For weeks now I’d been thinking HBO’s latest hit show, season one of “True Detective”, would end on a supernatural note. There are the mystical names of The Yellow King, Carcosa, characters with “666” tattoos, and former detective Rust Cohle’s (Matthew McConaughey) zen-like, seemingly-mad ramblings about Louisiana, time and existence. Now, after episode seven, “After You’ve Gone”, we have a Lawnmower Man (and the cyclical nature of time /mowing in circles /talking about the ancient nature of his family) who appears to have scarring around his mouth in just the way the rescued girl talked about to Cohle at the asylum.
But the more that I’ve watched the show, the more I think the metaphysical is just too easy an out. Frankly, much like all good mysteries, it’s not really about the whodunit aspect, but rather the journey of it. Let’s just say the finale ends, and we find out the Lawnmower Man, a group of crooked cops, a tangle of evil evangelicals, and a Louisiana state senator are part of some ancient satanic cult, that ritualized the rape and murder of children. What then? I think the conclusion the show is heading toward won’t go into the supernatural, but rather more to the aforementioned. Because the most astounding thing about humanity isn’t the boogeymen we create, but rather that very real people can become evil incarnate. We don’t have to dream of nightmares, because nightmares are in fact real. Some of the advertisements for the show suggest as much: “Man is the cruelest animal.” Read the news and you’ll find it littered with animals that go about in human form.
But what’s fascinating about this show, and ultimately far superior to the plot-line itself, is the first half of the series, and the way it created a landscape out of mood and McConaughey’s drowsy mental filtering of time and place. At times, the show moves as glacially as Cohle contemplates. His voice is the show’s cryptic atmosphere. (Albeit the latest two episodes, six and seven, haven’t been as strong as the others. And maybe that’s because Cohle’s voice has gone from alluring metaphysics to matter-of-fact conspiracy.)
Early on we heard these wonderful, floating ruminations about life, meaning and evil from Cohle: “I think human consciousness, is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory, experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody. Maybe the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.”
Or how about Cohle’s thoughts on the landscape of the Louisiana town as metaphor for inward and outward disintegration: “This place is like someone’s memory of a town, and the memory is fading.”
Or his thoughts on the nature of religion: “Yeah, well if the common good’s gotta make up fairy tales then it’s not good for anybody” AND “If the only thing keeping a person decent, is the expectation of divine reward, then, brother, that person is a piece of shit.”
These aren’t always deep ideas, sometimes they come off as thoughts one might have stoned out and alone in a room. But it does give the show an air of its own. As much as I dislike armchair analysis of shows, in part because it just feels a bit corny to dissect TV fiction, many websites have already been posting about a very real book, a collection of stories written by Robert W. Chambers called “The King in Yellow”. The book is named for a fictional play that occurs regularly throughout the stories, and suggests that it turns those who read it mad. In other words, the book is a kind of nesting doll, a story within other stories. And yes, that book is largely considered part of the supernatural genre, so I could be entirely wrong about where the “True Detective” series will conclude. But it seems recent shows like “Lost”, which was more about tricks than storytelling craft, have somehow taught television audiences to expect a big reveal. Or maybe it’s some of the weaker elements of the films of M. Night Shyamalan, or perhaps it’s just in our nature to believe that each story we watch must end with some kind of magical plot resolution. A piece of elaborate trickery.
“True Detective” has hinted at a metaphysical plane, alluded to names and books that the show’s creators must have known would raise the curiosity of viewers, who would go to the web to look for clues. In a sense, sometimes you get out of a story, what you come to the table with when you watch it. The more involved you get, the stronger the story. The show has also added thematic closing songs to episodes, like Townes Van Zandt’s “Lungs” at the end of episode seven that expounds on intrigue, but may or may not offer any insight into the episode itself. Heck, even the name of the last and eighth episode, “Form and Void”, for me immediately conjured the dark, early-man imagery from the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm” … “Twas in another lifetime / Full of toil and blood / When blackness was a virtue / And the road was full of mud / I came in from the wilderness / A creature void of form / ‘Come in’ she said, ‘I’ll give ya, shelter from the storm’ …” So, just how will this show end — with a bang or a whimper? Or maybe a whimper will be the bang. We’ll just have to wait and see.