Movies / Home Theatre

An Interpretation of True Detective, Season One


By Daniel Horn
March 11, 2014 - 15:26

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Like many, I was caught in the traction of HBO's True Detective from the first episode on, and like many I was left feeling ambivalent about the debut series' season finale. (Spoilers to follow.)

It wasn't just the lengthy and uplifting denouement (perhaps the most unexpected "twist" of the entire show) that threw me for a loop. Sure, I had to pick my jaw up off the floor when Marty and Rust both hobbled off screen for the last time, physically ruined, yes, but alive. I had spent the entirety of the last episode making my peace with the expected death of one or both of these characters, and then, somehow, by the end of it they had survived. They'd escaped the inevitable for at least a little while longer and they'd come away from the close brush with death fundamentally altered.

In that sense, the season finale was quite impressive. It showed that our heroes (or, rather, antiheroes) could be dynamic, even in a genre overpopulated with brooding, static archetypes and where death was almost always the only closure a character could receive. It gave them a chance at personal redemption, a broadening of perspective, however small: Rust, the undaunted pessimist, became Rust, the conflicted; Marty, the patriarchal good ol' boy, became Marty, the broken and penitent. We finally see Marty and Rust, who could never find common ground throughout their tumultuous relationship, come to an understanding about life and death, light and dark. Most of all, the world that they had been perceiving, and therefore conveying, throughout the series seemed to change as well, from oppressive and tenebrous to at last hopeful.

Maybe this dynamic world-depiction was True Detective's greatest triumph. Even after feeling a bit gipped by the last half of the season, an uneven second act that shed the first's rigorous framing and made it clear that all its dense mythology wasn't about "whodunit" but about where our protagonists fit into a world of institutionalized violence, religion, racism, and patriarchy, as I think about every seeming "red herring" (Marty's daughter's doll-rape scene, Rust's implication in the death of Reverend Tuttle, Marty's vigilantism, the mysterious pay-phone call, Rust's  furtive background, etc.) I find more to celebrate than to lament.

This appreciation stems from certain moments in particular. For instance, I keep coming back to a scene in which Rust and Marty are at the bar Rust has been tending since his return, and the silent bar owner is staring Marty down. "He's not a cop anymore," Rust assures the owner. It may not have appeared to be terribly important at that time, but in retrospect it's one of the most telling scenes of the show. It's here, at this obscured turning point, that True Detective's aim becomes clear.

The first half of the Rust and Marty saga is framed by the leads' narratives, the world and lore of which reflect not only their shared experience within the law enforcement meat grinder but also their idiosyncratic ideologies developed from that experience: Rust, always seeing a bigger picture, a grand conspiracy, a perspective that led us, the rapt viewers, down the rabbit hole; Marty, an instigator of violence and marginalization perhaps because of his incessant exposure to these things, perversions that eventually come back to haunt him and his family. Aren't these narrative voices the reason we saw so many clues where there never were any? Aren't they the reason we were subjected to the demeaning and overly-sexualized depictions of women, women who almost immediately faded back into obscurity after they'd gotten our main characters' rocks off or wounded them in some significant way? Didn't they shape our understanding of what the story could be before it eventually wasn't?

In that first narrative arc, Rust and Marty are detailing their own roles in creating the very things that they were combating. As police detectives, they'd had a hand in forming this mutated landscape of violence and barbarism. They were a part of the institutions that protected and propagated the monsters that they were hunting. They sparked brutal gang violence. In cold blood, they murdered the only lead in their case. They overlooked the obvious, and they were rewarded for it. Their failures made them heroes even as the monster they had been pursuing slipped away because of their own negligence. They were made out to be righteous. It was the Crusades, Louisiana-style, the detectives being deliberately oblivious to the causality of their actions as they rampaged through the petrochemical bayous.  

If the second arc feels more than a little inconsistent subsequently, then maybe it's because Rust and Marty's perspectives are changing as well. The realization discussed above of violent recursion is dawning on them too. (Recall the gruesome microwave scene that Marty relates as his reason for leaving the police force.)

Rust and Marty's eyes are opening in this last act, and even though some of their suspicions and beliefs turn out to have some credence, many of the lies they've told themselves and others over the years have worn thin, transparent (as indicated by Gilbough and Papania). It's extremely important to note that in order to change this vile world that they themselves helped construct they must first be removed from, even fight against, the institutions that facilitated that construction. So, while the tangent with the sheriff on the boat did end up being digressive in the scope of the overall investigation, it was perhaps most important in establishing the protagonists' new identities, sans their own narrative accoutrements.

And maybe that's at least part of what True Detective hoped to accomplish. We were reeled in by lies and set free by the truth. In the end, there were no storytelling frills, no surprises, no gotchas, no reveals. We simply got to the meat of what the investigation was always about, something Rust and Marty had been missing the whole time. They couldn't see the forest for the trees. "Would that they had eyes to see," the killer, Errol Childress, remarks in the final episode. He had been right there the entire time, waiting for them, to be released by death from the same unending cycle of evil in which Marty and Rust had also become ensnared. It wasn't until the two detectives looked past the periphery of conspiracy, biases, and personal vendettas that they could see the Yellow King for what he was: a bad man doing bad things. And that was it. Forget the Tuttles and the police corruption and the occult rituals. Forget deciphering meaning from stills and literary allusions and from deliberate wardrobe decisions. All of that is masturbatory. When all was said and done, solving the case was as simple as connecting the color of a spaghetti monster's ears to the paint on a house.

Of course, some of the Carcosa lore comes surging back once we are within the Yellow King's necropolis, but even the inevitable, all-consuming end that Carcosa embodies in Rust's mind is undone by his survival. The last myth is dispelled, the magic refuted. History makes things seem grander than they actually are.

Then again, maybe this is just me trying to rationalize a slew of plot-holes that otherwise wouldn't have any real answers. Maybe this is me masking my own disappointment with the lack of resolution to so many loose ends. But I feel as though True Detective has taught me something about how I perceive and process narrative, how formulaic our narratives have become, how adherence to formula is a requisite to success, how we yearn for big-picture stories even where they don't necessarily exist. True Detective gave us the Hollywood backdrop we wanted, and then it pushed it over and flipped us the bird. Not everything gets resolved in reality. It's the most daring thing I've seen a television drama tell us in years.

The series isn't without faults, sure. The sudden focus on Childress in the last episode felt like the creators had given in to pressure from executives to spotlight their monster in an archetypal Silence of the Lambs fashion. True Detective had never really been concerned with its monsters before this. (Maybe Marty and Rust were monsters enough.) Ultimately, the time we spend with Childress feels unnecessary, even if "making flowers" becomes the euphemism of the year.

And I'm sure concerns about the show's misogynic portrayals of women aren't apropos of nothing. Even with all that I've stated above and Marty's misogyny being integral to building a world that is intrinsically, and moreover realistically, misogynic, I'm still bothered by the fact that, while Marty was able to reach some catharsis about who he had been to the women in his life, that change seemed to have little to do with the women themselves.

Overall, however, I'm incredibly impressed by the series' focus on subtleties and character nuance rather than on shock and awe. Matthew McConaughey's performance is something we won't be forgetting soon, to say nothing of Woody Harrelson's brilliant, if overshadowed, achievement. The interplay and chemistry between those two are ones for the ages and probably the most redeeming aspects of the show. Additionally, Cary Fukunaga's impeccable direction was like nothing we'd ever seen before on televison, the sense of place and time was incomparably vivid, and T. Bone Burnett's music supervision was absolute perfection.

Despite my initial equivocations and frustrations, the more I reflect on the journey that was True Detective, Season 1, the more I can't wait to see what comes next for the anthology series.

For more commentary, follow Daniel @dan_horn on twitter.


Last Updated: May 19, 2020 - 12:25

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