© Nagy Norbert
“It’s just one story. The oldest. Light versus dark”.
These words, uttered by True Detective‘s Rust Cohle in the season finale, feel like they should be the opening of the series. But then again, as Cohle says several times, “time is a flat circle” – who’s to say the opening comes before the ending?
When I first saw this series, at the time of its original airing, I wanted to write about it as soon as it ended. Yet I didn’t, because I wasn’t sure what I was going to say. I was a little let down by the finale, as I morbidly expected to see some human-sacrificing rituals, and got instead a simple run-and-catch routine (I suppose this would be a good moment to say that I will discuss several important plot points – you shouldn’t read this if you haven seen the entire first season). I was going to compare True Detective to Lost, and say that some stories are based on the principle of mystery – that not knowing can be better than knowing, as it stimulates the mind, and that some answers should be kept from the viewer, because in the real world, nothing is ever solved in its entirety. But the text in my head somehow didn’t feel right, so I kept silent.
In the real world, nothing is solved in its entirety.
Most people who were let down by True Detective expected some grand, all-encompassing answer that would not only explain all the murders but would also explain each character’s journey (Cohle’s cynicism, Marty’s terrible parenting), and thus, many pointed fingers at the detectives themselves, or the people close to them, in search for a culprit. How else could one explain all the “Yellow King”, “Carcosa”, “black stars” hocus pocus – not to mention small sings like Marty’s daughter’s obsession with sex (and not the loving, romantic kind)? The only possible answer was a conspiracy theory that included the whole state of Louisiana and had ruled the entire story from the start. Except those viewers, me included, never got that kind of answer. And neither should we – we were suffering from what Marty calls at one point the “detective’s curse”. We were looking at the wrong clues, paying attention to the wrong things (or in the wrong way), while the solution was right under our noses. So, while re-watching the series, now all the wiser because I already knew what would happen, I think I was able to solve the mystery. Maybe I’m horribly wrong, and if so, I do hope I get to meet series’ creator Nic Pizzolato so he explains it all to me. But here it goes.
Watching True Detective for the second time, I began feeling that there is a narrator to this series, and by that I don’t mean detectives Rustin Cohle (“Rust”, played by Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (“Marty”, played Woody Harrelson), who quite literally narrate most of this series to the camera as they are being interviewed by another couple of detectives. A lot of movies and series use this device: they begin with a character narrating something and then actually show you what is being narrated (I wouldn’t call this a flashback, because it doesn’t interrupt the narrative but actually is the narrative – yet it does help to think of it as some sort of flashback, because the detectives’ voices do eventually stop so that the memory can take over). The thing is, when doing this, said movies/series are faithful to what the narrator is saying, so even if they’re lying, the memory that is shown to the audience is the lie, not the truth. A good example of this is the movie Atonement, based on the Ian McEwan novel of the same name. We’re shown a large portion of story that is, in fact, a lie made up by the narrator, who later on confesses the lie and shows us the truth.
There’s a hidden narrator in True Detective, and he’s saying “pay attention!”
The same can’t be said abut True Detective. There is an active narrator intent on showing us the truth and pointing us in the right direction in spite of the character’s lies (at some points, what is being said by the characters and what is being shown on screen are contradicting facts) and oversights (the camera often points at objects or characters while the actual narrator doesn’t seem to be paying that much attention to said details). It’s like someone is saying “pay attention” or “don’t listen to them” (“them” being Rust and Marty). And I found that it’s by listening to this invisible narrator that you can learn the truth, and actually “solve the case”.
Once, perusing through the Wikipedia article on Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell (which I critiqued in this post), I came across the following sentence: “From Hell was partly inspired by the title of Douglas Adams’ novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, in that it explores the notion that to solve a crime holistically, one would need to solve the entire society in which it occurred“. That intrigued me, as it rang true: “solving” a case should be about more than just catching who committed the crime and putting them away, it should be about preventing that crime from ever being committed again. But how can we do that if the society that created the criminal doesn’t change as well? I believe that is the exact conundrum that True Detective presents us with, and the answer to all the seemingly confusing clues: they’re not clues to a ritualistic, murderous cult – they’re clues to a society that is going insane (and evil) and the men that are oblivious to it and do nothing to stop it.
David Fincher’s Seven is the first movie I can remember that explored these two notions: that the crimes committed by the killer are actually evidences of a corrupt society (which he was only pointing out – though in a very gruesome way) and that the detective chasing the criminal was more focused in solving the crimes outside rather than the ones inside (in this case, it was in the figure of Brad Pitt’s character, David Mills, who focused on catching the killer instead of solving his relationship with his wife and, most importantly, his anger issues, which eventually led to his downfall). That is why both this movie and True Detective are better understood after a second viewing: freed from the curiosity that makes you want to know “who did it”, you can see them for what they truly are. Which is, on the words of David Fincher, “meditations of evil”. They do not deal with specific crimes but rather with a larger crime, one committed by, and against, our society: moral corruption.
While on a tense weekend with his wife’s parents, Marty is told by his father-in-law: “So you’re telling me the world isn’t getting worse? I’ve seen kids today – all in black, wearing make up, shit on their faces. Everything’s sex”. To which Marty replies, without patience, “You know, throughout history, I bet every old man probably said the same thing. And the old man died, and the world keeps spinning”. While I myself on several occasions have voiced a similar opinion (which is that older generations always believe the world is going to shit), this statement on Marty’s part shows his attitude towards society: it’s not my problem. Marty thinks he can do his part by catching criminals, but how did these criminals come to be? He should be more worried when he discovers his girls are playing rape scenes with dolls or drawing naked couples having crude sex, but he just shrugs it off – only to find, seven years later, that his teenage daughter was having a threesome in a truck. “Everything is sex”. Marty’s chasing a pedophile and rapist, but can’t keep his underage daughter safe from the two boys whom she lets rape her (sex with a minor is considered both rape and pedophilia by law).
Marty is the archetypal family man, of which I’ve met so many in my life: they believe to be (and are believed to be) good men, yet they are weak. Marty means well, but he nonetheless cheats on his wife, ignores and sometimes abuses his children, and even (out of something that dangerously resembles laziness) lets a killer slip and refuses to accept that he may have let him get away (calling his partner “obsessive” instead of supporting him). And what’s funny is that, in spite of Cohle being the clearly superior detective, society as a whole embraces Marty and rejects Cohle, because Marty has the most relatable, “normal” behavior (and I mean the series’ society, not the real world one which in fact loved Cohle and will probably give McConaughey an Emmy to match the Oscar he just won).
Cohle is able to see the corruption, the mess that is our world, because he’s slowly detaching himself from reality. He has begun to see what Alan Moore described as the “fourth dimension” in From Hell: a perspective in which the passing of time and changing of space is irrelevant, simultaneous instead of linear – a “flat circle” in which everything that was, is and will be coexists and repeats itself to no end. His “enlightenment” about the state of decay of our society doesn’t lead him to fight it, because from his point of view, change is impossible – it’s a human illusion. So in the end, Cohle does the same thing as Marty: his job (as he has a very strong sense of justice), but nothing else. Thus, by the end of the series, both men have nothing but their jobs, having successfully alienated everyone around them.
Marty and Cohle have different attitudes towards evil. Marty is enraged by it, to the point of being irrational, but can’t see how he’s manipulated by it (to drive this point home, during a sex scene in which Marty is cheating on his wife, the camera focuses on two porcelain figures of children, first one dressed as an angel, then one dressed as a devil). When evil is apparent, he pursues and puts it down, but for the most part he likes to think everything is ok (“the world keeps spinning”). He even quits his job after seeing a baby dead inside a microwave, for he doesn’t want to face such things, “never again”. And that shallow attitude makes him not able to see his own mistakes, or rather, see them when he’s already old, and he has let time “slip through [his] fingers”. Cohle, on the other hand, has a very rational attitude (he watches a video of child rape that Marty can’t stomach, saying “I won’t avert my eyes”). He can see evil in himself and others, and he can even fight it, but for the most part he wants out. He admits that the only wants to solve the case to then commit suicide because he sees no point in continuing to be part of this world. Perhaps because he has suffered so much (mostly by losing his daughter in a car accident), he has lost the ability to feel and give love – he has fallen into a cycle of, as he calls it, “violence and degradation” – and is completely aware of the fact that, in fighting evil, he’s also being evil, and therefore he has to die to end the cycle.
By focusing on their jobs, neither Marty nor Cohle are able to “solve the case” entirely
Both, however, are redeemed in the end. Marty, now all the wiser to the damage his philandering and negligence caused to his family and his job, reconciles with his wife and kids. Cohle, in a near death experience, says he “feels” the love of his daughter and father on the other side, and while he’s devastated that he couldn’t join them, we can infer that he now sees value in life again. Talking about the stars and comparing the night sky to the historic “light versus dark” battle, Marty points out that there’s a lot more darkness (perhaps for the first time accepting that, no, everything is not ok, and something has to be done). Cohle replies, “you’re looking at it wrong. Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light’s winning”.
So, the final answer, the big denoument of the story? It wasn’t the Yellow King, Carcosa or even Errol Childress, the “spaghetti mosnter”. I believe the true answer can be summarized by a phrase uttered by Morgan Freeman’s character at the end of Seven: “Ernest Hemingway once wrote ‘The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for’…I agree with the second part”.