***WARNING: this post will contain spoilers for this season of True Detective. Turn back now, ye who have not seen it.***
There. With the formalities out of the way, we can settle in and chat 🙂
I don’t believe I have ever witnessed such a frenzied, overwhelming reaction to a television show in such a short amount of time. True Detective was only eight episodes long. I knew, for myself, that I was going to be completely obsessed with it by the second episode; I warned Geoff about it and that I was going to have to buy it on DVD the very moment it came out. You all probably know by now how I tend to obsess over things.
For anyone unfamiliar with True Detective, it is an eight-episode series which recently ran on HBO. It tells the story of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, two detectives who are partnered together to solve a serial killer murder mystery. The show jumps around from 1995, when they believe they solved the crime, and 2012, when it rapidly becomes obvious that something is amiss; the killer was not apprehended after all.
What impressed me so much was how strongly the entire internet reacted to the show. Within those same short, first few weeks the internet exploded with True Detective interest, and by the finale, the fervor was so high that fans streaming the episode through HBO GO crashed the network’s servers. This is the kind of rabid loyalty that usually takes years to build up, like with Breaking Bad, for example. Both shows completely deserved the devotion given to them, but it intrigues me that True Detective was able to accomplish this in a mere eight weeks. What is so different about this show?
Like the very best art, it’s extremely difficult to parse out exactly what makes it so special. True Detective was pure magic, and I don’t believe it’s something that can be distilled down to a formula and repeated endlessly. But I’m still going to take a stab at defining what I think people, including myself, are responding to so strongly.
1. Relateable, real, unique characters. Marty Hart and Rust Cohle, played by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey respectively, are fascinating. They are fully realized, flawed, broken men but they still try to do good and make a difference in the world. Whether you’re more of a Hart or a Cohle (guess which one I am – HAH), you’ll find someone to identify with.
These men both deserve Emmys and any and all awards given out to television performances for their acting. To be honest, I’d never really gotten Matthew McConnaughey before. True Detective completely changed my opinion of him; I was absolutely blown away. Woody Harrelson is, of course, spectacular as well, but I went in expecting to enjoy his work. McConnaughey’s jaw-dropping performance in scene after scene was a revelation to me.
2. A script which treats its audience with respect. You will not be talked down to here. There is no spoon-feeding of the audience. You are expected to pay attention and remember clues dropped in one episode and discovered in another. Nothing has been dumbed-down and it’s incredibly refreshing. I want my shows to challenge me, to engage me, to literally take me on a journey. True Detective does all that and more.
3. Myth and metaphor. If you’ve seen any of the series, you’ve probably already read about how much of it was inspired by Robert W. Chambers’ 1895 classic work The King In Yellow. The King In Yellow is a collection of short stories about a fictional play within the stories by the same name. The first act of the made-up play is safe but it lures you into reading the second act. Anyone who reads even a few words of the second act is shown such horrific truths about the universe that they’re driven insane. Carcosa, The Yellow King, masks (both literal and metaphoric, masking who you truly are), black stars, the sign of the Yellow King, truth about the world bringing on madness, it all stems from The King In Yellow. This is the kind of thing that really excites me. And yes, I did read the entire King In Yellow between episodes just enhance my viewing pleasure. This is the kind of loyalty the show inspires. While it is certainly possible to watch the show and enjoy it without having delved into hundred-year-old, obscure literature, you want to for True Detective.
I have always been a proponent of the power of myth and metaphor. Its something that I try to use as often as possible in my own work. They are an incredibly strong force, which is rarely drawn on in television; certainly not to this degree.
Take the detectives’ names. Marty (Martin) Hart and Rust (Rustin) Cohle. Marty; the warm, personable, passionate, fiery, family-man-with-something-on-the-side. Martin is derived from Mars, Roman god of war and means “warring.” “Warring,” whether against the killer he hunts or the banalities of daily life, and “heart” are two perfect words to sum Marty up. “Rust” and “coal” are perfect expressions of Rustin Cohle; bleak, nihilistic and emotionless. Rust only occurs on metal, an element which is the perfect metaphor for Rust, cold and strong, but wounded, and we watch him disintegrate a little bit at a time. Coal… I can think of nothing better to describe Rust’s heart after his young daughter’s death, which sent him down this path of meaninglessness and hopelessness. But like real coal, there is the potential to change into something utterly different and glitteringly beautiful.
The more you pay attention to the show, the more subtleties you pick up on. Pay attention to how the color yellow is used, for example. Scenes that have the most to do with the killer are the most yellow. When Rust makes Marty view the VHS tape of Marie Fontenot’s murder, not only is the whole screen is saturated in yellow, it’s a clear metaphor for Marty having read the “second act.” And after you’ve read the second act, there is no going back. Things can never be the same.
Myth and metaphor are so cleverly and generously used, I could go on for pages about it, but you get the idea. I think you’ll have more fun if you watch the show and try to pick out the references yourself 🙂
4. A beautifully shot piece of art. Not to mention interestingly shot. Incredibly complicated, gun-fighting, fist-fighting, dozens-of-extras, police-cars-and-helicopters, lifting-the-camera-man-over-a-fence-with-a-crane, six-minute-without-a-cut scene, anyone?
I also love how the show uses classic noir and literature traits, like showing peoples’ reactions to horror instead of the horror itself. It’s an underused and extremely effective method of story-telling, not to mention underscores the mysterious tone of the entire show.
5. Healing and redemption – and the twist-within-a-twist ending. You expect, this being a show about two detectives solving a crime, even though by now you know you’ll see something more than that, that the show will end on a climax of Marty and Rust catching the killer. And they do catch their killer… who ends up being at once creepier and more ordinary than you had expected the grand Yellow King to be, which feels like a very authentic picture of actual murderers. Twist one. Marty and Rust catch their Yellow King about halfway through the last episode, giving them almost another 30 minutes to fill. Why would they need the extra time, you wonder. To finish the story. To really finish the real story.
What’s the real story? As Rust says, it’s the oldest story, of light verses darkness. Not just in the grander sense of of Marty and Rust catching their man, but of them facing the darknesses within their own lives. For Marty, this means seeing the family he destroyed years ago with his multiple affairs. And while things are far from all forgiven and forgotten, the show makes it clear that the fact that his ex-wife and daughters are even in the same room with him is a huge hurdle to have crossed. Marty is not ok. His family is not ok. But now, finally, things can begin to heal and just maybe, they will be ok some day.
And then there’s Rust. Rust, who began to withdraw from the world years and years ago when his young daughter was suddenly killed. Rust, who wants to hurry up and catch their man because his entire life has been “a circle of violence and degradation as long as I can remember” and he wants to end it as soon as his work is done. You can’t blame him for feeling that way. I think he expected he would die in the final confrontation with the killer, which very nearly did happen, but he finds himself alive still at the other end, after awakening from the coma his wounds put him in. What’s left for our nihilistic, philosophical, misanthropic hero?
A lot, it turns out. Our emotionless, cerebral, steely man, who I can remember smiling only once during the whole series, breaks down sobbing. In his coma, he had a vision of the afterlife where he encountered his father’s and daughter’s spirits, and moreover, he encountered their love. Love which continued beyond death. Which wiped away any disappointments his father may have had for him in life, any guilt he may have felt over his daughter’s death. He was wrapped in pure love, something he had never experienced before.
It profoundly effected him. When Marty, looking up at the night sky observes that the dark seems to have a lot more territory, Rust responds with “Yeah, you’re right about that… But you’re looking at it wrong… Once, there was only dark. If you ask me, the light’s winning.”
Twist two. The entire show wasn’t about them catching the Yellow King. The entire thing led up to this moment, when Marty and Rust are reconciled, the healing has begun, and Rust has his first moment of optimism. Healing and redemption. Light verses dark. That’s what we’d been watching this whole time.
So how does my self portrait tie in? In a lot of ways actually. Most obviously, it’s a reference to the starry night Marty and Rust philosophize under, the hope and beauty they were able to find. The yellow is obvious as well, and since purple is yellow’s complimentary color, that seemed like a good direction to go in. What’s hard to see in the shrunken, internet-appropriate version of the image is how the yellow fabric is sliding off my face; the mask is coming off. And most importantly, I wanted to portray the optimism Rust found there at the very end. Maybe life isn’t all shit and misery. Maybe it’s full of beauty and wonder too. I’ll do my part to try and make that second part more and more true.