She twines her spines up slowly
Warning: this blog contains spoilers for each season of True Detective, and touches on some of the show's plot points, which include sexual assault.
I’m still angry about Season 1 of True Detective.
It’s possible that I’ll always be angry about it.
I want to tear into the corpse of it and pick at the ribs of it and point, furiously, at the hollow that’s inside, shrieking and yelling, until someone comes and pats me on the back and tells me I’m not making things up, this really was bullshit of the highest order.
I find it bizarre that despite all of the internet discussion and buzz around the show, we never really had proper closure about the way a prestige TV show clad itself deliberately in the trappings of cosmic, supernatural horror - in its plotting, in its themes, in highly explicit literary references, even in its music choices - and then, at long last, embarrassedly and illogically tossed its own genre influences to one side and pretended they weren’t important.
I’m angry, like so many irrationally angry people, because I feel let down.
Set the scene.
A pair of detectives - nearly allegorical opposites, Marty, the brute pretending to be a family man and Rust, the wounded soul pretending to be a detached and intellectual pessimist - stumble onto a woman’s naked body. Ritualistically arranged. Crowned with antlers. Stood before a tree in an empty meadow.
“There’s a kind of culture here,” Rust drawls wondrously, although at this point, the beauty of the scene’s cinematography aside, we’re still in generic, tasteless backwoods sex-creep-killer territory (did Rust not watch any of those TV shows?)
Anyway, Rust and Marty get to investigating.
And what gradually becomes clear is that there is some kind of culture here, in the creeping and fungal sense.
Innocent witnesses, victims, and monstrous suspects alike, from all corners of the investigation, begin to randomly bark out bits of interconnected, visionary religious verse:
"Him that eats time, in his robe of stars...death is not the end.”
"I closed my eyes and I saw the King in Yellow moving through the forest."
“You’re in Carcosa now with me. He sees you.”
Marty’s daughter is arranging her dolls into ritualistic, sexually violent scenes and sketching out masked and naked men in her school notebook.
Strange paintings are left daubed on burnt-out church walls. Icons are distributed in outhouses and abandoned classrooms, like the marking of territory.
And the worst of it is that our detectives don’t seem to pick up on this. They don’t realise that there’s something larger at work, or speculate to each other about what the words might actually mean.
Instead, they stare at case files. They doggedly drift through parodically extended tough-guy adventures (at one point Rust needs to steal cocaine, to infiltrate a racist biker gang that he happened to have been undercover with years ago, to go on a brutal raid into an African-American housing project, to win the trust of this one guy, who can put him in touch with another guy, who works with his murder suspect.)
They yell at each other, and brawl and drink, and have shameful sex when they shouldn't, and it's about masculinity, yeah?
They don't seem to consider that it might be about something much larger than that.
When Marty looks through his daughter’s notebooks, he grimaces and shuts the cover. He doesn’t want to dwell on it.
When a murder suspect begins whispering to Rust about Carcosa, he tells him distractedly to “shut the fuck up”. He doesn’t want to think about it.
Marty even explicitly alludes to his own blinkers - "the detective's curse", he calls it. The inability to see the real truth that was right under your nose all along.
And at this point, as a viewer, I’m thrilled, because it’s clear to me now that the writer, that genius, is delivering us an astonishing twist - a detective show with existential horror lurking under the surface, ready to rise in full glory by the series' end.
These two men, agents of normality, are refusing to see the awful truth that’s beyond their scope of experience. And at the end, when they have no choice but to confront it, they will be destroyed by it.
The clues are scattered everywhere. In fact, in places, they’re even too obvious.
The cultists refer to Carcosa and The Yellow King, which (as everyone online got very excited about) is not just cosmic horror, but explicitly a story where a complacent civilisation is confronted by a terrible truth, and collapses into chaos.
The theme song, a sumptuous piece of horror music by The Handsome Family, is explicitly a song about a lonely wanderer in the desert who is driven to madness and self-destruction by the beautiful blooming of a queen-of-the-night cactus.
From the dusty mesa her looming shadow grows
Hidden in the branches of the poison creosote
She twines her spines up slowly towards the boiling sun
And when I touched her skin, my fingers ran with blood
In the hushing dusk, under a swollen silver moon
I came walking with the wind to watch the cactus bloom
And strange hunger haunted me, the looming shadows danced
I fell down to the thorny brush and felt the trembling hands
When the last light warms the rocks and the rattlesnakes unfold
The mountain cats will come to drag away your bones
And rise with me forever across the silent sand
And the stars will be your eyes and the wind will be my hands
And Rust, of course, liberally quotes Thomas Ligotti’s Conspiracy Against The Human Race.
(Presumably, we think, this is both a nod to the horror that’s to come and a clever indictment of intellectual pessimism; no matter how much the character moans about humanity’s non-reality, he is in no way prepared to be confronted by this one grand and awful truth that’s coming his way, fast.)
Even the setting, those gorgeous Louisiana swamps, those thin and vulnerable roads cutting over the endless green and the endless water, reminds us that we are in the territory of folk horror.
And in folk horror, all the way from Euripides’ The Bacchae right up to The Wicker Man and Kill List, we so often watch agents of rationality and civilisation pursuing their own goals in hostile territory...only to finally discover that they are not in control of the narrative, and they are a vessel to be shaped by the powers that have led them down this winding path.
This is my show, I think. It was made for me.
Here’s showrunner Nic Pizzolato, reflecting on the presence of supernatural horror in True Detective, Season 1:
We have a hallucinating detective in episode 2, which is weird, and the visions themselves are almost religious in their metaphysical nature. But the important thing, I think, is that there is a realistic explanation for everything. Cohle’s visions are accounted for by his neural damage, probably guided in some part by his unconscious associations. There’s no evidence to suggest that the things we’ve seen are the result of anything supernatural.
Ritualism, some sort of worship is implied in the murder, but there’s nothing supernatural. Reality is the dread, and that’s probably where the line’s drawn. So we can touch these things and by doing so provide avenues for layers of meaning to settle and refract and resonate, but we don’t strictly-speaking break from the realist mode.
And here he is again.
I don't read internet chatter, but all I can offer is that to date there hasn't been a single thing in our show that's supernatural, so why would that suddenly manifest in the last episode? The show has a quality of mysticism, for sure, but nothing supernatural so far.
I think there's a lot of self-projection going on in certain cases; like the show has become a Rorschach test for a specific contingent of the audience in which they read their own obsessions into it. This is what it means to resonate with people, so I don't mind it. The danger is that it's myopic and unfairly reductive, like a literary theorist who only sees Marxism or Freudianism rather the totality of a work.
As a quick reminder, here is the ultimate resolution of True Detective:
The religion of the Yellow King was a sex cult formed by powerful men in Louisiana.
Its last remaining disciple, Errol, has been perpetuating its murders.
He is, of course, a disfigured, backwoods sex-creep-killer who collects doll heads, reluctantly sleeps with his sister, apparently has sex with corpses (“Lovers. I am not ashamed.”), and for no fully-explained or mythologically coherent reason, keeps his father’s dead body tied to a bed and talks to it.
While holding down his gardening job, he also roams across the landscape, singlehandedly planting wooden icons and painting murals and arranging corpses in sophisticated patterns, because, I guess, like all serial killers, he secretly wants to be seen and to be caught.
Errol rambles on about the police not seeing his apocalyptic signs, and his intention to see “the infernal plane” (is he a Satanist now?), but while he’s physically intimidating and his lair does offer one final teasing hallucination for Rust, the show treats him as a gross and ultimately pathetic figure, someone who mimics the culture he sees on television without truly understanding it.
And the great and awful truth never arrives.
Our heroes are wheeled away feeling better about themselves and sentimentally commenting on the progress of good over evil, in another reference that is straight-up cribbed from Alan Moore, another genre artist who I imagine would not treat this as an 'homage' so much as outright theft.
But I suppose that's what it means to resonate with people.
Look. Pizzolato’s self-satisfied comments annoy me because of the implied snobbery towards the horror genre, coming from someone who has been pillaging wholesale from the horror genre throughout his own TV show.
They annoy me because I don’t like to see artists leaving breadcrumbs for their audience, and then gaslighting that audience as ‘myopic’ or ‘obsessive’ for following them.
They annoy me because if the existential horror theme is dropped, we’re forced to accept that True Detective’s shithead, self-aware-misogynist stabs at sexual politics are meant to be compelling in their own right. (“All that big dick swagger and you can’t spot crazy pussy?” Good lord.)
But they mostly annoy me because when viewed in the ‘realist mode’, the show’s plotting stops making sense. It becomes a lesser, patchier, stupider work without the nightmare logic of horror to back it up.
Why did Marty’s daughter have that clear awareness of something awful going on behind the scenes?
Why did so many people, innocent and guilty alike, begin babbling impromptu about Carcosa in abstract terms as this divine, reality-altering revelation, when it was literally an old fort where old men went to commit sex crimes?
Why did a sex cult decide to model itself after a little-read work of weird fiction with no thematic connection to its own aims? (“I know our masks and iconography are modelled after Courir de Mardi Gras, but I actually think it’d be cool if we named ourselves after a cosmic horror city on another planet that was devastated by madness.” “Yeah, great idea, Kyle.”)
I’ve read the Reddit explanations for this stuff, and I find all of it desperate.
The sex cult was active in the kids’ school as well, even though we’re clearly shown that it has other hunting grounds (the school where Errol worked, the Tuttle schools) and the show never gives us any other indication that this is the case.
All of the witnesses were crazy, or they’d been dosed with LSD. That’s why they all talked like that, in exactly the same way.
The show is realist, but it just takes place in an otherwise realistic world where Ligotti and Chambers never existed, so those specific references are meant to be ignored within the world of the show.
Bullshit. We are lying to ourselves when we fill in these gaps with our own scribblings.
And if the explanation for a character’s unexplained, illogical behaviour is ever ‘they were just crazy’, then brother, that character is a crock of shit.
No, all of these scenes and references were deliberately and cynically dropped into the show because they evoke horror. They were brought in to provoke a feeling of existential dread and greater depth that there was never any intention of resolving.
It’s the result of a writer taking advantage of genre tricks and dropping in genre references with no respect or appreciation for them, before ultimately disowning them and detaching himself from them when he’s asked if they're important.
It’s shameless horror carpetbagging. Nothing more.
I’m not just angry, though.
I’m also utterly fascinated by the continuation of this one TV show’s sheepish and cowardly dancing around the edges of the horror genre, like a small child running to the edge of the ocean, dipping its toes in, and then running away again.
True Detective Season 2, Pizzolato originally claimed, would focus on “bad men, hard women, and the secret occult history of the US transportation system”.
Then he rapidly backed off from this idea, in favour of “closer character work and a more grounded crime story.”
We all know how that turned out, of course.
In Season 3, he pulls the same ‘gotcha’ trick as in Season 1, but even more half-heartedly. A child’s body is found in a cave, posed in a position of prayer, surrounded by a trail of sinister chaff dolls - what could it mean?
Don’t worry, though, there’s nothing supernatural going on this time, either.
No, this is just an outlandish tale of drugged-up child-kidnappers whose antics results in an accidental death, and a little girl whose generous supply of creepy horror-themed dolls happened to be the best possible way of alerting the authorities to a dead body.
Whew. Glad we avoided the reductive pitfalls of genre there and stuck to the realist mode.
There will be a Season 4, inevitably.
And I know Pizzolato doesn’t read internet chatter, but on the merest off-chance: why don’t you take the plunge properly into the horror genre next time around, Nic?
It won’t hurt your artistic aspirations. If anything, I think it might enhance them.
Come watch the cactus bloom.
I promise you, it’s beautiful.
PS: For rural American folk horror, I definitely recommend Old Gods of Appalachia.