March 8, 2014


"True Detective": Down the Bayou (Far From Any Road) : Landscape, sacrifice, and American horror (Jacob Mikanowski, 3/08/14, LA REview of Books)

For some viewers, True Detective never gets past the limits of its cop-show roots. To Grantland's Andy Greenwald, the show only works when it focuses on actual detective work. Otherwise it's a pretentious mess, a clich├ęd, anguished male-psychodrama in which "darkness isn't a stand-in for depth or maturity." For The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum, it's more of the same old thing: "macho nonsense" and "dorm-room deep talk," a triumph of style over substance, an "ominous atmosphere" covering up a "phony duet."

It's certainly possible to see True Detective as nothing more than a collection tics and gestures -- an assembly of country songs, attractive photographs, and loopy speeches, overlaid with some oddball philosophy for the illusion of depth. But I don't think that's right. I think True Detective, as a whole, is gesturing at something larger. And I think that dismissing something on the basis of style or genre is a mistake. Offbeat genres like murder ballads and B-movie noirs and cop shows allow for the exploration of things that high art can't attempt: secret histories, submerged passions, primal fears. Pulp is an art of extreme possibility. There's a reason philosophers gravitate to weirdoes like H.P. Lovecraft, and why songs like "Pretty Polly" have depths that go unplumbed no matter how often they're sung.

Old forms can conceal deep meanings. True Detective draws on various strains of American horror -- rural noir, Lovecraft's cosmic nightmares, Chambers's stories of madness and concealed identity. But what it reminds me of most is something older: Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," a short story that Melville called deeper than Dante, and that Greil Marcus has invoked in discussing Twin Peaks.

The story is set in Puritan New England -- in Salem, Massachusetts, to be exact. In it, Goodman Brown, a pious young man, ventures into the woods one night on an unknown errand, leaving his young wife, Faith, behind in town. On his walk, he meets an older man who looks much like himself, carrying what looks to be a wizard's staff. The older man knows Brown comes from reputable stock: his grandfather whipped a Quaker woman through the streets of Salem, and his father set fire to Indian villages in King Philip's War. Not long after, Brown meets another person from town, Goody Cloyse, who reveals herself to be a witch. Soon, Brown is aloft, flying towards an unseen clearing. All the townspeople are there, celebrating in front of a flame-lit altar which may or may not be full of blood. He recognizes a score of church members, "grave, reputable and pious people, elders of the church." All the people Brown grew up respecting are secretly in the Devil's company. The old men are wanton seducers; the young women sacrifice infants. Their waking lives are lies. As the assembly readies to baptize its newest members, Brown cries out -- and comes to, alone in the forest, not knowing whether what he had seen was a dream. He lives to the end of his days as a broken man. After his death, Hawthorne writes, "they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone; for his dying hour was gloom."

Myth divides the world into the security of civilization and the wilderness of danger. The woods are full of witches and the swamps are full of ghosts. In "Young Goodman Brown" Hawthorne -- whose own ancestors were active in the witch trials -- undoes the structure of myth, exposing a deeper terror. The Puritans expected the threat to their spiritual community to come from the surrounding forest. The woods were the space of danger: of Indians, of paganism, of witchcraft, and sin. In "Young Goodman Brown," Hawthorne tells us plainly that the woods are never outside. The community that seems righteous is always criminal, and complicit. As True Detective heads towards its final episode, it looks increasingly like the Yellow King isn't Chthulu or a mysterious swamp god. Instead, the perpetrator is a family, its associates, its churches, schools, police officers and public officials and servants and custodians. Evil is woven into the fabric of everyday life. To some, that might be a disappointment. To me, it harks back to the original American horror story: the discovery that the woods are in the town, and the swamp is in our minds.

We're all in Carcosa now. 

For me, at least, the point of the whole exercise is that Kohle doesn't actually believe in the pessimism he espouses.  At the revival tent they visit he attacks religion as a dupe for the boobs and says to Marty:

What's it say about life hm? You gotta get together, tell yourself stories that violate every law of the universe, just to get through the goddamn day? Nah. What's that say about your reality Marty?

But Marty takes him aback by saying that when Rust talks like that he sounds panicky.  

And when Rust comes back years later to re-open the investigation he portrays it as an obligation to do justice.  Likewise, Marty's wife talks about how much she respects him because he is so committed.  It's all well and good to be pessimistic about the state of the world and how it turns out in the long run, but if you fight against evil you are acting on faith.

Posted by at March 8, 2014 7:08 AM

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