Time is a Flat Circle: ‘True Detective’ as Psychodrama

true-detective-1Many 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 narrativesa continuum which is represented rather confusingly in the prose fiction world as being “literary fiction” on one end and “genre fiction” on the otherbut 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 plotseries of events that occurare 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 sequenceeven 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 messagethat 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.”

But there is a cosmological message behind this motif, as well as an ontological one. And here we can see the distinction between an eternal recurrence that is strictly cyclical, and one that is ‘spiral shaped,’ which is to say that it implies a sense of progression. The shape of the spiral implies a “return,” that is attempted but never fully accomplished, like a planet falling ever to the sun but moving fast enough to miss it time and again. This doesn’t exclude myths of apocalypse or teleology (it is after all toward The End that these things move). Supposing that end is never reached, the spiral is a kind of asymptote, an elaboration on the circular model, wherein the symmetry of the eternal, endless round and apocalyptic teleology are in a sense unified.
The progression from one “rung” of the spiral to the next implies a superimposition of a myth of progress atop the perfect sphere. It may merely imply a possibility for change, of time that is not merely lived in regard to an eternal or transcendent unity, which may so-called primitive cultures attempt to “return” to in their holidays, a relation not entirely out of step with the apocalyptic desire of telos.

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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30 Comments on "Time is a Flat Circle: ‘True Detective’ as Psychodrama"

  1. BuzzCoastin | Jul 1, 2014 at 12:42 pm |

    they luz their pig drama entertrainment
    which helps Homelanders deal with living
    in a kuntery with the most kops per capita in the whirled
    and the most prisoners per capita in the whirled

    yeah, lets watch more Pig TV!

  2. True Detective is simply one of (if not) the most well done TV show to date. Mcconaughey’s acting is unreal. If you haven’t given it a chance, watch the first two episodes, and you’ll be hooked.

  3. No use for tv, and especially no use for fucking shows about pigs.
    Enough with the pig worship.

  4. InfvoCuernos | Jul 1, 2014 at 4:05 pm |

    I resonate very much with the concepts that are at play in this series. I have read a lot of Lovecraft, Ligotti, and Cioran, and I urge those who reject this show as “pig worship” to judge *after* you watch it. It highlights the corruption and prejudice of the justice system and spotlights how fucked up pigs can be. This isn’t “NYPD Blue”.

    • Echar Lailoken | Jul 1, 2014 at 5:30 pm |

      I completely agree.

    • Thank you.
      I have indeed written it off before watching it or even knowing what it was about. Your description sounds interesting.
      I just figured it was another in a long line pig worshiping shows that have paraded across the screen pretty much since there’s been television.
      Another reminder not to make assumptions or jump to conclusions before knowing the facts.
      My friends tried to get me to watch Fringe because they thought I would like it and because they thought I would especially resonate with the character of Walter. I tried watching it and was put off by the simple fact that the two protagonists in the first episode were pigs. I just figured this show would be the same kinda deal. Oops.

      • InfvoCuernos | Jul 1, 2014 at 7:47 pm |

        Fringe is one of those tv shows you have to watch a lot before it becomes interesting. I had a marathon of Fringe shows crammed into my eyeholes for about three days straight. I would not have wasted the time to watch episode two but I found that it really started getting interesting after the second season. Most of the weird shit in the first two seasons won’t make any sense until you watch the whole series- it really makes me wonder how anyone stayed with it during its initial run. The series is a great example of circular time-not the plot (although it does take a swing at time travel), but the show itself. How could anyone tune in once a week and watch this show with no point to it FOR SEVERAL (four or five?) seasons? It was a zen exercise. The pig part was interesting as there was an alternate reality in which the cops had been subordinated by an oppressive outside government as a “secret police apparatus” and showed how easily pigs turned quisling. You have to waste a lot of tube time to get that tho and I wouldn’t make that investment twice.

        • Craig Bickford | Jul 3, 2014 at 7:33 pm |

          I watched it up until; that season when they got stuck in the other world, and I got totally disenchanted at that point. I went back and tried to watch it again on Netflix and just couldn’t get into it. It had potential then it got all stupid wit the Walter double and his annoying son form another world yada yada yada.

          • InfvoCuernos | Jul 4, 2014 at 1:23 am |

            ya, it was a big idea for mainstream network tv to try to pull off, and I think it missed the mark by a little bit.

      • InfvoCuernos | Jul 1, 2014 at 7:51 pm |

        also, True Detective is waaaaaaay smarter than Fringe.

      • Echar Lailoken | Jul 1, 2014 at 10:56 pm |

        Continuum the show, not the internet show, is another pig/authority show that at first glance may turn you away. However, it icludes many social issues, philosophy, time travel/time lines, technology, police/criminal,corporate corruption, and so much more. I highly recommend it.

        I am not sure if you know, but I heard you can stream most if not all of the shows, old and new. No cable required. XBMC with mashup may do the trick. So I have heard. You can even use sidereel to track shows.





    • Haven’t watched the show yet (too little free time, too busy playing catch-up on various shows from previous years when I do), but after skimming this article (trying to avoid potential spoiler-dom) and reading comments like yours it’s definitely going on the to-do list.

    • BuzzCoastin | Jul 2, 2014 at 12:48 pm |

      I urge those who reject this show as “pig worship”
      to judge *after* you watch it.

      I reject the show because it’s entertrainment
      sapping hours of life from actors & viewers
      creating fantasies to replace the bleak reality
      of a life shackledbto modernity
      Pop Kulture is Kryptonite

      • Monkey See Monkey Do | Jul 2, 2014 at 1:00 pm |

        C’mon Buzz. You cant tell me you don’t watch any television shows, I largely feel the same way as you about television, but there are still some series out there that retain some artistic merit. It’s the dosage that can be poisonous.

        • BuzzCoastin | Jul 2, 2014 at 1:10 pm |

          my life is far more interesting than any TV show
          I quit the tube over 15 years ago
          not to say I don’t scope the tube from time to time
          just to see how their workin their magic
          (loved the Obamma show in 08)
          but I haven’t found a show more entertaining
          than my own life

          they’re just fukin wid your head
          in ways you could not possibly comprehend
          while watching entertrainment

          • InfvoCuernos | Jul 2, 2014 at 1:35 pm |

            -says the guys that is perpetually on the interwebz. You run with that story Buzz. Someone that’s new around here might buy it.

          • BuzzCoastin | Jul 2, 2014 at 1:58 pm |

            I use less than 3 gigs of web a month
            ATT says so
            in the last 15 years
            I’ve been around the whirled 3 times
            lived in Hawai’i, China, SE Asia
            while managing to eschew a day job

            after I finish feeding the chickens in the AM
            I check Disinfo & Hacker News, make a few comments
            then get back to my life

          • InfvoCuernos | Jul 4, 2014 at 1:31 am |

            I have never made it to Europe, but I have been throughout SE Asia and the Middle East. You will have a hard time finding diving better than Hawaii(unless you dive Phuket, which is otherworldly). I can’t claim to live off the grid, but I do live outside of the regulated conventions of what wage slaves call their lives and I have fed a chicken or two, although they are not my favorite animal in the barnyard.

          • BuzzCoastin | Jul 4, 2014 at 2:17 am |

            I dropped outta poop kulture by default
            off the grid & foreign travel kinda killed it dead
            so that I’m pretty clueless on any entertrainment past 01
            now developing food production systems keeps me too busy
            to imbibe

            chickens are interesting critters
            they’ve taught me a lot about human nature
            can’t say I like chickens
            but they’re indispensable shitters of fertility

          • BuzzCoastin | Jul 4, 2014 at 3:53 pm |

            I’ve spent a year or two off and on in the EU
            between 87 & 07
            mainly France & Germany
            I highly recommend the experience
            especially if you can find a way to go local

          • Craig Bickford | Jul 3, 2014 at 7:38 pm |

            I hear ya man, I have cut way back, but to be honest we are kind of in a Golden age for long form TV dramas. It’s been going on for several years now, and hopefully it won’t end too soon. The really good ones are few and far between IMHO but they are good. Yes there are questionable themes in some, a lot of moral relativism too, which is sad but still the quality of writing and such on some shows that stand out is just hands down far above what we used to have on the CIA lie box. If it’s social programming (which it is), at least its quality.

          • BuzzCoastin | Jul 3, 2014 at 9:57 pm |

            good poison is hard to turn down
            once I dropped from the matrix
            I was always living in enviroments
            more interesting than pig manure
            like being in Ankor Wat during a full moon
            floating down the Mekong in a kayak
            meditating at the Swedegong Yangon
            hitch hiking from Vietnam to Cambodia
            living in the Hawaiian jungle
            living in Beijing
            stuff like dat
            keeps me from pop kulture’s entertrainment

      • Craig Bickford | Jul 3, 2014 at 7:35 pm |

        I really don’t know why people got so into it. It was really good, which mean the kiss of death usually for TV shows.

    • Craig Bickford | Jul 3, 2014 at 7:31 pm |

      Absolutely great show, I almost can’t believe there are still people who have not seen it yet. It ranks up there with Rectify, Boardwalk Empire and Hannibal for me as some really good TV drama that has come out lately, besides Breaking Bad (I’d say walking Dead too, but then I’d have the geek stamp, shit I said Walking Dead didn’t I?).

      • InfvoCuernos | Jul 4, 2014 at 1:21 am |

        I really love Boardwalk Empire, haven’t seen either of the other two. I’ve followed Walking Dead since the comic book(btw your avatar “geek stamped” you long before you said Walking Dead out loud), and have to laugh at people that complain about all the “human” drama. I feel like these people are missing the whole point-“They ARE us”. Its just that some mindless cannibals can drive cars and shoot guns. I’m looking forward to The Strain from G. del Toro.

  5. Gordon Klock | Jul 2, 2014 at 1:52 pm |

    Possibly my favorite series ever, (“Twin Peaks”,”Breaking Bad”,”Carnivale”,etc. all move to the back seat on this one,) & yet, despite it’s title & premise, is most definitely NOT a ‘cop show’…..

  6. It’s funny to me that none of the Disinfo camp see the correlation between the ritualistic sacrifices in the True Detective series and an interview Disinfo TV conducted in one of the BBC episodes nearly 12yrs ago. Not much detective work here.

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