“Time To Grow The Things That It Would Kill”: True Detective


I’ve just finished a review of Christopher Priest’s The Adjacent for the journal Foundation, and have consequently been thinking a good deal about misdirection. Here’s Priest, reanimating the pledge and the prestige, on the art of the conjurer:

The magician places two objects close together, or connects them in some way, but one is made to be more interesting (or intriguing, or amusing) to the audience. It might have an odd or suggestive shape, or it appears to have something inside it, or it suddenly starts doing something the magician seems not to have noticed. The actual set-up is unimportant—what matters is that the audience, however briefly, should become interested and look away in the wrong direction.

An adept conjuror knows exactly how to create an adjacent distraction, and also knows when to make use of the invisibility it temporarily creates.

For the last eight weeks on HBO, Nic Pizzolatto has been conducting a series of elaborate sleights of hand with the first season of True Detective, his mooted anthology cop series. Written by him in its entirety, and wholly directed by Cary Fukunaga, True Detective has possessed many of the hallmarks of auteur cinema: distinctive visuals, languorous pacing, and an air of artsy portentousness. In its opening three episodes, the first of which began with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s detectives attending a ritualised crime scene with a murdered woman at its centre, there was the maddening sense that the show’s disappeared coin was hidden in plain sight, that Pizzolatto had a truly tremendous reveal planned for it, but that the misdirections were so subtle and engaging that the trick’s depths were unplumbable.

The atmosphere conjured by True Detective in those early episodes (currently airing in the UK on Sky Atlantic) was remarkable: doomy and uneasy, it felt like a total, peopled world – heavy and oppressive in the way south Louisiana should be, but also degraded and collapsing in the way of America’s end of empire. Endless cane fields competed with ubiquitous petrochemical plants; down-at-heel suburbs bled out into rural poverty, backwater brothels were given the nod and wink by churchgoing sheriffs. Harrelson’s character, Marty Hart, is a Louisiana native who largely accepts this environment whilst seeking to adopt the crime-fighting moral high-ground usually reserved for the “big dick” cop; McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, however, takes a position at the other extreme.

Cohle is a remarkable creation: he ticks every antihero box, from dark past to brooding good looks, from dubious methods to fundamentally moral core. His criticisms of the corrupt and corrupting society in which he finds himself (he is Texan, and at the story’s beginning has been in Louisiana only a matter of weeks) are pungent and bleak: “I see a propensity for obesity,” he says during a visit to a revival tent. “Poverty. A yen for fairy tales.” When Pizzolatto introduces characters with fingernails rotted away by petrochemicals, or fishermen so disconnected from the wider world that their language barely resembles the English spoken by the men from the city, True Detective gives the sense not of being a police procedural, but an examination of the shapes into which people trampled by modernity can be crushed (one of the witnesses questioned by Hart and Cohle was once a college baseball pitcher, but now sits immobile in a filthy trailer following an unexplained “cerebral event”).

This disconnect between Cohle’s nihilism and the show’s sympathy for the poor and the lost, however, renders him, despite those immediately apparent generic signifiers, a repellent and failing figure. At times in the last few months, I have felt myself to be the only person in the world to have ever previously thought Matthew McConaughey a decent actor – despite his string of romantic comedies, I always felt surprised that the man who had put in such creditable, charismatic performances in A Time To Kill or Contact should wish to appear in Tiptoes. Without a doubt his work on True Detective is improbably committed and convincing, but viewers used to writing off McConaughey as a washboard stomach on legs seem to have been taken in by his charisma: on the fanatical subreddit devoted to the show, viewers week in and week out latched on to Cohle’s every pronouncement as if he was the voice of the series, the mouthpiece of Pizzolatto. McConaughey had them fooled, the coin was in his other hand: True Detective never believed the words of Rustin Cohle any more than it believed in Thomas Ligotti’s. Time, True Detective was here to tell us, is not simply a flat circle. Between Hart’s total absence of self-knowledge and Cohle’s absurd nihilism lay the real heart of the show (it was, in fact, perhaps best represented by Michelle Monaghan as Hart’s wife, Maggie, but more of her short-changed presence later).

That heart, it turned out, was much less contemplative or recursive than the season’s opening brace of episodes. At the close of its fourth instalment, True Detective switched gears, with a six-minute tracking shot following Cohle, taking leave from the state police and reverting to his undercover narco alter ego of ‘Crash’, across a chaotic housing project with a hostage drug dealer as a human shield. It was a shattering sequence, and one which might have suggested that the series was seeking to explode more than one crime fiction cliché – but which ultimately led it away from the rural metafictionality of its fake-out villain, the meth-cooker and paedophile Reggie LeDoux, and into a much more well-trodden story of frustrated detectives spending years recovering from a case they never solved. By the series finale, even that subreddit – once a hotbed of some of the most bizarre theories about a TV show since Twin Peaks first aired – was descending into parody and fan art, just as the show to which it was dedicated was settling, too, into a more conventional televisual space.

True Detective had built atmosphere through allusion and symbology: Hart’s daughters arranging their dolls as if at a crime scene or gang-rape, characters spouting references to the cosmic horror of R.W. Chambers, birds wheeling in the sky into the shape of a spiral found painted on the victim’s body. But these symbols were revealed, ultimately, to have no real purchase or substance. They were designed to add texture to a conventional serial killer mystery, which in its final hour saw two detectives chasing a reclusive pervert through a series of corridors until a final climactic battle saw both injured but, thanks to the commitment of a refound partnership, alive. This was all done very well – gloriously shot, beautifully acted, and – within the grand guignol confines of gothic southern horror – even tastefully drawn. But it wasn’t the show that presented itself to the viewer seven weeks previously.

True Detective‘s scepticism about Cohle extended, despite the apparent assumptions of many, to his investigative practices: McConaughey portrayed an obsessed, deranged detective so compellingly that – like the readers of a fictional play, The King in Yellow, which was cited by the show’s characters on many occasions (and again to little final effect) – the audience went mad. They, too, were looking for clues everywhere in what was ultimately a simple mystery: Hart’s father-in-law or wife were not involved, Cthulu was not involved, Cohle’s past was exactly as presented, not some elaborate cover for an Internal Affairs officer investigating the police captain who never had any lines. “Like, why do you think we’re tricking you?” Pizzolatto almost pleaded with his viewers in an interview with the Daily Beast. “It’s because you’ve been abused as an audience for more than 20 years.”

If True Detective really read like this kind of explosion of its audience’s collective case of Stockholm Syndrome, it would be a masterpiece. If it had been cast in so grotesque but cohesive a shape as some of the fan theories suggested, it would have been a landmark series of one kind or another. In fact, it was a straightforward cop show with a little more time and star-power with which to explore its central protagonists. This meant that it was not terrifically interested, ultimately, in its female characters, both alive and dead; it did not wish to delve into the power structures of the cover-up and conspiracy that hid the grotesque crimes of an in-bred bastard scion of the state governor’s family; it did not even, in the final analysis, care for its own mythology – for the backwoods elite murder cult which seems to have petered out even before Cohle and Hart arrived at the crime scene in the show’s opening minutes. For a series which seemed at first to luxuriate in its background, indeed to make the props and landscapes of its crime the very foreground of its investigations, the show retreated into the singular, into the comforts of genre. At the close of its final episode, Cohle accepts that his relentless nihilism isn’t the whole story: that the blackest night is dotted by the pinpricks of stars. True Detective didn’t abuse its audience, but it certainly left them watching a television show.

“We ain’t gonna get them all,” says Marty Hart at the close of an investigation which has captured one serial killer but left a cult uncovered. “That ain’t the kind of world it is. But we got ours.” The question of True Detectives first season – written as it was by a television novice – must be, “What was its target?” Ultimately, I’m not certain it was sure: it had many, and for want of choosing a single theme of interest it wound up asking a lot of questions it couldn’t fully answer: thus we were treated to a crooked sheriff made to say he was only following orders, Hart’s wife and children nodding awkwardly at his post-showdown bedside, the rural poor forgotten and the politically powerful protected. This might be all part of its point – “true detective” describes not one or both of the flawed Hart or Cohle, but a piecemeal, incomplete process which TV usually denies by wrapping up and matching to a single theme. But precisely that uncertain pregnancy of its opening episodes felt poorly served by the more straightforward denouement. Likewise, the traditional and well-turned pleasures of its event-laden final act could not attain noirish worldweairness (“forget it, Rust, this is the French Quarter”) following all the philosophising and mysticism of what had gone before. There was a disconnect, in short, between style and substance, function and form.

“True crime,” Hart explains to an old police colleague. “That’s the genre, not the title.” True Detective was remarkable on almost every level of its execution: direction, soundtrack, acting. Its writing, all pop cultural references and recurrent motifs, hit a very real nerve; but perhaps it also lacked a little discipline – and not just in Cohle’s much-lampooned trademark monologues. The show’s approach to misdirection was to gesture at everything – and then deliver a reveal we’d seen before. There’s nothing wrong with the trick, but when the original object was so interesting, the revealed one has to match up, whatever shape it decides to take, and however it collapses the waveform. The set-up, it turns out, is important after all – and, in the event, True Detective‘s pledge may have been more elaborate than its prestige.


5 thoughts on ““Time To Grow The Things That It Would Kill”: True Detective

  1. It’s really been interesting to me to watch the flurry of speculation and theorizing that built up around True Detective. I’m sure there’s an interesting discussion to be had about why it happened – audiences looking for the next Lost and being so lulled by the richness of the show’s world and characters, not to mention its prestige gloss, that they forgot how such efforts usually turn out? Aside from hoping, briefly, that the series’s title boded some reflection about its genre, I never had such expectations, which may be why I’ve enjoyed the show more than a lot of other people. I agree with you that the show is all about its execution. Any attempt to uncover a message or purpose just leads you down a lot of blind alleys – but then, maybe it’s that ability to impose so many readings on it that makes it so appealing.

    I wonder, though, if you haven’t fallen into that trap yourself, a little, in assuming that the show means to puncture the audience’s awe of Cohle. On the contrary, it seems to me that Cohle is the purest expression of True Detective‘s total absence of self-awareness. This is, after all, a character who spends the entire season spouting pure nihilism – to the point of announcing that he will kill himself when the show’s story ends – and is treated like a prophet, and who does a complete 180 in the show’s final act and announces that there is a god, and is still treated like a prophet. Not only is there no space left for the audience to conclude that the answer might be somewhere in the middle, but we’re actually not supposed to have noticed that at least one of these philosophies – and thus, the man who spouts them – has to be wrong.

  2. I think you’re spot on when you say that the show’s stickiness – it’s apparent chimerical capacity to support many readings and present a myriad unintentional subtexts (I love Fukunaga on this: “Some of it wasn’t intentional, like when the truck was driving by and there’s a yellow crown in the background”) – is at the root of its appeal. It seems somehow to have tapped into a deep well, probably filled by the last ten-or-so years of TV’s “golden age”; whether this makes it a truly rich text, or just a kind of magpie’s nest I’m not sure. I also think it’s final act limits the early episodes’ rewatchability in some ways; but Pizzolatto has undoubtedly written something that has connected profoundly.

    That’s why I’m less keen than you to write off the show’s tensions as missteps. I agree that the show is probably not meaning to puncture the audience’s awe of Cohle – I think it likely that, as with the profusion of meanings found by the fans, it never meant it to happen in the first place. It doesn’t seem at all unlikely to me that Cohle is meant to be an ambiguous figure: look at how the show lionises family, for instance, castigating Hart for his inattention; that Cohle has responded to the loss of his family in so negative a way seems antithetical to everything the series tells us about goodness. You’re right, of course, that he is ultimately proven right about the conspiracy. But you can be right for the wrong reasons, and of course it’s Marty, not Rust, who ultimately cracks the case – not through an obsession with the occult but through a photograph of a house and some tax returns. Cohle is a prophet, but his philosophy is little different to the preacher, Theriot’s – and Theriot, too, is shown to be misguided. In short, I think that, in the rush to garland McConaughey, Harrelson and Hart have been done a disservice: he’s not wrong to look askance at Cohle, just as Cohle is not wrong to look askance at Hart.

    But you’re right that this requires an extra step of analysis that no one in the text itself actually makes. Thinking about it, in fact, perhaps where True Detective slips up is in precisely that signalling: there isn’t always a thread to lead the viewer through the maze, or even a trail of barely-visible breadcrumbs to see when you turn your head back to look at where you’ve been. Which scene, which scrap of evidence, should carry the most weight? I suppose that, too, mirrors a real-life crime case – but it might account for why we can all have such extremely competing readings (for instance, I didn’t take home from that final scene that Cohle had found God!).

  3. I absolutely agree that Marty (and Harrelson) have been shortchanged in the discussion of True Detective. I thought the show’s depiction of his hypocrisy and self-delusion (alongside his better qualities, such as his courage, loyalty, and as you say, deductive skills) was incredibly rich and nuanced, though it’s precisely that willingness to stress Marty’s hypocrisy that makes me less convinced that we’re meant to see the same quality in Rust. In the show’s early episodes, I agree that there’s some criticism of Rust’s nihilism, some sense that his refusal to engage with the world is a response to trauma rather than a coherent philosophy. But I think that fades away after the shootout in the housing project, and as much as the show might, from that point, view Rust as self-destructive and damaged, it remains in awe of those flaws – as opposed, again, to Marty, whose flaws are allowed to remain gloriously, off-puttingly human.

    (I was using “found God” more as a shorthand than a literal description of Rust’s transformation. He goes from someone who believes that life has no meaning to someone who believes that he is a player in a cosmic battle between good and evil; from someone who believes that human consciousness is an evolutionary mistake to someone who believes that there is life after death and that his loved ones await him there. Not using the G-word doesn’t, I think, take away the import of his words.)

  4. It’s interesting: I thought that it was Marty who got more to do as the show went on, who began to attract the narrative authority – it seemed to me that Cohle’s fire faded as the years passed. Are we really, for instance, meant to think that the grizzled, dead-eyed detective watching TV with his girlfriend or slapping the face of a junkie who mentions the yellow king is in some way to be lionised? Doesn’t his brief moment of passion with Maggie more or less throw his myth under the bus?

    (I think that Cohle is perfectly capable of believing he experienced in his dying moments the love of his daughter without necessarily thinking that there’s a heaven, but I absolutely agree with you that he performs a 180 in the show’s closing moments.)

  5. Are we really, for instance, meant to think that the grizzled, dead-eyed detective watching TV with his girlfriend or slapping the face of a junkie who mentions the yellow king is in some way to be lionised?

    That’s a fairly brief period of Rust’s life, though (or, more precisely, in the show’s presentation of Rust’s life – we gloss over it in fifteen minutes). I think the impression we’re supposed to take is that Rust loses his way in this time in his life, allows himself to become ordinary (and to abandon the case). And around the same time that Rust recommits himself to the investigation Marty goes completely off the rails, beating the boys who were caught having sex with Audrey and embarking on a thoroughly inappropriate, harmful relationship with Beth, so I don’t think you can argue that he has narrative authority.

    Rust’s sex scene with Maggie is one of those moments in the show whose multiple interpretations leave me particularly puzzled. I agree with you that we’re meant to take it as passionate, an expression of his need for connection (and the simmering attraction he’s always had for Maggie). But a lot of reviewers have described it as cold and passion-less.

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