The Power of Blackness: True Detective

 At all events, perhaps no writer has ever wielded this terrific thought with greater terror than this same harmless Hawthorne. Still more: this black conceit pervades him, through and through. You may be witched by his sunlight,–transported by the bright gildings in the skies he builds over you;–but there is the blackness of darkness beyond; and even his bright gildings but fringe, and play upon the edges of thunder-clouds.–In one word, the world is mistaken in this Nathaniel Hawthorne. He himself must often have smiled at its absurd misconceptions of him. He is immeasurably deeper than the plummet of the mere critic. For it is not the brain that can test such a man; it is only the heart. You cannot come to know greatness by inspecting it; there is no glimpse to be caught of it, except by intuition; you need not ring it, you but touch it, and you find it is gold.

That is Herman Melville, offering a reading of Nathaniel Hawthorne that is at least as much a reading of Melville himself—the man who shortly would offer up one of the handful of contenders for the Great American Novel, that shaggy-fish story Moby-Dick. He is explicitly contrasting Hawthorne the conventional author—with his comfortable mosses, his quaint villages—with the subversive Hawthorne who peeks through the cracks (or loudly trumpets his own presence, as in the case of “Young Goodman Brown”). For Melville, the real Hawthorne—the essential Hawthorne—is this second, often-concealed, Hawthorne who is aware of and obsessed with the darkness—Melville calls it the “blackness”—which Calvinism, especially, holds is at the center of humanity.

Certainly, this conventional/subversive Hawthorne is miles removed from much contemporary crime drama. There is in the Red Riding trilogy no comfort (unless you count the final scenes, and there is reason not to); there is in Seven or Silence of the Lambs or L.A. Confidential very little to disguise the fact that these are dark narratives of a dark world, a world obsessed with the filth that bubbles up from the hidden recesses of the human soul. And True Detective, the much-lauded and much-condemned HBO foray into nourish crime, certainly seems to be of a piece with these other works. In fact, I want to nail my colors to the mast from the beginning and insist that what makes True Detective good is not that it strays from the tried-and-true formula. Quite the opposite. This is an intensely generic show. I don’t mean that in the pejorative sense. I mean, True Detective demands to be watched with an awareness of other works within the crime genre. Again, the touchpoints are pretty obvious: ZodiacL.A. Confidential, Chinatown, and so on. The show virtually apes the Red Riding trilogy plot point for plot point (I spent at least half my time in the last two episodes mentally ticking off similarities: corrupt preacher, check; male prostitute as a key to the mystery, check; storage locker as ditto, check; people with animal faces?–what about the Badger, the Owl, and the lovely swans under the carpet?). Which isn’t to say that TD is ripping off RR so much as that they’re both in the same generic universe–the uncanny/strange world of Badgers and spaghetti-faced monsters. TD differs stylistically, of course; where RR is murky and uncertain, TD is shot with the cold precision of late-period Fincher.  

The last couple of episodes are especially interesting–structurally different from the first half of the season, since the flashback conceit is abandoned–and going full-throated Faulknerian Gothic. I mean, the mentally challenged illegitimate child of an aristocratic family living amid the ruins of the Old Southern past. Now where have I heard that before? And there’s more: Absalom, Absalom! adopts a similar structure–it’s essentially (as C. Hugh Holman observed) a detective story, in which Quentin Compson and his roommate sift conflicting stories and attempt to arrive at some sort of truth, though Faulkner being Faulkner and not Ellery Queen, whatever truth they arrive at is compromised by uncertainty. Kind of like True Detective, which warned viewers early on that the temptation to construct narrative is powerful and misleading (and I wonder if this isn’t why some viewers found the end disappointing. There is, in the end, no devastating truth to be found. These detectives can only follow so far, can only resolve one part of the puzzle). What’s conventional about True Detective is the fact that–unlike Absalom, Absalom!–or, to take another obvious touchpoint, Zodiac–this show does offer answers. A more daring series might have let the whole thing end without any answers at all. But, then again, such a series wouldn’t last a season.

Then there’s the other texts–the Lovecraft, the Chambers–explicit references to which misled some viewers into thinking they were getting a Twin Peaks-style voyage to the Black Lodge (although there is a Black Lodge here, perhaps several, only the most obvious of which betrays a debt to another generic masterpiece of murder and incest—Psycho). Anyone looking for a sudden descent [or ascent] into metaphysical speculation will be disappointed to discover that the murders at the heart of True Detective are committed, not by devotees of a dark god, but by that most stereotypical of all Southern figures—the inbred redneck. But perhaps that is the point. What True Detective does is, I think, more interesting in some ways in that it doesn’t rationalize the Lovecraftian monsters–it irrationalizes the everyday world. This is, of course, an impulse deeply embedded in the genre itself; the mystery of why Poe would concoct such a thoroughly rational genre, given his other interests, is actually quite solvable once we realize that his whole theory of ratiocination is a sham. It’s an exercise in myth-making, in projecting the dark world of uncertainty onto the increasingly formalized and normalized world of the City. And True Detective taps in to that impulse, like other masterpieces of the sub-genre do (ZodiacSeven–Fincher, again–Red Riding, Chinatown).

But all of this means that, viewed by itself, True Detective might seem curiously hollow in a way that other prestige-genre shows (The Wire, possibly Game of Thrones) do not. Because it’s less of a text than an intertext–it’s consciously grappling with questions, not about the Human Condition ™ but about the genre itself. It’s riffing and remixing dozens of tropes and cliches, and much of its power comes from the unexpected combinations, the sudden reversals of generic expectations. Or the reversal of the expectation of reversal–since, of course, there is no twist. This is very deliberate; this show is an experiment in over-doing things. The faux-philosophical conversations that run throughout the show strike me as a perfect example of this tendency: The bleak nihilism of Cohle is slightly more sophisticated than the ramblings of a Nietzsche-addled teenager, but it’s delivered with such intensity and focus that it becomes, itself, a manifestation of the Lovecraftian horror that elsewhere shows up in the mysterious sacrifices in the woods (this latter being a direct lift from “The Call of Cthulhu”—and, ultimately, perhaps from “Young Goodman Brown”).

Put another way, True Detective is not a show “about ideas” so much as it is a show about being a show about ideas. There is something very ostentatious about Cohle’s monologues, and the fact that his rants are nearly always cut off by the insistent hurrumphing of his partner should clue us in to the fact that the show, at least, does not take Cohle as seriously as he takes himself. Like the generic trappings, like the palmed bits of Lovecraft and other authors of Cosmic Horror, Cohle’s metaphysical ruminations are, in the end, window-dressing. The entire show is a perfect example of style as substance—it is an object whose subject is itself and its effect on the audience.

And what is its effect? Why does a show that is so steeped in generic conventions and faux-Nietzsche philosophy have such an undeniable and terrible appeal? Part of it is, of course, the fact that these tropes and clichés work because they do move us on an animal level. But there may be something more. The real root of True Detective‘s horror is not the murder, not the Gothic trappings, not the ritual sacrifices–it’s Cohle himself. As on-the-nose as his arguments might be, as predictable as they seem, they have a certain power–perhaps only for a certain kind of person–because, deep down, I think most people are deathly afraid that Cohle might be right. Indeed, this is the deep fear at the heart of all our loathing of banality—not simply impatience with triteness, but a secret perhaps unacknowledged fear that the trite answer might be the correct one after all. The very emptiness of his arguments is more horrifying than anything he says. And that’s another way in which complaints about the plot-resolution are misguided; it was never about the plot. The plot, the murders, the murderer, are all avatars of a creeping dark thing at the center of the universe (I’m thinking now of a passage from The Idiot), which has consumed or will consume or threatens to consume even the most Perfectly Good Being there is. This is Azathoth, if we want to get Lovecraftian again:

 [O]utside the ordered universe [is] that amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity—the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time and space amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes

Azathoth is a blind, mindless god, ruling a universe that resolves ultimately into a chaos of mindless forces that will in the end roll over humanity and consume it. Cohle’s banal philosophizing isn’t the testimony of a man who has thought deeply about the world and come to certain conclusions about the nature of reality; rather, the fact that he mouths such trite sentiments, such pretentious claptrap, says more about the mindless fate that rules over his universe than any number of words could. He is, in a real sense, dangerously close to becoming the Unman of Perelandra.

That True Detective backs abruptly away from this nihilism may or may not be an artistic flaw; certainly, there has been more than enough debate online over how unambiguously positive the ending actually is. For myself, I’m not certain that it matters in the end whether True Detective actually comes down on the side of the light winning; as Catherine Ross Nickerson points out, the ending of a detective story is almost always the least interesting point; what matters is what happens in the middle. That True Detective is able to interface blatant Cosmic Horror with the crime genre at all–without tipping over into supernatural/science fictional elements–is, I think, very remarkable indeed. True Detective isn’t the best example of this sort of thing (my money will always be on the Red Riding trilogy), but it’s a strong effort, and one worth paying attention to.