‘True Detective’ Precap: A Million Yellow Kings Dancing on the Head of a Pin
Biting the Branzino
Alex Pappademas: Four of the stories in Robert W. Chambers’s 1895 book The King in Yellow are about a play whose second act makes people go insane. I’m still not convinced that True Detective isn’t actually a media virus that causes outbreaks of hysterical Doc Jensen–ism.
Jensen (first name Jeff) is the Entertainment Weekly writer who blogged voluminously and obsessively about Lost during that show’s run, chasing down and annotating even the smallest textual references to pop culture or philosophy, while spinning out theory after convoluted theory about Where This Was All Going. He became Lost fandom’s theoretician-in-chief, and as a no less fixated Lost fanatic, I devoured everything he wrote about the show, even when it seemed fanciful or far-fetched. And a lot of it did — there was just no way Lost was going to turn out, at the end, to have been about Flann O’Brien and string theory all along. That doesn’t make the hand truck’s worth of copy Jensen generated on the subject of Lost any less of a batshit-crazy achievement, but it’s ultimately a fan-fictional achievement. He and the countless other people who spent the late ’00s tirelessly postulating about WTF was up with the island were crowd-sourcing a towering edifice of hypotheses no actual TV show written by humans could ever live up to. For lack of a better “jump the shark”–esque term, we can start calling this the “Doc Jensen moment” — the point in the run of a mystery-based TV show when the building leaves Elvis, so to speak, and the story the actual show is telling gets eclipsed by the story the show’s fan base is telling itself about the show.
I can’t think of a series that’s gotten to that moment faster than True Detective. I can even pinpoint exactly when I knew it had happened: midway through this Daily Beast sit-down with TD creator Nic Pizzolatto, when we’re solemnly told that “Pizzolatto took a bite of his branzino” in the middle of a treatise on the space-time continuum, as if the branzino itself were stuffed with metafictional significance. (Maybe “bites the branzino” is the catchphrase I’m looking for here; maybe the branzino in this metaphor is marinated in Kool-Aid.) I’m still not sure the show’s dedicated unpackers (including Jensen himself, who caught this case for EW, unsurprisingly enough) aren’t overestimating the richness of the text just a tad. For the first four episodes, this show looked an awful lot like an overwrought cop drama with award-bait cinematography, prosey MFA-workshop dialogue, laughably anemic supporting characters, and two redemptively great performances by Harrelson and McConaughey; about the only thing that’s clear to me after the fifth episode is that it’s not just that.
It’s even been suggested to me that some of the flaws I just cited are there by design — that the two-dimensionality of everyone and everything in the landscape except Rust and Marty is proof the show is a deconstruction of the age-old story about cops consumed by their toughest case. That sounds awfully convenient to me, a No-Prize-worthy way to explain away Pizzolatto’s inability to write women. (By the way, everybody, let’s stop citing “You think your betrayal is removed by its interruption” as a good line, since it’s the opposite of a good line, even if it’s the best one this show’s given poor Michelle Monaghan.) And I still think anybody who’s eager to see this story veer in an explicitly Lovecraftian fantasy/sci-fi direction is going to be disappointed. A few metaphorical nods to weird fiction do not indicate that Yog-Sothoth is about to crawl out from the banh mi stand. And this show’s spent so much time brooding about the darkness in man that pinning the Dora Lange murder on some supernatural force would cheapen everything that’s come before.
But now that I’ve said all that, here’s my Doc Jensen–ish two-cent contribution to the growing True Detective theory pile. Pizzolatto has cited Alan Moore’s and Grant Morrison’s comics as a crucial early influence. Morrison’s early-’90s series Animal Man is about a B-list DC comics superhero who eventually realizes he’s a comic-book character and steps outside of fictional reality to confront his creator, who turns out to be a mild-mannered Scottish comic-book writer named Grant Morrison. Even before I knew Pizzolatto was a Morrison fan, the moment in the branzino interview when he talks about us as higher beings watching Rust Cohle’s life unfold on a flat screen reminded me of the scene from Animal Man when Buddy Baker takes peyote and looks at us through the fourth wall:
Morrison went on to create The Invisibles, which was sort of a comic book about a glamorous countercultural terrorist group — Mission: Impossible by way of Robert Anton Wilson — and sort of Morrison’s attempt to use the medium of comics to explain what he’d learned about the true structure of the universe after being abducted by aliens while traveling in Kathmandu. As he explained to Arthur magazine’s Jay Babcock in a 2004 interview:
“I was taken out of Four-D reality, shown the entire universe as a single object, shown the world as it is from outside, the viewpoint of the Supercontext as I called it in ‘The Invisibles,’ and it was profound. It was a shattering experience. It completely changed everything about how I viewed the world, life, death, time … I was taken to a place that was outside space and time, and shown space and time for what it is, a kind of nursery in which the larval forms of 5-D godlike intelligences are grown to adulthood. They said, ‘Space and time is place where you grow children, because only in Time do things grow.’”
Rust Cohle’s “flat circle” monologue articulates a strikingly similar notion about our reality, minus the notion of space-time as a nursery, which wouldn’t fit with this show’s pessimistic worldview. The references to “Matter in a superposition, every place it ever occupied” and “Our sentience just cycling through our lives like carts on a track” also echo Morrison’s account of the Kathmandu experience and the way he fictionalized it in the comic; see the top three panels of this page, from “The Moment of the Blitz,” the second-to-last issue of The Invisibles. And just to get real Jensenic about it, the little angel figures Rust makes with his beer cans look a little like the origami time machine a character builds in The Invisibles after briefly glimpsing the real thing.
As it happens — and I apologize for burying the lead — there’s also an Invisibles character called the King in Yellow. He shows up first in the dreams of Sir Miles Delacourt, a high-ranking British intelligence agent who’s also a member of an apocalyptic cult, the Outer Church. Delacourt and his compatriots are laying the groundwork for humanity’s enslavement at the hands of the Archons, a race of buglike horrors from another dimension. Morrison sets us up to see the King in Yellow as a villain; he looks like Cobra Commander if Cobra Commander were really into butter, and he seems to be urging Miles to carry out the Outer Church’s plan to install a monster resembling one of Lovecraft’s “Forgotten Ones” on the English throne (long story). But before long, it becomes clear that the Yellow King is playing both sides — or that both sides are actually the same side. This is what’s interesting to me about this story line as it relates to True Detective, to the extent that it does at all — like a lot of Morrison’s stories, it ends up dismantling itself.
Morrison spends the first two volumes of The Invisibles setting up all kinds of stark Manichaean oppositions — repression vs. freedom, old gods vs. new, swinging polysexual psychonauts vs. uptight white guys, and so on. But the penultimate story ends (super-abstract spoiler alert!) with good synthesizing and absorbing evil instead of defeating it. Everything that’s happened turns out to have been part of humanity’s journey toward enlightenment, even Sir Miles enacting his doomsday plan. The King in Yellow and his two little person assistants (long story) are revealed as one guise of a trio of beings called the Harlequinade, threshold-guardians of the Supercontext who exist outside linear time but occasionally visit our reality to help bring about the next phase of human evolution.
I’m not accusing Pizzolatto of stealing from Morrison (whose own body of work is so full of appropriation and homage that it’s kind of a moot point, anyway). And I’m not suggesting that True Detective is going to end with some kind of consciousness-raising metafictional apocalypse. (My actual, boring theory is that Carcosa and the Yellow King will turn out to be part of an Aleister Crowley–ish cult mythology by which a bunch of powerful Southern gentlemen justify committing ritual murder — less Invisibles, more From Hell, pretty much.) But this series is partly about deconstructing the core binaries of the police-procedural genre, as exemplified by Rust’s and Marty’s ever-shifting positions on the good-cop/bad-cop axis. And it’ll be interesting to see if Pizzolatto continues to build on Morrison by making the King in Yellow less of a pure Big Bad than we’ve been expecting. I don’t think it’ll happen, but if it does, it won’t be the first time this show has proved me wrong.
“The Truth Is a Pair of Sunglasses With Headphones in Them, Dude. You Try It on and Everything Seems Darker, But There’s Also Some Sweet Tunes in Your Head”
Let’s Talk About the Music for a Hot Second
Chris Ryan: True Detective, in the course of five episodes, has started knocking on the door of the TV canon, but in terms of TV music, it’s already there; you knew that the moment Wu-Tang Clan’s “Clan in Da Front” was playing in the stash house, or Lucinda Williams’s “Are You Alright?” was wafting over the air as Cohle swapped cocaine in the evidence room. Above is a playlist of songs from the show (the Kinks, Captain Beefheart, the Staple Singers, Grinderman) and songs I thought of because of the show (Public Enemy, Richard Thompson, the Dream Syndicate).
Big Questions to Which We Demand Answers in the Next Three Episodes
Mark Lisanti: Is Rust Cohle the killer?
Is Rust Cohle the Yellow King?
Is the Yellow King the killer?
Is Rust Cohle (honestly) investigating murders he committed while blacked out on enough psychotropic drugs to kill a yellow elephant?
Wouldn’t that be incredibly lame?
Is Marty Hart the killer? And/or the Yellow King? (Don’t scoff. You don’t know yet. We don’t know anything. Three episodes is a very long time. Like, he just shot Reggie Ledoux in the head? What is he hiding?!)
Do Detectives Papania and Gilbough seem a little too invested in solving these murders? What are they hiding?
Will the eventual revelation of the killer’s identity (or identities! You don’t know!) be a crushing disappointment because of the mythological/extratextual/impossibly heightened hopes some of us have heaped upon what might otherwise be just a very well-executed detective show?
Seriously, is it Marty? We totally saw it coming.
With Marty’s marriage somewhat repaired in 2002, is he again seeing Lisa on the side? How about in 2012?
Is Lisa trying to blow up President Obama’s marriage?
Is series creator Nic Pizzolatto a dangerous cult leader recruiting new premium-cable minions for some dark purpose involving yellow footie pajamas and mysterious twig sculptures that will not reveal itself until 2013?
Can we buy those twig sculptures on Murder-Etsy yet?
Am I the Yellow King?
Am I the monster at the end of the dream?
Am I a crudely crafted beer-can man teetering on the edge of the flat circle of time?
What am I hiding?
Maybe Not-So-Crazy Theory of the Week
Down the Anagram Hole
Molly Lambert: True Detective–fan black holes are like no other. One minute you’re cruising the Internet minding your own business, then suddenly you’re reading about yellow hypergiant stars for three hours and doing a refresher read of Beyond Good and Evil. That is how I came to find myself deciding to anagram the names of the characters, actors, and makers of True Detective using my favorite anagram server. Most of the anagrams don’t make any sense — but a lot of them do. When they start to make sense, you feel both somehow vindicated and completely off your nut. Move past that crazy feeling and enter the ergosphere, where it all makes sense. Trip the Rust fantastic with me.
Rustin Cohle: “coils hunter,” “no cruel shit,” “’tis horn clue,” “chile or nuts,” “sun core hilt,” “sonic hurtle,” “runic hostel,” “inshore cult,” “holier cunts,” “hot sun relic,” “lech sin rout,” “ice sloth urn,” “I hurt clones,” “clothe ruins,” “tours lichen,” “lurches into,” “sunlit chore,” “client hours,” short nuclei, “lust in ochre,” “hustler icon”
Martin Hart: “a rant, mirth” “rah tan trim!” “rim that RNA,” “hint: tar, ram”
“True Detective”: “vet tree, cut, die,” “cute tit, red eve,” “ice deer TV, et tu?”
Woody Harrelson: “loanword: horsey,” “honorary dowels,” “handle yo sorrow,” “horny owl soared,” “heard loony rows,” “narrowly shooed,” “yowl harder soon,” “woo horns dearly,” “adore yon whorls,” “horny slow adore,” “loons roared ‘WHY?’” “only drawers, ooh!” “dreary howl soon,” “reads wooly horn,” “hardly ore? swoon,” “shadowy loner or,” “loner woos hydra,” “showy radon role,” “whore roads only,” “O! hoes on yr drawl”
Matthew McConaughey: “a hum, my cottage wench,” “caught a chewy moment,” “outmatch, whence a gym,” “a cache, women, tug myth” “huge myth town a mecca,” “accent; why a mouth gem?” “a catch them women guy,” “am gym cut cheetah, won,” “a cow gut machete hymn” “two, then a chummy cage,” “chew a cognate myth: Mu,” “come watch a hymen tug” “cetacean myth, mug, how?” “comet watchman guy, eh?” “twangy memo cache hut,” “whammy tongue cachet,” “own a catchy theme mug”
Michelle Monaghan: “hog men, hell maniac,” “hmm hon, allegiance?” “challenge him, moan,” “menacing hall: home,” “ill omega henchmen,” “hangmen hill cameo,” “He men, analog Milch?” “macho meaning hell”
“The Yellow King”: “lengthily woke,” “Gee, honky twill,” “keeling thy owl,” “hilly geek town,” “oh twinkly glee!” “think owl elegy,” “wonky gilt heel,” “Eek nightly owl,” “long yeti whelk,” “eek lowly thing,” “eek tingly howl,” “kneel, holy twig,” “thy glow, I kneel,” “yell woke thing,” “yokel hewn gilt,” “tying whole elk,” “elk weight only,” “toking hell yew,” “weekly long hit,” “why go kill teen?” “gee, why not kill?”
“Big Hug Mug”: “humbug gig”
The Battlestar Galactica of It All
Emily Yoshida: The funny thing about the sudden (two-week-old!) frenzy to “crack,” “solve,” or “mystery unbox” the first season of True Detective isn’t just that it’s an obsession with a quickly approaching expiration date. Nor is it that we could likely be sucking a lot of the fun out of a show that we already have only a few more weeks left to enjoy for the first time. Those things are true, though. Not that funny, but very true.
Nope, the silliest thing about TD fever is that everyone scurrying around decoding tattoos and speed-reading The King in Yellow before next week seems to be missing the point of one of the most meme-ified (and now, after five days, completely decontextualized) mantras to come out of True Detective thus far: Time is a flat circle. Or perhaps you prefer its Battlestar Galactica equivalent: “All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.” BSG and Twin Peaks, like TD, get their hooks into you once you realize the central mystery isn’t “Who killed Laura Palmer?” or “Who is the Yellow King?” but “What kind of show am I watching?” The possibility for metaphysical strangeness crept through the hexagonal corridors of Galactica and rustled the silvery pines of Twin Peaks. There was a sense that the plot details were almost arbitrary, or merely surface symptoms of a much grander scheme far beyond the characters’ comprehension. For a storyteller to have his characters acknowledge the cyclical nature of the universe and the futility of their actions is to spit on the concept of plot-driven narrative (not to mention life-affirming messages), to bust it apart to see if all the wires and cogs land somewhere truthful or transcendent.
On True Detective, when Rust says time is a flat circle, it’s in the context of him questioning the idea that a crime can ever be “solved” in a meaningful way. There will always be another gruesome murder, another bad guy out there threatening the innocent, another not-as-bad guy to stop him, rinse and repeat. Well, I’m 2012 Rust Cohle, making paper dolls out of the pages of your used Ligotti Reader, and reminding you there will always be another mystery. And maybe you can crack it, maybe you can “win” the show/book/movie all your Twitter friends are similarly combing over in a race for … but what’s the prize? There’ll be another show in a couple months that everyone will be reading a million conspiracies into, and it’ll be back to the grind for you intrepid Internet Age media detectives. The universe will provide plenty of mysteries (and things that vaguely resemble mysteries and probably aren’t, but will suffice for now as you try to distract yourself through another day in the mortal coil) for those who want to look for them. The rest of us just get to enjoy the atmosphere and meditate on entropy for a couple hours a week.
“But what am I supposed to do in the days between episodes?” You ask me. Easy: Spend some time with your family. Or go on a coke bender. Duh.
Guys, shut down the #TrueDetectiveSeason2 hashtag, it already has its winner.
Rooting for Rust
Amos Barshad: Last week, with “The Secret Fate of All Life,” the reason Cohle and Hart are being grilled about the Dora Lange case all these years later was finally made explicit: Gilbough and Papania think Rust, everyone’s favorite loopy antinatalist, is a suspect. This week, my IRL conversations have been roughly 78 percent TD, and I’d say the collective reaction to the possibility of our man Cohle being evil sounded not unlike the screams of anguish at the end of “I Am a God” times a thousand billion.
We’ve spent the better part of five hours falling in love with this odd duck, embracing his collected wisdom as our own fatalistic life view, slowly and patiently explaining to friends and family that nothing means anything anymore. And now you mean to tell us this sunken-eyed denier-of-human-consciousness fellow could be a killer? Well, OK, when you put it that way, it does make sense!
If we’re sentimentally arguing it can’t be Cohle, there’s also some logic there. Namely: With three episodes left, there’s no way things aren’t just going to get continually more batshit. But this show hasn’t been building toward a stunning last-minute reveal, and so whatever else we find out could still lead us toward the dark pit of sin in the middle of Rust’s locked storage locker. As much as I don’t wanna hear it, it would be extremely True Detective–y of True Detective to build up a soul-tortured antihero only to snatch him away from us, and plop us down deeper into our own despair. AHHHHHHHHHHH AHHHHHHHH AHHHHHHHHH.
Won’t Get Lost Again
netw3rk: Sometime around four o’clock last Monday morning, after hours of poring over posts on /r/TrueDetective, I managed to get ahold of myself. I had gotten about 50 pages into Thomas Ligotti’s profoundly dark The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. I had analyzed dozens of stills from various episodes of the show. Is that a spiral? Is that a Cthulhu tattoo on Reggie Ledoux’s chest? Does the last shot of Episode 5 mean Cohle is being framed, or do the black star drawings and ruined school represent Carcosa or, more meta still, am I, as a viewer, in the fourth dimension looking down on a flattened circle? Is Marty the Yellow King? It was beginning to get out of hand.
Then, I remembered the last time I felt this way: Lost. Hours wasted trying to interpret arcane number theory, clicking through page upon page upon thread upon thread of forum posts. Workdays down the drain in a torrent of heated text, email, and instant message exchanges. No, never again.
Two quick thoughts about True Detective:
1. The difference between True Detective and Lost or Twin Peaks is that the story doesn’t demand you follow it down a rabbit hole of theories and century-old gothic horror collections. You can watch it as a straight procedural without feeling that you’re missing out on too much. The six-minute long shot from “Who Goes There” requires no research to enjoy.
2. At eight episodes per story line, True Detective might be the strongest argument yet for David Simon’s position on TV recaps. I still disagree with him, but I’m glad it’s not my job to review this show.
Possibly Unhelpful, But Potentially Profound, Google Image Search Results for “Yellow King”
Sean Fennessey: True Detective’s primary story takes place in 1995. This is one of the worst moments in men’s style history. And while time may be a flat circle, it is not a crystal ball. As a point of comparison, here is how Matt Damon’s character, a disgraced Indiana corn executive, dressed in the film The Informant! That movie takes place between 1992 and ’94. Look at the way Damon’s suit sleeves drape, the way his tie flaps out like some diaphanous neck-kite, the cut of his slacks that indicate a circus clown gone to seed at Men’s Wearhouse. Check out those spectacles, and the haircut. Damon’s Mark Whitacre is a ’90s dork of the highest accord, and he is note-perfect.
True D takes place just one year later and some 800 miles away. Again, a flat circle, no more. So why is Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle dressed like a contemporary Street Style hipster cop? Loosed tie, slim-cut pants, slate-hued shirting with a sensible collar, and those elegant artisanal barber tattoos peaking out from his shirtsleeves. I grew up in a house with a cop, in the ’90s. This is not how he looked. My dad, bless his sartorial life, had a half-mullet and oversize double-breasted blazers and Pink Floyd T-shirts. Just like Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart! Marty is just so, an accurate reflection of a terrible time to look at other people. Rust, on the other hand, is ready to sip coffee at Intelligentsia while perusing the latest issue of Monocle. His clothes fit. He is out of time. Is this just McConaughey’s vanity? A strained effort to put some distance between his Merle Haggard look in the present day? Another commentary on the circular nature of experience? Maybe style is meaningless and as time slips away, so too do all the ways we change our appearance. Maybe in another version of this existence, we all wear antlers.