I’m easily obsessed over a great story. Star Wars. Game of Thrones. Frozen. True Detective. You know I’m obsessed if I’m either wearing apparel from said show or have added the show’s theme to my ringtone. Back in January, I almost didn’t want to start watching True Detective (TD) because I didn’t want to lose time over a potential new show obsession. But I figure all of the time I’ve spend consuming others’ blogs and musings about TD, was worth it since I’m now writing this blog post. TD made me dust off my Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism and apply a few literary theories to my show—yay, that’s how I’m using my grad school education!
First, a recap of TD if you aren’t one of the millions who tuned into HBO the last two months of Sundays and entered the world of Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson). All of the show’s eight episodes were directed by one man: Cary Joji Fukunaga and written by one man, Nic Pizzolatto, the father/creator of TD. Usually, TV series have multiple directors and writers. I’m sure Pizzolatto wanted to sleep for 10 years after putting the episodes to bed. Pizzolatto comes from academia, but ever since he can remember he wanted to write for television, so he studied The Sopranos, Deadwood and The Wire when these shows aired in the late 90s/early 2000s. The cool thing is that he does the best job of blending genre fiction with literary fiction. The man knows his literature and rhetorical theory—that heavy stuff I learned in grad school.
If you’ve ever taken a fiction workshop with me you know how I stress character/motivation, the hero’s journey, theme, setting and dialogue—all of which TD had in spades. Set in Southern Louisiana, not far from the Texas border of Beaumont, this is bayou country where the air smells like ash and aluminum. The land of Spanish moss, oil refineries, and swamps is broken and hostile and in turn, it shelters broken and bent people. According to Rust, he and Marty are bad men, but they keep other bad men from the door.
Because of TD’s structure, we get to know Rust and Marty well. The show is set in 1995, 2002 and 2012. TD also takes its time in the first three episodes (Act I), so the actors can do their thing and we can focus on them and the main murder plot. No super duper crazy-long casts and story arcs—I’m talking to you, Game of Thrones and past seasons of True Blood! Rust Cohle looks like a prisoner in 2012 when new detectives are on the case again—turns out the serial killer is on the loose—but didn’t Marty and Rust kill this guy in 1995? That’s important, for sure, but what’s even more fascinating is wondering what happened to Rust in the intervening years. Rust’s hair is long, he’s a functional alcoholic and his skin is all blotchy—not that the 1995 Rust was perfectly normal or anything. During Marty’s and Rust’s many squad car rides, we learn about Rust’s antinatalism, which is ripped off from Thomas Ligotti. Rust thinks human beings shouldn’t reproduce and it’s better if the whole race ceases to exist. Rust is really not a nihilist—he’s a man who cares too much about the world and gets obsessed with the case, especially when he finds out in 2002 that the real killer is still at large. He’s plagued by flashbacks, the pain of his daughter’s accidental death at age two, but he lacks the constitution for suicide. He’s a great detective and he’s an even better detective when he’s busy.
Marty Hart brings levity as well as disgust to the show. We think he’s the All-American family guy, but he’s an alcoholic, a womanizer/cheater who ignores his family. But he’s also a great detective, and in fact he cracks the case in 2012—what if he had used these skills all along and not have wasted his potential on women and booze?
Rust and Marty are the two sides of the Apollonian and Dionysian literary concept, linked to Nietzsche. Marty is Apollo—he’s the voice of reason, but he’s crazy inside. Rust is Dionysus. He’s crazy on the outside, but does hold reason within. They perfectly complement each other—can you have Marty without Rust? No, one cannot exist without the other. It’s no mystery the case could only be broken with the two of them working together.
In 2012, both Marty and Rust are interrogated by the new detectives and we learn that Marty stays loyal to his former partner by not giving up any long-held secrets and Rust has some crazy-ass ideas about the world. My favorite is that “time is a flat circle,” meaning that whatever we’ve done in the past, we’re doomed to repeat it. The show demonstrates this concept to us through repeated images/motifs, dialogue and characters. After the season finale aired last Sunday, I rewatched the first episode and was amazed how much the first show mirrored the last. Talk about Easter eggs for the astute viewer: Sheriff Steve Geraci, the missing girl billboard, and what Cohle smells in the psychosphere.
What drew me in after 30 seconds of watching the premiere? I fell in love with the characters, the storytelling, the intense dialogue (that was sometimes infuriatingly hard to hear!), the duality between good/evil, and the grad school philosophy. I wanted to know how these characters in 2012 are so different from themselves back in 1995—what happened to them? The plot became secondary to the buddy drama, although I did want several plot ends tied off: was Marty’s daughter abused by her grandfather and was he part of the cult? Who were the men in the animal masks/cult? I did go mad watching the show, looking for answers, just like someone who is in Carcosa, looking for the Yellow King.
True Detective was a work of art because it let the story unfold through telling a good story FIRST. Yes, ostensibly it was a crime noir, but like all great fiction, this was a love story. Not a romantic love story, but an agape love story about two men. During his near death experience Rust realized he is loved unconditionally and Marty finally took his macho mask off and became vulnerable. Marty and Rust grew to love each other as true friends and their love will reach out to help others. Love and God exists and it can clear away the darkness of man.
Pizzolatto’s focus was to tell a story within a story and get the audience to see through the unreliable narrative so we could get to the “truth.” Get it? “True Detective”? Roland Barthes set this up with his post-structuralist essay, “Death of the Author,” where the reader is the ultimate judge and shouldn’t rely on what the author is trying to mean. However, I think that’s baloney, since author Nic Pizzolatto is definitely putting his spin on this story. I can’t wait for next season’s True Detective and in the meantime, I’m gobbling up Nic’s novel, Galveston and his collection of short stories, Between Here and the Yellow Sea. I suggest you do the same and learn how to be a rock star just like Nic.