The World Itself (True Detective Exegesis 2)

The Core Conspiracy at the Shredded Heart of True Detective


Ray Velcoro goes down

(PDF of full article here. This essay is also accompanied by a 2-part podcast discussion with Heather Poirier. You can listen to the 2nd part, “Your Own Personal Underworld,” as well as an audio reading of the essay here.)

The core conspiracy at the shredded heart of True Detective 2 is that of absented dads and failed fathers.

Both Ray and Woodrugh (though Ray doesn’t know it when he dies) leave unborn children in their bloody wake—sons (at least if Woodrugh’s child is a boy child) who will grow up fatherless. The show ends with the only two surviving leads, both females (Antigone and Frank’s moll, Jordan), carrying Ray’s baby into a Virgin Mary celebration in the Venezuelan night. The two power-women are escorted by a male servant—Frank’s only surviving henchman, Nails—a man only in the most primitive sense of warrior-protector, and certainly no father or husband.

Velcoro dies because he chooses to risk everything to say goodbye to his teenage son. He needs to be the father he couldn’t be at least once before he goes. The decision seems insane at first, and willfully self-destructive. But it’s also logical. The moment in which Velcoro chooses to be a good father is the moment when the forces of destruction set in motion long ago finally catch up to him. He really has no choice.

Frank Semyon has tried but been unable to father a child. When he dies, it is haunted by his own father’s rage and verbal abuse. He is surrounded and hounded by black men, and then takes his last steps towards a fantasy projection of Jordan, his wife—an internalized image of the lost object of the mother’s body, a momentary distraction in the desert of the real, where his body lays down to die. These final sequences tore me up internally. By the end of the last episode I felt gutted, unwilling to move. Was this what maleness had come to? Was the only form of heroism a senseless death by violence? Like God, the father, the male is defined by his lack of meaningful definition. He is found only through his absence. Hell.

Velcoro’s wife finds out that her son was also his son, and not the child of the rapist, as she, and we, had suspected, and as Ray had so deeply feared.  It’s not so much that she misjudged Ray or the situation as that she couldn’t see beyond it. Velcoro’s corruption became inseparable to her from the soul that had been corrupted. She was blinded by disappointment—where was the man she married? It became as if there was no difference between him as the father and the violent thug who raped her. Ray’s death clears out that misperception as only death can do it. Bezzerides, on the other hand, sees Velcoro for what he is; she sees past the layers of scum he has picked up along the way. Being able to see that is what allows Velcoro —what compels him—to let go. The sum total of his actions until then (as with Frank) makes the violent ignominy of his death, not just inevitable but right.

There is no sunset to ride into. There is no princess waiting on the pier. One kiss can’t transform the toad. That only works in fairy tales. Or only when it’s the kiss of death.


Frank’s death ride

Pain is a Concept by Which We Measure Our Soul (The Bringers of Bacon)


Corporatized man

I doubt if many people will see what I saw in True Detective 2. Maybe it isn’t there to see for most people, who see instead just another violent pulp fantasy that ends badly. Some people will be disappointed that it doesn’t explore or expose the conspiracy behind American society more thoroughly or persuasively. But by expecting the impossible from a TV show, they may have missed the real miracle. The plot, so tantalizingly labyrinthine, promising so much by way of grand revelations in the first four episodes, has by the end become (for me at least) almost superfluous. Pizzolatto moves deftly past his desire to create a scorching, scathing sociopolitical examination of capitalist society, into something simpler, cleaner, rawer, and immeasurably more heart and gut-wrenching. He creates a human tragedy while no one is looking. It will probably be Greek to most people.

The personal is political and vice versa. The incapacity of Woodrugh, Velcoro, and Semyon to be fathers, or even lovers, is inextricably bound up with the socially engineered environment (the conspiracy) that has turned all men into host bodies—transporters of capitalist goods, factory slaves, civil servants, cops and/or gangsters. They have been made useless to women and children in anything but the most basic survival sense, as the bringers of bacon. Strip a man of everything that makes him a man—of his independence, his autonomy, and his sense of being a dynamic sexual force for the good, a procreative force—and reduce him to a “productive” member of society, what you end up with is a force of destruction, of self or other. What drives the plot of True Detective 2? The actions of a criminally orphaned son who wears a mask of death which is also a bird (a crow): the masculine death force dressed up in the symbolic imagery of the soul, signifying also the feminine. (There may be another major clue in the mysterious female found floating in milk at Caspere’s house, actually a projected image artwork by Peter Sarkisian, called “White Water, 1999.” And also a clue in the lyrics to the Raveonettes song, “Kill,” featured in episode 2.[1])

If people didn’t “get” True Detective 2—if all of this subtlety, nuance, pathos, and personal pain is lost on them, to be honest I’m sort of glad about that. Works of art aren’t meant for mass consumption—at least they aren’t meant for mass understanding. What’s required is participation and complicity: a willingness to revisit and reawaken our own deeply buried pain and loss, to relive it through the work, and so enliven not just the work but ourselves. That process hurts. A TV show that has the cojones to go there, not only isn’t it likely to get rewarded for it, it shouldn’t be rewarded for it. Art ain’t a social service, and it’s not (really) entertainment either. It’s a dark kind of science; the Greeks even had laws to regulate it.

I wonder what Pizzolatto would say if he read that True Detective 2 exposes the hold which the image of the lost object of the mother’s body (the world, mass media, government, crime, even “spirituality”) has on the male psyche—and how that “Freudian” fixation prevents men everywhere from stepping into their own embodiment in anything besides some media-fueled fantasy of maleness, in a hail of bullets beneath the redwoods or a long walk to nowhere in the desert. Or if someone told him that it shows, in devastating and stark detail, how the corporate conspiracy of the world is run by unfathered sons, and by the hand that rocks the cradle. (Bezzerides carries the newborn on her chest, Venezuelan-style: at least she’s done with cradles.) Honestly, I would be pleasantly surprised if he was consciously trying to convey any of these meanings; but I’d be even more surprised (and not so pleasantly) if he didn’t feel an electric jolt of recognition to hear them laid out like this.

Whatever Pizzolatto was working through in his own interior space, the season finale of True Detective 2 (“Omega Station”) packs a wallop unlike anything I’ve ever seen on “prime time TV.” It left me with the sort of internal bleeding that signals that something tremendous has just happened. This piece is the proof of it (I’m shitting blood). As it progressed, the series moved further and further from existential-intellectual probing or sociopolitical “exposé,” into an almost unbearable dramatic tension and an unprecedentedly raw emotional space. For the three male leads to die—Woodrugh at the end of episode seven and Semyon and Velcoro simultaneously at the end of the last episode—was a lot more than just a bold creative move on Pizzolatto’s part. By the end, it became largely what the show was about—the inevitability of that tragic ending gave meaning to everything that came before.

Pizzolatto’s “trick,” his art, was in making us care so much about these characters that we were willing to hope that he might go against the integrity of his vision and give us the ending that a TV show is supposed to give us, “reality” be damned. He made us want that and believe it was possible. Yet in the midst of the hope is the dim sense of futility: we know it’s neither possible nor really desirable, that it’s not desirable because it’s not possible. “Truth,” integrity of narrative, trumps fantasy every time, regardless of the cost. Because when illusions die, nothing is lost and everything is regained.

I suspect Pizzolatto wanted to rescue his characters from the inexorable fate he had condemned them to; maybe he even wanted it as badly as he needed us to want it from him. But having created something that lived independently of his own desires—like everything that truly lives, that can no longer be a carrier for someone else’s desires—he was powerless to do anything about it. True Detective shows powerlessness at every level, from the social and political to the spiritual. It shows the impotence of male-female fantasy to create its own reality no matter how hard it tries, or to escape the consequences of the real, and why that’s a reason to be grateful .

The soul-deep burning of True Detective is a kind of celebration, because the pain, in its very indescribability, lets us know there is a soul to burn.


Frank Semyon’s long walk to nowhere

[1] “I never saw my dad on a midnight wave/Ripping in the darkness wild/I never saw my dad on a girlless beach/I never ever thought I would/I never met my dad in a loving dream/Smiling in the moonless night/One time I saw my dad fuck a redhead whore/I never ever thought I would/Are you gonna leave me/Are you now/Do you feel that it’s ok/To leave a boy to drown/In this violent swell/Never gonna see you again”

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