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 third Post Mortem. By Lance Parkin. A number of online commentators expressed disappointment at the ending of the first series of True Detective. These tended to be people who’d invested a great deal of time trying to ‘decipher’ the show, picking apart what they felt were clues that pointed to the identity of the mysterious ‘Yellow King’. It’s not hard to see why people would make the serious category error of thinking that True Detective was a detective show. It has ‘Detective’ in the title, and it’s about two cops who are investigating a murder and rapidly discover there’s a serial killer at large, with some kind of institutional cover up around the case. If it was a show like Elementary or The Mentalist, then it would be fair to expect a neat ending, probably with a startling twist. Typically, the form dictates that the detectives are quickly introduced to a set of characters who knew the victim, and after a couple of wrong turns, they figure out which of those characters is the killer. The paradox of the genre is that it’s always someone ‘unlikely’, and so the audience often suspects the shy secretary or the tennis coach or the teacher who only appeared in that one scene at the beginning before the detectives have any reason to. The detectives work out a neat chronology for the crime, accounting for all the anomalies encountered, and whoever the writer of the show has assigned to be the killer instantly confesses their extremely logical reasons for killing the victim, and rues the one mistake that left a single clue that was enough to lead the detectives to them. There’s a set of answers that tie up all the loose ends, and usually some extra-legal poetic justice for the wrongdoer. The arbitrary nature of the process is parodied by the movie Clue, where (without initially telling anyone they were doing this) different screenings showed entirely different endings, in which entirely different characters confessed to the same crime for entirely different motives, all of which followed the rules of the genre. As True Detective is an HBO show, and HBO makes labyrinthine series like The Wire and Game of Thrones, many assumed the identity and motives of the killer would be suitably convoluted and particularly clever. A couple of references to the ‘Yellow King’ set online commentators searching to unmask this mysterious figure. Common theories included the idea that the Yellow King was one of the two protagonists, Cohle or Hart. Another was that Maggie, Hart’s wife, was moonlighting as a serial killer (how she was raping the victims, or indeed her basic motivation was never accounted for). References to a number of HP Lovecraft and similar supernatural stories had some people convinced we were heading for a supernatural ending, and the depiction of a literal monster behind it all. As online speculation increased, every background character came under suspicion and was scrutinised. Set dressing and even the opening titles were brought in as evidence. It’s a process perfectly parodied here. But True Detective was never a puzzle box type of show. There’s an operative word in the title, but it isn’t ‘Detective’. It’s actually a story about truth. The nature of truth, the definition of truth, what we know to be true. And the people looking to ‘solve’ the show walked neatly into its labyrinth. One of the key concepts in the series is that we’re only seeing partial, filtered versions of reality. As it happens, the show did deliver a textbook Scooby Doo ending – ‘why, the Yellow King, he was the creepy janitor all the time!’ And we might even have seen literal monsters. Creator Nic Pizzolatto has acknowledged his debt to Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. I’ll talk about Alan Moore in a moment, but I’d note that in Morrison’s The Invisibles, there’s a videotape of a woman being raped by a monster. The police who come into possession of the tape assume – perfectly naturally – it’s a man dressed as a monster, but it’s a genuine extradimensional terror. In True Detective, there’s a blurry video of a sexual assault with, we are told, men dressed as animals. That would be the most probable explanation for the blurred, humanoid forms we see. It is not the only one. Across their bodies of work Alan Moore and Grant Morrison have both toyed with a couple of the basic tropes of postmodernism: the character who knows he’s in a story, and the story that offers no objective account. Watching the first episode, it felt a lot like Alan Moore’s work to me. Fittingly, this says plenty about my partial, filtered view of the world – I’ve just come off three years of writing a biography about him, Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore, so I tend to see a lot of things through the lens of Alan Moore at the moment. That said, I’m hardly the only one, and a number of articles have spelled out some of the parallels. Moore’s stories The Courtyard and Neonomicon are very clear examples of detective procedurals with a Lovecraftian twist. It’s easy enough to see that True Detective has the same basic story as From Hell – it’s an investigation into a serial murderer of women, with a strong sense of place, and the occult viewpoints (and occasional mystic visions) of several major characters providing the structure. The last line of the show is pretty much a straight lift from an issue of Moore’s Top 10. It’s perhaps less obvious that True Detective has plenty of similarities to Watchmen. True Detective’s Cohle and Hart are basically Rorschach and Nite Owl – we see in flashbacks that they were once effective crimefighters, but one went mad, the other got pudgy. It has the same basic story, starting with a murder and ending up with a confrontation in the murderer’s labyrinthine lair. A murder mystery acts as a through line in the narrative, but it’s probably the least interesting or distinctive feature of the graphic novel, which is essentially a character piece and exercise in building up a story from fragments and flashbacks. The real meat of Watchmen is in the digressions, diversions and details. The key thing about Watchmen is that we’re never once given an objective viewpoint. It’s a series of people’s accounts of what happened. The characters within the story are piecing together their own versions of events, imposing motivations, inferring connections that may or may not exist. This is exactly what’s happening in True Detective. We start with Hart and Cohle’s recounting of events in the present day, as they are interviewed separately about a cold case. We frequently cut to flashbacks, and at first it’s possible to think these are a straightforward depiction of what ‘really’ happened. We can see a couple of discrepancies between what the two men are saying, and what we’re seeing. Soon, it’s clear that these sequences depict Cohle and Hart’s thoughts as they remember those events. There’s a trick played on us, though, as there are a lot of wide shots, some extremely wide establishing shots, a lot of full frame shots of the characters, there are a lot of long takes or scenes with few edits. While there are exceptions – like the long tracking shot at the end of Episode Four – the ‘memories’ we’re seeing are not simply the unfiltered point-of-view of the characters. So, straight away, what we’re seeing four different narratives: two evasive verbal accounts, and two depictions of subjective, distanced memories. The trick to the show is that there is not one single sustained point where we see ‘objective reality’ (with the possible exception of some wide and establishing shots). We are confined, for the most part, to two people’s versions of events. We can’t trust anything we’re told or we’re shown, or at least we can’t take it entirely at face value. This is made most obvious in Episode Five, which has a sequence where the modern day Cohle and Hart recount a furious gun battle, with their voiceovers clashing with what we see – which is Hart killing a man in cold blood, then the two of them faking a furious gun battle. They both stick to the story, one they’d told at the time. No other characters ever discover the truth – the story they tell is suitably heroic, they are rewarded for their heroism and no one ever needs or wants to challenge it. With Cohle’s accounts we’re quickly presented with a twist: after a few occasions where we’ve seen Fortean events in his flashbacks – a flock of birds forming a distinctive spiral shape, incongruous figures like his dead daughter standing by the side of the road, odd lights – Cohle reveals that he regularly hallucinates. Is his brain now wired up in a way that grants him access to some higher consciousness, or is he just deluded? In True Detective Cohle is not aware of his own fictionality, but he comes close. He expresses his understanding of reality in much the same way Alan Moore (no stranger to mind altering substances) has in numerous places over the years – in terms of each human being having a very limited, subjective view of the world made up from sense perceptions of reality. While it’s tempting to see Hart’s flashbacks as solid, dependable memories contrasted against Cohle’s way out visions, it would be a mistake to think that Hart is any more reliable as a narrator. It becomes clear during the series that Hart is, in a much more mundane way, also presenting a distorted account. He knows when he’s lying to other people (he’s a pretty terrible liar, his body language betrays him in all sorts of ways), but not when he’s lying to himself. He’s actually quite a storyteller – thinking about it, that must be quite an asset for a detective – and he’s got quite a neat explanation for his divorce: his wife Maggie checked his cellphone and found that another woman sent him a naked selfie, Maggie had sex with Cohle as revenge. By comparing it with what else we’re told and shown, we can piece together that it’s by no means the whole story. The breakdown of the marriage wasn’t about one incident, it was about patterns. Maggie had left him once before, he’d already had at least one other affair. He was a slob around the house, and generally unthinking to his wife and daughters. The summary version is a neat ‘detective story’ explanation, and it’s not false, as such, but neither is it the whole truth. When Hart can’t explain something or make the story work, there’s a consistent pattern: he either avoids addressing it at all (in cases like finding his daughter’s dolls arranged so it looks like they’re having sex) or by getting angry. By design, I think, the show leaves quite a few places in Hart’s life story barely sketched in. Other shows might dwell on a moment of decision when he starts an affair, say, but Hart’s relationship with, say, Lisa the stenographer is hardly depicted at all. The affair has clearly run for some time, it clearly means a lot to her, and enough to him to beat up her new boyfriend. As the relationship is not touched on by the investigation, we never get a narration from Hart to contextualise it for us. Hart’s memories are basically a highlights reel – some rather sexy sex, a fiery and public breakup and his wife finding out about it. In the last couple of episodes, the show has been so careful in establishing the rules and grammar of the narrative that it can start to break them. We get a brief sequence with Maggie being interviewed. We see Gilbough and Papania out and about in the world with no sign of Cohle or Hart. The original scheme hasn’t been abandoned. As Cohle enters the Yellow King’s lair, the labyrinth he enters seems far larger and more elaborate than the one Hart follows him into. Cohle experiences a cosmic vision of some kind. And, interestingly, he only says he’s come to a more benign view of the universe, we’re told it rather than shown it. We never get to a complete, totally satisfying ‘truth’ in True Detective. Even Cohle’s semi-conversion at the end seems to fit oddly with the sceptical, nihilistic view that’s been so central to him. Is he fooling himself or affected by the drugs the hospital gave him? We end with a pitch black sky, two wounded heroes and an uncertainty over whether this is a happy ending or the illusion of one. Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related 3 Responses A Roundup of Recent Things | Lance Parkin May 5, 2014 […] I wrote about Alan Moore’s influence on True Detective for Psycho Drive In here. […] Log in to Reply Is True Detective Plagiarised? | Lance Parkin August 7, 2014 […] True Detective plagiarised? There are, as I and others have noted, aspects of the first series pretty much straight from Alan Moore, but now readers of Thomas […] Log in to Reply » Is TRUE DETECTIVE Plagiarised? August 7, 2014 […] True Detective plagiarised? There are, as I and others have noted, aspects of the first series pretty much straight from Alan Moore, but now readers of Thomas […] Log in to Reply Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.