Southern Gothic chicken fried Schopenhauer — True Detective is proof that US television as an art form has come together because reality America is falling apart.
“Someone once said to me ‘time is a flat circle’.” Leaning back in the plastic chair in the untidy interview room, the interrogatee, scrawny, mustachioed, wild-haired, is waxing philosophical to two bemused cops questioning him. “So Death invented time to grow the things it wanted to kill.” “You boys ever heard of the M-brane universe?”
What else could this be but True Detective, the latest greatest-ever television series from HBO, eight one-hour episodes ostensibly centred around a single crime, focused on a detective duo, Marty and Rust (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, pictured), one a family man, ostensibly uncomplicated, the other single, driven, dark. Based in the hinterland of Louisiana, a mid-range American no-space, swampy land, boxy towns, car parks, low-slung houses, trailers, broken-down gas stations, TD starts with the discovery of a murdered girl’s body, ritually arranged, antlers attached to her body, in some form of ritual killing.
Twenty years ago, it’s the sort of murder no one would put in a TV show; now thanks to 14 seasons of Law and Order: SVU, it’s a commonplace, almost a little below par. What, only a ritual satanic murder in the Bayou? Will this really sustain eight hours? But TD quickly moves into a more complex mode, split across past and present — and then more than that. The story itself is coming out of the recent past, recounted by both Marty and Rust separately, in long police interviews. Maybe a decade, maybe 15 years separates the two times.
Marty wears a better suit, has grown chunky, having clearly ridden up the chain of command; Rust is the wildman, with the frontier hair and the powerful thirst. Something, in the interim, happened, and not just to him. What, we don’t know. We don’t know why they are being questioned, whether it relates to the case that unfolds through their recounting, or something that happened between those two events, how past/present/future connect. Soon we have more dimensions to deal with. Rust, it transpires, has joined the Louisiana PD after years undercover in Texas, an extended “mission” as a drifting minor drug dealer, elements of which come roaring back into the “present” of the core story. Yet at episode five, after the pair triumphantly bust a neo-Nazi meth outfit with a sideline in child rape, the story lurches forwards, six years, to the early 2000s.
The partnership, having had years of co-existence, has started to collapse inwardly. Marty is content to work cases as they come, and maintain a fragile relationship with the wife he had humiliated by serial infidelity six years earlier; Rust has continued to pursue a line of inquiry that takes in lost children, fundamentalist preachers, swamp people, the police department and much else. But it all comes apart when Marty’s wife fucks Rust, out for revenge after Marty’s lapse into infidelity — with a woman he had tried to rescue when she was a child prostitute. They half kill each other, Rust departs, is gone for a decade, and the questioning occurs after he has returned. The story closes up, and the present becomes an excavation of the past.
To thus summarise, and oversimplify, and omit crucial facts for the sake of those yet to see it, is, it all but goes without saying, to entirely miss the incantatory feel of the series. True Detective grows out of the Louisiana swamp like sweetgrass, a place that is in the South, but not of it, an outpost of France’s Caribbean empire, full of pirates and vodou, old, old families, and long, long decline. New Orleans, the Big Easy, margaritas and cast-iron balconies, never makes an appearance. But nor do we see ever see a Starbucks or a McDonalds. Corporate America, the wholly-branded environment, never makes an appearance.
In part that is simple verisimilitude — the rural South is so poor that whole stretches of it are devoid of the big brands that we have come to think of as the ubiquitous texture of American life (helped by product placement funding of TV and films, which appears to be absent here). But it is also a way of creating an America that is not so much mythical — this is no story of a lost “real” place — but interstitial. TD America hangs somewhere between the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, 2000s and now. The bars are deliciously scummy, the houses are cookie-cutter exurbia, the popular culture is the sort of stuff — Juice Newton’s hit Angel of the Morning — that hangs around for ever on FM radio, that all but seems to have no beginning at all.
That it is a wrecked America goes without saying. America has been wrecked for so long that the portrayal of a hopelessly fallen world, a place of fragments, is now simply the default setting. The Wire (and The Shield) spent a hundred or so hours describing an America which was a rotting shell of a once vibrant body politic — their worlds only made sense as dysfunctional successors of a once whole-world, places where cities were not ruins, and work and neighbourhood were the centre of life, crime the margins of it. SVU became a vast catalogue of big-city life as a charnel house of paedophilia, incest and rape, domesticating those crimes in the same way as crime fiction of the ’20s domesticated conscienceless murder as something routine rather than a shocking measure of degeneration in a world after the death of God. Each of these series found a way to mark that decline in its storytelling — such as the moving closing scenes of the fifth season of The Wire, a long, wordless montage of a dying city waking up, its depleted docks starting work, its once-great newspaper shredded, Breaking Bad in which the decline is the story.
In True Detective, this wreckage is simply assumed. We never — until right at the end — see any of old Louisiana (of which there is plenty); no French Quarters, seaside towns, restored wooden mansions. The place is simply what it has been for decades: one of the poorest worst states of the US; bad housing, cracking freeways and poisoned waterways. This is how it has always been, how it will always be, the flat circle of southern decline. True Detective joins its particular field of decline — the slow winnowing of the US, through four decades following the end of the post-war boom — with the longer decline, that of a defeated slave-civilisation, dying these hundred and more years.
TD, though by its name it appeals to the pulp tradition, is in the mainline of southern gothic, something of an understatement. With Rust, its death-driven wall-eyed obsessive sprouting Nietzsche, its erotomaniac women, its swamp people, its black mamas wit’ de vodou secrets — if it were any more Faulkener, it would have its own station on the Upfield Line. Its creator and sole author, Nick Pizzolatto, has a prize-winning volume of short stories to his name — impressive but arty, somewhere in the post-MFA hinterland between McCullers and McCarthy — and a neo-pulp novel Galveston, a mark of transition from high to genre fiction, i.e. from one genre to another. That makes him the first real high culture writer to create a full TV series, and it shows.
David Simon of Homicide and The Wire, Paul Attanasio of House, Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad –– they are all first-class writers and producers, but they’re coming from pop-culture or journalistic traditions. True Detective is a repositry of high culture technique, especially in the rendering of Rust, a character who will not settle into a space on the standard grid of mass culture character differentiation. He’s a man who has done a lot of thinking, too much, of a type that sets him apart from the people he sees around him (“you people — you let your young be eaten as long as you got something to salute,” he says, as he leaves the force, in 2002), but none of which has brought him a wisdom that might bring a sort of peace. His meditations fuse police procedural with a serial monologue of batty speculation about the circular nature of time, the irreducible solipsism of existence (the “locked room”, police slang for an interview, becomes a metaphor for the impossibility of escaping your own consciousness to a “real”) and how this relates to new theories of the cyclic universe, of endless Big Bangs creating and collapsing the same world over and over. Rust’s musings come with an explicit death wish — his marriage gone after their infant daughter died — and he regards a potential bullet in the head from infiltrating a bikie gang as a “zero risk” option. His musings in death, suffering and life are hardly unique to mass cultural style — SVU is a psychodynamics casebook, weekly — but what makes them distinctive is their particular mix, cosmic speculations drawing in the mind-boggling world of physics with older early 20th century vitalist speculations about life and death forces, eternity and time.
This sort of thinking works without falling self-parody, because it is not unmoored from the genre it seeks to evoke. A glance back at a lot of the True Detective-style pulp of the mid 20th century, when such musings on the nature of life, death and eternity were bubbling into the culture. This is particularly so with the ideas of Nietzsche — the centrality of Will and a life force, and living according to it — which took America by storm in the first decades of the century. As Jennifer Ratner-Rosengarten noted in American Nietzsche, everyone imbibed this idea of a force in existence independent of morality, “from anarchists to baptist ministers”, because it gave an oomph to an American individualism become jaded in the cogs and wheels of a mass society. In True Detective, Rust ain’t the only one harking back to Germanic ideas of a terrifying universe that we must try to tame — the neo-Nazi speedfreak apprehended, and then murdered, talks of a “circular universe” moments before Marty murders him, enraged at his lethal rape of children. “That Nietzsche shit,” Rust mutters. Later, he will play it back to the detectives interviewing him in the “present”, and uncoil his whole cosmology, the notion that Being is Death — static and unchanging at its root, originator of Time, for it could not be Death without Life.
This is the sort of stuff — out of Schopenhauer, and before him, the ancient Hindu Upanishad texts — that makes Nietzsche sound like a bubbly life coach. Rust scorns self-serving versions of it — that Nietzsche shit — because its notion of making meaning through an exercise of Will is as much a denial of the truth of the universe as the Judeo-Christian notion of redemption it seeks to displace. Rust is not going to war against evil, against suffering — he is going to war against Will itself, against the wayward notion that desire acted on is any sort of action at all. Marty counterpoints him, blowing up his own life through infidelities lacking even the swagger of passionate love, losing his family absolutely, winding up in an efficiency flat, eating TV dinners.
(Yes, TD is very male. Existenz is something men struggle with, and women — most of whom bear a striking resemblance to the silhouette Playboy logo — love and hate the men as they struggle with das Being. One could say that the women are portrayed as the sane ones, but that hardly compensates. One simply has to take it as part of the genre — or read against it, as a portrayal of the manner in which masculinity is a machine for turning desire into philosophy, for its own purposes.)
The philosophising would verge on pseudo-intellectual flim-flam were such content not mirrored in the form. For TD uses long-form TV’s most distinctive resource — tense shifts and multiple timestreams — to give that sense of circular action. Time flows in TD, but more like the intersecting runnels of a bayou than as a river, criss-crossing, expansive and formless. Multi-stream TV series have hitherto used different stocks (or video imitations thereof) and filters to separate past and present. There is none of that here, and the absence of external markers of different eras means that the story happens both in time and all at once — made more complex by the fact that the series repays multiple viewings of each episode. The muted particularities blur the line between subjective and objective — is this happening, in this order, in the world, or in the mind? If so, whose? Crucial events happen because characters have lied in earlier time streams — so we do not know that the story is the story. Have we been lied to? Are there a series of lies behind those revealed? Is the actual, final revelation a decoy? The possibility, and a few well-placed remarks in episode eight, leave open a continuation in further seasons — although it is difficult to imagine Rust, a hard-eyed adamantine performance by McConachey, having anything like the impact or gravitas in a second season.
Difficult to know, too, how something like TD will hold up, in five years, 10, 50. Gunplay and speculation on the eternal is pretty much the essence of a certain type of hard-boiled crime fiction, but the nature of the speculation tends to change. Ultimately, philosophical preoccupations tend to be framed by the era in which they take place, and the world of True Detective is one in which imposing will hasn’t gone too well for quite a while. Whatever chance the place had to break out of its ancient torpor has been sealed over by more recent torpor, with the same families and forces receding ever further behind the scenes.
True Detective is an example of the much-celebrated “new golden age” of US television, but what is of most significance is that the television comes together, as the US comes apart. The long-form series has become the empyrean in which one can get the measure of an empire which can no longer comprehend itself. History, when it runs out of Time, invents Culture to grow the things it wants to kill, and that is where we are now, waiting for season two.