Monday, March 10, 2014

Truthy Detective (The Omnivore's True Detective Postmortem)

She Twines Her Spines Up Slowly Towards The Boiling Sun
HBO's True Detective came to a close last night (crashing HBOGo, their online distribution system). The Omnivore has a blog and, while True Detective wasn't political in any meaningful sense, The Omnivore is going to talk about it for a second. There will be spoilers.

Wait--What the Heck Was 'True Detective'!?
True Detective (Season 1) was some bad-ass premium cable drama teaming up Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as (former) partners investigating homicides in Louisiana. Written by Nic Pizzolatto (who did The Killing--a show The Omnivore found reasonably well put together--but a yawn-fest), True Detective (Season 1) was a dark, philosophical journey into the nether-worlds of the physical swamp and the human heart.

What True Detective did that was really new was this: be eight episodes long. That's right--it's 8 weeks and then ... that's it. TD S02 will have new characters a new story, and everything else. This is ground breaking: not being tied into the 12 or 22 episode season, having big-name stars, and real talent behind the camera (director Cary Fukunaga makes the locale a character in its own right), True Detective was an experiential feast.

True Detective
Slate takes on the final episode by asking: "Did we overthink that!?" The answer? Probably yes. There are people who took on an exhaustive examination of every tie characters wore ... looking for clues. There were examinations of the similarities between the stick-figures McConaguhey and the action-figure circle Harrelson's daughter built. There were paranoid visions of conspiracy everywhere and Lovecraftian to every occult fetish. 

Here's a scene from Woody Harrelson's home (or, at least, it seems to be). Look at the colorful picture upper right:
Pretty Flowers
Here's a scene from the asylum where one of the horrific cult-abuse survivors lives in her eternally damaged mind:
Look at the wall ...
This isn't accidental and, apparently, it's not image manipulation (or, if it is, I'm not seeing that on The Googles). Perhaps the fact that 'bad guy' was a painter means he did the asylum wall? And, uh, maybe he sold prints? I got nothing.

This is only one thread that True Detective never tied up.

The Omnivore's Opinion
I wasn't going to write about True Detective because I didn't have a lot to say. I didn't have a "theory" as to who-dunnit (I was in the It-Better-Not-Be-Rust-or-Marty camp, but that was as far as I went) and I wasn't watching it frame-by-frame (or even, really, following the Reddit sleuthing that closely). That said, I was following the online conversation enough that (a) I felt it was an incredibly rich and deep show so therefore (b) I invested more time in it than I would have otherwise.

I now have (c) buyers remorse (some, as I said, it's a crackerjack 8 hours of TV if you didn't go in for the 11-dimensional chess conspiracy theories).

Here's what I think: the deeper a work is the more it is trying to tell us / teach us something. It's that lens that I came to True Detective Episode 8 with: What would True Detective be trying to tell us.

It Wasn't Saying Anything About Bad Men With Guns and Badges and the Women They Abuse
True Detective sets up a story where Marty (Harrelson) is the more-relateable but less scrupulous officer who does bad things to the women he's in a relationship with and ruins his marriage ... albeit slowly. Rust (McConaughey) is more principled (he'll drink or do drugs with women--but all for 'the right reasons.')

In the end though? Harrelson doesn't quite get back with his family--but he isn't also left alone in a dark room with his sins. He gets a 30-second "happy ending" with his wife who might, maybe, you know, get back together with him. Or not--but the ending note isn't bleak.

Rust gets his own reconciliation with his daughter and family after a fashion. In the end? They're even (if not in specifics, with the way the camera treats them). 

Now I'm not upset with the happy ending and I'm not looking for Marty to "get his"--but it looked like True Detective was going to show us the results of their different approaches to women and maybe reward one but not the other? Nope.

It Wasn't Saying Anything About Bitches And Hoes Either
True Detective gives us damaged women who sleep with Marty, a long-suffering wife who puts up with Marty and then betrays him as deeply as she knows how, and ... uh ... that's about it. Rust gets some hooker friends who disappear quickly. He gets a girlfriend who disappears into the time-gap. 

There are two daughters (for Marty)--one is kind of a good(ish) girl. One's got some issues. In the end? Uh--nothing. 

If Marty's wife loses sympathy points for being a bitch she fails to recover any plot-traction even in her last minute scenes where she 'checks in' on Marty (fueling conspiracy theories) but doesn't either come back to him, kick-him-to-the-curb for good, or ... well, anything. She proved herself crafty in her interview scene--but to zero story impact. She was misdirection. Her whole family was misdirection (or just a platform for Marty to get all hard-boiled / noir with the women-folk: in other words, just as a prop for the man).

In short, the women in True Detective are bitches, hoes, or nearly non-existent. People had speculated that the show's dismal view of women might be intentional. Maybe it is--but if so, it looks more like a kind of nasty surface-level statement without any make-you-think subtext.

It Wasn't Saying Anything About The Nature of the Universe
True Detective hints at startling revelations about the nature of the universe. It uses philosophy to present a picture of a dark, bleak universe that is reflected in the stark Louisiana terrain and the Lovecraftian* textual references.

In the end though? We get a chase scene through a tangled wood and a gory battle scene and ... cut to black. Yes, True Detective puts a kind of American Beauty style ending on things which might be a true statement: Rust's epiphany--but American Beauty managed that with after-death voice-over. Here, because True Detective has chosen to play-it-straight/keep-it-real instead we have his monologue which doesn't carry the same narrative weight.

Also: Nic stole it from Alan Moore.

It Didn't Tell Us Anything About How Power Corrupts
The conspiracy in True Detective is wide-ranging, disturbing, and goes "all the way to the top" but we never find out if it had anything beyond a small number of weirdos behind it. Was it mostly that one family? Was it, like, a 90's thing? Are they still active? What? We don't know.

I remember watching The Constant Gardner and noting that its "reveal"--that Africa is corrupt--should surprise no one. The idea that Louisiana is corrupt is in the same category. Does True Detective have anything to say about this that we don't know? No. It appropriates Robert Chambers disturbing mythology but it doesn't do anything startling with it.

The show has a Cormac McCarthy-like penchant for anti-climax--which I approve of when it takes my breath away as it did in No Country for Old Men--but when the whole show leaves me wanting closure, I find the maybe-suicide of the mega-church pastor to look more like they ran out of runway with only 8 episodes (and they had to get Googling Tax records in, I mean, what do you expect!?).

For a show where the whole deal is that it's a svelte 8 episodes, feeling like I didn't get enough store (as opposed to not being spoon-fed the whole story) isn't a good thing.

What Next for True Detective? 
My problem with The Killing was that it was too long (Season 1 ends with ... the murder not solved). My problem with True Detective is that it seems too short. By the Goldilocks theorem, Season 2 should rock. It's also possible that with different characters and a shared world (which I've read is maybe the case--but not definitively) it could come back to this and have like Sam Jackson and Arnold Schwarzenegger "clean up the swamp."

I doubt it though--and I wouldn't necessarily like it if it did--the vague, animal-headed cultists weren't all that interesting given what little we saw of them.

The show (wisely) avoided any supernatural element but, given how empty it was in the end, I think it maybe could've used one. I suppose that McConaughey's beer-can people were maybe reflective of certain repeating patterns in the universe? Reflecting the ... uh ... circle of debauchery that ... uhm ... the cult used that ... Marty's daughter ... I don't know.

Here's clearly what was going on.

The True Story of True Detective
In case you were wondering, here's what you missed out on:

Since Port Orleans was a French colony the rulers of Louisiana have been engaged in the deep occult practices used to let the select breach the "waters" of the afterlife and reach the promised Carcosa, the seat of Awe and Terror.

The bloodlines have grown in power and control, reaching their tendrils into every institution they could find--always searching for more and more blood of the innocent. When Rust was assigned, by accident, to the Dora Lange case, they became concerned: he had a reputation as a forensic genius and while there was almost no evidence that could link to them, they didn't trust him to just back off.

They mobilized the Task Force which would swoop in and take the case away--and sink it--once Marty and Rust floundered. The problem was that they didn't flounder fast enough. The operation was pretty tight--but not entirely without leaks: outside the families no one could be trusted. This included some of the pastors they mobilized around the shoreline.

They also had someone on the inside: Marty's father in law. Marty wasn't kidding when he said he suffered from "The Detective's Curse" (what you're looking for being right under your nose the whole time). A long standing member of the cult (the guy in the Owl mask), he was able to get information from his daughter (Marty's wife) who was supposed to keep tabs on Marty. When it looked like the detectives might be on to something--and his latest exploit showed up, the cult made the call: destroy Marty.

They knew that without Marty to ground him, Rust would run out of steam or go too far and get killed / incarcerated. They were right--but Rust, going in, under cover, needed Marty to back him--but he pulled a double-reverse and lied, telling Marty there was hope for Marty and his wife's relationship. By giving Marty that hope, Marty was able to pull through and they broke the case--at least part way.

The conspiracy panicked when the detectives returned as heroes but soon breathed a sigh of relief: their dedication to firewalling and Marty's hot-headed head-shot paid off: damage--contained (the only real breach was a trans-time My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic towel that clearly did not exist in '95 but was so faded no one noticed the anachronism ... it turns out? Carcosa is freakin' full of bronies**).

'The Horror' (mumble-mumble) ... 'The Horror'
When Rust faded they decided to mobilize their other resource to end Marty for good and close out the whole episode. The victims never really escaped the cult: you can check out any time you like--but you can never leave. They owned the prostitute that Rust and Marty 'rescued' years before and when they sent her back to sleep with Marty and destabilize him it was almost good enough to break the marriage.

It wasn't enough--so they told his wife to step it up. She did as she was told (always--including delivering the daughters to her father for his own attempt at ascension) and knew exactly the right weak-spot to break the Marty / Rust team.

It was almost enough save for one thing: Rust didn't know the meaning of "quit." Having played Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu in his youth--hey, there was nothing else to do in Alaska--he had the unshakable belief that either by breaking into safes or reviewing tax documents the puzzle could be solved. He chose 'the safe' and found The Tape. He watched the whole thing. In the end? He saw Marty's kids. He knew what he had to do.

He murdered the King in Yellow (the mega-church pastor) with poisoned brandy and realized he had to stop the Red Ascension before the Black Stars were right. The two modern day detectives were low-level initiates who didn't know the history but had been told Rust was dangerous. They were to pull him in, get him to slip up, and bust him. Rust knew he could play their game better than they could. He used them to "jump start" Marty. In order to get Marty active again--pulling him back in to the maelstrom--he had to goad Papania and Gilbough into overreaching.

He spun them the story--one they knew had to be a lie--and carved people out of beer cans. He positioned them in the circle--the same circle he'd seen in The Tape making them nervous and angry (this was the same circle Marty's daughter had participated in as a victim--and one they recognized from their own initiation ... they were dressed as weasels). Papania and Gilbough decided that to get to the truth they had to get Marty--but they weren't good enough (and they weren't high-level enough: they didn't know Marty's wife was under the cult's influence). All they did was rile Marty up ... and get him thinking.

This was exactly what Rust wanted.

Rust had a feeling that Marty's wife was a player: he manipulated Marty into 'having a chat' with her--just to see. And she bit (she came poking around)--but she was the wrong piece--by that time--on the wrong chessboard. When she showed up in the bar he had all the proof he needed that he was on the right track. He'd exhausted "breaking into the safe." He went for 'Tax Documents' research.

They pulled up the location: Final Level. They locked, loaded, and went to find the Troll under the Bridge.

In the end they both took a lot of Hit Points of damage--but they both made their Constitution rolls and lived. Rust, waking up in his hospital bed, determined he'd leveled up.


* Yes, I know it wasn't actually Lovecraft.
** If you don't know, you don't want to know.

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