This week on Dear Television:
Marty, the Monster
By Lili Loofbourow
March 11, 2014
SO DELIGHTED to weigh in on this discussion of the greatest show in the history of television. I enjoyed it. It’s admittedly a cliché for Marty to turn out to be the series’ monster, but I’m amazed at how adroitly it was handled. Pizzolatto and co. pulled off that tricky twist ending — making the protagonist the bad guy — without copying Agatha Christie’s Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? or revisiting the Kaiser Söze reveal. Bravo! I say.
Confused? Stick with me; time’s a flat circle and by the end, you’ll agree with me that this is a world where nothing’s solved.
In a clever subversion of the genre to which it apparently commits, True Detective refused to restore order to its universe. To the extent that the detective genre is meant to explain the unexplainable — to Holmes your Watson-ish perceptions, to show you how a semblance of sanity can be achieved if you attend to the right clues — TD is a departure and, to some, a betrayal. Now, it’s true that the show pretends to resolve. One could take the “discovery” that Errol selectively spills green paint on his ears at face value. One could accept that final scene between Cohle and Hart not as a feel-good buffet of sentiment and cheap philosophy but as a genuine near-spiritual reconciliation. We are certainly entitled to take seriously Marty and Rust’s effort to separate their cosmic laundry into lights and darks if we’re so inclined, and to let the piled skeletons of women and children recede into the background as the purely instrumental abstractions they always were. But we’re also entitled not to, and to demand better things from our narratives.
The fact is, the series became sentient meat on the bones of those women, and by the end, it was smarter than its script. (You might even say nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself.) In True Detective the monster lives on, unrecognized, even beloved. Like its inspiration, The King in Yellow, the season turned out to be a dramatic text that drove us all crazy. Many of us, hypnotized by a gripping horror sequence, left convinced its monster is sweet, flawed, vulnerable, charming.
But for those of us who felt violated, what exactly was broken? What expectations did we bring, and how, in the aftermath, did we come to feel slightly crazy for having them?
After Rust and Marty finished gazing at the sky, I clicked across internet galaxies at the thousands of comments trying to work out the mysteries of this show. Analyzing the cups, the colors, the clothes. The paintings. So many dedicated viewers dissected Rust’s pretty speeches for an authorial vision that was never there. It broke my heart. Leaving everything aside — gender, genre, theory — it shows how passionately we hunger for something worthy of our attention and regard.
For all those feeling stupid about dedicating so much attention to the show, you shouldn’t. The detective genre is usually the one place where we get to guiltlessly indulge in, you know, sleuthing. The fun of the form is that you’re a detective too. You see what the detective sees. It’s a loving genre, one that rewards your curiosity and invites you in as a partner. It is not your fault that you honored the form’s implicit contract. It’s not your fault that True Detective made its million clues add up to nothing and kicked its viewers out.
Did you know that the Detection Club (members included detective writers Christie, Chesterton, Sayers, etc.) had an oath? Candidates were asked to “observe a seemly moderation in the use of Gangs, Conspiracies, Death-Rays, Ghosts, Hypnotism, Trap-Doors, Chinamen, Super-Criminals and Lunatics; and utterly and for ever to forswear Mysterious Poisons unknown to Science.”
Nic Pizzolatto, next season, please join the Detection Club.
Here’s where I admit that I never paid much attention to Cohle’s speeches because I suspected they were hot air. After the first few, I decided Cohle’s not all he thinks he is, and (this was my gamble) the show knew that. After all, Marty the monster’s been there under his nose the whole time, unperceived, and the show gave signs of being smarter than its conventions. I embraced the Marty-as-murderer theory. What would happen when Cohle realized he helped cover up Marty’s cold-blooded murder of Reggie Ledoux just when the latter was about to incriminate Hart? How would he react to being deeply, deeply implicated in the disease he’s tried to circumvent? How would Cohle’s world crack open, and what would we learn from it?
Let’s put my inattention to Cohle’s philosophizing in a more flattering light: I accepted it as atmospheric rather than substantial. What saddens me is that I was right. My laziness (or ungenerousness) was rewarded. Cohle’s speeches didn’t much matter — I was right about that — but I was wrong about the show’s self-knowledge: it loves Cohle, really loves him, and thinks he’s pretty much as awesome as he thinks he is. It was all a character study! To which I reply, noted. Glad I didn’t spend hours poring over flat circles.
Again, I feel for those who did, because I share the impulse. I didn’t indulge it this time because I no longer learn much from climbing into the feverishly illuminated brains of brilliant white male characters. Cohle’s rants reduce to signs of his much-vaunted complexity — or brokenness, which, in this narrative universe, amounts to the same thing — but they don’t add up to much on their own merits. That’s a grievous letdown. Many of Cohle’s lines were beautiful. There were grains of greatness there. But if it was all in the interest of brokenness to be followed by redemption … well, brokenness, on its own, is rarely as philosophically interesting as we might wish. Neither is redemption. A lot of women grok this; we’re reminded on a monthly basis that our revelations, like our griefs, happen within — and are affected by — the meat-packages we inhabit. Many men, in contrast, confuse mood with meaning and pain with soul. Rarely seeing blood, when they do, they mistake it for Christ.
It’s obvious by now, given the discussions that preceded the finale, that gender is a serious problem for True Detective, but I want to talk about why. It has to do, I think, with how the “hard-boiled thriller” came about as a specific response to the increasingly “feminized” form of the detective story, which emphasized a partnership between reader and writer. It was a response, and a vicious one, to the demands of the latter as articulated by critics ranging from Dorothy Sayers to T.S. Eliot. Eliot’s criteria for a good detective story include, among other things, that there be no “highly abnormal” criminal, that the story not rely on “occult phenomena,” and that the detective be smart but not “superhuman” (“we should be able to follow his inferences and almost, but not quite, make them with him,” Eliot says). Dorothy Sayers said the detective genre demanded that the author abide by “fair play” — that is, the reader needed to have a genuine shot at solving the mystery herself. The “hard-boiled thriller” harbored no illusions of equality. It resolves the way it wants to, clues be damned. In so doing, it rejects the reader’s friendship, instead reasserting a kind of narrative dominance.
Here’s how David Glover describes the thriller:
Coterminous with male adventure, the hard-boiled thriller has for the most part been written cross the codes of sexual difference in such a way as to complicate access for women readers and writers, requiring them to negotiate a set of androcentric conventions which are, as I’ve already implied, deeply troubled. In the thriller male agency is staged as self-determined, active, brutal, while at the same time it is undercut by a profound sense of homosocial unease. The two are indissolubly linked for, given the premium placed upon the endurance and integrity of the male body as the condition of narrative movement, homosexuality represents the ultimate terror: the loss of self-possession and control, a threat of physical degradation through possession by an Other, and of an uncontrollable and irreversible change in sexual status.
It’s almost as if Pizzolatto read this, eh? Here’s a bit more. See if it rings a bell:
And although the initial mystery which provides the narrative’s pretext may be a domestic, and sometimes a female, crime, the search for a solution is invariably displaced on to a series of confrontations with other men, anticipating the final climax. For the hero pursues his search through predominantly male-segregated milieu of work and leisure, returning obsessively to those public places like clubs and bars where men can enter alone and belong…
If the show had been called True Thriller instead of True Detective, the expectations the show accidentally raised would have been much more easily quelled. A thriller’s job is to thrill; it’s a format that relies on adrenaline, gleefully disregards its own evidentiary premises, and casts women as hero-makers or forgivers. The finale provided just that.
But that’s not what the show’s called, and it saddens me that the people who took it at its word were made fools of. It saddened me, too, to see how quickly we settled for less and praised it as more. Yay for the technically brilliant six-minute sequence in a depressed urban neighborhood that doesn’t matter and we never see again. We’ll take technique! It’s an aesthetic experience, really. A symphonic poem. Yay for the expendable black criminals and bushy motorbike beards that do little other than testify to Rust’s underground grit. Hooray for the “atmosphere of dread,” which has emerged as a consensus term (and a charitable one) for the absurd hurricane of horror True Detective conjures — a cacophony of elements that violates every one of the Detection Club’s rules.
(Here’s another part of the Detection Club oath: “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on, nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God?”)
True Detective abuses all these. It makes extensive use of the mumbo-jumbo of 12th century mystics, the “feminine intuition” that led Audrey to somehow (magically, we’re left to conclude) channel the cult’s activities via Barbie dioramas. As for coincidences, there are too many to name, but let’s name two: Rust’s speeches echoed a self-published poet’s, and the painting in the Hart bedroom matched the one at the asylum where the girl-child screamed.
To put it another way, Jiggery-Pokery abounds. Dora Lange’s disappearance is drug rings. It’s Iron Crusaders, senators and pastors and possibly police. It’s high-ranking child molestation rings intimately connected (invisibly, incomprehensibly) to hillbillies so isolated they don’t have phones (or can plausibly claim not to). It’s incest. It’s Satanic woodworking. It’s prostitution rings, churches, and schools. It’s haunted houses, dolls, Silence of the Lambs, Psycho. Secret altars, fields, forts. It’s both the horror of the hidden and the horror of display (tunnels underground, Dora’s body as spectacle). It’s trees! Spirals! Sticks! It’s the person you least expect! It’s madwomen rendered stupid or screaming. It’s weird, omniscient men (why have Ledoux and Childress call Rust a priest as if they knew him, intimately?). It’s old women who know Carcosa. Add accents. Add scars. Add snipers. Add spaghetti.
Given all this, True Detective might not be a detective story or a thriller at all — or, indeed, a horror film. It’s generically confused, neither this nor that, fearful of commitment. Maybe it’s just a fever dream with — as Rust so memorably put it — a monster at the end of it.
The trouble is that monsters have a lineage too, and our monsters have changed. Errol Childress is a quaint monster, a monster of convenience, a camp monster, a monster in drag. Monster, as every English professor likes to remind us, comes from the same root as demonstrate: a monster is supposed to mean, to signify, to instruct. Errol Childress has nothing to teach us, and neither does True Detective in its fond hope that these old manly genres can keep operating in the exhausted currency of mutilated women, or its insistence that evil somehow proclaims itself.
The real terror is that evil doesn’t proclaim itself. It lives at home and has daughters (or sons). It doesn’t even think it’s evil. It doesn’t tie its victims to trees and decorate them with antlers; instead, it channels their suffering into the uninteresting project of redeeming broken men. It uses a wife and daughters to mutely exonerate a man who betrayed them, and revels in the absolution it extorts from the thing it hurt. This may be where a split between male and female fans obtains.
I’m borrowing the above partly from Susan Elizabeth Shepard, whose conversation with our very own Anne Helen Petersen about True Detective includes this gem: “maybe only women think that, and men are able to see it as so much aesthetics and storytelling, which is a distinct and bleak possibility, and I suppose that's the most depressing conclusion I could come to; that it's maybe too close to a reality where a certain amount of suffering is a tangible reality for women and an abstract concept to occasion shows of bravado for men.”
To the extent that monsters function as an index of social fears of desires, it may be that male and female viewers part ways because our fears differ. Ask a woman whether Errol Childress matches the monster at the end of our dreams — I doubt you’ll get many nods. But there is a monster we might dream about in True Detective, and he’s everything a monster should be: murderous, violent, deeply sympathetic, and totally adept at spinning the Cohles of the world to his side. Here’s to TV’s greatest and most affable monster, Marty Hart.
If the common good’s gotta make up fairy tales, it isn’t good for anybody,
How We Love Television Today
By Anne Helen Petersen
March 11, 2014
THE DAY AFTER a huge season finale is one of the most gratifying and frustrating days to be a television fan. Everyone is talking about a show in which you’ve spent the last several months investing yourself — providing you an opportunity to engage in a conversation about your show and its meanings — but then again, everyone is talking about a show in which you’ve spent the several months investing yourself, and the way that they talk about that show can be bruising.
It didn’t used to be this way. There was water cooler culture, sure, and the audiences for a single show were triple, even quadruple the audience for something like last night’s True Detective finale. But there simply wasn’t the proliferating discourse: television was still “crap” and thus unworthy of “serious” attention, but we also lacked the infrastructure. Film reviewers battled in the weeklies, but there wasn’t anything even approximating the almost instantaneous responses of recap culture and, over the last five years, Twitter.
We’ve known that television is doing something “different” for many years, but I think that the True Detective finale — and the reception thereof — has amplified and clarified not only how differently we consume television, but how differently we love it.
We derive pleasure, in other words, from different practices and rituals and modes of consumption. Twenty years ago, cultural scholar Joshua Gamson performed a wide-reaching study of men and women who consume celebrity gossip and saw something similar: namely, that individuals consumed gossip for fairly divergent reasons and to equally divergent ends. On one end, there was the full believer, who approached the stories and tidbits and photos he or she consumed with very little skepticism: the celebrities were who they said they were, and the magazines, television programs, and gossip columns were simply passing that information along. But on the other end, you had people who conceived of gossip as camp — an overly sincere and obvious way of performing identity — and others who approached gossip as a game, a sort of intellectual/ideological puzzle to assemble.
Gamson took a concept that had been conceptualized as monolithic and gave it nuance — which is part of the reason his book, Claims to Fame, has become a classic of celebrity studies. And while his specific categories don’t transfer exactly to television fandom, they’re a solid starting point to thinking about how we might find gratification in the same show in multiple different ways.
And so, an initial and incomplete taxonomy of How We Love Television Today:
THE CASUAL VIEWER
Casual Viewers love television, but they’re not invested in its paratexts — the tremendous amount of materials that emanate from the text proper, whether in the form of HBO “After the Episode” interviews, recaps, or more explicit offshoots like The Talking Dead. The Casual Viewer can really enjoy the show, but that show doesn’t manifest in what are sometimes known as “fandom” activities — they might do some mild proselytizing at a dinner party (“it’s so good!”) but this viewer is not writing fan fiction about Rust and Marty.
Many Dads are casual viewers, which suggests just how much this mode of engagement dates back to an earlier conception of television and how its audiences interact with it. You can be a casual viewer of some shows and not others — I casually consume The Good Wife, for example — but that doesn’t mean that I don’t really love watching the show: there’s just a different set of stakes. And for all of us who were trying to log into HBOGO at precisely the second the finale became available, there were millions more who are watching it now, or will watch it a week from today when the kids are in bed, and experience it the same way they would’ve experienced it last night. The casual fan likes not loves, dislikes not loathes — and probably couldn’t tell you exactly what happened to Rust or Marty in a year, but liked it just fine when it was on the television. As Rust would say, there’s a freedom in that.
THE UBER FAN
The Uber Fan has drank the show’s Kool-Aid, and it can do no wrong. These are the people who defended the Lost finale, or who refuse to hear your critiques of The Wire Season Five. The Uber Fan wants to be best friends with the showrunner, and may or may not own a shirt from CafePress with a t-shirt or character likeness. The Uber Fan derives enormous pleasure from the shows mere existence, often because it speaks to something in him/her that other shows do not, and as a result, he/she is willing to forgive all wrongs. I feel this way about Star Trek: The Next Generation — in part because my conception of the show is also dripping in the pleasures I took from watching it as a teen — but I’m not suggesting that this relationship is juvenile. Rather, it’s intimate, and it’s difficult to hear people interrogating the things you cherish and which, in many cases, are crucial to your identity.
The Uber Fan of True Detective will talk to you about it for days, and often is the person manifesting active fandoms (commenting on recaps, posting in Tumblr) but has probably disengaged from the negative reviews of the finale: all that matters is how much he/she loved it, and that’s enough. The Uber Fan can focus on character/narrative (loves specific lines and visions of masculinity/femininity in the world) or be more into aesthetics (did you see that SHOT?!?), but the fetishization of the show and immunization from critique remain constant.
THE SOCIAL VIEWER
For this viewer, television’s fun, but watching as a group — either a literal or digital one — is even better. People gain pleasure from The Oscars and The Super Bowl by viewing it socially, and even before the rise of social media, thousands were having Sex and the City and Friends parties. But Twitter has facilitated a broader, wittier form of social viewing in which immediate (and, crucially, public) response becomes as creative as the show itself. It’s less about the text, in other words, than how you can perform your response to it. True Detective doesn’t engender social viewing the way that, say, Scandal does — in part because it’s not on broadcast television — but frustration with HBOGO’s crash became just as entertaining as the show itself. Also included: the outstanding and innovative application of the #TrueDetectiveSeason2 hashtag.
THE CONSPIRACY THEORIST
This designation is particularly apropos of True Detective but it’s by no means unique to it. The conspiracy theorist loves thinking outside the bounds of the proffered text, and his/her primary pleasures are in the spaces between the episodes and seasons, when its potential meanings/futures become malleable. In many ways, the actual text itself becomes inconsequential: the pleasure derives from the doors it opens, not the ones it closes. Many conspiracy theorists are incompletists — they’ve crafted their own canons that fit or suggest more expansive theories of the show and its place. The Conspiracy Theorist most likely hated the way the finale closed off the grander narratives of the Yellow King and Lovecraft, but just think of how much pleasure he/she experienced in the days after Episode Five.
You know what’s better than watching a show? Talking about it all day long. The Debater loves to write and think and discuss the show in whatever way they can, but unlike the Uber Fan, he/she is open, even hungry, for disagreement. Most critics (professional and non-) are debaters, as are many of the people who engage regularly (and non-trollishly) with us on Twitter. The Debater wants to talk about race, and sexuality, and gender and class and all the other things that the show isn’t really “about” but is, at bottom, manifesting, which is why The Debater is always asking “what makes this interesting?” not (necessarily) “what makes this good?” But the Debater is also, at bottom, less compelled by the intricacies of the show than the rhetorical maneuvers of its reception, which is why he/she is ecstatic that the internet is filled with True Detective responses and will be for the next week.
What’s worse than watching a pretentious high-brow show? People yapping on about that pretentious high-brow show. The Hater watches with the explicit intent of scorching the very earth the text treads — and, hopefully, pissing off (or at least prompting invective) from those who hold it dear. The Hater highlights plot holes, character inconsistencies, and general highfalutin ridiculousness — or at least that’s how it works with True Detective haters. You can also watch a show that’s ideologically preposterous (The Bachelor, for example) and revel in how ridiculously it attempts to reproduce the dynamics of heterosexuality and romance. Camp viewers take a slightly different tack — they revel in that ridiculousness — but the principle is the same: you watch, and find pleasure, in a show’s badness.
THE HOLD SACRED
I’ve been thinking around this mode of consumption for months, but I hadn’t quite designated it until I heard Chris Ryan talking on today’s Hollywood Prospectus podcast. The Hold Sacred is usually a Debater — he/she loves television and the conversations it sparks, and is usually willing to interrogate the most intimate of televisual pleasures. But sometimes a show comes along, as Ryan explained, that you just want to hold close and love — that you don’t want to expose to the harsh, puncturing reality of the Debate. Deep down, you see its flaws, but amidst an environment of constant rehash and recycle, you want to return to the days when you consumed — and loved — a show on its own terms, in your own mind. If you’re reading this review right now, you know just how ideal yet impossible that idea remains. I want to keep it close, but I can’t help but click on the next review.
These categories are incomplete, of course, and fungible. But they’re all visible and valid ways of engaging with a show like True Detective, and in the wake of the finale, it’s worthwhile to consider why we’re still talking and thinking so voraciously about it. Clearly, we’re deriving pleasure somehow — it just might not be as black and white as Rust and Marty might have conceived of it.
The Temporal Fallacy
By Evan Kindley
March 10, 2014
FIRST OF ALL: what Phil said. Even if its final episode had been an hour-long Rickroll, True Detective would have earned its place in television history for its public beta test of the auteur theory. It’s almost assured that other networks will now follow the example set by HBO in engaging a single writer and director over the course of an entire season, and while few of them may live up to their predecessor, it feels like an important step forward for a medium that’s continuing to come into its own, week after week.
The talk this week, though, is mostly about whether True Detective has lived up to its own example: whether the promise of the first three episodes (or five, or six, or one; your mileage may vary) has been borne out by the story’s relatively conventional resolution. For Phil, as for many if not most of the critics who have weighed in on the finale so far, the answer is no. “That’s where we were going?” is a pretty fair summation of the internet’s reaction to Sunday night’s denouement. Critics were disappointed in everything from Rust and Marty’s failure to die to the limited roles for Maggie and Audrey to the abandonment of various favorite narrative threads, left to dangle like Chthulu’s mouth tentacles. “No, the ending is not enough — but how could it be, and where is the surprise?” David Thomson sensibly remarked at The New Republic. Meanwhile, Slate’s Willa Paskin, while admitting that “it’s very hard [for a finale] to live up to expectations, let alone exceed them,” wrote, “I am a little in awe of how totally snookered we all were. Boy, did we overthink this thing!” Also feeling snookered was The Atlantic’s Amy Sullivan, who lamented, “Did we watch eight hours of a beautifully directed, superbly acted show with maddeningly inconsistent writing only to be reminded that all of human history boils down to a struggle between light and darkness?” All across the land the dominant tone was frustration. “What did we want out of this finale? And what did we get?” Mark Lisanti asked at Grantland. “We wanted our detectives to lay down their lives … But we got another crazy redneck with a Hoarders house dispatched by a head shot… We wanted Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box, but we got a pack of Camels.”
I can play this game as well as anyone; I was expecting, for instance, that Errol’s unnamed sexual partner would turn out to be an abductee from one of the rural schools, which would have given the show a chance to acknowledge, if only in passing, the plight of kidnapping survivors like Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Duggard. (In retrospect, I should've known better than to expect a nod to female subjectivity at this late stage of the game.) But it ultimately doesn’t matter what my expectations were; or rather, it may matter as a fact about me and my experience, but it’s not really a datum about the show itself, and we shouldn’t confuse it for one.
Part of the problem here is that, as Phil puts it, True Detective has “left itself very little room for error in terms of its promises and mythologies.” Or is it rather that its fans (far more than its detractors) are the ones who have narrowed the margins? Much has been written on True Detective, and almost as much has been written about how much has been written about True Detective; as in the case of Lost before it, the internet fan culture around the show is as much an object of journalistic interest as the show itself. Related to this is the way even mainstream critics have tended to write about the show in the conditional tense. Like an increasing amount of media content these days, the coverage of True Detective has been anticipatory and speculative: not so much recap as handicap, or, in Grantland’s useful coinage, precap: if this is where we’re going, then this and this and this.
The problem with this Boolean critical mode, though, is that we didn’t know, until Sunday, where True Detective was going, and it was fun but not especially beneficial or fair to the show to pretend we did. The show’s creators seem to have realized this, resulting in odd, unprecedented interventions like Nic Pizzolatto’s recent interview with BuzzFeed, in which he took it upon himself to shut down certain lines of inquiry like a local sheriff putting the kibosh on a compromising investigation. For his part, director Cary Joji Fukunaga pointed out to Vulture today that “the kind of chatter [around the show] wouldn’t have happened had all those episodes been released at once. The anticipation-speculation that comes with a weekly schedule is a double-edged sword. Because people have more time to talk about things, some crazy ideas get a lot of attention.”
There has also been a weird tendency to speak as though the show were not only airing but being written and produced in real time. Let’s call this phenomenon — which also afflicted Mad Men last season — “the Temporal Fallacy.” This is the idea that, because we’re watching a narrative unfold in a given amount of time, the creators are in fact responding to the expectations and assumptions generated by that schedule. This makes a certain amount of sense for the later seasons of a long-running series like Mad Men or The Sopranos — it would be very difficult for a writer’s room to insulate itself completely against audience expectations — but it’s less easy for an unknown crime novelist with a pilot deal to execute those sorts of maneuvers. (According to Pizzolatto’s BuzzFeed interview, the first episode of True Detective was written in mid-2010, and most of the rest of the series in 2011 and early 2012: the idea that he would have foreseen the show’s popularity and be elaborately orchestrating a viral wild goose chase approaches Rust Cohle levels of paranoid.) We can see the mindset that produces the Temporal Fallacy in phrases like John Lopez’s reference to “a nifty allusion to obscure 19th-century genre fiction tailor-made for the Internet age,” or Spencer Kornhaber’s “In retrospect … it all feels like the show and its viewers had been studying for a test that never came.” I understand how metaphor works, but let’s take a step back for a moment and remember that television writers are not tailors making bespoke suits for individual viewers, nor are they proctors for intimidating exams. They’re storytellers, trying to make their narratives internally consistent and dramatically satisfying from moment to moment: there’s only so much mental energy one can devote to trolling Reddit users.
But the Temporal Fallacy holds that television’s creators are watching us watch them and responding to our responses. It flatters critics, and viewers, by assuming that what we think or expect or assume from week to week matters deeply. But I’m not sure this is true. One of the reasons the oft-floated parallel between 21st century prestige television and 19th century serial fiction doesn’t really hold up is that authors like Dickens, Trollope, and Wilkie Collins were frequently writing right up to deadline, and thus reacting in more or less real time to audience feedback. But television production (like film production) has to be planned out months in advance, and is hemmed in by millions of logistical considerations. Under these circumstances, could even the most ingenious showrunners play with our heads as effectively as we tend to give them credit for?
Of course, to be talking about time lags and false expectations and incomplete knowledge is especially appropriate for True Detective. The show’s other major formal innovation, besides employing a single director — its tricky tripartite time scheme, with plotlines in 1995, 2002, and 2012, and events in many other years vaguely referred to — to some extent reflects the difficulties it’s faced in its critical reception. The show’s “failure” to deliver on narrative expectations mirrors the detectives’ failure to follow up promising leads, and to keep the chronologies straight. The frustrations that viewers feel about “where we were going” are akin to those Rust and Marty feel about how their cases (and, for that matter, their lives) have gone; the fact that some go cold, while others get weird, and still others resolve as predictably as bad genre fiction, is, for better or worse, part of the melancholy vision the show has committed itself to.
It’s not that kind of world,
By Phillip Maciak
March 10, 2014
OPTIMISM? That’s where we were going? Alright alright alright.
More on that in a moment. We’re doing quick essays here, just gauging responses, and I have to say that I feel all the feelings about this episode of television. I was enthralled by every minute of this short series, and I remain firm in my belief that Matthew McConaughey has never ever ever been better, that the directorial auteur model of television production should continue unabated (and we’ll see how it goes with Steven Soderbergh’s upcoming The Knick), and that television needs more serious work that’s willing to be unrepentantly silly. I also love that the show provoked the phenomenal dual treatises on TV misogyny from Emily Nussbaum and Willa Paskin that dropped a few weeks ago. I’ve sided, tentatively, with Paskin on this front — I’ve long felt that the absence of women is perceived by the show as a lack, and the small moments of Monaghan are meant to put that in relief — but this finale made me wonder. What are we doing if we let Rust and Marty be redeemed? How much more perverse is this series if it was a conversion narrative the whole time? To be blunt: I was ready for those compelling, poetic, drawling assholes to die.
I know we’re all tired of the anti-heroes. Critics have proclaimed the end of the Golden Age of the Anti-hero and the beginning of the Silver or Bronze or Iron Age of the Whatever-Else pretty regularly for the past several years, but they just keep coming. True Detective, from the very beginning, has felt different. It felt like it might have just had the gumption to take a hard line. Over eight episodes, we were dazzled but not seduced into complicity by the magnetic dastardlinesses of Hart and Cohle. The push and pull of Paskin and Nussbaum was evidence of this. Even the lovers of the show could maintain a critical distance about it. We can lay this partially at the door of the divisive philosophical monologues. “Time is a flat circle” is no “I am the one who knocks.” In other words, the first one prods and provokes us but it doesn’t send tingles of identification up our spines like the second. We love these words and make sacrificial GIFs in their honor, but we don’t lose ourselves to them. And all of this happened over the course of a short series. If, as Cohle says in the pilot, these were the bad men who kept the other bad men from the door, we were conceivably in a position to not be romanced by them like we were by Tony Soprano or Walter White. Fukunaga and Pizzolatto could kill them off, and it would feel grimy and just rather than tinged with tragedy.
I don’t ultimately have a problem with the fact that Cohle and Hart made it out alive. I have no wish to see them come to harm. And even Cohle’s redemption, while a bit cheesy, might actually make a certain sense. But Marty Hart’s reunion with his family, and the shit-eating grin he cracks as Rust testifies to his newfound belief, strikes me as not right at all. Throughout that final scene I was hoping that we were witnessing a reverse conversion. There would have been a sardonic cruelty perfectly in keeping with the show if, after that monologue, Hart had simply responded that time was a flat circle and Cohle’s near-death experience was nothing more than a mythologized brush with the void. If the series had ended with Marty telling Rust there was no god, that would have been something. What’s scented meat? I’ll tell you what it is.
But that’s not how it went down. In that final conversation, we see Rust converted to Marty’s way of thinking, and we see Marty’s bankrupt faith that things will turn out alright confirmed to some extent. I understand that Rust’s conversion comes from a deeper well, but, if we’re allowing this show to behave badly because it’s told from the limited point of view of a bad man, I wish the show had acknowledged the difficulty of turning itself around. Marty’s always been empathetic — how else has his point-of-view enlarged?
So while the show wrapped up its rhetoric with an unexpected, perhaps unwelcome, flourish for me, it wrapped up perfectly from a visual standpoint. I think the unsung hero of this whole enterprise has been Cary Joji Fukunaga. We celebrate that long tracking shot, but what of a television series that has a coherent visual sense through every episode. Didn’t this series just feel different? And that visual story culminates in the final fight between Cohle and Errol in Carcosa. I’d been thinking over the past week that this series had left itself very little room for error in terms of its promises and mythologies. Its supernatural and mythical components were part of what we found most gripping, but the show couldn’t end with miracles and demons and stay true to its purpose.
The long Silence of the Lambs-style tour of Carcosa was perfectly pitched. The exact right evocation of the magic of homespun, mad objects. And perhaps I was so disappointed by the actual ending because I was so satisfied imagining that this conflict, this space, might be the real endpoint. Fukunaga showed us the resolution the dialogue couldn’t provide. The struggle between light and dark, the raising of men into gods, the brutality of belief, even the redemption of Rust Cohle — we saw all of that in much more coherent, much less problematic ways in the struggle between these men in the hollowed-out, post-industrial haunted house at the end. The shot of Cohle, knife in his belly, hoisted into the air by this monster, silhouetted against the blackness of this overgrown, subterranean hell like Jacob wrestling the angel. If we wanted to see this man’s conversion, it was in the way he fought with this force of evil, the strength he exerted to keep this bad man down, the way the darkness enveloped him and, within the frame, made him a source of light. (I could’ve done without Spaghetti Man’s Bane accent, though.) This show loved creating icons — the man in the gas mask, the swirly drawings — and I thought it would be fitting to end on an icon as rich as this one. I didn’t need to hear Cohle tell me the light had won, I saw it win. And, with Rust and Marty bleeding into the Louisiana dirt, I was ready to walk away redeemed.