“True Detective” and The Origin of Story

12 Mar

True Detective - spiralThere is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards. 

Albert Camus

Stories tends towards homogeny. Go to the movies, read a few books, watch some TV, read Shakespeare or Dickens or Hemingway, Homer or Ovid, watch a Wagner opera or read Milton or Dante, view episodes of The Simpsons or The West Wing or The Twilight Zone, Hitchcock movies, Bergman films, Ozu set pieces. Read Stephen King and watch Michael Bay and all the stories basically come down to very similar tropes. The stories repeat. Like Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence, or Detective Rustin Cohle’s theory of a flat circle, stories are spirals, and we keep coming back to the same ones over and over again.   

Read any How to Write a Screenplay and Become a Hollywood Douchetard Overnight  book, and you will learn the same few lessons. Movies have a formula. Even the very best of them follow it. They don’t have to be formulaic, but they all tend to behave in the same manner. Is it because all these writers and directors have read You Too Can Be a Screenwriter and Move Out of Your Parents’ Basement? Doubtful. Did Shakespeare read How to Be the Bard to craft his plays? I ask this because like Hollywood movies, Shakespeare plays tend towards homogeny. Either everyone couples up in the Naughty Woods of Mons Lingus or everyone is dead. The only real options for a Shakespeare ending are Kill, Fuck, or Marry.

Why is this so? Why are so many stories – stories that have been told since the beginning of storytelling – so similar? Since I don’t believe that every great writer consciously uses Plot Points for Dummies to map out his epic tale of love, loss, corruption, death, rebirth, and redemption, it’s probably something deeper.

Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces introduced many readers to his concept of the monomyth:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

It’s the Odyssey. It’s King Arthur. It’s The Lord of the Rings. Star Wars. The Matrix. Almost every comic book superhero. It’s also True Detective.

Campbell ascribes the recurrence of the monomyth to some deep Jungian collective unconsciousness – the idea that besides our unique conscious personalities and subconscious mommy issues, we as humans also possess collective repressed memories. As Jung wrote:

I have often been asked where the archetypes or primordial images come from. It seems to me that their origins can only be explained from assuming them to be deposits of the constantly repeated experiences of humanity.

Yes, this sounds very New Age-y, and please note the equivocatory word assume. I like the idea of what Jung is stating more than I actually give any credence to it. It’s as filled with mumbo jumbo as any religious tract proclaiming the miracle of this or that. There is no real scientific proof that any of what Jung says is real. But there’s no proof of transubstantiation either, yet billions of people have a Crème d’Jesus every Sunday. So, even though I can’t prove that the collective unconscious is true, as a writer and amateur psychobabbler, I find it quite intriguing. If we as individuals are inherently connected through some vast collective unconscious, it makes sense why so many of our myths and stories tend towards homogeny.

But here’s another question: why are we fascinated by certain types of stories? There really are so few of them.

Example: the romance, or romantic comedy, or The Love Story. Let’s call it “The Bickering Neurotics Who Get It On in the End.” It could be Much Ado About Nothing or When Harry Met Sally. Why do we like these stories? Simple – we as human beings crave coupling. I don’t care who you are or how bitter you are about Love or Luv or ♥♥♥♥. We all want to see two people getting together. Perhaps it’s because as animals we desire to see the propagation of the species. Maybe we just don’t want to be alone, and don’t want our fictional characters to be alone either.

Another example: Evil is Defeated. Let’s call it “The Asshole Bullies Who 9/11ed Us with Swastikas Have Their Faces Melted Off by the Ark of the Covenant.” Fagin in Oliver Twist, Darth Vader in Star Wars, Voldemort in Harry Potter, a steroidal Ben Stiller in Dodgeball (yes, seriously). Why do we love watching the bad guy get his comeuppance? Why do most of us root for the good guy and not the bad guy? Easy – we think of ourselves (at least most of us do) as good guys. We would like to believe that if we inhabited the story being told, that we would be those bathed in the white light of Goodness.

A final example: the Redemption Story. Let’s call it “I Once Was Lost, But Now am Found, With a Little Help From My Friends and That Girl Who Somehow Saw Through My Darkness.” It’s Rick in Casablanca, Darth Vader (again) in Star Wars, Snape in Harry Potter, Vince Vaughn in Dodgeball (no, really, I’m totally serious). Why do we like watching guys rise from the ashes? Because we’ve either been on the pyre ourselves, or fear that one day we might end up there.  We watch good men descend into wretchedness, and are then pulled up from the brunt wreckage of themselves to become the heroes we admire.

True Detective is not a Love Story. It is only superficially an story of evil being defeated. It is, at heart, a story of Redemption.


What follows will include spoilers for the first season of True Detective. You have been warned. XOXO, the Yellow King.

spoiler simpsons

True Detective is about storytelling. It’s about the distillation of the monomyth to its very essence. It is about what almost every single story ever told is about. Of course it dressed a lot of that up in red herrings and Easter eggs that gave the Internet a giant conspiratorial orgasm. Everyone thought that the killer was one of the two detectives, or the wife, or that dude you saw for two minutes in Episode 2, or the guy at the Vietnamese restaurant. As it turned out, it was just some incestuous backwoods voodoo pedophile with a couple extra helpings of daddy issues. It was just your typical sick twisted fuck who rapes and murders little girls. There was a banality to his evil that most TV audiences are not accustomed to. His was not the supernatural evil at the heart of Twin Peaks or the evolving evil of Breaking Bad or even the ridiculous cultist evil of The Following. The evil of the killer in True Detective was something any of us could have seen on the nightly news.

The story was never about whodunit or even why he dunit. What most televised procedurals do not understand is that the investigation is not there for the detective to explore, but for we the audience to explore the detective. True Detective got this, which is why the investigation was never going to be as complex as those on the Internet made it out to be. It was always about Detectives Hart and Cohle and their respect redemption stories.

The redemption of Matthew McConaughey’s Detective Cohle is almost entirely internal. For basically the entire run of the show – and the entire run of his life – he was a nihilist. He made Nietzsche look like a member of the Mickey Mouse Club. This is what he says in the very first episode:

I think human consciousness, is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory, experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody. 

That is some dark shit. He later claims that he won’t commit suicide because he “doesn’t have the constitution for it.” He views life as meaningless and participation in life a chore he can’t get out of because he’s too much of a fucking pussy to eat his gun. Contrast this with the very end of the season: the bad guy is got, the case is solved, the two detectives are heroes, and Rust is recovering from a life-threatening wound. Cohle and Hart stand outside the hospital. Here’s a their final dialogue (slightly edited).

Marty: Didn’t you tell me one time, you used to make up stories about the stars?

Rust: Wasn’t much to do there. So I’d look up at the stars and make up stories…I been in that room looking out those windows, just thinking. It’s just one story. The oldest.

Marty: What’s that?

Rust: Light versus dark.

Marty: It appears to me the dark has a lot more territory.

Rust: You’re looking at it wrong. The sky thing.

Marty: How’s that?”

Rust: Well, once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.

The light that Detective Cohle speaks of, the small glimmers of stars that he uses as a metaphor are all that stands between us and darkness. There are many names for that light: the soul, god, conscience. Heck, maybe it’s love. I dunno. But most of us have it. It’s the part of us that nags us to do the right thing and not the wrong one. Because we all – every single one of us – have done the wrong thing and will do it again, do that which is easy and base and ignominious. The Redemption Story shows that the greatest battles we have are not against outside forces trying to destroy us, but against our own inner darkness always tempting us.

Still, I don’t view this “light vs. dark” as good versus evil necessarily. Rather, I see it as action vs. inaction, or meaningfulness vs. nihilism. For much of the show, Rust merely took up space. He did not see himself, or anybody else as having any real meaning. Only when he does act, when he hunts down the killer, when he makes a conscious decision to do something does he finally comprehend that one cannot merely exist in life, one must participate in it. The darkness can be evil, but it can also be disinterest with and disengagement from life. The light can be as grand as saving a kid from drowning or as mundane as just getting out of the bed in the morning and not killing oneself.

When Camus talks of suicide, it is not just the act, but the metaphorical suicide of living a non-participatory life. It is the suicide by inaction of Bartelby the Scrivener; it is he who opts out of being and doing. Bartelby succumbs to the darkness by not pushing back against it. Rust Cohle almost meets a similar fate.

Our lives are our own personal stories and, as Rust Cohle states, the oldest story is one between light and dark – not good and evil – but “form and void,” (the biblical title of the season finale). It is between being and nothingness. Every love story is a story of action and bravery – go after the one you love, don’t just pine away the lonely nights. Every fight against evil is a story of engagement and risk; to beat a saying to death – the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. Every story of a person redeemed is about a man pushing back against the darkness within his own soul.

All stories come from the same place. Let’s call it the Big Bang of stories, or, for the religious, the Let There Be Light of stories. From one singularity all stories arise. As they stretch out in the cosmos, each takes on its own unique characteristics but still shares its cosmic DNA with its distant cousins. All stories are light versus dark. The ones we read in books and the ones we lead ourselves.

And every story is a question: do I dare? do I risk it? do I kiss the girl? do I stand on the side of the righteous? Every great story, including the one we call life, is participatory. Do we engage? Do we make a stand? Do we act, or do we live the life of a thousand tiny suicides, letting the darkness creep in and overwhelm us?  Do we live or do we silently await death?

Camus said it in a couple of dozen words, I tried in a couple of thousand, but Shakespeare probably said it most succinctly: To be or not to be. 

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