True Detective – true storytelling

true-detectiveI’ve just finished watching the eight episode HBO drama, True Detective, and feel compelled to write about it. I mainlined eight episodes in about three days, which is some going given I have a 5 month old son and very little time. It’s an absolutely amazing achievement in storytelling. This post is mostly spoiler-free, but if you haven’t seen the series I’d recommend going in without reading this or anything else and having as unprepared a mind as you can. I’m glad I avoided all spoilers before watching, especially as I kept thinking I’d got part of it figured out only to realise I was wrong. There was one thing I thought of that turned out not to be the case that I was particularly disappointed about. It would have been really cool, but hey, I didn’t write the thing and I’m no Nic Pizzolatto, so there you go. Anyway, go watch it, then come back to read this.

True Detective follows the story of two detectives – Marty Hart, played by Woody Harrelson, and Rust Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey – and their hunt for a serial killer over the course of something close to twenty years. But, of course, it’s actually so much more than that. It’s written by novelist Nic Pizzolatto and the writing is first class. It’s multi-layered storytelling in so many ways. First and foremost, the serial killer hunt is something bigger than a single man. It’s a whole complicated mess of people, it has devil worshipping, there’s ritual sacrifice and all kinds of associated paraphernalia adding a sense of deep horror to what would otherwise be standard police procedural stuff. It’s set in Louisiana and that combination makes this excellent Southern Gothic fare.

There’s a distinct resurgence of Southern Gothic lately and I love it. True Blood and American Horror Story: Coven are two other recent shows I’ve really enjoyed which play on the theme, but nothing I’ve seen evokes it so well as True Detective. That’s primarily due to three things – the acting, especially Harrelson and McConaughey, is fantastic; the soundtrack is absolutely bang on (in fact, when I’ve written this I plan to go and look for the soundtrack album. I hope there is one!); and the direction by Cary Fukunaga. In fact, it’s Fukunaga’s direction that really stands out – the cinematography, the locations, the lighting are all sublime. There’s so much space in this production, so many slow pans and high aerial shots of the Bayou and cane fields. The best stories always evoke and develop a strong sense of place and this one does it brilliantly.

This is not a spoiler image - it's the opening scene of the series.
This is not a spoiler image – it’s the opening scene of the series.

Outside of the Southern Gothic trappings, the reason this series is so good is because the story has as much room to breathe as the visuals and the drawling soundtrack. We get to see two cops who are partners but this is no buddy movie. They are both deeply flawed and they don’t like each other. Hell, Cohle doesn’t like anyone. We watch the development and breakdowns between these two and their various partners and work colleagues all the way through the series and it’s all handled really well. The secondary characters are no less fleshed out and real, and they play as excellent foils for the two leads.

There are some small flaws for me. I felt a bit of a disconnect with the amount of time Cohle spent away in the middle of the story and I would have loved a bit more development of the history of the “cult” and the Tuttle connections. I feel like we missed out on some juicy details somewhere along the line, but I guess that’s because the focus was on the main characters. There was certainly enough of the case that I didn’t feel cheated of some resolution. I would just have liked a little more resolution in terms of the activities and complexities of the criminals. Of course, there are no real resolutions in real life and that’s partly what this whole series is playing with. I had one other issue that I’ll address below after the spoiler warning.

But that aside, there’s philosophy and reflection throughout that never overshadows the narrative and that’s the beauty of well-written character-driven stories. This is dark, mesmerising, stylised, beautiful and horrible. It’s compelling drama and creeping horror. It’s absolutely human. I honestly can’t recommend this highly enough.

SPOILER! Beyond the image below is a question that is also a massive SPOILER! Also, be advised that there may be spoilers in the comments if anyone chooses to answer my question.


So, at the start of the series there’s the ritual killing in the cane field, with the woman kneeling before the tree with the antlers and all that. It’s what kicks off the whole investigation. But why the fuck was she there like that? The whole thing turns out to be a complicated cult with ritual child sacrifice and all that stuff in the deep woods and it’s been going on for years and Hart and Cohle finally track down the man with the scars and expose the whole thing, even if loads of connected people will never be caught. But what the hell was with that first killing? Why was she there and not at the place they discover at the end? Was it the scarred man trying to get caught? The cult showing off? It’s one big unanswered question that I can’t figure out – I can see no reason for them to have killed her there like that. Did I miss something? Please comment if you have any theories! (And please start your comment with a spoiler warning if you do.)


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18 thoughts on “True Detective – true storytelling

  1. Spoilers.

    One theory (not mine – i read this) was that Cohle put the bodies there. He knew about the killings and wanted them publicized so he could investigate. Evidence of this is there are books on serial killing in Cohle’s apartment (Mary sees them) before the woman’s body is found.

    Second theory (mine) – the scarred man put them there. In the final episode his says something like “i haven’t left a sign in a while”. Also remember that the second woman hanging from the bridge (that we see photos of during interrogation) was covered up by the police. Begs the question – were others covered up? Let’s remember governor Tuttle, reverend Tuttle, and Sheriff Childers were in on this. They would have had the wherewithal to cover up the their errant relative’s sick displays (that is, they participated in these sick rituals, but the scarred man was working alone when he put the bodies out in the open).

  2. I have no answer but I thought the same thing. If it was all ’80s Satanic Panic type paedophilia, etc, then what was with the adult woman posed out in plain sight in a field? Chris’s theory was that the scarred man was out of control and staging his own twisted fantasies on the side while the main focus was the cult with the kids. I’m unconvinced. I think it was just a flaw in an otherwise fantastic story (dated, stereotypical Satanic Panic shit and all).

  3. Nope, you haven’t missed anything. I have issues with that too, and with why the villan would suddenly display his kill prominently when his usual plan is to not. It’s out of character and unexplained/justified.

    Also, I found the ending kinda meh.


    I assume it was the scarred man trying to get caught (he mentioned as much in the final episode.) It could also be the plot running away from the writer (remember there was also a killing in 2012 which reopened the case – again a ritual killing that occurred outside Carcosa.)

    There’s also the implication that the killings were staged to attract potential acolytes – like Cohle (“Little Priest”) – a macabre recruitment drive.

  5. Interesting thoughts, guys. These are all valid theories. I wish the show had taken a moment to better explain them for us. I suspect time constraints and editing may have been partly responsible.

  6. Pizzolatto was explicit in interviews about subverting the expectations of the TV crime drama – which is why it opened the way it did. He wanted the show to emphasis the relationship between Hart and Cohle rather than dwell on the procedural side of the investigation. He was obviously influenced by weird fiction (Chambers and Ligotti especially – but Caitlin Keirnen in her review pointed out Karl Edward Wagner’s story “Sticks” is also cited, as well as William Burroughs) so I think there were two levels going on – the surface level (the Yellow King as an everyday psychopath wanting to be noticed – made explicit at the end and by Cohle in the first ep – see Tim’s second theory) and the weird level (based on Cohle’s vision and The Yellow King calling him “little priest”) – that part of the cult was to open other people’s perception to recruit acolytes – and Cohle, with his despair collapsed to nihilism, was a perfect candidate. I mean, there’s no point in being The Yellow King if nobody knows about it, right?

  7. Right, this is partly true. But it raises two questions. 1. Why did the police and everyone else involved (Tuttle et al) let the Yellow King get away with it? Why didn’t they take him down? And 2. How is the ritual murder of an adult woman connected to cult sacrifice of children?

    I feel like the thing really missing from the story is the actual agenda of the cult and the Yellow King, which leaves us floundering a bit with these details.

    Can you link the review you mentioned?

  8. I do think we’re dwelling on this too much because I don’t think the writer’s intention was to completely explain everything but:

    1) The police were clearly infiltrated by YK sympathisers (at least) and Reverend Tuttle had a lot of influence (the schools, the connection to the governor, the task force, etc.)

    2) It probably isn’t – it’s just a side project of the YK.

    I don’t think it’s really “missing” from the story as we’re seeing things predominately from the perspectives of Hart and Cohle (and, once, Maggie.) It’s just background detail – Pizzolatto’s focus was on the relationships: Hart and Cohle, Hart’s family, religion and the South – and Cohle’s redemption (which didn’t work for a lot of people, but did for me.)

    Here’s Caitlin’s review (it’s the last paragraph) –

    and here’s critic Alan Sepinwall’s interview with Pizzolatto after the season finale –

  9. Thanks Iain, that’s great! I really like what Caitlin had to say and that interview with Pizzolatto is actually really enlightening.

  10. A few things.

    I’m not convinced that it isn’t a plot hole, but I also believe that Pizzolatto is leaving some material open for the second season.

    The Tuttles were covering it up, but it seems as if the bastard Childress (the scarred man), Lidoux and the other meth cook were doing their own thing.

    I’m not convinced that the scarred man was the Yellow King. We stop hearing about ‘the King’ and he never claims the title in the final episode.

    I do think he planned for Cohle, the ‘little priest’, to kill him. In the final chamber in Carcosa there is quite clearly a ceremonial deathbed laid out and he does earlier indicate that he thinks he’s about to ‘ascend’, and that he can sense the infernal plane is close.

    Of course the infernal plane is usually something you ‘descend’ to–but an earlier episode makes mention of the way that the local folk mix up Santeria and hoodoo with Christianity. (I think Clark Peters’ priest character mentions it.)

    Any theories about the vortex Cohle hallucinates?

  11. “I’m not convinced that the scarred man was the Yellow King.”

    Yeah, I wondered that myself, especially in regard to the second series.

    I agree about the ascend/descend thing – I think that’s purely perspective. As for his hallucinations, I think it’s a manifestation of his synesthesia and that’s, I think, related to his connection to the cosmic horror overtones hinted at throughout. I’d like to think more about that though…

  12. Probably just an hallucination.

    If the vortex is supposed to be a perspective of the universe from outside it gives lie to the whole ‘time is a flat circle’ thing, doesn’t it? That does also fit with the closing monologue.

  13. I think the time as a flat circle thing is definitely red herring to draw on next season. I think there will be repetition that turns into something new.

  14. Some commentators (not me) have referred to the vortex as Azathoth – but I agree with Jason.

    I think the Yellow King is just a role passed down through the cult – Childress was the latest to claim it. There could easily be a new Yellow King after him (in the world of the first season.)

    BTW – I don’t think the second season will have anything to do with the first, except that it will have detectives in it.

  15. Caitlin mentioned Azathoth, but Pizzolatto makes quite clear that his Lovecraftian influence is slim at best.

    Shame about the 2nd season. Is this going to be more like an American Horror Story anthology series than an ongoing series, do you think?

  16. There was a rather intricately detailed yellow throne where they confronted the scarred man. I think he was the yellow king, but as suggested above it could have been passed down through generations.

    I don’t think ‘time is a flat circle’ is either red herring or will be used next season. I think it epitomized a personal form of horror for Cohle. Doomed to be in superposition with his child’s death, with the faces of the dead women in his research, with the hypocrisy and moral decay of the world he finds himself in. It’s also why he says he hopes the black women is wrong when she says ‘death is not the end’.

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