Decoding HBO’s True Detective

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“It’s just one story. The oldest…light versus dark”

True Detective

If time is a flat circle, the obsession to uncover the darkest corners of the nightmares in our culture yesterday, today and tomorrow is futile.

The first season of HBO’s eight-episode drama True Detective ignited high public interest before the pilot episode aired. With an 11 million-view count, the highly anticipated finale caused the great crash of HBO Go due to the overwhelming fan base wanting resolution behind the gruesome mystery of Carcosa.

Written by novelist Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Joji Fukunago the series focuses on Detectives Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) as they investigate the brutal, ritualistic murder of a woman in 1995. The two are reunited 17 years later by two other detectives trying to solve an identical murder suggesting the original killer from 1995 is still alive.

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Poetically stylized and hauntingly menacing in the broad, tranquil grounds of rural Louisiana, True Detective far exceeds the procedural crime drama. It’s an investigation into the human character; searching for a creature you can’t see and hails on a dark philosophy suggesting that humanity is an error of evolution.

“To realize that all your life—you know, all your love, all your hate, all your memory, all your pain—it was all the same thing. It was all the same dream. A dream that you had inside a locked room. A dream about being a person. And like a lot of dreams there’s a monster at the end of it.” Detective Rust Cohle

True Detective

 

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The philosophical backbone behind True Detectives seems to go far deeper than the pages of the script. Inspiration, influences and theories have been identified to be in direct correlation with the storyline, or, at least, may have influenced writer Nic Pizzolatto.

Made with Repix (http://repix.it)Detective Cohle’s philosophical rhetoric in each episode (or even almost every scene) has not only spawned a hysterical meme tumblr, but also a closer look at the influence of the character’s grim overview of humanity. In horror writer Thomas Ligotti’s 2010 nonfiction work The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, Ligotti calls consciousness “the parent of all horrors” …a concept that could easily droll from the murmuring forewarning of Detective Cohle. While Cohle refers to humans as “biological puppets,” the same motif rings true in Ligotti’s writing on the nature of humanity in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: “Now we know that we are uncanny paradoxes. We know that nature has veered into the supernatural by fabricating a creature that cannot and should not exist by natural law, and yet does.”

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But the weird fiction correlation doesn’t stop there. We learn through the diary of the 1995 murder victim, Dora Lange, that she had met “the Yellow King” and mentions “Carcosa.” These both are referenced in Robert Chambers’ 1895 supernatural, weird short stories The King in Yellow; composed of ten short stories, the first four of which, “The Repairer of Reputations”, “The Mask”, “In the Court of the Dragon” and “The Yellow Sign”, mention The King in Yellow– a play that turns anyone who reads it insane. Sound familiar, right? The supernatural element of True Detective is blatant when Rust hears the booming voice throughout the maze. If this “Yellow King” is a supernatural force, and that ethereal vortex was not just another hallucination of Rust, a theory could suggest this to be completely evil entity not of this world. If that theory is plausible, this force could pass between human vessels warping their conscious—like Errol and the cult. An excerpt from The Yellow King is eerily identical to the crusade in True Detective:

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Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink behind the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.

Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies,
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.

Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa.

Song of my soul, my voice is dead,
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
Lost Carcosa.

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But beyond the theories that may have influenced the show, and also aided in revealing the grim world we live in, True Detective novelist Nic Pizzalatto carries the secret behind the subtext of his work.
“I don’t want to restrict an audience by telling them that ‘this means this’ and ‘this means this.’ My intentions are the inalterable definition of things. For people who thought Cohle’s philosophy was simply hogwash, be aware that you’re calling Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche hogwash. Just be aware of that. That is not, in fact, a college freshman stoned eating a pizza talking about life; that’s Arthur Schopenhauer’s thoughts on life. But I thought that was part of the tension within Cohle. It might not all fall into relief until you’ve watched all eight episodes, but yes, these things are eloquently stated, and they do make sense, and they are no more or less true than the story Preacher Theriot is telling you during the tent revival service. Somebody asked me, ‘Well, what does this all mean?’ Obviously, as an artist, I hate questions like that, but I could tell they were asking for a governing theme that could encompass everything else that happened. And so I had to think about it. And to me, if there’s one governing thing in True Detective that encompasses everything that is happening in True Detective, and that the show is telling you — constantly, the show keeps telling you — is that everything is a story. Cohle tells you that who you think you are, your identity, is a story you tell yourself. He tells us that religion and philosophy are stories we tell ourselves. Cohle describes them as cathartic narratives, but in confession he’s so good at getting confessions from suspects because he gives them room to create a cathartic narrative. Hart says an investigation is the act of trying to put together a story after the fact, and when he goes over his story in episode 5, you can tell that Hart used to tell himself one story and now he tells himself another story. The show was never concerned with the supernatural, but it was concerned with supernatural thought, and it was concerned with supernatural thinking to the degree that it was concerned with storytelling. So if there was one overarching theme to True Detective, I would say it was that as human beings, we are nothing but the stories we live and die by — so you’d better be careful what stories you tell yourself.” via HitFix 
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If it’s stories Pizzalatto wants us to focus on questioning our faith, existence and purpose, theories jumping passed supernatural thinking into supernatural beings goes against what Pizzalatto is trying to project.
“There’s never been anything I didn’t love that I didn’t connect with on a personal level because to some degree, I projected upon it. That said, I think I’ve made clear that my only interest in the Chambers stuff (Robert W. Chambers wrote The King in Yellow) is as a story that has a place in American myth. And it’s a story about a story that drives people into madness. That was mainly it. Beyond that, I’m interested in the atmosphere of cosmic horror, but that’s about all I have to say about weird fiction. I did feel the perception was tilted more towards weird fiction than perhaps it should have been. For instance, if someone needs a book to read along with season 1 of True Detective, I would recommend the King James Old Testament. I wouldn’t tell anyone to go buy Robert Chambers. It’s not that great a book. Joseph Conrad and William Faulkner I think are in there far more than Chambers or Lovecraft. But again, I guess I hope that these 8 chapters, once the totality of it is evident, it might provoke a re-evaluation. But if it doesn’t, I’m very happy with the reaction we’ve had. It couldn’t have been better. I’m just surprised by it. I remember talking to you three months ago and having to convince you: ‘This just sounds like every other show,’ ‘I know, I know.’ And now my wife read a comment the other day that said I live out in the desert, and I run some kind of cult. (laughs) I don’t know what I can say about that. I think this show answers everything it told you to ask. The questions it didn’t tell you to ask are questions best left to one’s self.” via HitFix

Can you tell me anything at all about season 2?

Nic Pizzolatto: Okay. This is really early, but I’ll tell you (it’s about) hard women, bad men and the secret occult history of the United States transportation system.
Read more at http://www.hitfix.com/whats-alan-watching/true-detective-creator-nic-pizzolatto-looks-back-on-season-1#24gdZatZPJJtTFzq.99

Nic Pizzolatto: I don’t want to restrict an audience by telling them that “this means this” and “this means this.” My intentions are the inalterable definition of things. For people who thought Cohle’s philosophy was simply hogwash, be aware that you’re calling Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche hogwash. Just be aware of that. That is not, in fact, a college freshman stoned eating a pizza talking about life; that’s Arthur Schopenhauer’s thoughts on life. But I thought that was part of the tension within Cohle. It might not all fall into relief until you’ve watched all eight episodes, but yes, these things are eloquently stated, and they do make sense, and they are no more or less true than the story Preacher Theriot is telling you during the tent revival service. Somebody asked me, “Well, what does this all mean?” Obviously, as an artist, I hate questions like that, but I could tell they were asking for a governing theme that could encompass everything else that happened. And so I had to think about it. And to me, if there’s one governing thing in “True Detective” that encompasses everything that is happening in “True Detective,” and that the show is telling you — constantly, the show keeps telling you — is that everything is a story. Cohle tells you that who you think you are, your identity, is a story you tell yourself. He tells us that religion and philosophy are stories we tell ourselves. Cohle describes them as cathartic narratives, but in confession he’s so good at getting confessions from suspects because he gives them room to create a cathartic narrative. Hart says an investigation is the act of trying to put together a story after the fact, and when he goes over his story in episode 5, you can tell that Hart used to tell himself one story and now he tells himself another story. The show was never concerned with the supernatural, but it was concerned with supernatural thought, and it was concerned with supernatural thinking to the degree that it was concerned with storytelling. So if there was one overarching theme to “True Detective,” I would say it was that as human beings, we are nothing but the stories we live and die by — so you’d better be careful what stories you tell yourself.
Read more at http://www.hitfix.com/whats-alan-watching/true-detective-creator-nic-pizzolatto-looks-back-on-season-1#vlkdw2eMUJFuYC7E.99
Nic Pizzolatto: I don’t want to restrict an audience by telling them that “this means this” and “this means this.” My intentions are the inalterable definition of things. For people who thought Cohle’s philosophy was simply hogwash, be aware that you’re calling Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche hogwash. Just be aware of that. That is not, in fact, a college freshman stoned eating a pizza talking about life; that’s Arthur Schopenhauer’s thoughts on life. But I thought that was part of the tension within Cohle. It might not all fall into relief until you’ve watched all eight episodes, but yes, these things are eloquently stated, and they do make sense, and they are no more or less true than the story Preacher Theriot is telling you during the tent revival service. Somebody asked me, “Well, what does this all mean?” Obviously, as an artist, I hate questions like that, but I could tell they were asking for a governing theme that could encompass everything else that happened. And so I had to think about it. And to me, if there’s one governing thing in “True Detective” that encompasses everything that is happening in “True Detective,” and that the show is telling you — constantly, the show keeps telling you — is that everything is a story. Cohle tells you that who you think you are, your identity, is a story you tell yourself. He tells us that religion and philosophy are stories we tell ourselves. Cohle describes them as cathartic narratives, but in confession he’s so good at getting confessions from suspects because he gives them room to create a cathartic narrative. Hart says an investigation is the act of trying to put together a story after the fact, and when he goes over his story in episode 5, you can tell that Hart used to tell himself one story and now he tells himself another story. The show was never concerned with the supernatural, but it was concerned with supernatural thought, and it was concerned with supernatural thinking to the degree that it was concerned with storytelling. So if there was one overarching theme to “True Detective,” I would say it was that as human beings, we are nothing but the stories we live and die by — so you’d better be careful what stories you tell yourself.
Read more at http://www.hitfix.com/whats-alan-watching/true-detective-creator-nic-pizzolatto-looks-back-on-season-1#vlkdw2eMUJFuYC7E.99
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Outside of the questions, debates and theories, one thing is certain–this is grade-A work. From the haunting character of rural Louisiana that is as serene as it is haunting as the eyes of our mystery, to the best performances given by McConaughey and Harrelson, it’s hard to find error on any level. Let’s bypass the Emmy’s and instate a new law that awards True Detective with everything. Oscars and fun coupons for everyone involved!
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Despite McConaughey’s fling with disasterous romantic comedies of the past, his 2014 Oscar along with a great list of more serious roles from the past few years, has solidified him at the top. Now I can firmly believe in his craft and appreciate that there is no challenge he can’t meet with any given character.
“Woody and I have always done comedy together. As Woody puts it: He hits the ball to me, I hit it back harder, he hits it back harder than I hit it to him, and we volley back and forth. That’s part of the beauty of us, and that’s part of the beauty of our friendship. But this is about opposition. This is about not being on each other’s frequency. Russtiiiinnn Cohhhhlllle. You know, I’ve been able to find such clearly identifiable characters, whether it’s Mark Hanna in Wolf of Wall Street or Ron Woodruff in Dallas Buyers Club. Look at Dallas in Magic Mike and Joe in Killer Joe – these are characters with such clear obsessions. I’ve said this before, but that’s what I’ve been choosing: Somebody who I could get drunk on their obsessions. Characters that live on the fringe — they’re all a little bit on the outskirts of civilization. I find a certain ownership and freedom in that.” Matthew McConaughey via Rolling Stone
True Detective
A second season for True Detective has already been green lit. What we know already is that it won’t feature McConaughey nor Harrelson nor the creepy marshes of rural Louisiana. All writer Nic Pizzolatto can reveal right now is that the next season will be about “hard women, bad men and the secret occult history of the United States transportation system.”
“We all got what I call a life trap, this gene-deep certainty that things will be different, that you’ll move to another city and meet the people that’ll be the friends for the rest of your life, that you’ll fall in love and be fulfilled. Fucking fulfillment and closure, whatever the fuck those two… Fucking empty jars to hold this shitstorm, and nothing is ever fulfilled until the very end, and closure…No. No, no. Nothing is ever over.” Detective Rustin Cohle
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21 thoughts on “Decoding HBO’s True Detective

      • I felt like it was too neat and tidy. Maybe too much for what had already been hyped-up for so damn long. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me.

      • I can see where you’re coming from…people wanted a twist or something, but it was ultimately a story of the two characters journey and transformation from the 1995
        case to present day. The case/mystery was really a backdrop and vehicle to progress the characters.

  1. Thought it was the best series on television since “The Soprano’s”. Matt and Woody’s back and forth dialogue locked me in. The story was tremendous, but the episode where Woody’s wife entices Matt just to get back at her husband was stunning. Who saw that coming? You are right; an emmy alone will not do the actors or this series justice.

  2. This is a great post! I like how you thought of the show in a more deeper context, which it should be. While watching the finale I was a bit disappointed because I wanted to know more about the killings, but the last few scenes changed my mind. It’s the characters that really mattered and that I cared for, not so much the crimes.

  3. Holy hell this is a great write up. I loved everything about the show – from start to finish, thought it was perfect. I really enjoyed those extended quotes from Pizzalatto. They helped add some perspective to things, which, in the case of this show, is a very welcome thing. Great job!

  4. Thanks so much, Alex! Reading interviews with Pizzalatto gave me a much greater sense of clarity, because I had a lot of questions initially once it wrapped…his quotes definitely pointed me in a different direction of focus.

  5. Excellent post for an excellent show! Seriously, great job. I absolutely loved the first season, and I can’t wait to see what comes next. It’s going to be so hard to follow.

  6. Oh, excellent write up, well done! I’m really hoping they get some awesome actresses for season 2, hopefully Winona Ryder – she needs a proper comeback!

  7. I loved the show, and I also thorough enjoyed this piece of yours, Courtney. It makes me want to re-watch it, now having more information & a better perspective. Well done!

  8. Pingback: A horror novice's guide to H.P. Lovecraft | buzzcarl

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