Powerlessness, Fantasy, Transportation Systems & Lost Masculinity in True Detective 2
(This essay is in 2 parts and is accompanied by a 2-part podcast discussion with Heather Poirier. You can listen to the 1st part, “There Is No Surface,” here. The full essay will be available as an audio download next Wednesday, along with the 2nd part of this piece and the 2nd podcast.)
It’s been a while since I wrote a meta-analysis of popular media (since The Counsellor), but True Detective season 2 is so good that I want to exercise that muscle a bit here. What follows was written at several different stages during the airing and consuming of the season, so it expresses the author’s steadily transforming point of view.
The Psychology of Corruption (Early Impressions)
“In True Detective, the world itself is the crime.”
The show is all about power. The lack of it, the abuse of it, the struggle to get it and then to maintain it; the inevitability of losing it and what happens then. Power and potency.
True Detective writer Nic Pizzolatto has expressed the idea that the show is about characters and not story, but hasn’t epigenetics blown that arbitrary distinction out of the water forever? As above, so below. Any plot maps the internal struggle of the characters to make sense of their world and assuage the existential identity crisis of death-awareness; all forms of violence (all bids for power) are quests for identity, and so on, and so forth.
The show lays this out by showing the symbiosis between the characters’ emotional and sexual issues (dysfunctions) and their abuse of power at a social as well as personal level. The difference between social and personal power abuse is arbitrary and imaginary; politics is always personal, which is why everything is politics. Character is story and society shapes the individual, and vice versa. For example: Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) abuses his police power to track down and beat the father of the boy who bullied his son. By desperately trying to manage the train wreck of his life, he only gets more deeply tangled up with the wreckage.
For me, it was apparent from the first episode (“The Western Book of the Dead”) that season two leveled up from season one. The richness of texture and hue (visually and sensorially it’s the richest TV show I’ve ever seen) and the sheer care that has gone into it is obvious in just about every frame. Beyond that, it is going far deeper into the psychology of corruption. There is no longer the imaginary dividing line between “cops investigating mystery” and “crime being exposed.” Season two is mapping out the landscape of criminality (politics and social engineering) by following the ones on the edges of power, the cops and the smalltime criminals, as they begin to cross over into the perennial twilight of Plutocracy and realize that there is no terrain that doesn’t belong to it—not even the seemingly spiritual (and certainly not the personal or sexual).
Sexual dysfunction in the series is not just a metaphor (it’s all metaphor once you learn—or at least learn about—twilight language), but also both a symptom and a cause of the larger social corruption. Maybe that should read “corruption,” because in True Detective, society and culture are more the agents of rot than the results or victims of it.
In other words, the rot is systemic and endemic, as in a line from Bram Stoker’s Dracula: “Civilization and syphilisation have advanced together.”
Walking Corpses & Poison Containers
In what way does an artwork’s exploration of vice intersect with and deepen one’s own growing recognition of a lifelong complicity with the social horrors being depicted? And how much is enjoying these sorts of media a symptom of and indulgence in that same said complicity, and how much is it leading to an extrication from it? The degree of pain our “entertainment” causes us might be a good measure of that. As Pauline Kael wrote, good art never made anyone feel virtuous.
We get the world and the TV shows we deserve because we aren’t separate from the process by which both world and TV are being generated. To watch a TV show is to co-create it; ditto with social involvement at any level. We are all complicit in the rot because we are all carrying the microorganisms that implement it. It’s not the rot that turns us into walking corpses, however. (By corpses I mean spiritually empty vessels for capitalist agendas to transport their goods through.) It’s the resistance to it, i.e., to the base reality of the body and of death. Death is not the enemy; denial is.
The David Lynch influence on season two is almost embarrassingly obvious but I love it anyway; less obvious but worth mentioning is how the film may have been informed by The Counselor, which both laid the template and raised the bar for exploring the overlap between human exploitation, political graft, metaphysical “evil,” and spiritual or existential crisis and awakening.
True Detective is an existential detective show. The mystery is always a puzzle because existence is a metaphor for something else. Like Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) gazing at the water stains at the start of episode two, something in our environment is nagging at us that we have misinterpreted the data and ended up in a dissociated fantasy, a socially engineered Bardo realm. The world we see is made of papier-mâché, and the crazed need to prop it up and make it seem real is what drives the capitalist machinery. It is all the desperate mental activity (accumulation of wealth and power and sexual gratification) of a boy abandoned by his father in the dark of a basement, with only rats for company. The frantic fantasy enactment of culture is the only way for us to paper over the cracks of the dream and prevent it from dissolving.
Frank is small-time crook who finds himself on the threshold between dream and reality: i.e., in a liminal space. He is suspended between the basic social climbing that everyone is doing, and the inner circles of the Plutocracy where a different criteria applies, where the bid for power has taken over completely and become full-blown pathology, and where any childish doubts and fears about what is real (any possibility of a healing existential crisis) have been banished forever. In their place is the nihilistic conviction that nothing is real, so everything is up for grabs.
Frank doesn’t know what to do with the money he makes because he hasn’t yet reached the level where the real power operates. At that level, money is irrelevant except as a means to control others. Frank’s attempt to level up, and how it is sabotaged by the murder of Caspere, seems to be the main plot engine of True Detective. It’s as if Frank is being prevented from joining the Plutocracy because he’s not one of the club, for whatever reason (maybe he’s not part of the hidden bloodlines, maybe he’s too moral and isn’t willing to cross the lines that have to be crossed; he seems to care about children, which may be the real “prize” at the secret Plutocrat parties). Because he’s denied access, he is forced to level down, and re-forge ties with the petty crime world he left behind (the same world he was trying to level up from), in order not to lose his footing in “reality” entirely.
As far as Frank sees it, the only purpose to having money, beyond his capacity to spend it, is to leave it to his children. But his attempts to have children are thwarted by his own impotence in the face of a plastic cup. (Frank Semyon = Honest Semen?) As the recipients of money, status, and power, children are the Plutocracy’s poison containers: the poison IS the power, so to speak. For Velcoro, his son is his only ostensible reason for living, i.e., for struggling to gain power in the world. Once that relationship is taken from him, he no longer has anything to live for, hence no reason to go along with the power drives which Frank represents.
If Velcoro is the show’s hero, it is only insofar as he begins to act autonomously and not merely as a power-puppet (i.e., controlled by his own trauma-drives). Like Frank in the hospital scene, and Velcoro who is indifferent to women since his wife was raped, the motorcycle cop Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) is also impotent because of his ambiguity about his sexuality, which relates to his past with his mercenary work for Black Mountain (i.e., corporate military power).
Most obscurely of all, the female cop Antigone (Rachel McAdams) has past ties to quasi-spiritual groups, and her childhood involvement with “social research” have manifested in her conflation of sexual freedom with the capacity for violence (she has a thing for knives, a kind of operational penis-envy).
It’s too soon to try and untangle these various snakes, but with any luck the show will do the job, or at least provide enough hints to intuit the shape of the festering ancestral/psychosocial wound that’s being mapped here (and sold as corporate product).
As for “the secret occult history of transportation” (Pizzolatto’s early description of what the show was going to be about) and the recurring aerial shots of highways, it might be worth exploring the metaphoric angle: as above so below. We hear regarding the infrastructure of Vinci that it has become so utterly industrialized that a) it’s a major source of planetary pollution; and b) it has hardly any residents and mostly just workers, and exploited ones at that. This may be hinting at how trauma, sexual and otherwise (abuse of power, social engineering), affects the human nervous system and turns the body into an empty receptacle, a poison container, for inhuman forces (psychic fragments) to possess and utilize. But these are all just guesses.
Midway Slump & Colin Farrell’s Moustache
The only smile Ray Velcoro’s got in him
After writing all of the above, I was severely disappointed by episodes five and six, “Other Lives” and “Church in Ruins.” So much so that my disappointment after episode five seemed to coincide with a several-week descent into depression—just as if I was psychically hardwired to Pizzolatto’s narrative. I guessed there might have been a highly subjective element to my disappointment, however. Since I’d just written about the first four, I was heavily invested in the idea of the show’s brilliance (I got enmeshed); it seemed unlikely to be a coincidence that, immediately after writing about it, my enjoyment of the show bottomed out.
On the other hand, the first four episodes were dense, complex, slow moving, highly atmospheric, difficult to follow or get a read as to where they were going. They were also unremittingly bleak. People complained about it, as well as the unfathomable plotlines. The fifth and sixth show, in contrast, were simple, one-dimensional, with easy to follow storylines and familiar characterizations; even the dialogue seemed more obviously hardboiled and less esoteric. Where had all the nuance gone? They also became linear to the point of total implausibility, and full of tropes. The original team all being demoted or kicked off the squad and then miraculously reassembled into an undercover operation, for example, and how easily and quickly Velcoro finds out about Blake (Frank’s henchman) and his secret dealings. The kitchen showdown between Ray and Frank was nicely done, but it also felt a bit pat: “You may be the only friend I’ve got,” Frank tells Ray, who replies, “How fucked up would that be?” It’s a funny moment, but do we really need it spelled out when the show has done such a great job of subtly indicating that progression already?
I started to wonder if the change in the show could be a corporate reaction to the poor reception it had been getting. Maybe Pizzolatto had a deal with HBO: final cut on the first four episodes, followed by a renegotiation. If the ratings and reviews were good, he could finish it how he wanted. If not, as happened, HBO would move in and re-edit the shows (maybe they even had their own edits ready). People complained about the overly complex plotline and the next thing the shows were simple enough for a twelve-year old to follow them. Viewers didn’t like what a downer it was—all that brooding misery and dysfunctional sexuality—and suddenly we get wall to wall superficial action? Maybe the lesson was simply that a TV show is never going to be a substitute for imagination—much less approximate reality.
What I liked about the first four shows was how starkly they depicted the sheer powerlessness of the characters, even the seemingly powerful ones like Frank. Finding a way to bring this bunch of soul-burned losers into contact with the agents of Plutocracy would have been a real coup, because in reality (as far as I know or can imagine) the two worlds never meet. I wanted to see more about why Frank couldn’t gain access to the upper ranks and what he would have to turn himself into to do so. To see how finding that out might have turned him against the power he was trying to gain, and aligned him with Velcoro (who was fully broken) in powerlessness.
I wanted to see the show move more towards the existential aspects and away from the detection. The fifth and sixth episodes no longer seemed to be going deeper into the characters, and the plot deteriorated accordingly. It started to seem contrived and all by rote, like all it have ever really been about was “doing an edgy TV show.” But then, what had I really expected?
Then with episode seven, “Black Maps and Motel Rooms,” when I’d about given up on it, the show seemed to receive a blood transfusion from somewhere. By the end of that show, True Detective seemed to have got most of its mojo back—the plot was even hard to follow again! I jokingly suggested at a forum that it related to Colin Farrell’s facial hair. After he shaved his moustache and got all clean-cut, the show went to shit. It was as if Farrell’s regained slickness was reflected in the show’s new superficiality. Let’s give them want they want, starting with a clean cut Farrell who doesn’t look like you’d smell him before you’d see him.
By episode seven, Farrell (sounds like feral) was unshaven, unwashed, and looking like something a sewer rat dragged back for lunch. The show was also back in the sewers where it belonged—as if Velcoro’s scumminess and facial growth was the equivalent of Samson’s golden locks.
The final scene of episode seven, the one between Velcoro and Bezzerides, put the show back at the top of existentially-angsty-pulp-crime-drama, where it belonged.
Velcoro: “Do you miss it?”
Velcoro : “Anything.”
I got chills.
At the forum where I was discussing the series, someone commented about the drop-off in veracity in the mid-section of the series, suggesting that “episodes 5 and 6 were so cinematic because the characters were basically dissociating into a Heroic Journey narrative rather than facing how fucked they were. [Episode seven] was the reality check.” He then quoted this exchange between Frank and the Russian gangster who double-crosses him:
Frank: “I had ideas of getting out of this, you know.”
Osip: “There’s no such thing for you, Frank. That world isn’t yours. You manage clubs.”
(Part two of this essay and the accompanying podcast will be available on Wednesday the 19th of August, as well as an audio reading of the full essay.)
 “This is really early, but I’ll tell you (it’s about) hard women, bad men and the secret occult history of the United States transportation system.” http://www.hitfix.com/whats-alan-watching/true-detective-creator-nic-pizzolatto-looks-back-on-season-1/3 In May 2015, Pizzolatto admitted: “There’s definitely bad men and hard women, but no secret occult history of the U.S. transportation system. That was a comment from very early in the process, and something I ended up discarding in favor of closer character work and a more grounded crime story. The complexity of the historical conspiracy first conceived detracted from the characters and their reality, I felt, and those characters are ultimately what have to shape the world and story. So I moved away from that.”
“Do you miss it?”
Was that a Sometimes My Arms Bend Back burp that made it up from his unconscious? What supposed meaning?
Times when I resisted and made war with my sex drive, like it’s something to keep in check or something!
I felt like my body wanted to let out a monster CROAK like it were letting me know just letting me know.
Like them apples?
I NEVER GOT masculinity. SHE’s not AWE? What’s it for? Her? Logic like: I don’t do drugs So I am potent.
I can understand.
Great discussion. I had the experience of watching this show on a sort of subconscious level. I’m terrible at following plots and hate regular police procedural type shows/films. I saw where these could become barriers for others, but I had an instinctual feeling that the writing and story were conveying something it was important for me to take in and understand regardless, so I kept with it. Interesting to see how the first season was mocked with “funny” memes and this one was so angrily derided – both responses seem to come from somewhere deeper than mere cultural criticism. A confrontation of sorts. One scene that really stuck with me was Ray talking to his son about the model airplanes and his son remarking on how he was no longer interested in building them with his dad because he’d come to realize that in real life the machines kill people. Seems particularly relevant to some of the analytical threads explored in this podcast. Looking forward to the second part.
It is relevant & I’d forgotten about it, thanks. Funny thing is you just sort of “know” (I had the thought anyway) that he got that idea (albeit a correct one) from his mother, and all part of the unconscious/conscious attempt to estrange son from father. It was an incredibly poignant moment.
Excellent, excellent analysis. I’ve had such a push and pull relationship with this season, and I realize now it’s all because of my unfair glorification of the first and unrealistic expectations it would unpack the same narrative. But they’re incomparable; utterly different realities.
I, too, was enmeshed in the first four episodes. Yet, as you also perceived, the show morphed into a campy Law-and-Order-ish predictability. I couldn’t believe my eyes and was so frustrated with it I gave up…that is, until I saw this post and an entire podcast dedicated to plumbing whatever depths everyone else was casting off or dismissing (like I was) “because it wasn’t the first season.” I haven’t listened to the whole podcast yet, but I’m wondering what this says that everyone seemed to be trashing this season; past the standard and trite criticisms of acting or dialogue. I also love the idea that HBO mutinied episodes 5 & 6 due to bad ratings.
Having just finished the final episode earlier this afternoon, I was left, quite literally, in somewhat of a catatonic state. I couldn’t rise from the couch and actually passed out for three hours. There was some kind of unconscious trigger for me in that episode, a total catharsis. Your comparison to The Counselor is right on. I am intrigued by your continued fascination with these very gnostic ideas of our world being a matrix (prison?) engineered by a demiurge, a false authority or false reality (I’m trying to avoid using “evil”). Still, both The Counselor and this season of True Detective seem to implicate this idea of an all-pervading and unconquerable “evil”. Any attempt to solve it or make it right is met with doom. It’s classic tragedy: Shakespearean, Lovecraftian, etc. And, considering our present planetary conditions, I can’t disagree!
What I found most original in your analysis was the family psychology: Frank’s father, Ray’s son, Woodrugh’s mother, Antigone’s father, the mayor and his son, etc. This idea that poison (or medicine) is passed on, each generation having to digest and process the ancestral dregs.
Yet, like I said, the last episode drained me, like there was a redemptive power in that tragic realization. A sublime power in accepting our powerlessness.
Also, another thing: the women become the real power-holders in the end, Antigone and Jordan. A laudable change of pace.
This piece was very much a continuation of Seen and Not Seen; and it was rejuvenating because I hadn’t wanted that book to end.
That’s really interesting you had such a similar response, & in so many ways. Remarkable. When I first read this comment I thought, maybe I wrote this in my sleep, it’s a dream reader/listener! (Wouldn’t add up though because our id-entities (Tyler Durdens) are anything but agreeable.)
I think the women were already the real power-holders, and that it only became apparent at the end once the men were physically rather than just psychologically absent. But we get into this (a bit) in part two.