With True Detective‘s 8-episode first season wrapped, we at Psycho Drive-In thought we’d take some time to look back at the series and try to tease out some meanings and explore some creative interpretations of what has been laid before us. Some are deadly serious. Some are inventive and bizarre. Some are straight-up reviews. Here’s your fifth Post Mortem. By Kelvin Green and Paul Brian McCoy. Paul Brian McCoy: It’s been a while since you and I have teamed up on reviews of a crime drama, Kelvin. Usually when we do something like this, we’re covering a UK show like Luther or Utopia, but this time we’re focusing on something from my side of the pond, HBO’s True Detective. The series wrapped up its first season a week or two ago and it’s high time Psycho Drive-In had a review for all these lovely readers. So, let’s see. The praise for this show has been near-universal, and I admit to being one of those voices who loved nearly every second of it. What was your initial reaction once everything was said and done? Kelvin Green: I don’t know! Paul: LOL! Kelvin: I finished watching the final episode and I sat back and I thought “I don’t know what to make of all that” and I still don’t. So in a way, this review is going to be cathartic for me as it will probably help me make some sense of the series. I liked it, I know that much, but I have to be honest, I didn’t love it. Paul: Maybe we should go back to the beginning, then, and work our way through it? Kelvin: Yes, lets. Like detectives on a case. Paul: True. Like detectives. The opening moments of the entire series were odd ones, and I’ve gone back and re-watched them over and over after the final credits rolled. I’m still trying to decide what I’m seeing exactly. A figure lurches through the darkness, apparently dragging or carrying a body. A lighter flicks on and sets a fire. Then we cut to the entire horizon in flames. The implication is that this is our killer placing the first victim we see a few minutes later. It’s a dark, mysterious moment, capped with a frankly beautiful image of destruction with the fire. It kind of sums up the entire series in those few moments. But I wonder if we’re really seeing what we think we’re seeing. Especially after the final shot of the series. Kelvin: Quite so. One of the things I really liked about the series was all the things that were left unsaid or unexplained. I know someone who thought these were examples of sloppy writing but I suspect they were deliberate. Paul: I have no doubt they were deliberate. Some were a bit distracting (like what happened to Ginger after Rust supposedly left him in a ditch by the side of the road), but in general I think the things left unanswered were answers to the wrong questions. Or maybe I’m just being clever clever. Kelvin: I remember reading an article once on set dressing in which the author talked about putting certain props on a character’s desk to indicate that they had a life outside the narrative. I think they were going for something similar here; there were things going on that we didn’t see but that we were supposed to draw our own conclusions about. I think that opening was one of them. Paul: Maybe. I’ll try to circle back around to it in the end. Right from the start we’re dealing with a narrative that plays by its own rules and kind of slaps us in the face to let us know that we’re only going to see what the creators want, when they want, and how they want. By starting with the interrogation scenes set in 2012, we already have a hint of what came before, if only in the devastation left in its wake. We see Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) looking like a burnt-out hippie, and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) a fat (for television heroes) balding P.I. both being asked questions about the case that made both of their careers back in 1995. The official documents about the case have supposedly been lost to Hurricane Katrina and the officers asking the questions, Detectives Thomas Papania (Tory Kittles) and Maynard Gibough (Michael Potts) are pleasant enough, but something is clearly up. Kelvin: Yes, it creates another layer of mystery right from the start. There’s the mystery of the murder case but also this other mystery of what happened to these two men in the seventeen years since. There are two hooks there for the inquisitive viewer. Paul: And by using the interrogation conceit, we get two different versions of what actually happened: the story they tell the detectives is the official one, but we get to see what actually happened — which isn’t always the same thing. And there’s an added level of difficulty because we’re only getting the story from Rust and Marty’s perspectives, so there’s some question as to the reality of what we’re shown as well, depending on from which perspective we’re seeing the story unfold. You can’t help but have things left unsaid. Or unaddressed. Kelvin: Yep, and as we discover Marty is a liar and Rust is prone to hallucinations, so they’re not the most trustworthy of narrators. Paul: Exactly. Kelvin: The complexity of the series is one of the things I did love about it. There is so much going on. And yet without getting lost in a complicated web of nonsense. Paul: It is a complicated web. Just not a lot of nonsense. Kelvin: Another thing I liked was how the first episode set things up but by the second everything was turned upside down. In the first episode Cohle is weird and unlikeable, and the 2012 scenes only intensify the sense that he’s gone bad, while Marty is the charming and down to earth family man. In episode two that all gets flipped. Paul: Seriously. But nearly everything we need to know in the end is there in that first episode. From that point on, the show is really more about Hart and Cohle than the mystery. Kelvin: Yes it is and I thought I’d be disappointed by that but the relationship between these two men is the heart of the show and the murder, the sinister conspiracies, the hints of something Lovecraftian, all of that is almost irrelevant. Paul: I think that’s part of why so many people were disappointed by the lack of complete closure. They thought it was really about finding and punishing the conspiracy of killers. Kelvin: I think you’re right there. There was closure, but it was in the relationship between the two detectives; these two men who after going through an almost literal Hell discover that they are in actual fact friends. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this dark series had a happy ending! Paul: For their relationship as well as their connections to their families. As a horrible misanthrope, I confess to feeling a pang of disappointment in the end, when Rust finds his happy place and comes out of everything with a sense of hope. But I understand why (show creator) Nic Pizzolatto took us there. Kelvin: Yes, one could argue that Cohle’s nihilistic belief system was shattered by his near death experience and that’s not much of a happy ending for him. Paul: It really threw a spotlight on the fact that his nihilism was reactionary (a response to his daughter’s death) rather than a real philosophical enlightenment (so to speak). Kelvin: Yes, that he’d sort of deliberately become a sociopath in order to avoid the pain of his loss. Personality suicide, of a sort. Paul: Right! He made himself into the bad man necessary to keep the other bad men from the door. Kelvin: He’s Batman. Paul: With added hallucinations! Kelvin: He’s Grant Morrison Batman. Paul: Zur-En-Arrh! Kelvin: Ha! He’s a fascinating character, and no mistake. Both of them are interesting individuals and played so well by the two leads. Paul: True. I keep forgetting that Woody Harrelson can actually act. He’s only been impressing the hell out of me for twenty years. But still it comes as a surprise. Kelvin: I think it’s because he’s so low-key about it. It’s an overused term but he has an everyman charm, and it’s not flashy. It’s a good contrast with Matthew McConaughey’s performance. Cohle is like a knife cutting through the landscape. Cold steel. Paul: Or a knife cutting through a beer can! Kelvin: Ah yes, his beer can people. That was another unexplained aspect; the little dolls he made from beer cans, and the little scenes Marty’s daughter Audrey (Madison Wolfe) made using her dolls. A lesser series would have placed great significance on those. Paul: Yeah, that’s why so many people jumped on them as important to the actual investigation rather than as symbolic moments in the philosophical and psychological narratives. They beer can men are all about Cohle’s realizations about the dead and his belief that we’re all puppets waiting to have our strings cut (as well as a visual representation of his Fourth Dimensional cosmology). Whereas the dolls are pretty clearly an example of how Marty’s world wasn’t as separated from his home life as he thought. Kelvin: Yep, and these aspects are left there for us to ponder and discuss rather than being explained in the show. I applaud them for that. Paul: When Marty asked how Audrey knew about sex already (when she got in trouble at school for drawing dirty pictures) and Maggie said girls have to know about it before boys, was kind of chilling in its matter-of-factness. And also really plays into the overall themes of the show. Kelvin: The world is a dangerous and savage place. Paul: Especially for women. Kelvin: Indeed. Paul: That’s really a large part of why the show opened itself up for criticism about the portrayal of women, I think. The real focus was on critiquing masculinity and how men leave damage in their wake. Damage to both women they’re involved with and their families as a whole. Especially when bad male behavior is kind of valorized by society as a whole. So at a glance, the women seem underdeveloped. Kelvin: Yes, I thought that was an interesting criticism. As you say the story wasn’t really about women as such. Or rather it was about men and their flaws. Paul: I suppose one could argue that the subject matter itself was misogynist, but I think that’s going a bit too far. Or at least it becomes an indictment of the entire genre rather a criticism of the work in particular. And it was still a partial work at the time those claims were made, so we hadn’t yet seen how these representations were going to play out. I think by the time we got through the final couple of episodes, Marty’s wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan) had really become more of a focus, especially as she realized she had to get away from Marty or lose everything. Kelvin: Yes, I don’t think it would be fair to say that Maggie was a weak character, nor that she was a victim. Ill-treated, yes, but not a victim. I wouldn’t even say she was a supporting character by the end. Paul: Well, she’s definitely not a main character, even in the end. The fact that she came out of everything okay and her family is okay says a lot about what a good thing it was to get out of Marty’s orbit. She still serves to illuminate Marty, but it’s not one-dimensional by any means. That’s the great strength of the Pizzolatto’s writing, I think; how even minor characters or supporting characters are pretty well-realized in the end. A lot of that is the nuance the actors bring to the performances, where they’re doing things that we don’t even realize are deepening their characters until later. Not to mention what’s brought to the show thematically by the sharp direction by series director Cary Fukunaga and gorgeous cinematography by Adam Arkapaw. It’s just a total creative package. Kelvin: Yes you’re quite right. I would say that the performances are excellent and could carry the show but they don’t need to because everything is so well done. Paul: So did you have any criticisms of the show as it went on? Kelvin: You know, there was only one bit that I thought was a bit wonky and that was in the final minutes of the final episode. Just after the showdown with Errol Childress (Glenn Fleshler), Marty wakes up in hospital and Gilbrough and Papania explain everything to him. It was a bit neat and undermined all that buildup with the detectives suspecting Cohle. I know it isn’t the case but it seemed like Pizzolatto had run out of time and had to truncate that plotline. Paul: It was a bit clean and neat. Although combined with the news reports that Childress was the only killer and there were no ties to the Tuttle family, it does help to pull attention away from the murders and push Marty and Rust’s relationship into the forefront. Kelvin: True, from that perspective it works. Paul: It was like Pizolatto was trying to make it plain that it was never really about the murders, as we spiral away from them in the closing narrative. Not completely, anyway. Kelvin: Yes, it could be. I just wish it wasn’t as clumsy as “This happened, then this happened, and everything is okay. Bye!” Paul: Understandable. Kelvin: How about you? I think you’re more enthusiastic about the show as a whole than I am, but were there parts that didn’t work for you? Paul: I was a little concerned about the shift in narrative focus leading up to that wonderful tracking shot that ended Episode 4 and then follows through from that point on. It seemed to fall back into more traditional cop drama narrative beats from that point on, but that’s partially due to the way the story’s focus shifted after they killed the Ledoux boys (Charles Halford and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson). It was still good and sometimes downright thrilling, but the philosophical and intellectual elements from the opening chapters seemed to shift to the background. They “solved” the case and their lives were fine… until they suddenly weren’t anymore. And then things really went to hell. Or maybe I just missed hearing Rust say things I’ve thought for most of my adult life but try not to say in the company of others. Kelvin: Ha! Yes, I know what you mean. There was a shift at some point and now that I think about it, it did seem to me at the time that it was happening because it needed to happen for narrative reasons, not because of any natural development in the characters. Paul: Yes! It shifted from character-centric to plot-centric. Kelvin: It was most striking when the story picked up in 2002, in the way Cohle seemed to lose control for no apparent reason, which then led to the breakup of their partnership, his dismissal from the force, and the incident with Maggie. There was a hint of foreshadowing in the way he lost it before having dinner with Marty and Maggie in the first episode but for the most part he was played as cool and calculating, so it seemed out of character to me. Paul: That’s another of those things that doesn’t get explained to the viewers, but I think the clues are there. Especially when we look back at how Cohle became who he was because of the death of his daughter. I think “solving” the Dora Lange murder helped to center him and almost find some sort of redemption. But when it became clear to him that he’d actually failed to catch the killer, it began undermining his sense of who and what he was. He’d tricked himself into forgetting he was a puppet that thought it was a man, and was confronted with the fact that he was still being manipulated and lied to. So it kind of broke him. Again. I think. Kelvin: That is more or less how I read it too. The completion of the case was a sort of pressure valve for Cohle, but that pressure was what kept him under control and the release wasn’t good for him, or those around him. That said, it was a bit convenient in plotting terms and allowed the series to drift a little into a more plot-centric mode, as you say. I think it moved back into a more character-driven mode by the end though. Paul: Sort of. Kelvin: The last two episodes, with the detectives bonding over the case, were my favourites of the whole lot. Paul: That was good stuff. Although I did find Marty’s sudden insight into the Green:-Eared Spaghetti Monster was a little convenient. Kelvin: A little bit, but I did like that it showed that Marty was a talented detective in his own right. Paul: That’s why it didn’t bother me too terribly much. I did love the two of them walking off into the night, Rust with his arm draped around Marty’s shoulder, letting Marty carry him away from the hospital. Kelvin: Yes, friends at last, after everything they’d been through. Paul: Bringing a little bit of light to the darkness. Kelvin: Oh yes. Paul: Which brings me around to that beginning again. Time is a flat circle after all. Kelvin: We’re doomed to do this again and again. Paul: I’ve not seen it confirmed anywhere. In fact the only semi-confirmations seem to support the idea that the opening scene of the first episode was the killer. But I like to think it was Marty and Rust going back out to the site where they found the first victim and burning it all down. Lighting up the night. Kelvin: That’s a nice idea. I like ti. Paul: Do you think Pizzolatto will be able to do this again? Kelvin: He held it together quite well in this series and the short length of the series helps. If it’s true that the next series will be a different story with different characters then that is in his favour too, as he won’t be burdened by continuity. Paul: That’s the plan. Wow. We got all the way through this and didn’t mention the Yellow King or Robert W. Chambers or Lovecraft or Lawn Care or a lot of other things that people were talking about. Do you feel like there was something we should touch on before we wrap up? Kelvin: The Carcosa stuff was a massive red — or yellow — herring, of course. I know a lot of people were disappointed that Hastur himself didn’t turn up at the end but I don’t think the series was any less Lovecraftian for not having an actual Cthulhu Mythos beastie appear. Paul: Agreed. It would have been amazing, but True Detective was almost as true to the spirit of Lovecraft than any strict adaptation. I loved the little nods to Grant Morrison and Alan Moore sprinkled throughout, too. Kelvin: Yes, I hope Moore gets to see the series. I doubt he has a television though! I hadn’t picked up on any Lawn Care discussion. What was that about? Paul: See Wednesday’s True Detective Post-Mortem for more details! (plug plug) Kelvin: Ah! Paul: There were times watching this show that I felt like it was being made just for me, especially with Rust’s nihilistic rants about identity and meaningless, but in Episode 4, when they went to the bar and the Melvins song “A History of Bad Men” was playing I started to tingle. And then that episode ended with Grinderman’s “Honey Bee (Let’s Fly to Mars)” I became ecstatic. The weird fiction references helped too. Kelvin: It’s funny, but I almost didn’t watch it at all. It was subject to massive hype and that always puts me off a little, and it wasn’t easy to watch here in the UK. The Carcosa references intrigued me but it was the news that it wasn’t going to be one long series that I’d have to commit to for years that got me to make the effort. I am pleased that I did because I found a fascinating television series. Paul: I thought it looked good, but then forgot all about it and missed the first two or three episodes. Once Dr. Girlfriend and I went back and tried out the first one though, we couldn’t stop ourselves from watching the next one immediately. Kelvin: I think I came in around the time episode five was broadcast and ended up watching two episodes a day. That’s a good sign. Paul: Oh yeah. Kelvin: I can’t say that I love the series. I don’t feel that enthusiastic towards it. But I am full of admiration for it and I will watch it again and again as soon as it’s released on Blu Ray. Paul: So do you want to give this a score or leave it at that? Kelvin: I have one question first. Paul: Shoot. Kelvin: In the seventh episode, Marty asks Cohle why he came back after so many years and Cohle says that he needed to solve the case because there was something else he needed to do. What do you think Cohle meant? Paul: Once the case was solved? Kelvin: Yes, after the case was solved, there was something else he needed to do. Paul: He was ready to die. I think if he hadn’t had that epiphany of feeling his daughter’s love he would have killed himself once the case was over, or if the killer didn’t finish the job himself. Kelvin: I think you’re spot on. Paul: After I started watching the show, I read in an interview with Pizzolatto that a lot of things Rust was saying were inspired by the writing of Thomas Ligotti, particularly his non-fiction treatise on Pessimist Philosophy The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. So I grabbed the Kindle version cheap, and started digging into it. Kelvin: And? Paul: There’s quite a bit about a kind of “heroic” Pessimism, which is Cohle almost word for word. Especially the whole life is meaningless and we’re all puppets who only think we’re really conscious stuff, but we still need to be saved. According to Ligotti, that’s a failure in the individual. It’s cowardice in the end. Suicide is practically the only rational end result in this philosophy — if you can’t convince the rest of humanity to stop breeding and die off instead. It’s horrifyingly bleak. The book goes on to explore how this sort of extreme pessimism is expressed in Weird Literature, especially in Lovecraft. Kelvin: Yes, I saw that pessimism in the series and I was sure we were heading for an ending in which everyone died, so I was all the more surprised when it ended on such a relatively positive note. Paul: It was so central to Cohle’s character, I really thought at least he was going to die. Especially when he was in a coma. After saying earlier that his daughter slipping away while comatose was the perfect way for her to go, I figured that would be his happy ending. Kelvin: True, but by that time Marty and Cohle had developed a new relationship and his death would have undermined that. I think they made the right choice by having him survive. Paul: Oh I agree completely. I really wasn’t expecting it. Kelvin: Nor me. I find it ironic that such a dark series had such a happy ending, and I love that irony. It was dark, and nihilistic, and critical of human nature, but never cynical. Paul: It’s another example of how True Detective undercut viewer expectations and told the story Pizzolatto wanted to tell without any sense of obligation to that audience. Kelvin: Quite so. Paul: Audience entitlement is the real killer! Kelvin: Yep! To Carcosa with the audience! AWS.InvalidParameterValue: B00HUCF6KK is not a valid value for ItemId. Please change this value and retry your request. TRUE DETECTIVE: A Conversation, A ReviewKelvin GreenPaul Brian McCoy4.3Overall ScoreShare this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related 4 Responses George August 17, 2014 Great round-up. This captures it: It’s another example of how True Detective undercut viewer expectations and told the story Pizzolatto wanted to tell without any sense of obligation to that audience. Sure, the first three episodes were the most original, and it had to inevitably change pace because it was after all an investigation (of sorts), but the way it quickly brought itself back around to the relationship subverted it again. The “green ears and amazing recall for house-painting” realisation was a bit clunky (our bet had been on him having green ear-protectors that he wore with his tractor). Recommendation: If you haven’t already, can I recommend Hugo Blick’s The Shadow Line for a bit of review treatment? Log in to Reply Paul Brian McCoy August 17, 2014 The ear protectors would have been a nice touch. Oh well. Can’t have everything. And oh yes, The Shadow Line is amazing! It aired at an awkward time for us so we never got around to reviewing it. Although it’s not something I’d be averse to… Log in to Reply A Psycho Drive-In True Detective Round Up - Psycho Drive-In June 20, 2015 […] Finally, Kelvin Green and Paul Brian McCoy had a conversation that looked over and evaluated the series as a whole, with “TRUE DETECTIVE: A Conversation, A Review.” […] Log in to Reply How True Detective Still Remains Popular - Psycho Drive-In June 20, 2015 […] a new season of True Detective right around the corner, critics and fans are already abuzz about what has been hinted at so far. […] Log in to Reply Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.