'True Detective,' Flat Circles And The Eternal Search For Meaning

What about the refineries? What do they mean?
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Like many "True Detective" fans, I've eagerly read the many posts about the show's literary influences. It turns out that the Yellow King and Carcosa come from an influential work of weird horror, and the work of many other novelists and philosophers contributed to creator Nic Pizzolatto's transfixing new series.

The thing is, I almost wish I hadn't succumbed to the temptation to read about the show's literary and philosophical antecedents. Knowing the specifics breaks the spell a little bit, and this is a show that's all about creating a spell.

As I said in my review, one of "True Detective's" greatest accomplishments is a particular kind of psychological intensity it's able to inspire in its audience. The two detectives at its core are polar opposites: One goes through life avoiding the truth and the other can't help but pursue it relentlessly. I'm not the first to suggest that the show's title could accommodate a question mark at its end.

Despite their differences, both men's paths ultimately lead to the same place: They end up experiencing a state of nameless, unavoidable dread, and the show brilliantly transmits that sense of heavy foreboding to those watching it. If time is a flat circle, as Rust Cohle says, then I have always been on a couch, in a room, watching Cohle watch two other detectives search for the truth. That all these searches for truth and meaning will likely end in vain doesn't make them any less fascinating.

Like those the two detectives grilling Cohle and Marty Hart in 2012, I have my doubts about aspects of what I'm hearing and seeing, and I have questions about the narrative -- the one spun by the detectives and the meta-narrative created by Pizzolatto. Yet I am unable and unwilling to tear myself away from the thick tangle of lies, half-truths, horror and regret that surrounds both men like dark, swirling storms.

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about whether the answer -- if there is something as mundane as an "answer" to the show's core questions -- has been in front of us the whole time. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that, within this flat circle and endless time loop, a couple of questions have always been with me.

What about the refineries? What do they mean?

Even before that sensational six-minute tracking shot in Episode 4, it was clear that director Cary Joji Fukunaga had an exceptional feel for this material. As James Poniewozik pointed out, the best part of the tracking shot was that it wasn't done for show; it fulfilled a narrative purpose and brought a fluid, restless sense of danger to the raid on the stash house. Fukunaga selects and composes each shot with a great deal of thoughtfulness, which is why the interrogation scenes have no fancy camera work; the camera remains still so that the characters' evasions and digressions are the only things that move. Cohle's words are like incantations -- they change the matter around him, which makes me wonder: Does the show end when the tin men carved from beer cans come alive?

From a visual perspective, nothing is extra, nothing is wasted. "True Detective" wants to plunge us into contradictory and confusing mindscapes, and Fukunaga knew that that could only be accomplished with delicacy and forethought.

One of the show's themes is humanity's fall from grace and our unrelenting desire to achieve some connection or transcendence to make up for that fundamental loss. And I'd argue that the metal monstrosities looming over swamps, fields and empty roads throughout the show are meant to evoke the eviction from the Garden of Eden.

These shots occur again and again: Always, off in the distance, there's a sprawling mass of pipes and tubes, a refinery or industrial plant plunked in the middle of fields or next to a river. As the detectives go about their business, something artificial is sending smoke up into the clear sky, or something impure and unsavory is lurking at the water's edge.

In Fukunaga's hands, Louisiana is beautiful, but that beauty is in conflict with something unnatural. The show depicts a fallen, hypnotically unreal world that is either being returned to the wild or being overtaken by a nightmare. The towns through which the characters pass appear mostly empty, as if nature has reclaimed them for its own mysterious purposes.

Like the characters in a fable or a heroic tale, the detectives had to venture on a difficult journey into the heart of darkness; what they found in the middle of that remote bayou was an abomination. The humans there had destroyed those children and poisoned the natural world; those two men amounted to a cancer on the landscape. It's easy to see how Reggie Ladoux's meth camp would quickly be swallowed up by nature, as if he had never been there. And ultimately, the show is not about Reggie Ladoux or the Yellow King or a serial killer -- it's about a sickness despoiling something beautiful. Sin enters the garden.

These religious themes crop up not just in the tent revival scenes or in Cohle's pontifications, they're also a cornerstone of the show's visual motifs. Refineries loom over delicate wetlands, fading towns lose their grip on the landscape, bounteous overgrowth reclaims spoiled territory, birds fly in foreboding patterns, schools are abandoned by humans. These visuals represent brief moments in the grand scheme of "True Detective," but this is the kind of show in which nothing happens by accident.

To me, "True Detective" has emerged as a bayou "Blade Runner": Both depict technology and mechanical interventions as having separated us from our souls or even from reality itself. "Blade Runner," a dreamscape of lights, patterns and metal, was also obsessed with questions of what's real, what's synthetic and whether the distinction matters. Both it and "True Detective" constantly return to this juxtaposition of the natural and the mechanical.

And "True Detective" is, like "Blade Runner," an intensely romantic work. (Not in the sense of "depicting a love connection between two adults," unless you count the weird, tangled love between Marty and Rust, two men who need each other deeply for reasons they don't understand and who had a spectacularly violent breakup in Episode 6.) Its romanticism is evident in the spoiled-gorgeous shots of the countryside, but also in the visual depiction of the 2012 Rust Cohle, who is as damaged as the statue in classic Romantic poem "Ozymandias." (Think of Cohle's "shattered visage" and his "frown, and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command.")

Only someone who can feel emotions -- especially love -- with such intensity would need to do such a thorough job of eviscerating and denying the need for love and connection. In spending so much time explicating why all human endeavor is a cosmic joke, Rust is doing a masterful job of misdirection. The appeal of noir storytelling, after all, is not that the characters believe in nothing; it's that they once believed in something.

Rust does, or did, love other human beings -- so much so that he allowed his love for his dead daughter and for other murder victims to destroy his soul. The dead-eyed husk of a man in the 2012 interviews only arrived at that cold, clinical place because he found the world -- and love -- to be too intense, too consuming. Quotes from Rilke would probably not be to his taste, but the Duino Elegies provide yet another touchstone for "True Detective": "For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror we can just barely endure / and we admire it so because it calmly disdains / to destroy us. Every angel is terrible."

I will fully admit, because "True Detective" does such a fantastic job of depicting the emotionally intense conflicts within and between these mens' souls, and these men are such memorable and distinct individuals, I have not been able to get too worked up about problematic aspects of the show. If the show's intensity and atmosphere don't cast a spell on a viewer, I understand how it's much easier for that viewer to spot the show's missteps and weaknesses, and those weaknesses can't be easily dismissed. I understand Emily Nussbaum's well-articulated objections to the show's depiction of women, an area in which the show does have issues.

Willa Paskin's eloquent "True Detective" apologia comes closer to my own way of thinking; in her view, "ignoring women has been the cause of untold horror" for the show's men. Like Molly Lambert, who plausibly defends Marty's wife Maggie, I'm not sure the show endorses the fact that everyone else is a prop to Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, though this kind of dynamic is surely the kind of cable trope we've seen too much of in the last 10 or 15 years. So yes, I'm tired of that kind of thing in general, and I tire of it occasionally on this show. But one of "True Detective's" goals is to expose the roots and nature of human suffering, and it explores those central wounds -- the original sins -- so well that I'm able sink into the swampy embrace of its fever dream.

This is not an ensemble drama, it's about two human beings whose crises and suffering is depicted with exceptional skill (it's not just that Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson are so good, it's that they're so terrific together; Season 2 has a very high bar to clear in the chemistry department). The men's relationship to each other and their complicated relationship to the truth are so pleasingly knotty and dynamic that the show can veer closely to TV cliches and often (but not always) avoid coming off as trite. In Sunday's episode, after all, Rust's boss demanded his badge and his gun, practically spitting out the time-honored police supervisor's lines, "Detective, you're too damn close to this case!" And yet the spell was not broken.

The drama does such a fine job of creating charged atmospheres and rendering these characters' mental states in textured and palpable ways that I can't wait to see how "True Detective" Season 2 (one of Twitter's greatest hashtags) will attempt to match the accomplishments of the first season (this "Top of the Lake" duo was my sincere suggestion). But I will be stupendously disappointed if the leads in Season 2 are once again two white guys, and if women and people of color are used as subordinate props. The first season has cannily used well-worn detective-show and cable-drama devices to limn psychological states, ethical quandaries and moral dilemmas, but if it uses those devices to depict the same kinds of lead characters in Season 2, I'll have much less patience the second time around (hence I'm cautiously optimistic about what Pizzolatto said in this Twitter exchange with a sharp viewer).

If this show is about a torturous, beautiful, harrowing, romantically damned search for the truth, well, aren't all kinds of people are capable of that kind of quest?

Ryan McGee discussed "True Detective" in a recent Talking TV podcast, which can also be found on iTunes.

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