March 13, 2014 was the finale of the HBO crime drama, True Detective. I watched it twice. The day of the finale, I tweeted this:
Nancy Bishop @nsbishop
@TD_HBO finale tonight. Am I excited? Very–and I’ll be glad
it’s over, so I’ll have one fewer obsession in my life.
The long, slow tracking minutes of Rust Cohle and Marty Hart wending their separate ways through the utter spooky weirdness of Carcosa*, with its skulls, bodies and overgrown foliage, were breathtaking. They sought and found the monster who committed the murders and, for a while, it appeared all three were dead. Marty had a hammer plowed into his right lung and Rust had a long knife jabbed into his midsection and still had enough strength to shoot the top of the killer’s head off. But in the epilogue, we learned that the two detectives survived. Another miracle of TV medicine. Since season 2 will feature a different plot and different characters, they could have been left to die. But instead we were treated to a final scene of the two outside the hospital looking up at the stars, with Rust telling how he felt when he almost died.
*What is Carcosa? The unearthly setting for this segment was an old brick military fortress, Fort Macomb, built in 1822 and decommissioned in 1871. You can see some photos of it here. More about Carcosa below.
Matthew McConaughey’s Oscars acceptance speech was sentimental and quasi-religious. I prefer the clever video recap that shows Rustin Cohle eviscerating McConaughey’s thanks-to-god speech. “And it’s a scientific fact that gratitude reciprocates,” he said. Really? Scientific? Personally, I’d rather have a beer with Cohle than McConaughey.
We really are in an amazing era of quality television, as New York Times media columnist David Carr wrote, in an article titled “Barely Keeping Up in TV’s New Golden Age.” He said, “The vast wasteland of television has been replaced by an excess of excellence that is fundamentally altering my media diet and threatening to consume my waking life in the process. And I’m not alone.”
Television recently has blessed us with several astonishingly good series, starting with my favorite, The Sopranos. I still mourn its disappearance (but I loved the ending…. Tony looking up from his French fries as the diner door opens, and then fade to black.). Six Feet Under, Mad Men and Breaking Bad were also captivating series.
Last year’s True Detective has been called one of the best TV series ever by a number of critics. It’s almost a genre in itself. It’s brilliantly written and manages to create two contentious detective partners. Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson), on the surface a good old Louisiana boy with many personal complications. Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), a loner detective from Texas with a dark and troubled past and a propensity for opaquely gloomy comments. (This is another step in the McConaissance, as Chicago Tribune writer Christopher Borrelli termed it. McConaughey, who spent years playing in romantic comedies, has now turned into a serious actor. I personally think the change started with his 2011 performance in Killer Joe, the hilariously gross Tracy Letts script that started as a stage play.)
Here are some of Rust’s comments:
“Time is a flat circle. Everything we ever done or will do we’ll do over and over and over again.”
“This place is like someone’s faded memory of a town, and the memory’s fading…like there was never anything here but jungle.”
“Human consciousness is a tragic misstep in human evolution.”
The eight-part series covered the detectives’ efforts to solve a bizarrely ritualistic murder; clues indicated that it was committed by a serial killer or a weird cult emerging in the swampy Santeria and voodoo culture of bayou Louisiana. The cinematography of the swampland setting was so visually powerful that it became a character in itself.
But the best thing about the program was the writing. Every time I watched it I heard several lines I wanted to write down, usually spoken by McConaughey’s character, who has been through a failed marriage and lost a child in an accident. He’s cynical, brooding and critical of religion. He often offends his partner, who represents the traditional small-town milieu in which they operate.
The show was written and produced by an English teacher turned scriptwriter named Nic Pizzolatto. Future TD seasons apparently will follow a similar eight-part anthology format with one story arc and different sets of characters in each. So we have seen the last of Marty and Rust. I have mixed feelings about that. The combination of story line, writing quality and characters took hold of me with a weirdly obsessive attachment.
One attribute of Pizzolatto’s writing that made it intriguing is his use of symbolism and stories from unrelated fields. Of course, True Detective draws on pulp detective fiction of the 1940s and 1950s. In addition, the Yellow King and Carcosa and the iconic figures made of sticks and straw are references not only to Louisiana bayou culture but also to the weird supernatural horror writings of Robert W. Chambers, Ambrose Bierce and H. P. Lovecraft, among others. (So deep is my obsession that I’ve downloaded The King in Yellow Omnibus: Tales of the Carcosa Mythos to my e-reader. Believe me, reading horror stories or most any kind of genre fiction is not my taste. I lean toward literary fiction or nonfiction.)
Drawing connections among manifold fields of science, politics and the arts is a characteristic of two of my favorite writers: Playwright Tom Stoppard and novelist Richard Powers. Stoppard, for instance, combines obscure mathematics, English gardens and emotion vs. reason in Arcadia; he creates a Zurich confluence of James Joyce, Vladimir Lenin and Tristan Tzara (a founder of Dadaism) in Travesties. Powers combines DNA discovery, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Gold Bug in his amazing and complex novel, The Gold Bug Variations; and literature, learning and neural networks in his 1996 novel Galatea 2.2. (I wrote about Powers in my review of the Spike Jonze film, Her—comparing Jonze’s concept with Powers’ Galatea 2.2.)
Anna Metcalfe of the Financial Times interviewed Richard Powers a few years ago and asked him what work he wished he had written.
Powers answered, “Tom Stoppard’s [play] Arcadia. I’d trade my soul for it.”
To me, this kind of literature crossed with science, technology and other arts is often more compelling than fiction that is purely plot- and character-driven—just as Stoppard’s plays give you something to chew on later, not just to laugh at in the moment.
I’m not saying that Pizzolatto deserves to be categorized with Stoppard and Powers yet. His resume is still short, but I think he may be heading in that direction.
Nancy Bishop is a Chicago native, recently liberated after 30+ years in corporate marketing and PR. She worked for two large professional services firms (A.T. Kearney and Mayer Brown LLP), specializing in content marketing and creative services. Now she’s happy to be writing about things she loves, especially theater, film, books, art, architecture, design, and rock and roll (with an emphasis on the music of Bruce Springsteen). She blogs at nancybishopsjournal.com and also contributes to gapersblock.com, a Chicago-centric website, and culturevulture.net, a national arts website. She holds a B.J. from the University of Missouri and an M.A. in communications and design from Northern Illinois University. Follow her on Twitter @nsbishop.