True Detective: Form and Void

“This is the place.”

It’s possible to see this episode as Christian (Catholic variety). It’s possible to see this episode as faithful but non-denominational. And it’s possible to see this episode as nothing more than Rust Cohle’s latest wacky philosophizing providing an unnecessary commentary on a tense situation. I’m choosing to see it as a meditation on the nature of mankind as articulated by a person who knows he is suffering from the “language virus” (as described in “The Locked Room”) of mystical Catholicism, but has no desire to find a cure.

This season opened with the dim outline of a one person carrying another—we now know that is Errol Childress carrying Dora Lange, and that Errol thought of his victims as witnesses to his ascension. The season ends with an echo: Marty carrying Rust off into the long bright darkness of existence. At first blush, the echo is an indication that time is, indeed, a flat circle, and all things are both repeated and simultaneous in the eyes of an inexistent god.

But time, it turns out, is not a flat circle. Progress is possible. Errol Childress murdered women and children; Marty and Rust saved each other. Errol was a force of darkness; Marty and Rust, like the stars who are winning the fight against the night sky, are a force of illumination. Those stars are an echo of the way each canticle of Dante’s Commedia ends: with the universal pilgrim meditating on the ultimate symbols of God’s universal power to decree that there will be light, and that the light will overpower the “black stars” that seem to haunt the adherents of Carcosa and the Yellow King.

(It is no coincidence that Errol Childress instructs Rust to “go right”—Dante turns left throughout the Inferno as he approaches Satan, but right as he emerges from Hell to head towards God.)

Rust has always leaned towards martyrdom. In “Seeing Things,” he said he contemplates the moment in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus went willingly to his own crucifixion. In the same episode, Rust claimed that he “lacks the constitution for suicide.” But last week, in the 2012 narrative, he described his life as a “circle of violence and degradation” that he was ready to “tie off.”

How far he has come since then: he was ready to step into the darkness beyond the darkness, the warm brightness of his daughter’s and father’s presence, but now he sees that it is possible to live secure in the knowledge that the comforting love (I prefer to think of it as the Latin caritas) is waiting for him someday. His words (“Darkness, yeah, yeah”), like the penultimate line of Revelation (“Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” 22:20), are a plea to the beyond for a graceful ending.

Pizzolatto has name-checked the animus and anima in various interviews, and given his apparent fondness for some elements of Jungian worldviews it is not surprising that Rust and Marty must undergo a Campbellian abyss in the disintegrated killing grounds of Errol Childress, who for a brief, tense few moments, appeared unkillable. The house, filled with rotting papers and totemic dolls, seems to be eroding into the kudzu vines and swamp grass. Or, as Pizzolatto puts it in describing another place in his novel Galveston: “overgrown as if the field were slowly digesting it” (54). The belly of the beast, indeed.

Elsewhere in Galveston, the narrator recollects that he “thought about the dense congestion of vines and forest when I was a kid, how the green leafy things had seemed so full of shadows, and how it had felt like half the world was hidden in those shadows” (28). The shadow world—Carcosa—was a…defunct plantation? An aquaduct? The ancient Aztec temple under the bar at the end of From Dusk Till Dawn? It doesn’t matter what it used to be, I guess: now, it’s the heart of bayou darkness that Rust must stare down in order to find his place in the world. It’s the large-scale version of the tiny mirror he used to hang in his Spartan apartment: the eye of the world, rather than just his own eye.

That place was also the site of an incredibly tense chase scene, beautifully scored, that left me sitting very, very still on the couch in case I moved and caused everybody to die. After Michael Hughes told the world about the Chambers/Yellow King/Carcosa connections back in February, the internet lit up with fan theories about the supernatural. The Carcosa we got, though, was unbearably dark because it was human: Errol Childress did this, various Tuttles covered it up, and generations of men have perpetuated this devilish sacrificial absurdity.

The process of detection that got Marty and Rust to the Childress homestead might feel hackneyed to some. Having rewatched the first few episodes of the series over the past couple of days, the moment when Rust snapped a picture of the green house was fresh in my mind. Knowledge that other paths (they had met Errol before, after all) would have eventually led them to the same place makes me utterly okay with the green-house ex machina that is the mystery of Marty’s brain.

The detection did more than bring Rust to the realization that time is more than a flat circle, or Marty to the realization that he is okay, he will be okay, he is okay, sob. It brought the two men together, perhaps most hilariously symbolized by Rust’s once-again antinatalistic wanderings about our existence as “sentient meat.” “What’s ‘scented meat’?” asks Marty—for the first time in the series actually engaging and possibly entertaining his partner’s ideas.

One of the themes of this series has been the possibility or impossibility of people changing. Marty and Maggie discussed whether or not change was truly possible in “The Locked Room,” and Rust has always seen his existence as unchanging (although his understanding had grown, as he saw it, more nuanced over the years). Friendship and a shared quest allowed Marty and Rust to change without realizing it, and to become fuller, more nuanced people as they did so.

Change is also a theme in one of the texts most frequently alluded to in the fan theories: Robert Chambers' The King in Yellow, which involves the story of people watching or reading a play that makes them go crazy. Pizzolatto didn't force us to stare into a Lovecraftian void, though: the madness-inducing play in True Detective is the all-too-real videotape of the men raping a little girl. True horror is reality; looking into that horror can change a man (Marty is spurred to action) or force him to burrow deeper into his own idiocy (like Steve Geraci, who seemed more upset about his Maserati getting shot up than he was about the video).

Errol Childress thought he was changing. He thought he was ascending to some sort of demonic incarnation of the Yellow King God, with Rust as his “little priest” and Reggie LeDoux a previous “acolyte.” But really Errol was the victim of stagnation, incest, and a lack of education. The opening scene of Errol and his “at least a half-sister” was perhaps the most discomfiting for the way it portrayed the intersection of abuse and lust, debasement and masquerade (the voices he did! Shudder!). The Errol Childress ecosystem represents the slow accretion of a world that Pizzolatto recently described as a place where “the apocalypse already happened”:

I think True Detective is portraying a world where the weak (physically or economically) are lost, ground under by perfidious wheels that lie somewhere behind the visible, wheels powered by greed, perversity, and irrational belief systems, and these lost souls dwell on an exhausted frontier, a fractured coastline beleaguered by industrial pollution and detritus, slowly sinking into the Gulf of Mexico. There’s a sense here that the apocalypse already happened.

Does that mean this show shared Rust Cohle’s early nihilism? Can we write off southern Louisiana as nothing more than a lost place or “sacrificial landscape,” as Alexis C. Madrigal describes it in a fabulous article for the Atlantic?

No. Gilbough and Papania got the pedophiles in Sulphur (a real place; I’ve driven through it). Errol is dead. His freakish “at least a half-sister” has been detained. Rust and Marty didn’t get everyone (the Tuttles, in true Louisiana fashion, remain in power), but they did get “their guy.” Small things matter, whether those small things are the individual acts of men like Rust and Marty, the tiny lights twinkling in the night, or the signal flare of justice streaming across the sky, and one man taking that as an answer to the questions he didn’t know he was asking.

Does that mean this is a show about finding God's grace? Not necessarily. It's about finding inner grace, about realizing there are still questions to ask, and allowing oneself to look forward to surprising answers, or no answers (the fan-theories about Audrey's abuse, for instance, have gone without an explicit answer--but did we really need one?). Dante, via Virgil, says that "without hope, we live in desire." Pizzolatto wrote a deeply Catholic story about two men defeating a false-god spaghetti monster and finding hope in the brightness their actions represent. Regardless of which "language virus" we use to describe that brightness, there's a hopefulness in even this darkest portrayal of humanity.

Fun Links

• Leah Schnelbach at has a lovely, thoughtful essay that covers many elements of the show to argue that it is ultimately a show about nothing, like Seinfeld with antlers. Although I’m not sure I subscribe to that idea, I especially liked her ideas about the progression of the loner detective: “Where it was once Columbo or Miss Marple, we now have two different misanthropic Sherlocks, David Tennant’s acidic Alec Hardy, and hell, even Tom Mison’s haunted Ichabod Crane. With this background, Rust Cohle’s nihilism feels less like revolution than natural progression.”

• Vulture takes us deep into the bayou with a history of the very real tradition of Courir de Mardi Gras in Cajun country, complete with pictures.

• Best of all, thanks to ChrisB, is this video:

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


ChrisB said...

“If you ask me, the light’s winning.”

Light vs. dark. Good vs. evil. Life vs. death. This show was not afraid to tackle the big questions and it did so very, very well.

The first time we see Cohle lying in his bed, badly hurt, I had to pause my DVR. With his white hospital gown, the stab wound in his side, and his long hair framing his face, I was overwhelmed by the Christ imagery. With this image in my mind, the final scene took on a significance I would never have imagined.

Cohle has “died;” he gave up and tried to sink into the darkness with his Father and his daughter, arguably his Holy Ghost. But, he didn’t stay dead/in his coma. (Damn, I wish I knew if that coma lasted three days.) Instead, he came back to life and he will continue to live knowing that whatever lies beyond is not to be feared. I would never have guessed that this dark show would end on such an optimistic note.

Thank you, Josie, for your fabulous reviews. I loved reading them and I would find myself thinking about them often.

Josie Kafka said...

Thank you, Chris!

It's interesting to think about the timeline of this show. Not the actual chronology of 1995-2012. But the few instances in which time is mentioned.

Last week, for instance, we got mention of Mardi Gras, which takes place right before Lent starts. This week, we got mention of it being about a month since the last episode--that is, right around Easter.

And Dora Lange was killed/discovered right around the feast of the Epiphany. (In ep. 3, Cohle asks the preacher to account for someone's whereabouts on Dec. 25 to Jan. 3.)

I'm sure there are other places where time is mentioned, but the story-timeline seems to follow the basic Birth--Death--Resurrection cycle of Winter into Spring.

Jess Lynde said...

Thanks, as always, for sharing your thoughts on this show, Josie. Clearly it spoke to you on a deep philosophical level. I enjoyed reading your reaction to the endgame.

It's going to take me awhile to fully process my reaction to the finale and the series. In general, I think the last several episodes lost a lot of what appealed to me about the earlier episodes (the multiple time periods and the unreliable narrator framework), and focused far too much on resolving the murder case. The murder of Dora Lange and the missing children was never what was interesting to me about this show, so the finale's extensive focus on the creepy spaghetti monster and Hart and Cohle wandering through Carcosa to put him down, left me wanting for the bulk of the hour.

The aftermath in the hospital for Cohle and Hart was more engaging, but even that left me feeling vaguely unsatisfied. Perhaps because it went against my somewhat subsoncious expectations that they would be destroyed by the case, rather than "reborn" with renewed perspective and purpose. After all the nihilism, I guess I wasn't prepared for an optimistic conclusion. Or perhaps I was thrown by things becoming so overtly Catholic, as you say. (Chris, I was also quite struck by how Christ-like Cohle looked in that hospital bed.)

Or perhaps because, as I was watching, I wasn't entirely sure that anything happening after the Carcosa mess was real, so I was holding it at a distance, instead of investing in what Cohle and Hart were experiencing. Their wounds were so grievous, that I didn't see how they could have survived. So I kept thinking we were witnessing some sort of "afterlife" reckoning. Particularly the scenes with Hart. It played like wish fulfillment, in a way. The detectives congratulating him on a job well done, and his family flocking to his side. (Especially with Audrey being played by the same actress. We last saw her at age 16 or 17 in 2002, right? Why would she look the same 10 years later?)

So, I'm still processing. Thanks for giving me more to ponder as I do. :)

Freeman said...

Color me surprised that there was such an "uplifting" ending. I found it incredibly refreshing actually. The hunt through Carcosa was an incredibly haunting sequence and I felt my body freeze up during Cohle's hallucination. I'm glad the show stuck to its guns and addressed the reality of horror rather than the idea. I think I would've been turned off if this show got all trippy and stuff. I already have Twin Peaks for that. And that's not a knock on Twin Peaks, I love that show.

Thanks for your in-depth review of this series Josie. I hope you stick around for the second season.

Luce said...

Thank you, Josie, not only for a great review with which we can close the chapter on S1 of TD, but also for all the insightful reviews for the previous 7 episodes.

I have to admit that I was not ready for the hopeful/uplifting finale we got...and I couldn't be happier about that.

Although it is true that the show lost some of its quirkiness as the different timelines narrowed down to 2012, I felt that ep. 8 tipped its hat to a lot of things that we had seen in previous episodes: from Hart and Rust's car conversations to Rust's pain about losing his daughter.

The Yellow King as well as Carcosa were tremendously creepy. I certainly kept grimacing whenever either was onscreen. The Carcosa labyrinth, especially. My heart was pumping like whoa as Rust and Marty made their way through the thoroughly disturbing maze.

I also liked seeing Rust's disappointment and frustration at "losing his reward" after completing the heroes' quest alongside Marty (i.e. killing the monster, the Yellow King). His breakdown made me teary-eyed because, in some ways, it felt like he was close to healing some of the broken parts within himself after he "let go".

And yet, for all of Rust's vulnerability (underscored by Matthew's superb acting), it was Marty who I feel the episode belong to. He was the one who got them back on track about the Yellow King's identity. Seeing him with his family had me crying alongside him.

S1 was, for me, A+ all the way. I'm going to wait a bit before rewatching the entire series from the beginning (not only because I love this show but because I want to see how well everything fits from beginning to end).

Josie Kafka said...

Thank you, Freeman and Luce! It was a pleasant surprise to discover a new wonderful series.

Freeman, at this point I do plan to review Season Two whenever it comes out. Pizzolatto has mentioned in interviews that he's working on writing it now, and HBO hasn't officially renewed the series yet--although of course they will, since the finale crashed HBOGo. I assume they're waiting to cast it and get a director on board, so I wonder if they'll be ready to air a new season by January of 2015, or if they'll push it back to summer, or something.

Juliette said...

Wow Josie I'm in awe of this review! (I'm in awe of anyone able to quote the Bible scripture and verse, which despite Sunday school, years of church and a specialism in ancient Roman religion, I cannot do).

I was amazed that both characters were still alive at the end of this - I thought Ruse was dead for sure. I loved it though (Catholic thing, no doubt!). that last scene was my clear favourite in the series.

Annie said...

Oh my! I've just watched this series over the last few days and just loved it!
Reading your excellent reviews after each episode always gave me some new angles to think about too, thank you Josie.
Like many, I was expecting a less upbeat end to the series and was very pleasantly surprised.
I love the exchanges between Marty and Rust throughout, but the closing scene outside the hospital was probably my favorite.
I will absolutely be re-watching this, and probably quite soon.