Tuesday, February 24, 2015

True Detective


True Detective aired on HBO from January to March 2014 and includes 8 episodes, all directed by Cary Fukunaga. The show received attention from the very beginning, and its finale so overwhelmed HBO Go, HBO's viewing app, that the system crashed, upsetting viewers as they waited to see the final episode. Writer Nic Pizzolatto, a former literature professor, originally intended the narrative to be a novel but later realized it was well-suited to be a television show; since the show aired, Pizzolatto has been nominated and won numerous writing awards for the eerie tale set in southern Louisiana. Cinematographer, Adam Arkapaw, used the natural Louisiana landscape with its dark bayous and draping moss to capture the southern gothic tone of the story. 


Official Trailer for True Detective

(Text Below Contains Spoilers)

The series takes place in three different time periods, 2012, 1995, and 2002. Detectives Marty Hart and Rust Cohle are being questioned in 2012 about a murder they investigated in 1995. Even in the first episode, the tone established by the cinematography is clearly southern gothic. The camera pans down on Hart's car driving through the harsh bayous, glaring yellows and oranges show the heat and stagnation of the south, and the title frame's tree stands isolated in a field of weeds. This particular frame is interesting on another note: it greatly resembles the tree shot used in the opening sequence and title frame of Six Feet Under. An individual but fully grown tree, isolated in a field, is often shown to represent life or family (the old tree of life adage), but in True Detective, the tree is the scene of death. A woman has been raped, mutilated, and her body posed beneath the tree in what appears to be a ritualistic killing. The idea of the "traditional" has been ruined; family values mean very little here.

Throughout the season, the show defied typical detective show standards. No quirky puns, no fast cuts between characters during their dialogue, no feeling of finality and all-being-well. The case was not solved with just enough time to show everyone safe and sound at the conclusion of each episode. In fact, the episodes almost bleed together in their continuity. Either due to the director, the writer, or a close partnership between the two, this television show is more like an eight hour film than a traditional "cop show."

The Final Episode:

Until the final episode. Hart and Cohle have finally closed in on the murderer, and they arrive at the dilapidated mansion of a decaying southern family. The Tuttle family is headed by Reverend Billy Lee Tuttle and his brother, Governor Tuttle; the Rev. advocates implementing a special task force to address "anti-Christian" crimes. The family tree is a convoluted one with brothers, cousins, and illegitimate branches, one of which belongs to William Childress, whose corpse Hart finds tied to a bed in a shack on the property. Though the Tuttle family took part in the crimes (as proved on a video Cohle found), the ultimate "bad guy" is Errol Childress, a slovenly, middle-aged white man with hideous scars on his face and neck. He lives in wretched squalor with his half-sister, with whom he has a sexual relationship. He leads Cohle on a chase through the Carcosa, a labyrinth of death and twisted tunnels. In the final showdown (for what would a detective show be without a final showdown?), Cohle finds a sense of salvation. Whether this is his finding God, finding hope, or simply finding peace is up for debate.

In the Carcosa

The Carcosa is actually a real place, Fort Macomb, just on the outskirts of New Orleans:


For a show that has broken numerous conventions of "cop shows," this ending sharply reverts back to some common tropes, at least as pertaining to Errol Childress. The decaying southern family has been a trope used for decades now that is repeated once again in True Detective. The family consists of backwards thinkers covering their sins and being hypocrites as they cling to old systems of power and control over other people (as evidenced by the multiple threats made against Cohle by the Tuttle family and the Reverend's insistence of the special anti-Christian crimes Task Force).

Big surprise: the big southern family has deep, dark secrets, and the person attacked and arrested was a crazy, middle-aged white man who lives deep in the wilderness. A big show-down occurs, Errol almost triumphs but then is killed;  the "Othered" family member dies while all the powerful, "pretty" family members continue to live, unfettered by Errol's downfall. This conclusion is disappointing because of the creative construction of the narrative before this point.

Rotating Our View of the Narrative:

Though we originally saw the show as a detective/cop show (chasing down the bad guy), it turns out, we weren't examining the correct narrative. Errol Childress, the Carcosa, and the hunt for "bad guys" was simply a secondary narrative wrapped, double-helix-style around the main story: Rust Cohle's search for purpose and self-acceptance. 

A bit more sense can be made of this ending if it is read as representing Cohle's subconscious and the decades of pain and guilt he has suffered after the death of his daughter. If the Carcosa is read as representing Cohle's quest for peace and finality, then it makes sense that he runs almost frantically through some sections, pauses in others, and has his final showdown in the very center, just as he has lived his life: rushing through some sections, pausing in others, twisting and turning, and attempting to make meaning of his experiences. Near death himself, Cohle defeats Errol, who in this reading represents Cohle's own guilt and fear. In this reading, it makes sense that Errol is just another middle-age, white man living in the deep, dark woods, because this mirrors Cohle's subconscious. Only in Errol's death does Cohle find peace and acceptance of himself.

Later in the hospital parking lot with Hart, Cohle admits that in those moments in the Carcosa, he felt the presence of his deceased daughter and father. He launches into his final philosophical speech:
Rust: “I tell you, Marty, I been up in that room looking out those windows every night here just thinking, it’s just one story. The oldest.”
Marty: “What’s that?”
Rust: “Light versus dark.”
Marty: “Well, I know we ain’t in Alaska, but it appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory.”
Rust: “Yeah, you’re right about that.”
Rust insists that Marty help him leave the hospital, and Marty agrees. As they head to the car, Rust makes one final point to his former partner. 
Rust: “You’re looking at it wrong, the sky thing.”
Marty: “How’s that?”
Rust: “Well, once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.”
(Final minutes of dialogue from Season 1 transcribed by Slate.com's David Hagland)

Errol Childress represented not just the dark and evil in reality but also the darker identity of Cohle himself. This conversation shows the shift in Cohle's thinking; there is light, it is surviving, and Cohle can see it.

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