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True Detective: The King in Yellow

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NOTE: The following piece contains significant spoilers for the first season of True Detective.

In the first moments of the first episode of HBO’s excellent True Detective, a newly partnered pair of detectives – one a plain-spoken brute, the other a bloviating intellectual – are assigned to investigate a murder. At the conclusion of the story Sunday night (the series is planned as an anthology, with each season telling a new story based around new protagonists) they discovered the identity of the killer, brought them to justice (if in the Biblical sense) and solved the case.

That is, without exaggeration, all that happened. The barest, simplest, basic outline of a Detective Story: Crime/Investigation/Solution. What’s more, it was a solution that made sense, answered the relevant questions and – as a bonus! – broadly tied-in with overarching themes introduced throughout the main narrative. And yet, despite the Swiss-Watch precision of it’s payoff, I have a feeling it’s going to be received in some quarters as a letdown akin to the finale of “LOST;” for many still the benchmark for mystery shows that bungle in summation.

Some background: The majority of the story in True Detective‘s inaugural season takes place in Louisiana between 1995 and 2002, and centers on the relationship between Woody Harrelson’s Detective Marty Hart, a stiff-jawed good ol’ boy, and Matthew McConaughey’s Detective Rust Cohle, a Texas transplant who speaks in rambling nihilistic riddles and alludes to deep psychological wounds from a years-long undercover stint. The story of their partnership, and its eventual dissolution, is told in flashback from the present; where they are being interviewed (separately) by a second pair of detectives for reasons that are not immediately made clear.

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We learn that the two men first came together on the case of a missing woman whose body was found mutilated, bound and posed as if in prayer with strange symbols carved into her skin and a “crown” of deer antlers on her head. Cohle, a spartan-living aesthete who never stops working, immediately suspects a ritual-killer and/or full-blown cult conspiracy. His logical leaps seem to pay dividends when he connects the body to multiple earlier murder/rape (mostly of young girls) cases where evidence and witnesses make oblique references to child-sacrifice and devil-worship in a secret place called “Carcosa” and a sinister figure called “The Yellow King.” There’s also a seemingly separate case, that of an abducted young girl who claimed to have been menaced in the swamp by a creature she called “The Green-Eared Spaghetti Monster,” that Cohle insists must be connected as well.

Marty contends that they could just as easily be dealing with a garden variety sicko (or sickos) adopting mythic symbols for kicks; but he goes along out of what feels like a morbid fascination for the way Cohle’s mind works. An early break that seems to solve the case makes local heroes of them, but in 2002 Cohle becomes convinced that they only scratched the surface… and this time his obsession drives a professional (and personal) wedge between them.

In Sunday’s finale, the two men reunite in the present day to finish things once and for all… and (I said there’d be spoilers, kids) it turns out they were both right. Sort of. There is indeed (or was) a group of locally powerful, well-connected men gathering in a secret location they called “Carcosa” to sexually abuse children in “rituals” cobbled together from Mardi Gras, fictionalized versions of voodoo and pop-mythology (Carcosa and The Yellow King are both references to a late-19th Century book of supernatural horror stories by Robert W. Chambers), but in the end there was nothing genuinely supernatural about them. Just another pack of thugs appropriating “mystic” iconography like the Ku Klux Klan and their “Grand Wizards;” and the so-called Spaghetti Monster killer is little more than just another would-be Ed Gein playing around in the remnants of so-called Carcosa, the last withered branch of a “cult” that seemingly succumbed to the same post-Industrial entropy that’s consumed the rest of the show’s desiccated vision of Swamp Country.

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Criticism of “classy” television (i.e. shows that usually air on cable, have abbreviated seasons clearly pre-built for Netflix viewing, draft talent from movies, etc) is often an odd beast right now; trained by the teeth-cutting many of its top practitioners did on Sopranos, The Wire and especially Lost to regard a central narrative as secondary to callbacks, clues and self-flattering literate allusions (“Oooh! That’s from Chambers’ The King in Yellow! I’ve read that!”) that function both as a personal conversation between the show creators and fans/journos who “get it” and as a way to generate content in the weeks between new episodes. The insistence with which fan-theorists pounced on True Detective, juxtaposed with the actual show’s clear focus on the relationships and personal developments of its characters and creator Nick Pizzolatto’s decidedly non-cryptic assertions that no, The Green-Eared Spaghetti Monster would not be some Lovecraftian eldritch horror summoned up from the mire in the penultimate episode, was dissonant it’s spawned it’s own mini-genre of parody theories.

At times, it almost felt like True Detective was deliberately messing with that particular style of viewership, dutifully checking-off “classy TV” benchmarks like show-offy bravura trick shots, embittered jerk-ass antiheroes and, yes, meth. Always meth. It also leaned hard on familiar modern hard-boiled mystery tropes: When the plot thread of a powerful family of Evangelical Fundamentalist preachers pushing to subsidize religious schools crops up early on, it’s a foregone conclusion that child-molestation cover-ups are in the offing. Ditto the precise mechanism that breaks up Marty’s family… Marty, who talks at length in the first episode about “The Detective’s Curse” of missing solutions right under your nose, which of course those playing at home would take to be foreshadowing aimed at him rather than a clarification to them.

I won’t even pretend to be immune myself: Heading into the finale, my “pet theories” were A) Rust wasn’t really a cop – he was a vigilante expertly conning his way into the investigation on a personal mission of revenge against the Carcosa Cult for the murder of his daughter, whom we’re told is dead but only by Rust himself; and B) Marty’s father in-law, a moralistic long-time town elder, would be The Yellow King. Obviously, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I imagine that, by the end of the year, “True Detective” will be remembered as one of the great success stories of TV this year – a deep-dive into the foundations of the genre it cannily borrows for its title and refocus of mystery narrative away from twist-for-twist’s-sake (think the “Law & Order” franchise and it’s infamously predictable midpoint table-flips i.e. “We were investigating a Peeping Tom… but instead we found AN AL-QAEDA DIRTY BOMB!!!!“) formula and back onto personal drama.

The series kept its promises: Cohle and Hart cracked the case, put down The Spaghetti Monster, raided Carcosa and even came face to face with The Yellow King. But it also afforded real depth and understanding to what began as two thoroughly unlikable archetypes of the genre (Marty is an obnoxious boor even before we know he’s a self-flattering philanderer, while Rust is a textbook study in how annoying “The Smartest Guy In The Room” can really be) and wind up not only legitimately heroic (to a point) but also, improbably, redeemed.

The next season – it’s nearly a foregone conclusion that there will be one, when this one is popular enough for its finale to crash the HBO GO streaming service – will feature a new story with new detectives from a new director; though it’s not known whether it will tie in with the first season at all (Rust and Hart acknowledge that there must be Cult-members still at large they didn’t get). Whoever is entrusted with that task has a lot to live up to.

About the author

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.