Watching 'True Detective': Has Series Mythology Ruined Us for Straight-Forward Storytelling?
Since the start of True Detective, a few short weeks ago (doesn’t it seem like we’ve been watching for ages?), I’ve noticed an interesting transformation taking place—especially in our Facebook discussion group. Nearly everybody’s first reaction to the series was to rave over its phenomenal lead actors, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, and creator, Nic Pizzolatto’s writing. Being the inquisitive digger and child of Twin Peaks and Lost I am, even while I enjoyed the acting and writing, I felt compelled to look for more. Surely the show couldn’t be as simple as a straightforward story about two cops hunting down a killer; how many times has that been done? As fulfilling as I find McConaughey doing Rust Cohle’s philosophical monologues, I’d be a tad disappointed if he and Marty find the killer, and this was merely an interesting window into a partnership.
Was it just me, or has the evolution of television series conditioned us to expect—to need—more? In the Facebook group, the first hints of our hunger for something deeper were evidenced by people scanning the opening titles for clues; everyone wanted to be the first to figure out who the killer might be. We discussed the source of Rust’s nihilism—was it caused by losing his daughter or the stuff he’d seen as an undercover cop; was there something even darker we didn’t know? (Had he accidentally killed her himself?) Around the third episode, “The Locked Room,” a few of us began to wonder if Rust might somehow be involved in the killings, whether as a copycat to an original murder, or as the one true killer. Several people were watching each episode at least twice, to catch every little detail given, and after “Who Goes There,” the Carcosa and The King in Yellow discussions began. I floated a theory that “The Locked Room’s” long shot had a couple of questionable moments (Rust easily knocking out two attackers with little effort, and maintaining control over Ginger despite letting go of him several times), and the idea that Rust going straight from a four-month psychiatric hospital stint to Homicide didn’t make sense. Maybe that tracking shot scene wasn’t entirely real? Coupled with the fact that Detectives Gilbough and Papania tell Marty there was no record of Rust’s father’s leukemia or death, clearly lies were being told. The Fight Club theory made the rounds, and then a conversation about whether or not any sort of twist would be welcome or a cheat ensued.
Could we sit back and enjoy the show strictly for what it was, or did we need layers and hidden clues to some sort of unexpected mystery?
As I mentioned, I’d been a fan of Twin Peaks, which aside from a murder mystery, featured insane amounts of minutiae, fantasy sequences, a show within the show, and multiple identities—as might be expected from David Lynch. But then came more mainstream-ish shows like The X-Files, Battlestar Galactica, Heroes, the mother of them all, Lost (and later Fringe). But Lost is the likeliest culprit for series that sent us off the deep end, hunting for what double meaning might be behind every image we saw, or word a character said. For myself, each episode meant hour upon hour of reading recaps (especially Dan’s) and hundreds of comments, sharing theories, and looking over photos and screencaps to discern every instance of the numbers or a Dharma this or that. Regardless of our individual (dis)satisfaction with the series ultimate ending, I can’t deny how much I enjoyed trying to work out what every little thing might mean, and the interaction of throwing out (sometimes ridiculous) theories to discuss the episodes ad nauseam. I was clearly not alone in my obsession, as the comments on one recap would often carry on until the next episode was covered.
When the series ended, it left people looking for a similar experience (which of course meant the networks all tried to follow suit with shows like The Event, Flash Forward, V, Day One and Terra Nova). Now, we have outright madness in the form of American Horror Story; nearly nothing is what it seems, and we like it that way. And even with incredibly popular series like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and Hannibal—which are based on books and a comic series—we’re not getting direct adaptations. These shows takes considerable license with the source material and play with our expectations. Each are fantastical, dare I say trippy, fantasies that provide great joy through their unpredictable twists. Game of Thrones, in particular, has several upcoming events (no spoilers in the comments, please!) that book readers are surely curious to see how they’ll be addressed. The thing I’m certain we won’t see is simply a clear or straight forward retelling. It’s not what we expect or want; not perhaps, what we’ve been conditioned to need.
In the space between True Detective’s “The Locked Room” and “The Secret Fate of All Life,” I noticed an easy drift from those folks who’d said they’d be happy to watch the cops-chase-killer story play out as an untwisted, relatively uncomplicated tale. Now, those same people are actively seeking out and participating in the theorizing once dominated by only a few; some have gone back and watched episodes three or more times, replaying scenes to see if Rust and Marty are being interviewed in the same room, discussing whether there’s meaning to Marty ignoring his daughters’ doll set-up, and arguing the merits of one detective or the other being the murderer. We’ve combed over the literary references, posted every article, photo or song lyric we can find, talked about rings, flat circles and stars, and pondered the possible “higher up” connections of Marty’s father-in-law, the preacher. We’ve completed the circle—eaten our own tail—wondering if it all means nothing.
For what it’s worth, my feeling is that Marty killing Ledoux was no snap reaction; it was him getting rid of an easy scapegoat. I definitely think he’s involved in the murders (for what it’s also worth, almost all my Lost theories were wrong). I now feel pretty confident in declaring that no more than one person in our Facebook group (possibly not even him) would be satisfied if we got to the end of this thing, it turned out Ledoux was the killer, and that was that. If there’s no real meaning to the literary references other than a writer’s shout out, or particular clues that made us question everything we thought about Marty and Rust lead nowhere, I’m not so sure we’ll all still feel satisfied. In the end, I think we’ve been conditioned to expect a rush of blood to the head. We need a little something that sends a spark to that synapse—you know the one—that leaves us looking a bit like Rust when he’s blown his own mind.