‘True Detective’: The Eternality of the Gothic

Season 1 Analysis, Part 2

True Detective is an HBO anthology series made up, currently, of 3 seasons. The initial eight-part mini-series (now known as season 1), which aired in 2014, is set in Louisiana, USA. Season 1 follows a pair of homicide detectives, Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson), as they investigate a case which begins with the discovery of a murdered prostitute.

Before True Detective, which was his screenwriting debut, writer/producer Nic Pizzolatto’s was a professor of literature and creative writing at Indiana University, and a published fiction author. Pizaolatto’s literary background is apparent in the complexity, detail, and heavy symbolism in his screenplay. 

The Gothic aspects of the series are presented as eternal, universal, and contextually realistic, resulting in an affective and lasting portrayal of what the Gothic may mean in a contemporary, Southern setting. Today on Generally Gothic, we will continue our close textual analysis of True Detective, Season 1.

Before diving into Part 2, make sure to read Part 1: ‘Time is a Flat Circle, here.

© Generally Gothic | True Detective Stills, HBO

Of Southern Gothic author, William Faulkner, contemporary academic authority on the Gothic, David Punter, states:
“Faulkner presents a Gothicised version of the American South, investigating madness, decay and despair, and the continuing pressure of the past upon the present.”

All four of these points (pictured in red above) are explored within True Detective. Firstly, the story is set in Louisiana, where Pizzolatto spent a childhood obsessed with The Twilight Zone. In episode one, entitled ‘The Long Bright Dark’, Rust states that “this place is like somebody’s memory of a town and the memory’s fading”.

Through Rust’s dialogue, Pizzolatto reminds the viewer that the setting is fictionalised – that it is a reminiscent, rather than realistic representation of the American south. In terms of cinematography, a heavy grey tonality is applied to many of the shots in urban spaces, resulting in a cold, detached, and bleak portrayal, which is not entirely dissimilar to the pathetic fallacy visible in classic gothic cinema. Perhaps as a nod back to its predecessors, the entire series of True Detective was shot on film. 

As an outsider to the Louisiana area, Rust’s perception of the location is most likely to echo that of the audience, particularly non-American viewers with no first-hand experience of southern American life. As the pair of protagonists drive to question members of a small community, shortly after Rust’s realisation that his surroundings are stagnating in time, the viewer is afforded a brief insight into the local culture.

At around half an hour into this first episode, the significance of this sequence is marked by an ominous offbeat and emotionally weighty drumming – this is the first piece of music of the show. The camera tracks along with the moving car, presenting a blurred, carnivalesque portrayal of an impoverished slice of southern American life. Placed in the passenger’s seat of the car, looking outwards through the window, the camera replaces Rust, who we know to be sitting here, allowing the audience a moment to view the world through this character’s eyes. There is nothing supernatural or overtly terrifying about this sequence, but there is an undeniable sense of detachment and otherness, applied to the people separated from Rust and the viewer by the frame created by the car’s door and wing-mirror (pictured above, bottom left). The unsettling tone of this scene is created by the fact that it is entirely realistic. 

© Generally Gothic | True Detective Stills, HBO

Whilst Southern Gothic decay and despair are apparent in the aforementioned sequence, this theme is most thoroughly explored in the investigation of the homicide event, which is shrouded in mysticism. The ritualistic display of Dora Lange’s corpse introduces the possibility of the supernatural to the narrative.

On discovering the body, a colleague of Rust and Marty delivers the unsubstantiated remark that “it’s devil stuff”, planting the seed for the otherworldly suggestions which permeate the show. It is during this scene that Rust prophetically states, in reference to the murder, that “this is going to happen again”.

Marty provocatively questions whether this information was obtained from one of his many books, to which Rust responds in the affirmative. This short exchange does three things. Firstly, it introduces the idea that Rust may have a special psychic ability, reminiscent of Agent Cooper in David Lynch’s cult classic, Twin Peaks. There is a total lack of clarity on whether McConaughey’s character possesses an otherworldly intuition, has mastered his synaesthesia, (which, it may be worth noting, literally means a ‘union of the senses’, so that’s exponential doubling – see Part 1’s discussion on Freud), or, perhaps it is pure luck.

True Detective Still, HBO

Pizzolatto’s decision to remain obscure about this element of Rust’s character and the role which his synaesthesia plays in resolving the case is realistic, yet Gothic, as the omission of closure creates an unsettling tone which runs throughout the entirety of the series.

The second effect of this short scene is to introduce literature as an important feature of the series – within the narrative itself, but also upon Pizzolatto’s screenplay. This is marked by Marty’s reference to his partner’s extensive reading.

The third and final effect of this short scene is to set the viewer up for the theory which Rust adopts, relating to perceptions of time. Again stylistically reminiscent of William Faulkner (discussed in Part 1), it seems that there are few, if any, coincidental events in the story. When considered with knowledge of the series as a whole, this seemingly inconsequential sequence from the first episode reveals Pizzolatto’s scrutinous attention to detail and provides hints, to the viewer, of the events which are to follow. Thinking back to the Flat Circle temporal theory (again, discussed in part 1), there are also rather chilling connotations to Rust’s prophecy that this event will occur again. In a way, he is reminding the audience that, whilst this account is fictionalised, murder is a grim actuality in the viewers’ reality and, although there are real people doing the work of Cohle and Hart, their roles are reactionary, rather than preventative. 

[STARTS AT 00:30] ‘The Locked Room’ , True Detective S1:E3, HBO.

One startlingly Gothic theory, posed by the series, which entirely undermines any solace viewers find in accepting the events as ultimately fictional, is expressed in episode 3. The episode and the theory share the title ‘The Locked Room’. Rust explains the theory, in the above clip.

Once again, Rust’s monologue is delivered in the interrogation room in the 2012 time frame of the narrative. Along with the many driving scenes, which depict visual, external movement that both mimics Rust’s spiritual journey and offers a moment of stillness for the character to reveal personal revelations, the interrogation room allows Rust a platform to voice more existential theories that may be true for society on a grander scale.

Interestingly, Mark S. Madoff, who writes about a specifically Gothic Locked-Room Mystery in terms of literature, makes an example of detective or crime fiction to better explain the theory. He offers Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) as an example of the two genres unifying, through the Locked Room, but True Detective may be the most contemporary display of the union between Gothic and crime fiction. 

In this scene, Rust posits that life may be just “A dream about being a person…”
Whilst tinged with irony, being delivered to the audience by a fictional person who at one point was the dream of a real one, this statement does pose a rather chilling perspective on life. Most terrifyingly, though, the audience comes to realise that it is inconsequential whether life is a dream in the context of the series; what is in question is how not if the violent, criminal events of the narrative did indeed take place.

© Generally Gothic | True Detective Stills, HBO

In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), Freud grounds the Locked Room Theory, in suggesting that “the mythological view of the world…is nothing but psychology projected into the external world.”
Rust concludes his monologue, ominously reminding his audience that “like a lot of dreams, there’s a monster at the end of it.”

Whilst there is a complete lack of clarity surrounding the supernatural elements of the series, there is no doubt that people have died and suffered at the hands of a green-eared spaghetti monster, who is revealed, undeniably on a superficial level, to be just a man. So, whilst the show appears to conclude with the resolution of the case, it is important to remember that the series depicts only one of many cases that Rust and Marty are likely to have covered in their working lives.

The degree of openness in the series finale serves as a reminder that new monsters are being dreamed up nightly. The realism of the occurrences – considering purely the facts and not necessarily the way in which they are presented – makes it easier to comprehend the events of the narrative as a genuine threat, from the viewer’s perspective, thereby suggesting the eternality of these Gothic events. Whilst True Detective began as just an eight-part story, it has developed into a longer, anthology series, wherein, each season presents the audience with entirely new and horrific crimes for alternative characters to experience… and so, the cycle continues. 

Have you watched True Detective Season 1? What are your thoughts on the series, as well as the theories suggested in this post? Get sharing in the comment section, below!
This blog post is part of July’s Southern Spell series. Make sure to read the first part of this post ‘Time is a Flat Circle, and ‘Between One Cap and One Period: Reading William Faulkner’ for a fuller understanding.

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