A backwoods locale. Ad hoc, corpse-strewn decor, full of symbols that are meaningless except to the maniacs who made them. Incest. (As opposed to a certain other HBO show in which intrafamilial fucking involves some of the most attractive human beings alive, incest is here presented as repulsive, both the cause and the effect of generations of murderous, sexually assaultive inbreeding.) For all their sleuthing, Marty Hart and Rustin Cohle could have found their killer in the horror section of their local video store. Well, back in ’95, anyway, when video stores still existed.
By loading its season finale with these familiar tropes, True Detective firmly situates Errol William Childress, aka the Yellow King, not in Carcosa, but in the redneck-horror tradition of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, or even Deliverance. By locating its human monsters in the countryside, far from the supposedly corrupting influence of the modern city, this horror subgenre makes the argument that America’s rot spreads up and out from the core. As Errol’s sister-lover might put it, it’s all around us: before you were born, after you die.
Of course, those movies were around before you were born, too. Like the tunnels of Carcosa, this is territory that’s been returned to time and time again. True Detective is not a trailblazer, which was clear from the very beginning. (Time is indeed a flat circle.) This story’s very much a creature of its genre, of its influences and clichés. Some of them are real effin’ groaners, too: The bit where a throwaway comment from one Rust just happened to contain the word that gives Marty the eureka moment that broke the case (“Like we’re totally green” — green ears — green paint — CASE CLOSED!) is the kind of shopworn shortcut crime writers make fun of each other for trying to get away with. (It almost feels unfair to mention the “shit…can’t get a signal” thing.)
No, it’s execution, not originality, that distinguishes True Detective in the end. It’s Rust running the usual line of if-anything-happens-to-me bullshit about packages going out to the media and snipers with posthumous contracts — then proving it’s not bullshit at all. (Beat that, Heisenberg.) It’s the camera whirling around Rust like a flat circle when he steps out of his car at his destination, telling us before even he can that we’ve arrived at Carcosa. It’s the nightmare image of Errol standing, isolated, in the field behind his house, terrifying simply by virtue of existing. It’s in the contrast between Rust and Marty as they make their way through the Childress homestead: Rust is calm, like he’s coming home, but Marty appears to focus on every detail — a veritable chandelier of pine-scented air fresheners trying and failing to overpower the squalor, a mountain of discarded children’s clothing with no children in sight — and reacting with horror. It’s in the image of a flare tracing a path across the flat circle of the well; it’s not a black star rising, but it’ll do.
And like the killer it chronicled, True Detective‘s strongest suit was in drawing the people around it into his delusional world. The mental journey of the Yellow King’s “acolytes” Reggie and Dewall Ledoux tracks that of many of the show’s viewers — on both sides of the screen, people came to believe that we were headed for a rendezvous with a genuine mystical and malevolent entity. Instead it turned out to be just as fake as the Downton Abbey accents the killer tried on. No matter how good he was at preserving the life of his abusive father Se7en-style, Billy Lee’s menace was no more derived from a Lovecraftian entity than the Son of Sam’s was from a genuine chat with his neighbor’s dog.
This, I think, was the greatest trick the show ever pulled. A colossal bait-and-switch wherein a hardboiled crime thriller turned out to be a supernatural horror story would have been fun, sure. (A twist ending less so, and this episode took those theories out back and hatcheted them in the head like Errol’s dog.) But how often have you seen a crime drama that, however briefly, made you suspect that the killer’s delusions, though they were in fact delusions, might have been real? That’s a goddamn achievement. The power of True Detective lies not in the macho-man rapport between Rust and Marty, nor the cheap and kinda hard-to-swallow cynicism of the “big fish got away” resolution of the crime, nor Rust’s climactic come-to-metaphysical-Jesus moment. (You think he saw the light from Lost?) And it exists even though Maggie never amounted to much more than the person who came between the heroes, even though Papania and Gilbough existed only to mop up. Whatever its faults, and they were many, True Detective‘s power lies in the way it made us feel when we watched it. Like Rust and Marty, we’ll always have the memory of being drawn into its dark territory.
Last week: Face Facts