What True Detective Means

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[The following consists of little more than a first stab, derived from notes & jots & conversations, at approaching, the show. For more insightful commentary, I recommend some of the recent critical responses it has generated online and in the press.]

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Sometimes artists discover in the materials that they are generating the possibility that they have happened upon something truly great, something that speaks to the world, and its future, in a new and compelling articulation. True Detective, whose first season has not even completed its serpentine unfolding on HBO yet, has been rightly recognized as something special and it may well involve this species of discovery.

It tells the story of two cops, Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), assigned to investigate the homicide of a young prostitute Dora Lange, whose body is discovered way out in the Louisiana countryside posed in a position of prayer and adorned with a decorated crown of antlers in what viewers and police alike immediately recognize as the strange performance art of a serial killer. This story is set in 1995  (on the cusp of the widespread take up of the internet) but it is framed by the same cops being interviewed in 2012 by two other cops, Maynard Gilbough (Michael Potts) and  Thomas Papania(Tory Kittles), who believe Hart and Cohle’s earlier investigation is either flawed or was somehow a process of concealment itself.  The back and forth between the two time frames opens up a realm of reflection and commentary on the nature of, and motivation behind, a kind of knowledge-hunting where the stakes seem to speak to the participants in both ultimate and obscure ways.

There are a number of somewhat obvious matters that commentators have remarked on that it is useful to tick off in order to approach the show’s core.   The first is that its duration and production  signals a certain concentration of abilities: the creator Nic Pizzolatto, a novelist and former academic who hails from Louisiana, wrote all of the episodes himself; there are only eight episodes in total (less than Luck for example which comes in at nine) and all of them are directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, previously best known for his fine 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre. This apparent unity of writer and directorial vision has been contrasted to the usual practice in contemporary serial drama of spreading episodes across a team of writers and directors under the creative authority of one or more show runners. However, the collaborative nature of television authorship, however one adds up the constellation of the participants, does not negate any more than it guarantees artistic achievement. Equally, gesturing to some of its striking narrative and formal arrangements, such as the foregrounding of unreliable narration or, in one instance, an extended tracking shot, merely begs the question of why it is the way it is.  Nonetheless, it is clear the creators have chosen to stage their story within a popular genre in order to set up camp in an recognizable environment they go on to colour in strange and troubling ways.

The procedural nature of the show is therefore initially legible: much of the screen time is spent in a various interrogation rooms containing human beings asking questions and telling stories. Its thematic and narrative textures are freighted with popular, literary and philosophical references: Nietzsche gets a good outing throughout, and the settings and subject matter strongly evoke elements of the Southern Gothic tradition; one can also hear Lovecraft and some nastier aspects of more contemporary horror writers such as Thomas Ligotti at play.  Visually, the imbrication of the bleak, dank landscapes of the Louisiana outlands with the smoke-chugging structures of industrial refineries that inhabit them is rendered in 35mm with a discretion that accrues additional impact by placing human beings in expressive relation to them. Which is to say the poisonous outpourings of both Nature and industry provide a further reflection of the interior tonality of the human figures we see crawling across it (and there are a number of helicopter long shots that emphasize the ‘between heaven and earth’ sense of the diminished seemingly futile efforts of mankind).

At the heart of the show are a number of mysteries that continually foreground two central issues familiar in us in a number of recent US quality dramas: the problem (or puzzle) of other minds, and the nature of time especially its handling of past, present and future (perhaps we can call it the problem of history in fictional worlds). Both seem to me connected to, in ways that remain unclear, to some standing questions of modernism and modernity, not least the problem of whether it is possible to articulate the nature of meaning within the limits or range of a particular medium.  The matter of other minds concerns (to put it crudely) the question of how we take human subjectivity to mean, for example, how we can reliably know others and, therefore, ourselves, when the standard shared understandings of the world are under accelerated erasure.  In a lot of television fiction which unfolds over time we are confronted with characters who are often, within the patterning of plot,  struggling with this problem, both with themselves and with one another.  This is further complicated by the matter of time, specifically the ways we are shown such – often painful –  efforts to understand self and other as part of an unfolding series of episodes, self-contained packages of drama which nonetheless articulate with a wider whole, or plan which in turn trades on the sedimented history it depicted and the possibilities of future episodes. This is more than a matter of duration and repetition (although the long form drama can handle such things with delicacy and skill): it allows us to witness and absorb the creation of the history of such efforts and the subsequent impact, if there is any, of the character’s own acknowledgement, denial or mistaken apprehension of that history.

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As I noted above, True Detective foregrounds this facility by recruiting some fairly standard aspects of the police procedural – the police interview that seeks to elicit information about past events – but then doubling the epistemological complexity by having cops interview other cops, about those events which in themselves also were primarily concerned with uncovering the nature and reasons behind an enigmatic case.  Because these interviews take place under the shadow of some considerable doubt – they are only happening at all because there is a question about the reliability of the solution to the original case – we are, like the investigators, alert to the question of the reliability of what we see and hear. This is further complicated by the tendency of both Cohle and Hart to veer off in their retelling of the case history to discourse on matters of philosophy, reflections on their lives and so on.

In terms of time, this framework allows the drama to drill into the heart of what knowledge and meaning can be if not historical, say if we cannot pass it on, or are unwilling (or unable) to value what the past might be able to tell us. If meaning has to be historical – that is say, if we (and our interlocutors) can only understand what we did and why we did something retrospectively – Hart and (with particular emphasis) then Cohle’s recounting in tone, timbre and address throws the value of such transmission, and hence meaning, into question.  The matter of time and history (which riddles the dialogue and visuals in many ways) and other minds is repeatedly foregrounded by his 2012 interviews, where he seems to insist on a (Nietzschean? Or internet-derived?) view of time as a flat circle.  ‘Why do I live in history? ‘, he says at one point: ‘I don’t want to know anything.’  Which is to say history is a condition of knowledge.

History and time interact with the other prominent theme, the matter of knowing ourselves and others. It is a central generic issue in the police procedural since finding out how and why criminal behavior takes place – the fictional staging of issues pertinent to the understanding and realization of justice is one of the primary ways the patterning of the cop genre encourages audience proximity.  In True Detective however, what seems to be at stake is the matter of agency versus determinism, whether we can decide to act in ways that are just, or evil, or whether we are hostage to forces beyond our control and perhaps even our apprehension.  A further blocking mechanism involves the performance, costume and casting. Neither Woody Harrelson or Matthew McConaughey in their past or present selves quite seem to ‘fit’ to what might be called our present-tense sense of their  appearance – this is more than a case of simply adopting the look of a character. For example, Harrelson appears to be wearing some kind of hairpiece in the 1995 scenes, whereas he is balding and the hint of a speech impediment is accented in his 2012 moments; McConaughey’s 2012 Cohle is radically different, outwardly a prematurely aging alcoholic in contrast to his lean warrior torso depicted in the previous decade. (And is it the case that ‘Marty’ and ‘Rust’ are precisely the kind of rugged names children might think of in their acting out Cops n’ Robbers?)As we come to discover, and later witness, Cohle has had extensive experience as an undercover cop, deep in the field of narcotics (which have left their own determining traces in the visual hallucinations see him experience). The notion of ‘undercover’ begins to creep way beyond generic expectations as we struggle to understand the show. In real life one would imagine the practice of maintaining an undercover identity requires a strict internal understanding of the boundaries between one’s loyalty and commitment to the job, and the pretense of the adopted persona needed to effectively infiltrate those groups under scrutiny. Equally, however, we know – or at least may imagine – that the selection of good undercover cops might well depend on both a corporeal and dispositional congruency between that individual and the assumed or real traits of those to be deceived. If that boundary is not stable, or its meaning in question as a condition of modernity anyway, then we might say that we are undercover to ourselves, in a constant process of trying to maintain rational boundaries between our agency and our dispositions or impulses.

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Two final thoughts.

What I am insisting on calling the modernist aspects of the show – the foregrounding of medium specificity (time and the scrutiny of subjectivity over time), and its concern with history – has a further inflection. When they are being interviewed in 2012 we are repeatedly reminded Cohle and Hart are being filmed by a compact digital camera. While they do not address the camera as such, they are sat at tables opposite the interrogating cops in a way which makes prominent their  ‘facingness’, so that several times we get the strong sense we are being addressed directly. Perhaps there are some echoes here with Manet’s 1863 painting Luncheon on the Grass (for many a work that heralds the ‘beginning’ of artistic modernism in painting) in the sense derived from Robert Pippin’s argument about it in his recent book After the Beautiful. As Pippin says of the painting’s challenge to the spectator: ‘Normal perceptual apprehension and representational understanding are not so much intensified, as we might expect in a great work of art, as rather in some way interrupted and challenged, for reasons that were clear to almost no-one at the time.’ (There is much more to Pippin’s argument that is pertinent here, but these notes are already at a high pitch of speculation, impressionism and abstraction.) In what we have seen so far, True Detective seems to recruit a similar, challenging, and bold address to the viewer.

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Secondly, the show is constantly reminding us of another feature common to discussions about the medium: the nature of attention. In our initial introduction to Cohle we hear that the nickname other cops gave him was ‘The Taxman’ because of the large black ledger he carries around in order to take notes at crime scenes. In 2012 he tells the cops that the accumulation of dense detail in one place allows opens the possibility of discovering the significant thing that will open and solve a case. (Although, Cohle/McConaughey gives that assertion a lining of parody in his delivery.) At home we see him standing in front of a wall with a small mirror cut at eye level which peers into; Hart, in his 2012 sessions admits that his failure in life was ‘inattention’. We are being tutored by the show to consider what that kind of focus might involve, what it would mean to study what we see and hear and at that pitch of attention. Emblematic of this is a very short scene where we witness Cohle on the couch with his girlfriend, his arm around her as she repeatedly clicks through television channels on her remote. He seems suddenly struck by the moment, as if this kind of ordinary casual swapping of attention (in front of, significantly perhaps, a television) communicates a deeper sense of being lost in the world.

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But that kind of close attention can be a trap, or a distraction (say in the matching of literary references to moments of dialogue). And extraordinary sensitivity to the world – famously Nietzschean – can paralyze its possessor because there is nothing in the field of ordinary perception that might not count as significant. Faced with such an ability, or curse, one might consider withdrawing to the comfort of a system that explains the world neatly, a world of  flat, repetitious time where are actions are determined, merely the result of inherited dispositions.  However, one thing True Detective must mean is that it is difficult to doubt agentive force and intentional choice as expressed in the skill of its very talented creators.

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