Let the haters hate: A critical review of the “True Detective” season two premiere

The following is a guest essay by my cohost and cohort over at the Mind Over Movies blog Garrett Andrews. Andrews describes himself as a simple “member of the species Homo Sapien, struggling to cope with the crushing weight of the existential void.” Consider this a companion piece to my simultaneous post on “True Detective,” a show we both seem to like. Let me know if you like Andrews’ work, want to hire him out for something literary, cinematic or philosophical, or just need an existential shoulder to cry on.

Many people, especially those online, have been busy lambasting the season two premiere episode of “True Detective.” While I can’t say I didn’t feel the slightest tinge of disappointment watching the premiere, I think most of my reservations about the episode ultimately stem from groundless expectations–and I suspect that these expectations are why the episode left a bad taste in many viewers’ mouths.

“True Detective” fans may have forgotten how the first season initially struck them–before hints of Carcosa and the Yellow King got them hooked. Although Rust Cohle’s nihilistic monologues may have whetted our appetites, many viewers remained skeptical of the show until mid-season. I remember that I wasn’t absolutely hooked on the show until episode four, when a continuous six-minute tracking shot made damn sure that I’d start taking the show more seriously. Up until that point, I considered the show “light entertainment” and a half-way decent substitute for “Game of Thrones.” The rest of the season secured the show a place in the pantheon of masterpieces of television.

In recounting the specifics of how I got hooked on the show, my intention is not to indulge my own ego or take a trip down memory lane for nostalgia’s sake. Rather, I’m attempting to remind myself of how I saw “True Detective” with fresh eyes. Part of showrunner Nic Pizzolatto’s brilliance lies in his usurpation of conventions–and this defiance of viewer’s expectations has been a key part of our attraction to the show. One of Pizzolatto’s strategies to defy viewer expectations is to refrain from denying our expectations in certain pivotal ways. He didn’t give us a twist ending. Rust and Marty Hart stay pretty much the same people at the end of the show as they were at the beginning. Many of the women on the show have been flat characters. But that’s been exactly the point all along. Of all the shows currently on television, viewers can rest assured that “True Detective” is one of the most self-aware. Pizzolatto is painfully aware of all the conventions he refuses to break or indulge in, and we’ve come to love the first season because of it.

The only way for the show as a whole to escape the confines of tropes and conventions is to acknowledge their existence and subsequently overcome them in a tactful manner. This is precisely what the premiere of the second season aimed to do: throughout the episode, the conventions established in the prior season were playfully acknowledged and largely overturned. Advertising for the show led many of us to believe that Colin Farrell would be replacing Matthew McConaughey’s role as a cynical, nihilistic detective, while Vince Vaughn would be replacing Woody Harrelson as the straight man. Yet, by the time the episode was over, we realized that Vince Vaughn’s character wasn’t even a cop, and Colin Farrell’s character, cynical though he might be, was almost nothing like Rust. In fact, the way the episode progressed led me to believe that this season’s True Detectives are actually the characters portrayed by Taylor Kitsch and Rachel McAdams. Pizzolatto has raised a giant middle-finger to the conventions that would have bound the show- unfortunately many viewers misinterpreted the convention-defying aspects of the season premiere as a middle-finger aimed at them personally.

Perhaps one of the scenes in the premiere episode in which Pizzolatto plays with conventions established in the first season most poignantly is the scene in which Colin Farrell’s character meets with his divorce attorney. At first, we expect that the second season will occur much like the first, with similar interview sequences, perhaps between Farrell’s character and his divorce attorneys, much like the prior season was split between the present interviews between Cohle and the two officers from internal affairs, and the past investigation. But our expectations are immediately shown to be superfluous: one interview sequence is all we get, and it’s unlikely we’ll be shown another.

And so, it seems that what Pizzolatto is really after is to train his audience how to have fresh eyes again. “True Detective” does not seek to simply entertain its audience, but to teach us to look at the world and television shows in a new way, and to give up the comforts of set conventions in order to experience a new-found freedom and to help us understand how shows can escape the conventions that bind them. Pizzolatto’s project is ambitious: Each new season of “True Detective” will be united with the prior seasons only by the fact that the show revolves around one central crime, or string of crimes. But we ought not to expect any continuity of tropes, characters, actors, even directors. We knew that “True Detective” would be an anthology, but until the second season, we didn’t know the extent of how far removed each new season would be from the last (we might have expected a similar sort of continuity to that present in “American Horror Story”). Now we know that Pizzolatto’s attempts at overcoming conventions and distancing each new season from the last are so ambitious that we may not have any other shows to which we can compare “True Detective.” And I, for one, count that as a strength of the show rather than a weakness.

With all this in mind, I’d caution viewers to refrain from judging the new season unfavorably until at least the fourth episode. Forget about Rust and Marty. Forget about Carcosa and the Yellow King. Forget about supernatural elements. And forget about Louisiana. This season is literally a completely different show. The first second of the first episode keys us in to this fact when we hear a completely different theme song (much to my disliking, but maybe it’ll grow on me. After all, I didn’t like country music, but by the sixth episode of the first season, I’d begun listening to The Handsome Family on Spotify). Part of what Pizzolatto is doing with the second season is wiping the slate clean. Pizzolatto is conscious of every convention he chooses to break or uphold–that’s truly the pivotal thing about “True Detective.” It’s not simply that the show ironically indulges in some conventions and it breaks others–it’s that it plays with conventions. And as any Nietzsche scholar will tell you, the defining characteristic of a free spirit is a playful attitude. Whether indulging in conventions or ignoring them, Pizzolatto’s message is clear: “True Detective” is not BOUND by conventions.

In defense of “True Detective”: A critical apology of the first season

I don’t think anyone could accuse HBO’s “True Detective” of being a bad show. Pretentious perhaps, leaning on its shadowy influences a little too hard in spots, but not lacking a certain and fairly unique artistic vision and execution (and I have yet to hear anyone complain about its acting, direction and soundtrack). But badness takes many forms, and some people have accused the first season of “True Detective” of containing certain weaknesses. However, I think that some of the common complaints about “True Detective” are simply misunderstandings–if anything, some complaints disguise noirish strengths.

One complaint that has surfaced frequently involved the depiction of women in the show. The complaint has been that women are unimportant on the show: that the program lacked any strong female character, focusing almost exclusively on Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart and Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, and that women only exist to be abused by men. To complain that a show focuses on its main characters seems a bit odd, but to say that there is no strong or important female character is to ignore Michelle Monaghan’s Maggie Hart–the wife of Woody Harleson’s Marty Hart. She is far more than a tipsy point in a romantic triangle. She proclaims that women in the dark society of “True Detective” are the savvier sex: “Girls always know before boys,” she says of sexual politics in the third episode. “Because they have to.” This is not necessarily a good thing. Maggie Hart is shown to be capable, intelligent and just as manipulative as the men. Indeed, the women of “True Detective” can be just as underhanded as their male counterparts, and they suffer just as much for it. To say that the series treats its women badly is to ignore the fact that men are punished as well. “True Detective” is an equal opportunity abuser.

Another problem some people had was with Glenn Fleshler’s character, Errol Childress. I know this was a more widespread complaint, but it was introduced to me by a colleague of mine. Childress was, or so he said, a stereotypical redneck killer, which felt like a bit of a letdown after miles of mystical meanderings. But Childress is far more than a mere redneck with a chainsaw. He is shown to have flashes of grace and intelligence–his mimicking of Carey Grant on television–which contrast with dangerous cunning–his winding pursuit of Cohle through Carcosa. Childress can be understood on the level of metaphor: He is a representative of our darkest, most primitive urges, our ugliest ids. Childress is not so much a resident of the backwoods of Louisiana as he is a resident of the backwoods of the mind.

But more to the point is the fact that Childress, despite being the killer, was not the ultimate evil of “True Detective.” In a delightfully detailed analysis, the Vigilant Citizen points out that Childress became a patsy for the Tuttle family, the powerful men who control local politics and religion (conspiracy theorists can make excellent art critics, as their attention to minutiae is downright fanatical). The Tuttle family are civilization to Childress’s caveman. This highlights the interesting relationship between Childress and civilization. Like the fascinating background of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” civilization in “True Detective” is a shadowy lunar landscape that can be ignored but impossible to deny. The supposed gentrifying effects of civilization seem to exist only to push men and women down paths of violence and self abuse. With this reading, although Childress is still a killer, he becomes almost a tragic one: His mimicry of Carey Grant’s grace takes on a twinge of sadness, of fallen potential.

But the most confusing of all complaints for me are the complaints about the ending, which was deemed too happy (despite the fact that the real villains–the Tuttle family–went unpunished) because of McConaughey’s final mumbled lines: “Once, there was only dark. If you ask me, the light’s winning.” The Last Psychiatrist actually wrote a (tiny) additional bit of blocking and dialogue to finish the season off in a more satisfying manner.

We have to do a bit of reality check here. It would be strange for a character like Cohle, who is burdened down with contemplation, to come out of a mindbogglingly complex experience–a 17-year-old crime was solved, a murderer was killed, Cohle was almost killed and he saw his dead wife and child–and not be changed by it. It’s not like he’s had a religious conversion; he just seems more accepting of a metaphysical framework for reality. It also seems that the Last Psychiatrist simply wants an ending that’s more in line with Cohle’s earlier pessimistic attitude. In short, said Psychiatrist suggests, Nic Pizzolatto didn’t know his own show.

It’s a bit pretentious, and certainly presumptuous, to tell the author of a work that he didn’t understand his own work. Check your Freud; our interpretations usually tell us as much about the work as they do about ourselves. But, I understand. You want a downbeat, “uncompromising” ending, and two can play at this game. Here you go:

RUST stares up from his wheelchair into infinite space.

If you ask me, the light’s winning.

MARTY smiles and pushes him off screen. A TRUCK honks and screeches into the sounds of an accident. Rust and Marty cry in terrible pain. SIRENS rush to the scene, but they will be too late.


Now wasn’t that much more satisfying?

Like this essay? Check out a simultaneously published companion piece guest blog by Garrett Andrews about the “True Detective” season two premier.

An unkind cut: A critical review of Clive Barker’s “Tortured Souls”

So Clive Barker released a novella this year, and I was suckered into reading it by the name “Clive Barker” and the pleasantly suggestive cover drawing (which was done by illustrator Bob Eggleton, who did all those drawings of Godzilla I loved as a kid). Perhaps the best thing about a novella is that, since it only takes an afternoon to finish, even if it’s not very good, it’s over in a flash.

Oh yeah, the book was kind of dreadful. Let’s talk about that.

“Tortured Souls: The Legend of Primordium” takes place in Primordium, a city of such violent filth and corruption that citizens willingly give themselves up to Agonistes, an entity that surgically transforms humans into something more than human via a combination of surgery and spiritual penance (in a process that sounds like it would fit well in the Hellraiser films). Enter one Zarles Krieger, an assassin who is goaded by Lucidique, the daughter of a senator Krieger slew, into entering Agonistes’ surgery wing. There he is transformed into The Scythe-Meister, an ultimate killing machine, so he can cut out the city’s corruption. But when the decadent emperor falls, that role is simply filled by more monsters–political monsters, surgical monsters and more. What happens next? I don’t know; between Krieger, Lucidique and Agonistes popping in and out of the story, I’m not sure where to look.

I keep getting the feeling that this book is a joke I’m not in on. Even though the book’s jacket description is quite straightforward, there must be something here that I’m missing. Because I must confess, I haven’t read that much of Barker, but what I have has been better than this. In “The Hellbound Heart,” the basis for the Hellraiser movies, Barker’s writing was liquid and lyrical, more in tune with poetry perhaps than pure prose. In “Tortured Souls,” it is trying too hard (the characters’ names alone sound like they’re trying too hard). I get that Barker is trying to compose something that is more suggestive of fables and fairy stories, but when Neil Gaiman wants to write something that has a fairy story quality, he does so in a child-like way, that is, with a sense of wonder and overripe imagination. Barker seems content to write in a childish way. The dialogue and descriptions are trite and familiar, like a high school student (or an enlightened middle school student) trying to write dark fantasy for the first time and parroting his or her influences a little too obviously. The dialogue in particular is frustrating because there is no distinction between the way different characters talk, so no one has any shape or form.

The book is noticeably in need of an editor. On page 27 we read: “At nine minutes past one, a pair of horses approached…they drew nearer, and dismounted.” Apparently it is the horses that have dismounted, presumably from other, larger horses. Page 55 gives us the repetitive run-on sentence: “He hung by his mouth from a device whose purpose was beyond the Generals’ comprehension, his mouth hooked up, as though he were a fish.” There are other repetitions that defy logic in so short a book. The history of Krieger-cum-Scythe-Meister is frequently repeated throughout the novella, and chapter three begins with a recap of the previous chapter. There is no reason to do these things in a book that takes less than half an hour to read.

But the worst is when Barker spells things out; along with his own childish writing, Barker feels his audience must have a childish attention span. On page 43, a dog trots out of a kitchen after a slaughter, leaving red paw prints on a white carpet. “He was eating something human,” Barker adds, in case we didn’t catch on that the red paw prints having something to do with said slaughter. Oh well.

This is not to say that there is nothing worthwhile in the book. The transition from horse travel to driving is an interesting truncation of history, and there is the suggestion that Primordium is an archetypal paradigm of a city rather than an actual city. And while the character of Lucidique probably has the most potential for pathos, if you feel the need to latch onto any of the cast, I suggest the generals Urbano, Bogoto and Montefalco. Their descriptions and dialogue are so absurd as to be finally comical (it’s Urbano who “puked a yellowish puke” on page 67), and perhaps hint at the small book’s larger purpose, which is (hopefully) a kind of satire. A satire of what, though, is to be determined. Barker’s own writing perhaps? You might be better off sticking with Eggleton’s typically excellent paintings and sketches that inhabit the book; just pretend like that’s what “Tortured Souls” is really about, and that Barker’s prose is simply padding.

(But seriously, what is the deal with Dr. Talisac and the Mongroid? Anyone?)