True Detective

I was wrong about this show, and I’m glad to admit it. My confession follows, as written over the last six days.


I’m as intrigued as anyone by HBO’s “True Detective,” to begin with by the performances, or rather by the actors. My question going in was, What did these gifted, dedicated men find in these scripts that was so compelling? I can’t yet answer this question—-but see below—-I suppose because the clunky metaphysics of Rust Cohle’s monologues make me laugh, just when I’m supposed to be paying serious attention. But then maybe it isn’t a laughing matter-—maybe it ain’t metaphysics.

So my question is, are the performances given narrative edges by the sultry, languid, oppressive, and thus seductive atmosphere of the endless swamp that seems not just to surround but to saturate every move of these characters, showing up symptomatically as the worry beads of sweat? Do I want to watch this series because it’s so damn gorgeous, drawing me nearer to Rust and Marty with every aerial or long shot of the bayou? Do I watch because I’m desperate for them to break out of those rooms where their memories have been tested by, then confined to, the legal fictions that bound them as badge-wielding law men?

Hell, yes, to all of the above.

The narrative pace is leisurely, in keeping with the temperature, the humidity, the sea level of the place: everyone and everything is slowly sinking under the weight of some previous mistake, some external mass, whether it’s original sin or the return of the repressed river. Meanwhile, the smaller details of the performances, which are conveyed more immediately by the antithetical physical presences of the partners—-one slim, still, almost whispering, the other bulky, restless, always blustering—-are etched on the huge vegetative background of this location, where they register more materially than in those police procedural rooms. But it’s as if the visual and the verbal dimensions of the story occupy different time zones, or rather the competing cosmic spaces of Cohle’s alcohol-soaked, science-fictional confessions.

I report on these possibly eccentric responses to “True Detective” as a result of Ross Douthat’s NYT blog post, which led me to Andy Greenwald’s mostly snarky but very smart and suggestive reading of the series at the Grantland website, dated January 8, 2014. Here is how Greenwald summarizes his complaint:

“’True Detective’ is in desperate need of [someone] to reflect and maybe modulate the darkness its posters brag about. Someone to provide even a fleeting glimpse of real life. It wouldn’t even necessarily need to be a woman—although that would certainly help, as the few onscreen women who aren’t wearing antlers or grinding on poles are given little to do but get angry or aroused. . . . It would just need to be something genuine and relatable that could float to the show’s dank, oily surface: a joke, a heartfelt desire, a decision not made on either end of a loaded gun. Because despite what recent television trends would have us believe, darkness isn’t a stand-in for depth or maturity. Without light to balance it, darkness is incapable of revealing any profound truths. On its own, darkness merely obscures.”

It’s a brilliant passage because for all its glitter and flourish-—I’ll always remember “a decision not made on either end of a loaded gun”—-it leads us back to the text we’re trying to understand, “True Detective,” and asks us read it more closely. Still, it led me elsewhere, back to another text altogether, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1953).


Let me explain. This term I’m teaching a brand new undergraduate course on historiography. The two required “textbooks” in the class are Karl Lowith, Meaning in History (1949) and Hayden White, The Content of the Form (1987), which, for all their differences, treat the religious, chiliastic, eschatological sources of modern historical consciousness with the seriousness they deserve. Last Friday I taught Lowith’s chapter 9, on Augustine, alongside Auerbach’s chapter 3, “The Arrest of Peter Valvomeres,” where the fresh, realistic voice of The Confessions first emerges to challenge the somber, elevated, classical style of ancient historians like Tacitus and Ammianus Marcellinus. These historians clung to the conventions that allotted different rhetorical registers to the well-born and the lowly—-according to these conventions, the technique of realistic imitation was fit only for the comic depiction of servants or slaves-—but they described the world of late antiquity with a new sensory awareness and intensity.

Ammianus was a former commander of a Roman Legion who wrote in the mid-to-late fourth century A.D., as a contemporary of Augustine. But they were worlds apart, even though they knew the same Rome.

In volume 15 of his histories, Ammianus writes of a Roman mob and the arrest of its ringleader with the distant aplomb of his predecessor Tacitus, in a proudly stoic manner that contrasts the seething, mindless mass led by Peter Valvomeres against the steely, virtuous resolve of Leontius, the prefect who accuses him: “sitting in his carriage, with an imposing confidence, he gazed with piercing eyes into the faces of the packed crowd raging all about like serpents.”

In The Confessions, Augustine writes of the same seething mass, but transposes the contest between bloodlust and virtuous repose to a conflict within the same man, his friend Alypius, an avowed Stoic who, when finally exposed to the spectacle of the gladiatorial amphitheater, can’t resist: “directly he saw that blood, he therewith imbibed a sort of savageness.”

As Auerbach then explains in Augustinian rhythms, “And it is not merely a random Alypius whose pride, nay whose inmost being, is thus crushed; it is the entire rational individualistic culture of classical antiquity: Plato and Aristotle, the Stoa and Epicurus. A burning lust has swept them away, in one powerful assault.”

Ammianus, the good soldier, clings to that rational individualistic culture, but his hold on it is slipping fast, because the pitiless gaze of his imperial eyes—-the elevated style of classical antiquity—-can’t make sense of the ending that is already upon him: with these narrative formulae in hand, he can describe decadence, deformity, cruelty, idiocy, and treachery in great detail, but he can’t respond to these gruesome circumstances with anything more creative than resignation. That is why Auerbach characterizes this historical moment as a rhetorical crisis:

“From the end of the first century of the Imperial Age something sultry and oppressive appears, a darkening of the atmosphere of life. It is unmistakable in Seneca, and the somber tone of Tacitus’ historical writing has often been noted. But here in Ammianus we find that the process has reached the stage of magical and sensory dehumanization.”

The brutally realistic depiction of a similar darkening is what has reanimated television in our time, from “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” to “Breaking Bad” and now “True Detective.” The “difficult men” at the heart of these series are, like Ammianus, stoic observers and resolute narrators—-and yes, practitioners—-of spastic violence drained of public or political purpose. Thanks to Andy Greenwald, I could begin to think of these shows as instances of late imperial romance, as John McClure has characterized the genre in novels (think Robert Stone), as doomed attempts to make sense of ubiquitous and yet random violence. Here, then, is the pivotal passage in Mimesis that Greenwald drove me back to:

“Ammianus’ world is very often a caricature of the normal human environment in which we live; very often it is like a bad dream. This is not simply because horrible things happen in it—-treason, torture, persecution, denunciations: such things are prevalent in almost all times and places . . . . What makes Amminanus’ world so oppressive is the lack of any sort of counterbalance. For if it is true that man is capable of everything horrible, it is also true that the horrible always engenders counterforces and that in most epochs of atrocious occurrences the great vital forces of the human soul reveal themselves: love and sacrifice, heroism in the service of conviction, and the ceaseless search for possibilities of a purer existence. Nothing of the sort is to be found in Ammianus. Striking only in the sensory, resigned and as it were paralyzed despite its stubborn rhetorical passion, his manner of writing history nowhere displays anything redeeming, nowhere anything that points to a better future, nowhere a figure or an act about which stirs the refreshing atmosphere of a greater freedom, a greater humanity.” [my italics]

That’s the fundamental difference between Ammianus and Augustine, who witnessed the same decline of the same Roman Empire. The new atmosphere conjured in The Confessions both presupposed and predicted a profound change of moral climate—-something redeeming, something waiting on a distant horizon of nonetheless urgent expectation. That’s not the difference between Cohle and Hart, the stoic and the cynic, at least to begin with, nor the difference between Jimmy McNulty and Bunk Moreland (“The Wire”), and it’s not the difference between Walter White and Jesse Pinker (“Breaking Bad”), either.


In any case, it’s the possibility of a change in moral climate-—I don’t know how else to put it—-that Andy Greenwald asks us to consider when he states: “Without light to balance it, darkness is incapable of revealing any profound truths. On its own, darkness merely obscures.” I have enlisted Auerbach to emphasize Greenwald’s point, and to amplify my own complaint about “True Detective,” but we’re addressing rhetorical worlds separated by seventeen centuries. What is the point of this juxtaposition?

As it turns out, we’re actually addressing the same rhetorical world. Auerbach is explaining the intellectual darkness that fell on late imperial Rome, and suggesting that Augustine’s unlikely alternative carried the day. Greenwald is explaining the darkness that has fallen on late imperial America, and pleading for an Augustinian alternative. Both are claiming that the received tradition—-the narrative convention of the time—-represses and mutilates such an alternative.

In these terms, Rust Cohle is the stand-in for the unhappy consciousness of late imperial America. He’s the Ammianus Marcellinus for our time—-the stoic who knows only darkness because he has suffered the loss of a child, then seen too much depravity as an undercover narc, yet is willing to soldier on. But he’s also a stand-in for H. P. Lovecraft, the sci-fi writer whose stubborn rhetorical passion was the creation of insanely profuse psycho-topographic landscapes which invariably translate the interiors of his characters into exteriors, or rather read the former as the latter.

Rust speaks Lovecraft, as Michael M. Hughes has shown in a wonderfully detailed analysis of Episodes 2 and 3. ( When Cohle reads aloud to Marty from the murdered Dora Lange’s journal, he is quoting Dora’s citation of Robert Chambers, whose 1895 collection of short stories called The King in Yellow was practically copied into later short fictions by H. P. Lovecraft. “I closed my eyes and saw the King in Yellow,” Dora has written in crayon, “moving through the forest.”

Indeed Lovecraft’s “cosmic despair” is precisely what Nic Pizzolatto, the creator and writer of the series, has told the Wall Street Journal he wants to express in his story. Lovecraft himself explained such despair this way: “A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable outer, unknown forces . . . a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”

For Lovecraft, this suspension or defeat of natural laws led only inward and backward, toward the bad dreams of his childhood, which he always insisted were his primary literary antecedent, or—-as in Poe, another antecedent—-toward the madness of characters who couldn’t bear the weight of any past. Either way, the outer world, in all its increasingly unnatural malignance, would be left intact. Reporting on or retreating from this world was the only conceivable response—-it could not be redeemed, in words or deeds. Here darkness falls, over and over.

So Greenwald and I were right, up to this point. Ammianus had returned to haunt the bayou via the tortured soul of Rust Cohle, always the stoic witness to what would never change. His rhetorical paralysis is on display in those droning, sophomoric monologues, lifted directly by Pizzolatto from Lovecraft’s delirious cosmogony. The sodden, sunken, rotten landscape of “True Detective,” where every creature or object is another sign of both decay and danger, this bayou is a febrile projection worthy of Lovecraft at his worst, and of Ammianus at his best. It’s where Rust’s cosmic despair-—his unhappy consciousness, his unbending stoicism—-gets written as the brittle alternative to death and/or chaos. It’s what I came to watch, anyway.


But only up to a point. The last episode is a powerful retort to Greenwald’s complaint, and mine, and, as such, it departs decisively from its rhetorical origins in “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad,” and, equally important, from the science fiction peddled by Lovecraft. With extraordinary production design and cinematography, the last episode revisits Lovecraft’s profuse subterranean grottoes, where the story typically ends with the revelation—-not the solution-—of long-buried crimes. But suddenly it breaks out of the narrative conventions those cable precedents, and previous episodes of “True Detective,” and Lovecraft himself, had perfected.

Just when we think the reunited partners are both as good as dead, an Augustinian alternative erupts from the grotesque psycho-topography of post-Katrina America. Darkness recedes as the bright arc of a flare bends toward the portal of the ancient rotunda where the original sinner, the man with the scars, has always tortured and slain his helpless victims-—where Rust and Marty, having killed that man, now wait helplessly for rescue, that is, redemption.

Hart the skeptic and the cynic has led us to this place. He’s the man who, once upon a time, responded to every provocation with the kind of sharp physical gestures that bordered on violence, and sometimes spilled over. Now his thickened body moves slowly, painfully, deliberately, at the pace his partner used to set. He finds the key that unlocks the case by comparing shades of green paint in case file photographs-—by looking at old pictures.

In the final scene, Marty gently leads us toward another place, the place we’re supposed to be, in the here and now, but now armed with hope. He does so by changing the subject, or, if you like, the narrative key. Rust wants to talk about the ineffable “substance” he entered on the verge of death, where he could feel his daughter’s love. Marty lets him say his ontological piece, as always, and then reminds him of Alaska, where the boy Rust used to make up stories while watching the stars. He’s trying to bring that boy back to life, back to this life.

“It’s just one story,” Rust says, “The oldest.”

“What’s that?”

“Light versus dark.”

Then we know Marty is bringing us back to this life, not some other-worldly aftermath, because he looks up, toward heaven, but he refuses its rewards, he says,

“Well, I know we ain’t in Alaska, but it appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory.”

“Yeah,” Rust says, “you’re right about that.”

That’s where the cable precedents, and previous episodes, would have ended. That’s where I thought this was ending. Darkness falls, over and over. There is no alternative to stoic resignation in view of the grotesque realities that constitute our time.

Then Marty hoists Rust out of the wheelchair, and the two of them limp toward nothing more than a parking lot. And now Rust speaks the naïve truth of the faith they’ve discovered.

“You’re lookin’ at it wrong,” he says, “the sky thing.”

“How’s that?”

“Once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winnin’.’”

Me, too.



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3 responses to “True Detective

  1. I hope you don’t mind my saying this, but I think this is wonderful. Of course of all the books and shows you’re writing about, all I’ve read or seen is a little of Confessions. I’ll probably never go further than that (although I’d love to cheat with some more Livingston on Auerbach) , but I’m grateful for them for having led to this piece.

  2. Joanna Bujes

    Despair is a middle class luxury; the poor can’t afford it.

    I don’t know that I would class Wire, Breaking Bad, Sopranos, and Detective in the same bag. Wire stands out for me. It’s more than soap opera.

    But your discussion of Augustine, Ammianus, and Auerbach is superb. Thank you.

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