Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s Judge Doom of Cloverleaf Industries with his pet vulture in attendance.) In what might be her paranoid vision of the “Bohos,” she chronicles their quasi-occult rituals, one of them surrounding a 40-foot stone owl idol which has its own shrine.
“The owls are not what they seem,” indeed.
“Two can be undone by three / But it only takes one shot”
While not as spellbinding as season one, the second season has overall been generally underrated by critics. But Pizzolatto was avowedly determined not to repeat himself, and ratings have surpassed last year’s. One of the joys of True Detective’s anthology format is that come next time, the setting and story could be anything—so for the disappointed, there is always another prospect around the bend.
If Pizzolatto is given a chance at another season and is still intent upon stretching himself, he can always fall back on his idea for a “third season…in the vein of The Big Lebowski, a ‘[Raymond] Chandler-esque riff with two characters’” (Hollywood Reporter). Now that would be Pizzolatto staying true to his pledge to “keep being strange.” It would certainly give True Detective the chance to capture the tone of Pynchon-esque absurdism that it mostly avoided in favor of realism this past season. In the meantime, viewers will find out, this Sunday when the finale airs, if the transportation equivalent of Pynchon’s clandestine Trystero has been behind the secret war against Frank Semyon all along.
Gilbert Colon has written for Filmfax, Cinema Retro, Crimespree, Crime Factory, New York Review of Science Fiction, and several other publications, and his interview with Body Snatchers director Abel Ferrara appeared in Invasion of the Body Snatchers: A Tribute (Stark House Press). Additionally, he interviewed Tor editor Greg Cox and Tor.com contributor Matthew R. Bradley for SF Signals. At present he is a regular contributor to Marvel University and bare•bones e-zine for Pete Enfantino, former editor of Scream Factory. Read him at Gilbert Street and send comments to [email protected].