Form and Void: An Essay on True Detective (by Fred Pelzer)

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Our first guest writer is Fred Pelzer, a fellow Pitt graduate, playwright and pop enthusiast who currently resides in Chicago. Keep an eye out for more pieces by guest writers, and thanks to Fred for kicking things off!

This then is the climax of True Detective. Ignore the Lost-esque rabbit holes of hidden crowns and m-hole theories and W. H. Chambers references. Pay no mind to the man behind the yellow mask. For the past 8 hours we have watched two men grapple with the gap between their idea of family and the reality of it. For Marty, his philandering could be written off as for the family, but not until his near death experience does he seem to actually enjoy their presence, fully in the moment and not looking for other ways to satisfy his contradictory self-definition of what it means to be a man.

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Rust, meanwhile, has spent twenty years running from the loss of his daughter. He’s lost himself to drugs, to undercover identities, to the pursuit of justice or at least the pursuit of truth, and ultimately to the idea that there is no truth. That everything is a circle, and humans shouldn’t exist, and consciousness is an evolutionary mistake because it burdens us with the memory of what we’ve lost. Rust is a man always in control, tightly wound, because it’s the only way he can sustain the illusion he’s crafted for himself that his daughter’s death does not affect him. It’s not so surprising when we see him erupt in anger during a botched interrogation at the mention of the Yellow King – this is just part and parcel of his mania and single minded obsession.

The truly startling moment is the one pictured at the top of this piece, when we see every single one of those barriers that Rust has erected, his cynicism, his stoicism, his nihilism, peel away because for one brief moment he was once more with his daughter. People might complain about the series, that it pulled a Lost and did not payoff on all their conspiracy theories about who, really, was the Yellow King. But the show was never concerned with that. From the beginning it was most interested in Rust and Marty, two broken men, wounded in different ways, and how they ultimately helped each other. For a show interested in avoiding or twisting the standard cop show clichés, the biggest twist of all might be how it ultimately indulges in the ur-cliché, the buddy cop format, two unlike men realizing that they alone understand each other.

It’s that commitment to character that sets True Detective apart from the vast majority of cop shows. Some of the best moments in the show were simply watching Rust and Marty shoot the shit together in the car or observing the slow entangling of their lives. But how else could it go? As Rust observes, the world always needs bad men to keep the other bad men from the door (perhaps the Heisenbergs who are knocking?). But when you are confronted with the sort of darkness that True Detective reveled in, the tweakers who microwaved their own baby, the videotape of a child being ritually abused and sacrificed, you find yourself alone with a very specific understanding of the world. It changes something about you. The burnout rate for Google employees who view flagged content on YouTube – the beheadings, the child pornography – is usually one year. These ex-employees, when shown a picture of a grown man and child walking together, all assume that there is something perverted waiting on the horizon, just out of sight of this innocent picture where others simply see a father and son. True Detective wants to live in that point of view, to understand what kind of person can return to that sort of horror day after day.

Ultimately, this existential terror in the face of a cruel and uncaring universe breaks both Rust and Marty. They both quit the force and hide in their addictions, their alcohol or women, their obsessions. They try to move on with their lives but are unable to. This, then, is why we have delved into The Yellow King, precursor to H. P. Lovecraft and his cosmic horrors, his gibbering nightmares that drive men mad. But the monsters that Lovecraft wrote about did not need to come from beyond the stars or other dimensions to confront us with a merciless reality. They walk among us, these deep pits of evil who wear human masks.

At the start of the last episode, we finally meet The King in Yellow officially. He lives in ruins but is king of his keep. He adopts many voices as he moves through his realms, his own personal cosmology on display, just like the main character in “Repairer of Reputations,” the opening story of Chambers’ The King in Yellow, who believes himself to be part of the undiscovered royalty of America and need only give the signal to assume his rightful place among the unspoken nobility.  Our glimpse of Errol Childress only raises more questions than answers, or not even questions, for where do you begin to ask about what makes such a man tick? Childress is a force personified, and his appearance later in the episode, standing at the edge of the field opposite Rust, more ghost or apocalyptic vision than reality, is as terrifying as anything else the show has placed before us.

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He appears, at the edge of our understanding, refusing to be captured or understood, and then vanishes back into the wilderness of our shared dark places. And so it falls to people like Rust and Marty to go after him, to plunge into the unknown parts of the map labeled “Here There Be Dragons,” to enter Carcosa. For the rest of us would not dare follow that phantasm. But we will watch.

I will not claim True Detective is a perfect show. You could make the argument that it’s misogynistic or a commentary on misogynism – great points of view on either angle can be found here & here. For what it’s worth I’m willing to give Nic Pizzolatto the benefit of the doubt, especially in light of his statements that it was a necessary limitation of entering Marty and Rust’s point of view so fully. (tweet since deleted) or that next season would be about “hard women, bad men and the secret occult history of the United States transportation system” and his acknowledgment of the HBO mandated presence of breasts to keep viewers interested, since clearly the quality of the show won’t accomplish that. But maybe in a year or so we’ll have a second season to go by and realize Pizzolatto simply can’t write women (which has always boggled my mind as a defense a writer might employ, as female characters are, after all, simply people, just like men and any other gender).

The actual writing also has its weak points. Episode 6 & 7 felt a bit rushed in catching us up on 2002 and then the present day, respectively, especially after the leisurely and controlled pace of the first five episodes and its masterful use of contrast between what actually happened and how Marty & Rust retell it. In general the loss of the multi-layered narrative at the end seemed to hurt the show, forcing it to rely on showing the actual boring busy work of being a detective that it could brush off with a quick sentence from Marty or Rust to the interrogative video camera. Consider the moment in the finale where they’re told by a helpful grandson that the original owner of the green house is now living in an old folk’s home. It’s an unnecessary speed bump, a tiny pause on our way to the big finale that a few episodes of earlier would have been solved with some kind of manly drawl stating, “we tracked her down to the old folks home” and lets out a little bit of energy on our way up the final crest of this show.

But these are small criticisms of the writing, especially in the face of such execution of vision. There’s plenty to enjoy about the way Pizzolatto constructs the series, and proof of his skill as a writer can be seen in how pleasurable it is to hang out with these characters even when they’re not pursuing justice. His obsession with the way to tell stories is even present in his characters and the way they describe detective work. In episode 2, Hart reminds the interviewing detectives in the present day that when you’re working a case really, “You’re looking for narrative. Interrogating witnesses. Parsing evidence. Establish a timeline. Build a story. Day after day.” Those interviews in the present day allow us to essentially have point of view narrators, complete with color criticism, for the majority of the series. No wonder the show has been praised as novelistic in its construction.

Plenty of credit should go to McConaughey and Harrelson and their considerable acting chops in bringing these two characters to life. So much of this show is centered on simply watching them react and how the poisons of the world slowly build up inside them until they can no longer pass as decent human beings. These two actors are both charming and off-putting, and the chemistry between them really does place Rust and Marty as perhaps the love story to beat in 2014.

And the directing. Not enough kind things can be said about Cary Fukunaga. The tracking shot at the end of episode 4 has been rightfully lauded, but the moment that will stay with me, that will come to my mind first every time I think back on this show, is a haunted Rust looking out over the oil fields of Louisiana and witnessing a flock of birds rise up and for a brief moment assume the shape of the spiral carved into Dora Lange.

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Nic Pizzolatto has stated that they will probably be switching over to a multi-director format, citing House of Cards as an example of a show that has maintained a unity of style and tone set by David Fincher, an established auteur with a recognizable style. Certainly every episode of House of Cards feels like a Fincher imitation and so looks swell, but it’s also limited by trying to be a Fincher imitation. Everyone on that show seems so busy making sure that they don’t break the rules of what a Fincher film looks like that they never push, even as Fincher himself would not be limited by other’s concepts of how his camera work should look. This is the strength of having one director for all eight episodes, even if it has proved itself to be an almost impossible feat that both director and designers are in no hurry to recreate. Shooting all day and then taking your lunch break to go do scouting and casting and post work, and then doing this for somewhere in the ballpark of 450-500 pages of material, is an accomplishment that will not be forgotten. And it is through this unity of vision that True Detective gets labeled as cinematic alongside novelistic. Truly we are living in the golden age of television, and we had achieved the purest distillation of the era yet. It is a good time to be alive, we all agreed, and sat back down to see what else was on the T.V.

For this is where we run out of language to talk about this show, or any television show.

You’ll notice that right now, the highest praise someone can give a television show is that it’s cinematic or novelistic. We feel compelled to evoke these older, more established forms to prove the credentials of what we’re now talking about. We know that other stuff is high art, and this is just as good, therefore it’s also high art. Transitive property. We learned all this in elementary math.

Comic books, or rather their grown up versions graphic novels, are at a similar point. They, like television, came about in the first half of the 20th century and were written off as baubles, passing entertainment but of no great depth. Damned, in essence, to the category of low art. Even with the rise of post-modernism and Warhol reappropriating pop culture, the original was still considered hacky stuff. Only by providing a new context could you legitimize an artistic and cultural value for low art.

Then, around the time that cable television started giving creators more freedom and set the stage for the rise of the showrunner as an echo of auteur theory from thirty years earlier, comic books got a big rebranding. They were now to be called graphic novels, or at least the serious ones. By invoking that cultural touchstone of good taste, the novel, comic books could borrow some legitimacy for themselves and finally be thought of as worthy of critical consideration.

Now, when we want to praise television or comic books, we say that they feel cinematic. That they’re novelistic. Hell, even the novel has been supplanted, or at least given an equal. We can now say that an author has cinematic prose. It reminds us of the movies, or rather films. And films are good. So this must be good too. But you wouldn’t say a novel reminded you of television, unless you were in the process of dismantling the author as a no-good hack.

And above all reigns that grandpappy of storytelling, the poem. Oh, to call anything poetic! It’s the final K.O. punch of artistic legitimacy. Any time a poet takes on a novel or a play or a comic book or a movie or a television show, it’s understood that this is going to be special, because poets, those aesthetic monks, have gotten closer to the true nirvana of storytelling art than any of the other multitude of denominations that populate the ways we tell stories.

What good does this do us? What good to say that a television show, like True Detective, is cinematic and novelistic and leave it at that, as though here is the evolutionary pinnacle of the form. Yes, True Detective is great, and yes it calls upon other storytelling traditions like the novel and the movie to accomplish this, but it also synthesizes them in its own, unique format. Television, at heart, has different desires and needs than either of those reference points. It is visual, like the movies, and episodic, like the serialized fiction that was once the novelist’s bread and butter, but it is also itself.

We are not in a golden age of television. I’ll give you silver. It’s an age of great heights, certainly, but it’s also an age still framed by what has come before. Its point of view, largely male and white, is myopic. It still accepts the rules handed down to it by its predecessors. It believes that there is one true way forward, down paths blazed by others. No wonder we latch on to anything that feels slightly different, like True Detective, which dares to move even an inch outside of the proscribed world it has been given.

I’m telling you now, there is so much better yet to come. Television as a medium is less than a hundred years old. It is still forming its identity. At some point in the near future, it will have a crystalizing moment when we become aware of what it and it alone can accomplish. We’ll stop having to use cinematic and novelistic and poetic as the highest of high praises. We’ll be able to say, simply, that it is great television, and have that be enough.

But in the mean time, there are far worse ways to wait for the coming revolution than by watching something as well crafted and executed as True Detective. Time is, after all, a circle, and if you’re going to be spending it doing the same things over and over might as well pick a show you’ll enjoy seeing for the very first time and gasping at its ambition, forever.
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Fred Pelzer is a Chicago writer who watches too much television. If you (or Nic Pizzolatto) want to mock Fred’s writing, you should visit www.fredpelzer.com

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