True Detective [Season 1]

The attempts I’ve seen so far to engage with True Detective tend to try using a big prism of some kind. For example, when Ken and Robin talked about it a few weeks ago, Robin was interested in parsing it through his prism of Dramatic v. Procedural as outlined in his terrific Hamlet’s Hit Points. My concern is that this kind of effort prioritises some aspects of the show over others in a way that may not really lead to greater understanding. Robin concludes that it is primarily procedural, but if we were to think about it in procedural terms using the kinds of metrics for detection outlined by the Detection Club, we’d find most if not all of the procedural elements to be fragments that don’t contribute to “solving” the mystery. If it is a procedural, it is a highly compromised one. But, let’s take a very spoilery glance at the “detective” show, True Detective.

The classic mode of detection, codified in the 1920s by SS van Dyne et al, is predicated on a crime that has a motive. The crucial activity of a detective is to find out who wanted the murder to happen, and they do this by investigating the life of the victim. They find out who they knew, and then begin tearing apart the lives of that circle, looking for the skeleton that will point to irrefutable guilt. Means and opportunity then become mere logistical puzzles. True Detective begins as if it’s going to go down this route, but the motions it goes through are empty of emotional content and light on details. We never find out who Dora Laing was, what her hopes or fears were, what choices she made to lead her into the hands of the Yellow King. We see a one-dimensional version of her life in the form of her husband, but Laing is a cypher. She is not a person at all, she is the semiotic entity that points to a crime having been committed.

The motive for serial killers is, if anything, more intimate and specific. They are driven by personal psychosis and mental ill-health that are virtually unique in their specific form, yet leave behind semiotic fragments that point to a concrete demographic. This is where the profiler enters – by examining the particulars of the crime, they can go through an actuarial process and begin making inferences. This is entirely absent in True Detective, in part because the official hierarchy doesn’t support the theory of a serial killer given a single corpse. Both of Rust’s majors make this point explicitly: without a body to signify the crime, there is no crime.

The usual procedural routes through the crime are thus severely curbed. After some initial dead-ends in early episodes, the entire focus shifts off the crime and onto the effects it is having on the protagonists: the traditional topic of interest for non-genre drama. Yet, this too is a stunted production. The go-to example of a Dramatic ™ character is the epochal Tony Soprano. Robin Laws summarises his dramatic drive as the decision whether to be a family man or a Family Man, where the capitals signify a full commitment to his function as head of the New Jersey mafia as opposed to his responsibilities to his wife and children. Neither Rust nor Marty are so clearly and cleanly divided, and nor are their divisions structurally central to the way the story unfolds, if we’re thinking about the story in procedural terms. Marty’s philandering is not clearly connected to his success or failure as a policeman, and his excuse that such a release is necessary for “the family” is a clear rationalisation rather than something demonstrated by the drama. We have two “dramatic” characters then, that lack “dramatic arcs”, in the usual sense.

There are a few strands that True Detective returns to several times, and more consistently examines than detection per se, and the main one is the dangerous aspects of sexuality. There is no safe and consensual sex in the show; every sexual act is compromised in some way. The most obvious and serious of these is the pedophile ring centred around the would-be Yellow King, and sheltered and protected by the Tuttle ministry. These crimes are largely historical, inasmuch as there is no live investigation of a living victim; the only lines of investigation are into past crimes. In its guise as a police procedural, its investigations are cursory – only one witness statement, and an accumulation of hearsay and speculation. We get very little insight into the motives or personalities of those directly involved – they, like Laing, are cyphers. What we see instead are translated and sublimated gestures that we can choose to read in several ways.

The most prominent example is the fate of Audrey, the eldest of Marty’s daughters. She discovers a sexual identity at an early age, drawing pictures of sex for the amusement of her school friends. Years later, she is discovered in flagrante by a policeman while under-age. One available reading for this is that Audrey expresses the forbidden concept of underage sexuality; she is the counter-point to the disturbed adult sexuality that defines the Tuttle scandal. Her mother opines that her drawings have made something ugly, that should be beautiful – but it is not the drawing or the act per se, but the originator that is disturbing. We have here a potential victim that almost seeks that status, rather than innocence. In that mode, we can read other events as significant – when Audrey throws the crown into the tree to hang until decayed, it mimics the hanging tokens of the cult of the Yellow King. When Marty is discussing the victims he studied, he says that at the last, they all welcomed their deaths in the final moments – there is no such thing as a true victim in this reading of murder, just as Audrey’s premature sexuality suggests “consensual” possibilities. Finally, and most clearly, when confronting the Madame of the “Bunny Ranch”, she tells Marty that young women have always given away sex “for free”, and that the payment is what bothers Marty, because it means “[you] doen’t own it like [you] thought [you] did.”

Faced with this deep ambivalence, Marty and Rust remain essentially true to their own perspectives on morality, placing them in the form of Robin Laws’ “Iconic” heroes, who correct anomalies in the world around them by reasserting their own essential identities. If Rust and Marty are essentially Iconic, it makes sense that the same is true of all the other characters, and this explains in part why there is nothing concretely recognisable as Drama in the show. The two majors are simply the iconic ball-busting pragmatists that all police leaders are. When the AV Club complained about the generic feel of the show-down, they were inadvertently affirming the Iconic structure of the scene, and hence the Iconic nature of the show. No wonder Laing is a cypher – the entire show is an elaborate meditation on dangerous sex and corrupt belief, stocked with the necessary Iconic characters to act the meditation out in dramatic form. Yet, for all that Marty and Rust will punish those who transgress their moral boundaries, both remain fascinated and trapped by their own depravities. Rust cannot function in a normal human relationship; as his one-scene girlfriend explains, he is “conflict oriented”. Marty is only aroused by crazy women, and can only sustain his masculine identity through territorial and sexual conquests.

This kind of fascination is exactly what drives Robert Chambers’ text, The King In Yellow. For those unfamiliar, The King In Yellow is an anthology of tales about those people who have been unfortunate enough to read the fictional play, “The King In Yellow”. Once read, it cannot be un-read, it cannot be forgotten. Those who read it inevitably descend into madness, up to and including suicide. In the book, this is a metaphor for the ultimate evil in Lovecraftian horror literature, knowledge itself. The horror in Chambers and Lovecraft derives in part from physical danger from monsters, but more crucially, it comes simply from knowing that the world is meaningless. This is a message that Rust has emphatically embraced, making him the perfect Lovecraftian protagonist.

The fictionality of The King In Yellow is never referenced by the show. Early in the drama, it is revealed as the origin of the murder-cult, and yet nobody mentions the name Chambers or speculates on what would transform a completely fantastic story into a religion of such deep conviction that it justifies pedophilia and murder on a grand scale. The fictitious work, The King In Yellow clearly does not exist inside the world of True Detective. Its names an iconography have been borrowed invisibly, as bait for a larger fish: Christianity. Rust speculates on how stupid the believers must be, and finds them pitiful, unable to sustain themselves with the knowledge of meaninglessness that Rust has. Simultaneously, the cultists who serve “Carcosa” are embedded in this organisation, this state staple, via the Tuttle ministry. The parallel we draw is obvious, that there is no difference between the belief in “Carcosa” and the belief in “Heaven” – the real Yellow King may as well be Jesus Christ. If anything, the cult is more honest about its methods and intentions, however similar the results.

In all honesty, as a detective show or as a drama, I found True Detective to be disappointing to the point of failure. It was tense, and active, and beautiful, but it was neither detecting nor dramatic. It was only after the second episode, when I realised what it really was, that it became must-watch TV. It is an unresolved dialectic personified in two central characters that mediate the entire world they occupy. It is a discussion, an exploration, a meditation, on evil – not evil as expressed closely by suffering or humanity, but on an infernal level. It is, in that sense, the perfect expression of Lovecraft and Chambers’ work.

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