“I seen all the different types – we all fit a certain category. The bully. The charmer, the, uh… surrogate dad, the man possessed by ungovernable rage, the brain, and… any of those types could be… a good detective and any of those types could be an incompetent shitheel.”
“Which type were you?”
“Oh, I was just a regular-type dude. With a bigass dick.”
“I can’t say the job made me this way. More like me being this way made me right for the job. I used to… think about it more, but… you know, you reach a certain age, you know who you are.”
When the first season of True Detective was released, even when it wasn’t specifically dismissed as generic (as in, oh great, another show about comically mismatched cops solving a brutal crime), a lot of criticisms seemed to revolve around the amount of imagination put into it; the solution to the mystery, the particular kind of masculine worldview, and the so-called plagiarism of Thomas Ligotti. Speaking as someone with a deep appreciation for novelty and uniqueness, ‘originality’ is an overrated virtue in fiction, and I find these criticisms not only miss the mark on what makes the first season of True Detective great television, they mostly miss the mark on what brings the story a step down from masterpiece level.
Ignoring plot, character, and theme entirely, this is a beautiful series, sometimes to the point of bringing me to tears. The visuals seem to be the most universally celebrated aspect of the series; Cary Fukunaga goes quite spectacular when he wants to – my favourite image is a hallucination Rust has of birds that suddenly seem to move like a cloud of locusts – but just on a moment-to-moment level, I love the texture of the series; you can almost feel the clothes and the carpet and the sun beating down on everyone. And I love spending time in Nic Pizzolatto’s voice; Rust’s quotes have generally gotten more meme traction, but I’m often moved by what Marty has to say, and the whole show is infused with that roundabout Southern fried way of speaking, a natural tendency towards politeness and grace that can be skillfully broken with a careful placement of the word ‘ass’, and when writing down quotes that I liked or wanted to use, it was fun to work out how to properly punctuate it to match the actor’s deliveries.
Granted, I have the bias of being someone who thinks ‘buddy cops’ are second only to ‘assholes on a spaceship’ in terms of a great premise, but I think combining this particular aesthetic over a formulaic genre premise is a worthy goal in its own right, and I think the creative team put sufficient work in to deliver not just the basic pleasures of the genre, but those pleasures at their maximum level of nuance and sophistication. I watch buddy cop stories because I like watching two seemingly incompatible people come together to solve a problem (‘assholes on a spaceship’ does the same thing with a bigger group and also in space); The Shield covered this kind of story in scope, with a big network of cops who each had their own skills and styles, and TD sacrifices that scope for intensity. Rust and Marty are each individually great detectives, and the show really sells that these are both intelligent men in vastly different ways without making either of them superhumanly competent or superhumanly incompetent. The first sign that we’re watching something great comes about five minutes into the first episode: Rust lays out his early theory for the murder the two are investigating, cross-checking symbolism and psychology in the way the woman’s body was presented, and Marty unleashes the greatest burn any Quirky Detective has recieved: “You got a chapter in one of those books about jumpin’ to conclusions?”
He then lectures Rust on the dangers of imposing a narrative onto a crime scene, and the dynamic between the two is established, as well as the moralities that will make and break both men: Marty has a vision of how the world should be, and Rust has visions of how it could be. Marty’s clear, procedural, not just logical but algebraic sense of the world drives his quiet competence as much as it does his destruction of his family, and Rust’s brilliant offbeat solutions to problems are as clear as his occasional mental breakdowns – one of my favourite Rust quotes is actually his simplest, laying his conflict out perfectly: “Eh, back then the visions, yeah most of the time I was convinced I’d lost it. But there were other times… I thought I was mainlining the secret truth of the universe.”. Delightfully, Pizzolatto avoids traps inferior writers have fallen into by showing this dynamic without making either man stupid – Marty understands the concepts Rust throws at him, he just finds them either irrelevant or repulsive, and for all that his viewpoint is strange and alien, Rust is perfectly capable of functioning in social settings, he just hates doing it. His problem isn’t that he can’t see things from a normal person’s point of view, it’s that he refuses to limit himself that much.
I wanna get this out of the way: I don’t think Pizzolatto plagiarised Thomas Ligotti for Rust’s worldview. Ignoring the fact that if it fit the legal definition of plagiarism, somebody would have sued already: it’s true that Rust’s particular brand of anti-natalism paraphrases Ligotti’s Conspiracy Against The Human Race, and it’s even true that some of the phrases he use are very similar to ones in Ligotti’s book. But there are only so many ways to say “I believe human consciousness is at best a tragic mistake and at worst an act of evil committed upon us all, that the best thing we can all do is hold hands and walk into the ocean to die together, and the only reason I haven’t acted upon this and killed myself is because of some mental block”, and besides which, giving Ligotti’s peculiar worldview and giving it to a detective ina buddy cop show is, to my mind, the essence of creativity, and Pizzolatto should feel no more guilt for doing so than Ligotti should for incorporating the writing of Zapffe into his writing.
To my mind, there are two places where Pizzolatto’s imagination fails him at the expense of the series. The first is less important: the world Rust and Marty travels in has personality but no soul. This show isn’t The Shield, where the action is on an all-consuming personal scale and the outside world might as well be made of cardboard; one of the pleasures of the detective story in particular is two people exploring a strange and particular place, and as much as hating the phrase ‘the setting is a character’ has become popular, this is the kind of story where the setting does have to be a character. I can point at The Sopranos and say “this is a world in decline”, I can point to Mad Men and say “this is a world in transition from repression to personal freedom, with all the good and bad that implies”, hell, I can point to Max Payne and say “this is a world where the apocalypse is about to happen”*. Again, this is only a problem because of the mode and genre Pizzolatto chose to operate in; if the story didn’t extend beyond Marty, Rust, their families, and the police station, I wouldn’t even have thought any of this, but it means any scene that gets away from the psychodrama of these two ends up being a beautiful sounding, beautiful looking slog.
(And unfortunately Pizzolatto can’t go full LOST or Lovecraft, creating a world that refuses to be explained or understood, though he comes closest with the reveal of the murderer; others found him too much of a cheap TV movie villain, but I found his mixture of oddball details delightfully alien)
The cliche that I find unforgivable is the overall individual emotional arc of Rust Cohle. I have to be open here: I identify with large parts of Rust’s nihilism and cosmic pessimism. I find many of the things he says comfortingly familiar, and even some of the things he sees – his vision in the murderer’s cave, of a sky threatening to turn into some alien storm, inspired the exact awe and fear I regard the universe as a whole with. And let me tell you, the overall basic beats of Rust’s personal story follows the same damn beats that 99% of stories about nihilists and pessimists (and often atheists, though not all atheists are blackbirds) go: start with a declaration of nihilism, reveal that they suffered some tragic backstory to explain it, send them on a quest, have them conclude from it that Nihilism Is Wrong.
I am not so egotistical as to be offended that someone disagrees with me; my complaint here is entirely with the quality of the storytelling. I don’t believe ‘backstory is bullshit’ is 100% infallible, but I completely get the intention behind it (and to an extent the politics). Backstory takes some of the responsibility off the character’s shoulders, turning them into an effect rather than a cause – if Shane Vendrell was beaten as a child, his story becomes “what happens when you beat a child”; that might be a great story, but it means the story stops being “what happens when you let your friend shoot another cop in the face?”. By contrast, Don Draper’s two-part backstory is really a pair of actions he chose to take – he chose to run away from his home and never look back, and he chose to steal the identity of a dead man. His story was always that of someone who chose to create their identity, and his backstory simply reveals how extreme that choice can be, and it continues to play into his choices all through the series.
Rust’s story presents nihilism and pessimism, not as an active choice that Rust makes and is responsible for, but as a consequence for his daughter’s death, and it ‘cures’ him of it by sending him a vision of heaven. There are great stories that work as a rebuke of nihilism by pushing a nihilist into areas even he finds uncomfortable; this rebukes nihilism by having him engage in a game of narrative takesie-backsies. When it comes to stories about people who fell into nihilism because of tragedy and came out of it due to visions from God, I’ve seen better.
What I do believe in is people, and Rust’s story works for me only as a smaller part of the overall story of two detectives (hey, that’s almost the name of the show!), and it comes back to that premise and the commitment to the genre. As I said, the pleasure of the genre is seeing two people work together on a problem, and by pushing down on that premise as hard as it can, True Detective says more elegantly and beautifully what the very nature of the genre implies: that two people can, against all odds, find a connection with each other with a shared task. The series is imbued with that idea; there are some massive belly laughs out of their personality clashes (“If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward, then brother that person is a piece of shit. And I’d like to get as many of them out in the open as possible.” / “Well I guess your judgement is infallible, piece of shit wise.”), but the partnership between the two men becomes real because the task at hand, while kind of perfunctory, gives the series an energy and focus that a series like The Sopranos lacks – it’s why the lack of unity to the world is forgivable – and their shared problem-solving creating a single unit.
Rewatching it for the first time since seeing The Shield, I get the sense that this is what a Ronnie/Dutch partnership would look like, one man generating possibilities, the other cutting off the more implausible ones and systematically following up on the better ideas. I don’t just identify with Rust philosophically, I identify with him temperamentally; I’ve always struggled to understand men like Marty, and they’ve told me to stop saying odd shit all my life. But the partnership between Rust and Marty means they’re forced to be honest with each other in a way they generally can’t be with the rest of the world – Marty because it would pierce his self-image, Rust because most people refuse to engage with him anyway. So when True Detective tells me the Rusts and Martys of the world can co-exist, that Rust can be a babbling weirdo and Marty can be a cranky stick-up-his-ass and neither has to give up their identity or even fully understand and condone one another to share a deep bond and need for each other, I believe it, and I feel better.
*Rust gets in that great line, “This place is like someone’s memory of a town, and the memory’s fading,” but I don’t think the rest of the story supports it.