Your Grand Unified “True Detective” Theory Is Missing the Goddamn Point

My own wild speculation is that clue-hunting and twist-anticipating entered the hive mind via cinemas in 1999 with the one-two twist-ending punch of The Sixth Sense and Fight Club. Sure, The Crying Game was still a recent memory, but not for the fanboys who flocked to Shyamalan and Fincher’s films and whose tastes were about to become post-millennial mainstream culture’s bread and butter. On the small screen, the phenomenon had its precursors — “Who killed Laura Palmer?”, The X-Files’ sprawling and eventually suffocating mythology — but the blame-slash-credit must be laid at the four-toed feet of Lost. Fueled by decades of pulp-fiction tropes and pop-philosophy mindbenders, structured as a Russian nesting doll of mysteries within mysteries, and riddled with more Easter eggs than the White House lawn, ABC’s sci-fi smash knowingly worked fans into a frenzy of message-board theory-mongering. Turns out it was more or less a shaggy dog story the creators were making up as they went along, but this didn’t stop viewers from applying this mode of audience speculation-cum-participation to virtually every big series since.

Which is fair play, when the show in question invites it. For example, Lost’s big nerd-culture contemporary, the cult-classic critics’ darling Battlestar Galactica reboot, teased its big mysteries in the opening-credit text of every episode, and thus had nothing but itself to blame when viewers gave the whole series a thumbs-up or thumbs-down based on those mysteries’ solutions. But even relatively realistic shows, based not around unraveling enigmas but on studying the complexities of human relationships, are now treated like glorified Sudoku puzzles by vocal viewers. The Sopranos’ David Chase worked overtime to design a series finale that would actively defy this kind of clue-hunting closure, but that didn’t stop a host of amateur sleuths out to close the book on that infamously open ending. More recently, the ostensibly sophisticated audience of Mad Men treats everything from promo art to costume choices the way medieval soothsayers treated goat entrails. In this light, the decision of Game of Thrones to largely drop its epic-fantasy source material’s host of cryptic prophecies and hidden truths (google “R+L=J” if you want to see how deep the rabbit hole goes) in favor of character work and realpolitik seems like the smartest act of adaptation since Francis Ford Coppola dropped Johnny Fontane as a main character in The Godfather.

Over at Esquire, I wrote a piece on the fan fervor for theory-mongering that surrounds True Detective which wound up being kind of an historical overview of the practice’s slow takeover of pop culture. It was fun to do — and commissioned by a loyal All Leather Must Be Boiled reader! See kids, tumblr dreams come true!

10 Responses to Your Grand Unified “True Detective” Theory Is Missing the Goddamn Point

  1. Tim O'Neil says:

    That reminds me – I was thinking recently about your review of the end of BREAKING BAD, where you said the finale was less satisfying than it could have been simply because it wrapped everything up in a neat package. It occurred to me that this was wrong because in the months since the show end I’ve come to realize that the most important questions on the show were never answered – that is, the fact that we have no solid answer as to what any of the characters did before the first episode of the show. With just a few flashbacks scattered throughout the show, we just have the characters’ words about what happened – and depending on what you think may have happened in Walt’s childhood, his college years, his marriage, his son’s birth, the complexion of the entire show changes dramatically. We never got those deep psychologically probing flashbacks like we did for Don or Tony, the past is a black box, and that’s what I take away from that show.

    Which may not be the kind of sexy conspiracy that makes viewers glom onto LOST or B:G or TRUE DETECTIVE, but it’s just as important, and the message that the past defines us even if it is poorly understood is resonant. I agree with you that I hope TD manages to tie everything up in terms of the mystery while still retaining some degree of, er, mystery – I guess that’s a fine line to draw, but I hope they can make it.

    • His mother was certainly a dog that never barked. Big contrast with, say, Matthew Weiner’s approach to Don Draper. Even the falling-out with the Schwartzes and the beginning of his relationship with Skyler are only obliquely described. Same with Skyler and Marie’s situation — both those actresses told me they developed the idea that the two sisters are the only family they have, but this was something they came up with in consultation with Gilligan, not something Gilligan wrote into it. Same with Marie & Hank’s childlessness, which again was something the actors discussed and incorporated into their performances more or less on their own. Yeah, a very different approach.

      Still don’t like the finale, though.

  2. Tom Spurgeon says:

    I think there are two parts to this, that a show has a complicated mythic infrastructure but also that a show has a narrative outcome that needs to be satisfying. And it all springs from The Fugitive.

    The first show I think to suggest more than is probably actually there was The Prisoner.

    It’s also worth noting how much this ploy of suggesting more complexity than is there was a boon to Marvel in the 1970s with Wolverine and Daredevil.

    • As I was writing the piece I was talking to Rickey Purdin about it, who pointed out to me that the reason The Prisoner works as well as it does is because the imagery and stories resonate on the level of allegory. There never needs to be a wiki-type explanation of the entire mythology McGoohan developed (or didn’t, as the case may be).

      • Tom Spurgeon says:

        Whether or not one exists I think you lose the need to explore it. I would imagine that this is part the impulse for MORE that shows encourage and young people traditionally struggle with. Like I remember when I was a kid I really, really wanted to know about the Blue Wizards in Tolkien or whatever, but as an adult it doesn’t matter to me. So how much all of this plays into the way our consumption culture works is interesting to me, too.

        I remember when I was a teen being fundamentally confused in a way that people just thought I was being an asshole about the impulse to go to Star Trek cons, because it seemed to me it was diminishing returns — I went to comics shows to get more comics, not to have an experience that’s different but sort of in the same neighborhood. I sort of wanted to see the blooper reel, but the rest baffled me. We don’t question that impulse anymore as a legitimate thing, and I think that has to bleed back onto these stories a bit, or at least indicate we treat the works differently, too.

        You can pretty much define all of this era of TV and all of their precursors as mythic structure + strong identification/wish fullfillment + attempt at cohesive, satisfying, whole, right?

        • I’m not the hugest Wire fan in the world, but even so I’d say wish fulfillment is minimal in that show. The gang material could have the same appeal to vicarious-living white folks as its rap equivalent, I suppose (cf. David Heatley’s horrible race comic) but in the end all of those guys were pretty down-to-earth figures, except for Omar of course, and the thoroughly evil Marlo. The cops, forget about it, the closest you come is McNulty and I think it’s tough to watch that show and want to be McNulty.

          • Tom Spurgeon says:

            Yeah, I think the identification factor on that one is on relatively low but the other two are turned up pretty high, which is why it always missed out on a certain kind of fan.

            That said, I do sort of aspire to be Bunk Moreland.

  3. Reverend '76 says:

    I dig the fact that the elements which snared my interest are left ambivalent: the symbolism of the devil nets, the putative purpose of the horns, who all the other cultists were, none of that is truly resolved. Coale’s preternatural instinct for finding evidence where other detectives found dead ends is as much up in the air as the vortex / mandala symbolism which tugged him along. In the stead of Hard Answers I found significant satisfaction in the finale: where Marty had previously only mouthed the words “I’m fucked up,” the heartbreaking struggle to smile that becomes a sob allowed him to recognize it*; and being privy to Rust’s transformation from pessimist to optimist was kind of miraculous,** esp. given that it’s leveraged on his acceptance of both an afterlife and the love of a daughter he lost a lifetime ago. These were colossal admissions from men whose journey was 7/8s panic, denial & misdirected aggression.

    That both these narcissistic jerks found their final redemption not in death, but in the women closest to them is also worth noting.*** Our main characters are ciphers themselves, outside their work, denying themselves the lives they already have, opting instead for negative escapism that robs them of the capacity for joy. What were Marty’s interests outside of work & sex? Fly fishing? Sports? We saw evidence of both these as often as we saw Fox Mulder feed his fish or sleep in his bed. Prior to their recovery in the ICU, the closest they came to happiness was in discovering a grudging friendship, and that was definitely my favorite part: watching them detail each others’ fallacies & deficiencies. Coale’s rancor with Marty was always in how Marty chose to be a stereotypical cop, “eating his own,” by treating his wife & daughters with more dismissiveness than his mistresses: yet he must have seen something there worth trusting beyond a blind belief that Hart would have his back, and I think Marty laid that bare in their talk in the car en route to Carcosa. The mutual bird salute in the ICU sealed my faith in their friendship: imperfect as it is, it will endure & evolve, and isn’t that all we could really ask for? Fuck all the darkness and tragedy and raging bull wangst, let’s have a laugh. “Never change, man.”

    That TD borrows openly from Moore ain’t a thang to me. The writer had already fessed to an interest in Moore & Morrison’s metaphysical meandering, and both those writers admit to borrowing freely from physicists & fringe theorists. These ideas are the equivalent of jazz standards, these days: it’s all a matter of how they’re played. That the writer chose to play them in a pulp narrative / reclamation of True Crime from the lemon-sucking wannabe Spillanes & Frank Millers… Well, that’s why I got hooked and why I stuck around. Whatever the author’s sources are, what influences he wears like pinback buttons, they’re not the story. That these things get confused with the “meaning” of the work is the same mistake as confusing Kafka’s biography with what he wrote. Not to suggest there’s an equivalent literary quality to the work: there isn’t. But I don’t think that was ever the intent, being taken that seriously. It’s like reading philosophy into Buffy or LOST. You can, but does it enrich the work or distract you from being able to appreciate its qualities as a story? That’s always going to be in the audience’s court. I think TV audiences are still struggling to learn how to ‘read’ genre fiction the same way maturing mainstream comics fans were learning to evaluate comics during the 80s as the American form of the medium evolved. The big problem, obviously, is confusing opinion-on-the-internet with our own capacity for interpretation instead of using it as a supplement– the difference between “reading” Cliff’s Notes and re-reading a work until we are capable of coming to our own conclusions. We ain’t there yet, that’s for sure.

    Anyroad, apologies for blithering at such length. Enjoyed your take, as ever.

    * And, one hopes, come to terms with it– after all, being a hypocritical sexist jackass is almost nothing compared to the Evil Men Do.
    ** Or as near as he’s likely to get… his character being basically Batman if Bruce Wayne had spent his childhood excising all reference to joy, art & the miracle of free will from his first edition Nietzsches with a hobby knife.
    *** As is the series’ restraint in depicting / fetishizing violence against women. Something I personally applaud. The closest TD got to onscreen abuse was in the character of Marty and he reaped the whirlwind for it. Whether this was politically prudent aesthetics instead of an actual sensitivity to subject matter, we could debate for days and never come to a real conclusion. I suspect it was outwith the scope of the series due to the limited canvas the showrunners chose.

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