Many will agree that HBO’s True Detective season 1 has been one of the more thought provoking episodic narratives of 2014. HBO has defined itself for some time now on distributing quality original content, leading the way in that regard, though Netflix is now entering the picture as a serious contender in its own right.
Nevertheless, there is something particularly daring about using the tried and true, rather old school cops and bad guys format for a character-piece.
What do I mean by that? Well, the case they are investigating does little more than provide us a mirror for the two “bad men,” our protagonists Rust and Marty. So if you’re looking to unlock the Keys to Carcosa, you’re going to be horribly frustrated with this series.
The Lange murder is just a Trojan Horse. The real story here is much richer and stranger: who are these men, and how did this murder change their lives? (DailyBeast)
This is where the show will either sing for you or never quite satisfy you. And this division will likely bring out the intrinsic viewing preferences of an audience. I’d like to talk about this division, between “What’s it about” vs. “Who’s it about”, as well as point out a few of the interesting symbols and devices used in this show in particular.
No story is likely to be all one or the other, of course. There needs to be some balance of the two in most narratives—a continuum which is represented rather confusingly in the prose fiction world as being “literary fiction” on one end and “genre fiction” on the other—but it should be amply clear which side True Detective is aiming for.
This conflict comes to a head when the spiral loops back on itself a third time, which is to say the final episode. (More on the spiral motif later.) In a character focused narrative, the plot—series of events that occur—are a device to get into the character’s heads. So to go any further into the “world” of the monster in the labyrinth would take the narrative off track. An ending that told us everything about the Dora Lange case, but nothing about Rust would fail the show on its own terms.
“This is a world where nothing is solved,” Rust says, before he has found a glimmer of his own redemption. But even though they ostensibly solved the case, many questions relating to it are left open. Nothing is solved, and there are no true endings. Must a narrative deliver us a complete resolution? (Nervous Breakdown article, “Resolutions.”)
In the Salon article “True Detective vs HP Lovecraft“, the author sees a cosmology of light and dark, good and evil carved out of the story, in other words it’s a morality play, but this doesn’t jive with what Pizzolatto himself has said about theme and intent.
I think what True Detective keeps telling you, over and over again, is that everything’s a story. Who you tell yourself you are, what you tell yourself what the world is, an investigation, a religion, a nihilistic point of view – these are all stories you tell yourself. You need to be careful what stories you tell yourself.
You said there was no conversion in the story. But was Cohle suggesting he now believes in some kind of afterlife when he told Hart about his near death experience?
It’s not a belief – he’s talking about an experience. And he’s not talking about a reconciliation with loved ones after death: If you listen to what he says, he says, ‘I was gone. There was no me. Just love… and then I woke up.’ That line is significant to the whole series: “And then I woke up.” The only thing like a conversion that he has is when he says, “You’re looking at it wrong. To me, the light is winning.” And that doesn’t describe a conversion to me as much as it describes a broadening of perspective. The man who once said there is no light at the end of the tunnel is now saying there might be order to this. I don’t think it says anything more than: Pick your stories carefully.
Or within the story itself,
Once you attach an assumption to a piece of evidence, you start to bend the narrative to support it.” Marty Hart.
This is one of the fundamental truths about mythology, and as we’ve discussed at length on Modern Mythology, myth is merely a publicly shared narrative. Little surprise that Pizzolatto was an English professor before trying his hand at script writing.
What’s most poignant about the conclusion? Not the unveiling of ‘the lawnmower man.’ Hardly. The last thing anyone would expect for Rust is redemption. Which is really what the final episode is about. And it’s funny because then you go back and realize it puts the apparent theme of the whole season on its head.
I promised that I’d return to the spiral. Throughout the show we see this device used. It’s an element of repeated iconography. It exists in the format of the narrative through time (basing the story in 95, 2001, and 2012). It appears in Rust’s hallucinations, birds flocking and dispersing in a whirling spiral. And it’s alluded to in the various pieces of “Carcosa gobbleygook” that add that Lovecraftian element of high weirdness to some of the episodes. Clearly it is a motif important to this narrative.
The biggest challenge in the spiral motif is that it’s always more rewarding the second time around. But it’s really neat how the narrative structure is spiral and that image pops up again and again. The spiral is symbolically the unicursal labyrinth, an image that appears throughout world mythology and appears most explicitly in this story in the iconography of the victims as well as the placement of the villain as the monster in the center of the labyrinth, a Southern Gothic Minotaur. The orbit of the spiral leads you ever inward, toward that immanent encounter. Jung wasn’t the only one to recognize the monster in this context is a part of the shadowed, divided self.
This “flat circle,” the circle that recapitulates rather than repeats itself perfectly, also relates directly to Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence. (If you don’t think that was on his mind, notice the aside in the clip above, “what’s that Nietzsche shut the fuck up!”)
The greatest weight.–What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence–even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?… Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal? (Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, more Eternal Reoccurence quotes.)
Of course this idea predates Nietzsche considerably, and points the way to Pizzolatto’s message–that the ontological fallacy referred to by Rust is based as much on experience as the narratives we tell ourselves. There are facts in life, to be sure, but just as importantly, we bring our story to it. “The locked room.”
Again we can turn to The Sacred and the Profane, “…to Indian thought, this eternal return implied eternal return to existence by force of karma, the law of universal causality. Then, too, time was homologized to the cosmic illusion (Maya), and the eternal return to existence signified indefinite prolongation of suffering and slavery.”
These karmic ties don’t require an actual belief in karma within the Buddhist or Hindu framework of reincarnation. What it refers to is an element of our memory. Consider something that you own that has a great deal of “sentimental value.” Pick it up. Hold it in your hand. Think about the people you associate with it. Grab hold of those emotions, and travel back to the time that the object brings you to. That’s your karmic tie. You are bound to those things.
The same is true of the memories and emotions we hold onto of those we love, who are now gone, and of the life we lived which is also gone. Of course, outside a framework that espouses transcendence, these are neither positive nor negative in themselves, but they are attachments. From this, we can see that a mythic symbol serving some kind of ethical function would arise, when it comes to recapitulation and renewing. To renew, the soil must be tilled. Some attachments can be maintained but others must be severed. (Krampus and Holiday Myths.)
This seems embedded within True Detective‘s narrative, as we see at the end with Rust’s partial redemption. In this, the final episode fits perfectly within the whole, a masterstroke not marred by the essential irrelevancy of the crime they are investigating.
My only frustration with any of this is strictly personal, as I have been working on exactly the same model
in the Fallen Cycle, (the final installment is planned to be entitled “Center of the Spiral,”) and now everyone is going to think it’s an homage to True Detective, at least in theme. But there are certainly worse things one could be likened to.
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