Like a Geek God #18 by Mark Pursell
Geeking Out on True Detective
WARNING: contains mild spoilers through the end of Episode 7.
Here’s a facet of my geekdom that I haven’t really addressed yet on this blog: crime fiction.
Crime stories don’t usually come to mind when someone says the word “geek”, but there’s an entire subculture of crime fiction enthusiasts for whom the term “geek” is extremely apropos. It’s a more “grown up” sort of geekery, I suppose, in the sense that events are usually rooted in contemporary or historical reality, devoid of robots and/or magic. That doesn’t speak, however, to the level of investment that crime geeks sink into their favorite authors, movies, and television shows.
Of course, the crime tale is quite “done” at this point in the history of modern storytelling. Artists across the media spectrum have tackled the basic idea for well over a century, yielding results both transcendant and trite. However, over the last decade, the New Golden Age of Television—a charge of high-quality programming led by HBO, Showtime, AMC, and FX—has created a safe harbor for talented writers to craft their crime tales with precision, as well as a canvas large enough to contain complexity. What is Breaking Bad if not a hyperrealist tragedy about the criminal underworld? Even shows that are more ostensibly procedural—The Fall, or Top of the Lake—elevate themselves through the quality of their writing and their characters, even though the standard “person dies, police investigate” plot engine is old hat. Cinema has fared similarly: in 2013 alone, you had movies like Prisoners, Spring Breakers, and Mud, all three of which showed that the crime story is not just alive, but thriving under the auspices of creative visionaries who have the freedom to tell stories the best way they know how.
Which makes the artistic achievement of HBO’s True Detective even more impressive. Detective hasn’t arisen in a genre vacuum, after all. But creator and sole writer Nic Pizzolato’s Shakespearean, years-spanning epic about two detectives’ hunt for an occultist ring of murderers in the deep Lousiana bayous puts one foot on the shoulder of other excellently-conceived murder mysteries and vaults over them with the ease of a gymnast.
The reasons why are multifold. The show’s limited run of eight episodes has given Pizzolato and director Cary Joji Fukunaga the space to do two very important things: let the story breathe, and end it satisfyingly before it overstays its welcome. True Detective is an anthology series, conceived to follow the pattern of American Horror Story; each new season will feature a differing cast and storyline. (The current story, starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as the gridlocked detectives, will end next Sunday). This turns each season into what amounts to a miniseries or very long movie, ensuring that each new storyline will have to describe a finite arc. The big problem with serialized detective stories is that they have the potential to go on for too long, running out of gas long before the writers and the money behind the show are ready or able to let it end. The anthology format is a genius one for a crime show, and hopefully future installments of True Detective will derive as much power and focus from the format as this season has.
Because across its existing seven episodes, this flagship season of the show has not only set a bar for effective storytelling, but engaging, deeply visceral storytelling that aims to get at the uncomfortable psychological truths lurking under the veneer of civilization. Rustin Cohle (McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Harrelson) can best be described as beleagured, not only by the horrific events and forces they find themselves thrown into conflict with but also by the larger problems of love, family, mortality, and “what it means to be a man/woman” that trouble us all. When their initial investigation of a ritualized murder pits them against a secret, diabolical cult, their search draws the darkness in their own lives to the surface, as if the horror they are attempting to illuminate calls, siren-like, to the unresolved and the unconscious in each of the men’s dysfunctional lives. (Cohle is a hyper-intelligent savant more than a little touched by obsession, compulsion, and the scars of undercover narcotics work; Hart paints himself into a familiar corner, drinking too hard and cheating on his wife, but the fury with which he erupts when he finds himself trapped by the consequences of his actions allow us to glimpse a person much more damaged than an adulterous cliché). The tag line of the show is “touch darkness and darkness touches you back”, and strangely enough, this serves as the most direct summation of the first season’s thematic gist.
McConaughey and Harrelson tackle these dour, hard men with a voracity. Once largely relegated to typecasting by their early famous roles and their distinct personalities, both actors have undertaken something of a career renaissance in the last few years. Serious, nuanced character work (Killer Joe and The Paperboy for McConaughey, Rampart and The Messenger for Harrelson) is apparently not beyond either of them. Far from it, in fact: both actors have increased their visibility and their reputation due to these performances, and one can’t help but see their tour de force work in True Detective as a further evolution. Or perhaps it’s the sheer delight of watching Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson scheme and think and fight together. When a friend told me that they were the two stars, I said, “Oh, I’ll watch that, I don’t even care what it’s about.” Case in point. Both men have always been charismatic on-screen, able to plumb the depths of both comedy and drama with ease, but something about their True Detective chemistry—complex and ever-shifting in the manner of all intense partnerships, comprised of respect, resentment, and shared trauma—heightens their individual and combined magnetism. Even in the early parts of the show, the detectives both look hungry, starved around the eyes, as tragically unable to extricate themselves from events as they are unable to shore themselves up under the “burdens” of love, fidelity, and human connection.
Pizzolatto has done that rare and enviable thing; he wrote all of True Detective himself, without employing a traditional writing staff. It may seem like a risky gambit for people who are invested in a traditional writing model for television, but the surety of Pizzolatto’s vision—his tight grasp on the puzzle pieces of his story and its fairly unique mythology (inspired by Robert Chambers’s seminal book The King in Yellow)—is strong evidence in favor of talented writers taking this approach more often. Maybe it’s only due to the limited number of episodes, but True Detective has a momentum and a laser-targeted focus that make it more compulsively watchable than even binge-bait like House of Cards or Orange is the New Black. One of the most compelling aspects of the writing is how Pizzolatto depicts the detectives’ case-working process. It’s refreshing to see Pizzolatto heavily emphasize two crucial aspects of actual detective work: pounding the pavement, and paperwork. The two halves of True Detective—in which Cohle and Hart investigate an initial murder in 1995 and pick back up on unresolved aspects of the case in 2012—make much out of both things. The two men spend long lonely stretches of road together, seeking out leads, often coming up empty-handed or with a piece of the puzzle they don’t know what to do with yet. They spend time and energy (on-screen!) discussing the acquisition of tax records, title transfers, and old case files; there’s a compelling scene where Hart, attempting to dig up old information, is led by a clerk to a room full of haphazard file boxes. No database, no digitization, nothing to do but roll up one’s sleeves and start sorting through the mess. Pizzolatto doesn’t linger on this part of detective work long enough to bore us, but he holds it up for us with enough obvious intent that his point becomes clear. This isn’t a flashy Hollywood thriller where profiling and a nod towards actual investigative work results in a shocking revelation and a prerequisite, climactic chase scene. It’s one of the few detective stories that don’t make the detective or his process into something romantic. Between the unglamorous stylization of detective work and the destructive personal consequences Cohle and Hart both face as a result of their involvement with the case, Pizzolatto’s point-of-view seems to be more in line with the Southern gothic noir feeling of the overall show: that detectives are cursed half-men, consigned by destiny to fight evil in the shadows and fated, by dint of that battle, to lose everything, even themselves. It’s a bleak point-of-view, but it reverberates more viscerally with an audience than a glossy, cardboard-cutout detective who breezes through a case with barely a scratch or a setback.
Above all, though, True Detective strikes a particularly American nerve. Much like the Swedish novel/film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Detective takes on an institutionalized problem within the culture and society of its setting and addresses that problem head-on through the conceit of a detective story. This is a storyteller’s trick; we all tend to wrap up a vague point or observation we wish to make inside something exciting and consumable, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. Dragon Tattoo directly addressed the misogynist abuses within the Swedish government and upper echelon; True Detective does the same, but because its focus is America (and not just any America, but the Deep South), one can’t avoid the entanglement of organized religion with sex and power. It’s a bit surprising there hasn’t been a wave of attack pieces about the show, since it depicts evangelistic Louisiana politicians as secret rapists and ritual murderers. It’s a broad shot that somehow also manages to strike a bullseye. For several years now, Americans have faced the consequences of moneyed religious interests attempting to subjugate or obliterate the rights and freedoms of various subcultures and minorities, particularly women. The headscratching battle over reproductive health and the religious right’s froth-laden obsession with outlawing abortion is a thinly-veiled attempt by powerful men to exercise control over female sexuality, often by prioritizing the health of the unborn child over the health and safety of the pregnant woman. One can’t help but imagine Pizzolatto taking in the political climate about this issue in this country over the last five years—Republican politicians scheming, trying to pass clandestine and medieval legislation, publicly insulting women who speak up against them—and seeing in his story an opportunity to reflect or comment on this systemic, endemic problem. True Detective is ultimately the story of two damaged men battling the exploitative male hierarchy for the fate of every disenfranchised woman and child in the bayous. What could be more feminist, more truly American, than that?
Mark Pursell (Episode 75) is a lifelong geek and lover of words. His publishing credits include Nimrod International Journal, The New Orleans Review, and The Florida Review, where he also served as poetry editor. His work can most recently be seen in the first volume of the 15 Views of Orlando anthology from Burrow Press. He currently teaches storytelling and narrative design for video games at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida.