This won’t be very linear, and if things sound like a mixture of voices rising from different corners of the room, well, that’s kind of how the show made me feel. I liked this story from start to end. You can poke holes in the most perfect structure, and this one isn’t immune to criticism by any stretch and writers far better than me have already performed far more telling autopsies.
Some of these autopsies have been less than kind and I feel they miss not just the point of a genre show, but in their eagerness for political correctness or in their bitterness at misreading the red herrings, loose the value of what’s at hand. But there is also sound and just criticism at hand, so let’s get the worst of it out of the way early.
True Detective isn’t kind to women, not in the show, not in the reality of casting or roles, and not in terms of screen time. Maggie starts out as and remains the only woman with anything real to do on the show, and even her presence is a fleeting ghost touch. All other women serve as mutilated MacGuffins, deceased props, or an artificial source of comfort or conquest for the men who exclusively attack the narrative. There is no forgiveness or excuse to be made for it, and much like the director, all I can say is that while I acknowledge this, the story called me strongly enough that I could do little more than shrug at this regretfully and move on. I might note that the show isn’t much kinder than minorities, but I think that’s stating the obvious.
Visually, there is stark beauty here beyond what I’ve seen in a long time in a genre show. There are moments of sheer, absolute awe and horror. Consider the wide angle helicopter shots of sprawling Louisiana countryside, where every single pixel is in perfect depth-of-field frame from one edge of the HD screen to the other, while a yellow sun cooks the vegetation and kudzu vines hanging like ropes from sagging trees, or setting-sun blaze that sets fields of green shimmering like an otherworldly landscape draped in living skin. Look at the way the camera roll in a languid, low sweep around Rust as he gets out of the car at Childress’ house separating focus from the thick, green leaves and trees in the background and Rust, and then as the camera stops, the focus inverts immediately snapping the background into a blur and Rust into crisp focus. Look, also, at the confrontation between Childress and Rust – when the killer stabs Rust and lifts him off the ground. Does he actually commit the physical act or is that how Rust feels, like he is being torn by his own body weight?
These things imply, hint, and suggest at the world of the show. A visual medium must use visual metaphors and similes to extend the story. There is some wonderful writing out there about the use of framing shots and the way the first three episodes use the medium-framing of Rust and Martin to build audience trust that makes their unreliable narration that much more unnerving as it begins to unravel.
The dialog is similarly rich – it works for me but it has also received some criticism – when Rust talks about towns and places that feel like they’re not real, just someone’s idea of places, he’s not just talking about the physical space. He’s implicating all of civilization, that this illusion of security and sanity is just a thin filter that we’re forcing around a savage and meaningless world. We’ll come back to this point later, I think.
Besides, he’s not wrong within the context of the show, and if he takes liberty with language and speaks with a hint of baroque eloquence (or, perhaps, a misguided attempt at lyrical language depending on your taste), well, I bare him no ill will to that end. I find my own way of speaking to be more convoluted than necessary, but then, I find it’s the precise lack of necessity that gives things pleasure.
So, writing, past the point of necessity, can be a pure joy if executed correctly. I’m still trying to find that balance, myself.
Anyway. Focus. Right.
Let’s talking endings, intent and the insidious nature of fiction.
The last episode has served up a considerable amount of consternation, particularly among those who’ve concocted a private narrative and concluded a path they wanted the story to take rather than waiting to listen to the writer – and that is both the genius and weakness of the writing. It sketches a world so rich, convoluted, and expansive that it cannot possibly be all of the things it evokes in its audience. That is part of the problem with works this good – they are brilliant until the mystery is solved.
Look at Twin Peaks for an example of something that worked until it didn’t and quite suddenly, it plummets from zeitgeist to cultural waste bin – once the mystery is solved. David Lynch, a man who understands the nature of mystery like few others, has said many times that mysteries aren’t meant to be solved within the story, or rather what he means, or what I take him to mean, is that they aren’t meant to be solved for the audience. That there is deep work that the audience must do along with the narrative.
I think True Detective is very clever about the way it solves the mystery, and the way it leaves it untouched at the same time. It tells a story, and hints that the truth seen, heard or implied is not the complete truth, regardless of what the characters, the episodes, the actors, the writer or the director have to say about it. That last part is important, I think, and perhaps not even a deliberate choice.
I suggest that the story in insidious enough to infect reality.
Consider, this is a show that repeatedly hammers home the fact that the narrative structure is unreliable, that the lead characters are not truthful, one commits infidelity, another has lived years lying about his own identity. The circumstances surrounding the mystery itself are shrouded in conspiracy and deceit, and even minor characters are repeatedly shown to be lying, secretive people, shrouded in layers of mystery. And yet. When the story gives us a conclusion, when the narrative provides us with a neatly tied up package, when the writer and director claims the same, that the answers are all provided for, we accept their word. The cleverest trick the Devil ever pulled, they say, was to tell the truth.
Whether Carcosa, or the King in Yellow exist is irrelevant, there is hard evidence in the show that proves some level of conspiracy, whether Rust is involved in it or not (I think not, but there is little evidence for that other than the actual ending monologue (see below)). It’s also clearly evident that the writer sketched out a world far bigger than he intended to tackle.
Because if you boil it down, if you take away all the conspiracy stuff and just look at what these eight hours are about, it’s not about the supernatural or the video tape or the King in Yellow or the Tuttle family or anything bigger than a single woman’s murder. That’s what Rust and Martin are hunting, the man they’re after is Dora Lang’s killer, nothing more.
So, yes, I can go on and on about the other men in the video tape, the spiraling birds or the vision of stars that Rust experiences, the hard evidence of the photographs and video tape that Rust claims to find in a Tuttle home – any small part of that hints at a much bigger story, at secrets that would make for compelling storytelling and a wider arc than the eight hours allowed, or could hope to accommodate, but that doesn’t diminish their influence on the story that was actually told.
These dark, unsolved secrets act as clouds hanging over a landscape, a storm with vast and ranging reach but we ourselves can only shelter and secure ourselves from its damage against us, cowering as it passes us by. The local damage in this case, is Dora Lang’s murder (and, by extension, Childress’ other victims). We submit to a force of Nature that we can’t control despite all illusions about exactly how much control we exert on reality.
Every time a storm rips across a community – named storms, hurricanes, repeatedly mentioned in the show, by the by – we manage to be surprised. Why is that?
Because the storm brewing in the show, the conspiracy, the horsemen, the Tuttles, whatever, that black and ominous cloud, that suggested horror waiting in the wings with unseen scope and scale is what the Yellow King is. That’s the horror, that’s the darkness, because all we can do is protect ourselves from the smallest personal damage possible. And that’s the truth that forces Rust to embrace the illusion he struggled against for so long.
Of course, there is weakness in the last episode, the final clue is classic deus ex machina of the weakest sort, and there are a couple of lines that made me roll my eyes after seven perfect episodes, but the actual conclusion hangs together because it solves the smallest mystery it needed to solve. That was the contract the show made with the audience at the beginning and it fulfills that deal, it made no deal regarding any of the other, grander, darker things hinted at.
Look at how the murderer turns out to be no more than a mentally ill, simple man with a cruel, sadistic streak – that, the story suggests, is the true face of evil. No grand spiritual meaning, just plain, every day cruel, misguided, dumb, meaningless sadism I prefer to think that the grand designs hinted at in the wings of the show (as above) carry more weight, and by leaving those things hidden, that weight will, forever, remain, and the characters, the places, the mysteries and the show will live on in my mind.
That’s good writing.
To me, anyway.