(Editor’s Note: I don’t and won’t always do this, but I respect the fact that even I couldn’t have been the last person to watch HBO’s True Detective. So, please be warned that there are plot spoilers in this post, and don’t come crying to me if you read them anyway! – Z. H.)
The traditional (read: condescending) lit-crit approach to detective stories is that they’re a form of wish fulfillment: a kind of ideological mortar that seals up the gaps in our certainties, projecting an idealized world that–while still scary and violent, like ours–is always just a solved mystery away from being made stable and whole again. The detective’s almost supernatural, but highly scientific and rational powers of knowledge and deduction expose the evils in our society, then bring them back under our control with the ritualistic confirmation of guilt and apprehension of the criminal. What this critical approach fails to take into account, however, is something that’s been obvious ever since Edgar Allan Poe‘s invention of the contemporary “tale of ratiocination“: that the best detective stories, or at least the most interesting ones, are never so neatly resolved; their power lies in seeming to make all things right in their imagined world, but ultimately failing to do so.
HBO’s recent series True Detective, written by neo-noir author Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (Sin Nombre), is one of those detective stories that “succeeds” by “failing.” What’s odd, however, is that it does so after all but announcing itself as an out-and-out deconstruction of the detective genre, one that would seem to reject even a feint at narrative closure (see Jeff Jensen‘s Entertainment Weekly “post-mortem” of the series for a good analysis of this). That such a high-minded, literary series should finally succumb to the conventions of genre, with all its promised but never delivered resolutions, does not strike me as an accident. I think, instead, that True Detective has something to say about the cultural significance–indeed, the indispensability–of our much-derided pulp entertainments.
The first episode of True Detective is almost rigorously naturalistic in presentation. The story is framed by two present-day police interviews with former Louisiana State Homicide detectives Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), as part of the investigation of a disturbing ritualized murder bearing a suspicious resemblance to one Hart and Cohle solved in 1995. These interview scenes are shot documentary-style, their “realism” enhanced by several long takes in which the almost identical framing of the investigating detectives’ video camera is visible in the foreground (see above). Even the more conventionally “filmic” flashback scenes of the 1995 investigation, with its Twin Peaks-ian discovery of a posed naked woman’s body, couch such surreal images in slow-burning, dialogue-heavy character development, the universal signifier for HBO’s “quality” (e.g., realist) brand of television.
As the series progresses, however, its realism begins to unravel. Cohle reveals that he suffers from hallucinations after years of drug abuse as an undercover narcotics agent; we witness some of his special effects-aided “visions” from 1995, most dramatically a flock of crows that morphs into a crude spiral like the one painted on the body of the murder victim. It becomes evident that the ex-detectives’ story is not what it seems, as the flashbacks show us omissions and–most significantly, in the cracking of the case that made them local heroes–outright fabrications in their narrative. And the case itself gets more and more outlandish: the ritualized murder, already well into pulp territory, is ascribed Satanic significance, then embellished with references to Robert W. Chambers’ classic book of “weird tales” The King in Yellow, then–most problematically–tied to vodoun (because the only thing scarier to White America than black magic is Black people). Throughout it all, we’re given explicit cues to distrust the whole notion of narrative, as Cohle spouts proto-poststructuralist existential philosophy about the constructed nature of human consciousness.
But it isn’t until the final moments of the series’ penultimate episode that things finally go Southern Gothic bugfuck. That’s when we’re formally introduced at last to the series’ “monster at the end of the story”: Errol Childress, a scenery-chewing, literally larger-than-life freak played by character actor Glenn Fleshler, who spends much of his screen time alternately conversing with the tortured body of his father, fucking his mentally disabled half-sister, and slipping into Cary Grant impersonations àpropos of nothing. Childress dominates the final episode: building up to a showdown with Cohle and Hart in a labyrinth of overgrown tunnels that seems less an actual, physical space than a symbolic outgrowth of the killer himself (Childress calls the place “Carcosa,” a reference to the otherworldly city of Chambers’ “King in Yellow”) . In this climactic battle, Cohle, Hart, and Childress all suffer wounds that would have killed any actual person–but only Childress dies, albeit after sustaining a near-superhuman amount of bullet wounds.
This tonal shift, from revisionist postmodern detective fiction to straight Gothic pulp, is jarring to be sure; but it’s also an important and oft-overlooked staple of the genre. Gothic and detective fiction have always been close cousins, going back (again) to Poe at the very least. Indeed, it seems that Gothic horror, with its over-the-top dramatization of the unspeakable, is always there to pick up the slack when the detective story’s attempts at psychological realism fail: think of Norman Bates prattling to his decomposed mother at the end of Psycho, or Buffalo Bill mincing about in his skin suit at the end of The Silence of the Lambs, or the absurd revelation at the end of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” that the culprit was an escaped orangutan. If detective fiction is meant to contain our anxieties over the existence of human evil, then the genre’s frequent recourse to the Gothic is a tacit–or, in the case of True Detective, perhaps not-so-tacit–acknowledgement that these anxieties can never truly be contained.
Let’s remember that, before it was a prestige premium-cable anthology show, True Detective was first a pulp magazine. The “pulp” in pulp fiction is of course a reference to the cheap wood pulp paper stock on which the old magazines were printed; but it’s also an apt description of the cheapness and ineffectuality of the stories’ attempts to smooth over society’s real horrors with the more lurid, fictional horrors of the Gothic tradition. The further pulp fiction stretches to contain its conceptions of evil in the disfigured bodies of madmen and monsters, the more it exposes its ideological fissures: often inadvertently, but sometimes, as in True Detective, with a self-awareness that reveals its subversive potential. As Cohle states near the end of the series, Childress may be dead, but his accomplices–wealthy, powerful men in high places–are still out there. The monster has been sacrificed, but the evil remains.
Part of me, I’ll admit, wishes that True Detective had pursued its more aggressively realist original bent. Part of me thinks it would have been more compelling to see the narrative culminate in the exposure of a ring of pedophiles who used “Satanic” rituals to obscure their real crimes–as the series at one point seemed to suggest–rather than in a mythic face-off with a bizarre Gothic monstrosity who thinks he’s the embodiment of an occult-flavored work of nineteenth-century fiction. But maybe that’s part of the point. The latter scenario would have been more “believable,” sure, but it wouldn’t be any truer; realist fiction is as guilty of filling in the ideological cracks as pulp, it’s just more subtle about it. By giving us a finale that offers spectacle and catharsis, but no tangible explication or resolution, True Detective admits the real, underlying theme of all great detective stories: that we don’t have all the answers; that some things–the nature of human evil especially–remain, in the end, unknowable. If a detective story like this is wish fulfillment, then it’s the fulfillment of a very odd, self-defeating kind of wish: a wish to see our monsters vanquished, again and again, with more always coming to fill their place, and no end in sight.