Before there were subreddits, there were Yahoo groups, and before there were Yahoo groups (or widespread internet access) there was sitting in the college cafeteria with friends. Before there was True Detective, there was Carnivàle (or Lost, if that’s more your thing), and before there was Carnivàle, there was Twin Peaks. As long as people have been making layered, interesting television dramas, people have found ways to get together to discuss them.
Back in the early ‘90s we all wanted to know who killed Laura Palmer, the girl found wrapped in plastic in the sleepy town of Twin Peaks. In the noughties some of us waited on tenterhooks to see a confrontation between Brother Justin and Ben Hawkins (but we waited in vain because Carnivàle was cancelled after its second season), all the while working together to decipher the show’s mythology. Since January, many of us have been reading or re-reading weird fiction and trying to figure out what the King in Yellow or Carcosa had to do with the murder of Dora Lange and the women and children who went missing along Louisiana’s polluted bayous.
There are times when those discussions are productive – mostly when there is a solid mythology behind the show (Carnivàle being the classic example of that with its spin on gnostic mysticism) and times when they are less so (Lost springs to mind here, because in its final seasons it was more about distraction from the lack of narrative than any sort of narrative drive). And then there are shows like True Detective where the eagerness of so many to analyse every little detail can end up derailing some viewers from the overall aim of the show.
Spoilers below – if you haven’t seen all 8 episodes, please don’t read on.
From that slow-burn opening episode onwards, it looked to me like the story Nic Pizzolatto was trying to tell was one about these two men, Rustin Cohle and Martin Hart, and how one case and seventeen years changed them both. In short, it was a character study. Good ole boy Hart goes from obliviously wrecking everything he touches, convinced he’s entitled to take whatever he wants, (when he wants it and always on his own terms) to a man reduced to tears by his estranged family paying a compassionate visit to him in hospital. He is no longer oblivious, and instead is all too aware of the pain he has caused, the damage he has done, the darkness holding the light in a tight fist. He no longer has a family, but he still has Cohle.
In contrast, Cohle goes from brokenness, the grieving man channeling his rage into a verbose disdain for everything around him, espousing a nihilism that never rang entirely true, into a man wrenched back from a death he welcomed (you don’t pull out a knife that’s lodged in your gut unless you’re trying to hasten your own end) to face the world without the luxury of his mask, and somehow finding a way to see hope in all of it.
That, to me, was the main narrative intent of the series, to have these changes happen to these men and to have those of us watching follow along with them, be invested in them and believe in them. The Dora Lange case, and all of its permutations, was pivotal in giving them something to work on that would not be neatly resolved in the first place, and could still haunt either or both of them enough to have them revisit it a dozen years later.
So far, so simple, right? But what happened when True Detective aired was probably not something the writer could have predicted. He dropped in some references to Robert Chambers’ short stories and all of a sudden the show was being touted as offering something to “genre” fans (genre here referring to weird fiction and not detective stories), with big showy articles on io9 telling weirdfic aficionados that HBO had something special for them. That and Tumblr users obligingly gif-ing Allesandra Daddario’s boobs pulled in a wide swathe of viewers who might otherwise have let the show fly under their radar. And then the subreddit happened, the Slate and Jezebel articles popped up and the theorizing began in earnest. As the weeks went on, it seemed like the theorizing ratcheted up in intensity with each episode until there were entire theories made up out of whole cloth that read more like fan fiction than something the show was likely to offer (my personal favourite one of these involved a vocal group who insisted that Hart’s father-in-law was the Yellow King, that first Maggie and then her daughters were both abused by him and his cult, while Marty remained ignorant of it all, closely followed by the ones who claimed either Marty or Rust was the Yellow King). In what seemed like an attempt at damage limitation, Nic Pizzolatto started giving more interviews, trying to gently point viewers back in the direction of where the show was actually headed. Some examples below:
“I just thought that such a revelation would be terrible, obvious writing. For me, the worst writing generally just ‘flips’ things: this person’s really a traitor; it was all a dream; etc. Nothing is so ruinous as a forced ‘twist,’ I think.”
“Going into the final episode, I wanted to end any audience theorizing that Cohle or Hart was the killer, and also provide a concrete face to the abstract evil they’re chasing. So, wild speculations aside, we showed the killer’s face in Episode 1.”
“I don’t read internet chatter, but all I can offer is that to date there hasn’t been a single thing in our show that’s supernatural, so why would that suddenly manifest in the last episode? The show has a quality of mysticism, for sure, but nothing supernatural so far.”
He was even more direct about some things here:
“I’ve enjoyed reading people theorize about what’s going to happen because it’s a sign that you’re connecting. But I’m also sort of surprised by how far afield they’re getting. Like, why do you think we’re tricking you? It’s because you’ve been abused as an audience for more than 20 years. The show’s not trying to outsmart you. And really if you pay attention… if someone watches the first episode and really listens, it tells you 85 percent of the story of the first six episodes.”
“Yeah, I think so. To be clear, in our show, nobody is going to reference a book by Robert Chambers called The King In Yellow. Then we’d just have an episode where Hart and Cohle are just reading The King In Yellow… I just did a DVD commentary that plainly explains [the mythological backstory], but a lot of things are left in fragments for the viewer to piece together about how we arrived at where we arrive. You know, you can Google “Satanism” “preschool” and “Louisiana” and you’ll be surprised at what you get. But instead of having our Satan worshippers worship Satan, they worship The Yellow King.”
And so, prior to the final episode, we knew that the Yellow King is not a person, but a deity worshiped by the cult, that neither Cohle nor Hart “did it”, and that we weren’t going to have some big Shyamalan-style supernatural twist pulled on us.
And yet, the theorizing continued, with stalwarts insisting that Hart had to be the Yellow King; that Maggie was in on it because she had a star on her blouse; that The Yellow King was the cocktail of meth and LSD cooked up by LeDoux and Dewald and fed to their young victims. In short, there was a vocal subset of the audience who were wholly invested in something that was not meant to be anything more than an allusion, an easter egg for those who had read Chambers and would get a kick out of the references, and maybe pick up on the whole “driven mad by a story” element it brought to the show.
What became clear in the final episode was that the Tuttle and Childress clan had built themselves their own religion, mixing Voudoun, Santeria, Satanism and a whole bunch of random-seeming crazy together culminating with their murderous rituals in Carcosa, the catacombs on the Childress property. After the Dora Lange murder site was staged by Errol (“leaving his sign”), and Tuttle’s house was burgled by Cohle, the rest of the cult seems to have decided to lay low, leaving Errol and his half-sister to “look after” themselves and their abusive elderly father (the less said about his standards of care, the better). Errol seems to have taken this as proof that it’s time for him to ascend to another plane – probably through killing the cops who have found him out. So yes, there was a sprawl, a vast conspiracy, but the man at the center of it was the least successful (materially, politically, socially) of the extended Tuttle/Childress brood.
And yet, the depredation that this one man wrought was horrific in its extent. He was smart enough to evade detection and could pass as harmless in order to lure his victims and win the trust of those in authority (teachers, preachers etc.), ensuring he won lots of contracts for painting and grounds keeping and therefore had access to the children and women he kidnapped, defiled and murdered in his ritual sacrifices to the Yellow King. He was the product of decades of abuse meted out as standard to the bastard children of a “respectable” family with deep roots in the area, yet even as it tells us this the show makes no excuses for him, no pity is allowed to creep in, even around the edges, for everything about the man is repugnant.
If I had a criticism of the final episode, it would be that this insistence on Errol’s repugnance feels more heavy-handed than we needed it to be. Did we really need to see him fondling his half-sister while making her tell him stories of her granddaddy molesting her? Did we need to listen in on the two of them “making flowers”? Would one or the other not have sufficed to make us understand when we have already been shown his father chained to a bed in a shack where the walls were painted in blood? There were times when it all teetered on the edge of parody, but Glenn Fleshler as Errol was (luckily) capable of restraining it from collapsing altogether, and his echoing taunts to Cohle in the catacombs were effectively creepy (partly because we couldn’t be sure they weren’t hallucinations) as was the final showdown where we saw both Errol’s brute strength and his insight (“Take off your mask” he hisses at Cohle as he plunges the knife into his abdomen – another hat tip to The King in Yellow, but also an acknowledgement that Cohle is wearing a mask, one that hides his grief and pain. In that moment he’s taunting Cohle to allow himself to feel something, even if it’s just pain and fear).
It seems that all the people associated with the cult (Dewald and LeDoux being other examples) can see right through Cohle, which only makes them even more creepy. You can see how these men could insinuate themselves into peoples’ heads and wreak havoc with them. Just like the fictional play at the heart of Chambers’ short story collection. It adds another layer to the horror of it all.
But, oh, on the internet none of that was enough. There were people who were flat-out pissed that the Old Ones didn’t have a cameo to pull the two detectives off the face of the earth with their tentacles. Maybe I exaggerate, but only slightly.
It was terribad, it was awful, it was akin to a religious tract, a betrayal of all the characters stood for. “All atheists are one near death experience away from faith!111!!eleventy” screamed someone who had entirely missed the point. He/she wasn’t alone. It seemed to me that people were bending the narrative as we’d seen it to fit their own ends, something that the characters even warn against in the script, and then they were upset when the narrative refused to play along. People were not content to accept the story they were being told and were mad that “this is all there is”, when what there was was more than enough for those of us who accepted the story as it was being told and didn’t seek to impose anything on it.
In the Buzzfeed interview linked above (again, prior to the final episode airing), Pizzolatto said of this tendency:
“I think there’s a lot of self-projection going on in certain cases; like the show has become a Rorschach test for a specific contingent of the audience in which they read their own obsessions into it. This is what it means to resonate with people, so I don’t mind it. The danger is that it’s myopic and unfairly reductive, like a literary theorist who only sees Marxism or Freudianism rather the totality of a work.”
Of course, this didn’t win him many hearts and flowers from the commentariat, there and elsewhere.
It’s an interesting quandary, you write something with no idea of the success it will have, the level of scrutiny it will be exposed to, and while you can feel pleased that so many have engaged with your work, it must also feel awful to see so many miss the point of it all, searching for another story, one you haven’t told. One you didn’t even set out to tell, but are now being criticized for not telling to the extent your viewers wanted.
I think Pizzolatto did a great job, and I found the ending both surprising (they both lived!) and satisfying (Cohle has found a way he can live in this world, and Marty has found a friend who sees his faults and will not walk away from him). I also liked the acknowledgement that they couldn’t bring down the senator and all of the other cult members, but had to be satisfied with stopping Errol from ever hurting another person. One more light to pierce the darkness, that’s a good thing to strive towards.
It’s also a good thing that a show can still get made without containing twist upon twist or some sort of supernatural deus ex machina that drops in to pump up a flagging plot. It strikes me as interesting that a character study, a story about two men and the stories they tell themselves (and others), could draw such huge and diverse audiences in a world chock-full of procedurals and soapy serials. It’s traditional storytelling of a sort many would have you believe would not find an audience in this distracted and distractible multimedia age. I’m glad it did find an audience, and I was glad to have been a part of it. Here’s hoping that the success of True Detective leads to more interest in the kind of stories it had to tell, and more willingness on the part of TV execs to look beyond the 23 episode season order and into more of these shorter, deeper tales.
Here’s to True Detective Season 2, I’ll definitely be watching.