This feature contains spoilers for True Detective season one.
HBO’s recently concluded True Detective inspired an almost unprecedented amount of fan speculation on the Internet. I may be in the minority, but I found reading theoretical interpretations of the show to be a far more rewarding experience then actually watching the drama. True Detective moved at such a slow pace, and, aside from the fact it was mostly told in flashback, its mystery unfolded rather routinely. Was there narrative justification for the many well thought-out fan theories about its true meaning? Were the Internet’s devoted writings about the show completely off-base? Were fans simply putting things together that were not there?
What’s fascinating is that not only was there an overwhelming amount of online fan response to True Detective, but many of the fan interpretations were thoughtful, exceptionally detailed and made for extremely compelling reading. This is saying a lot considering that online communities for television shows and movies are more often than not characterised by juvenile nonsense and fan in-fighting rather than viewers seeking to connect with each other. With True Detective, it seemed that the more work that went into the theory, the more that other theorists were inspired to dig deeper into the show’s mythology.
Why did True Detective become such a magnet for theoretical interpretation? Arguably, it’s down to its mythological themes. The subtext is what captured the imagination and a reason True Detective will be viewed repeatedly by devoted fans for years to come. The show wasn’t made to be watched once, but rather like many of the works of Alfred Hitchcock, to remain open to interpretation and be examined again and again.
Join us as we visit some of the most intriguing connections True Detective fans drew between it, philosophy, religion and literature.
The Call of the Cthulhu
Thanks in large part thanks to the fervent passion of the online fan-base, interest in the work of H. P. Lovecraft, and in particular the Cthulhu, has spiked since True Detective. For those unfamiliar, the Cthulhu is a fictional mythological being of Lovecraft’s invention, which is supposedly responsible for keeping man in a state of fear and anxiety. Essentially, this giant octopus-type creature is from the darkest and earliest parts of time, a time beyond human comprehension. This monstrous being has supposedly become trapped but cults have developed around the world to worship Cthulhu with the understanding that one day it will be free and chaos will be unleashed on the world once again. One of the places such cults have supposedly developed is none other than True Detective‘s Louisiana.
A theoretical interpretation of Cthulhu lies in the idea of humanity always hovering around insanity and madness. Cthulhu is seen to represent insanity because if humanity is confronted with this terrible creature they will be forced to face something they are incapable of understanding and as such, go insane. Lovecraft appears to believe that if humanity truly begins to unpack and understand the true meaning of existence and the universe, since we are ill-equipped to handle such things, we would most likely be driven insane by the darkness and chaos.
The connection many have made to True Detective lies in the idea of a dark, unexplainable malevolent force existing in the world that at times can and cannot be seen. Remember that Rust, upon entering Carcosa, has what seems to be a hallucination in which he sees the sky opening up as if there is a crack in the universe. The idea of reality existing on the brink of madness relates to the idea of the Cthulhu as does Rust’s inability to fully grasp the concept that to truly know something leads to madness.
The Yellow King
The fan community has also helped to generate fascination with the mythology of “The Yellow King” who appeared in a collection of short stories called The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers. One of the stories involves a play so depraved that anyone who watches it is driven insane, (check out an episode of Masters of Horror called Cigarette Burns if you enjoy this concept). Again, we see a clear connection to True Detective in regard to the idea of witnessing madness and in turn being driven insane by it. Sales of Chambers’ collection are anecdotally reported to have risen ten-fold since True Detective began airing. This underground cultural mythos has now been put out there to be disseminated by the masses.
What is True Detective if not a story within a story? The straightforward plot is augmented by the fact that madness seems to exist on some sort of metaphysical plane in this world and that insanity lurks around every corner. This theme in particular makes True Detective worthy of being examined by the most ardent fans of psychological horror.
Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now
As established, the idea of witnessing madness and it in turn driving someone mad is one of the major themes not only of True Detective, but also the film Apocalypse Now and its source novel, Heart of Darkness. Joseph Conrad’s nineteenth-century tale centres around the character of Charles Marlow, an ivory dealer who travels into the heart of Africa, and searches for a trading post commander named Mr Kurtz. Kurtz has used his supposedly superior intellect to bend the African “savages” to his will, but lost his mind in the process.
On the one hand, Heart of Darkness is a cautionary tale about the madness of colonialism, and yet it is also about the idea of nature bringing on its own sense of madness when people are cut off from civilization. This is almost the exact plot line of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now in which Martin Sheen plays Benjamin L Willard, essentially the same character as Marlow. The film is set during the Vietnam War and Willard travels throw the Jungle into Cambodia where he is to find his own version of Mr Kurtz played by Marlon Brando, not so coincidentally named Walter E Kurtz. This Kurtz who has been driven mad by the horror of the Vietnam War also has a loyal army of “savage” native subjects serving him.
The connections between a descent into madness through a tropical landscape begin to connect pretty clearly to True Detective at this point, as the Louisiana swamps stand in for the Cambodian and African jungles. The novel and film show men being driven insane by their surroundings, another connection to True Detective, which examines how the landscape of the Louisiana Bayou is poisoned by insanity and madness. We also have main characters who begin to feel isolated and cut off from the world around them, relating directly to Rust Cohle and his own journey into madness.
Mardi Gras/Bayou Culture
The Louisiana Mardi Gras and Bayou culture originated in a European cultural tradition that made its way to Louisiana when the French colonized the territory. Mardi Gras became a time for elaborate celebration in which people dressed up in elaborate costumes and marched in parades.
The idea of dressing up in masks and connections to secret masked societies once again connects to True Detective. The evil men who commit unspeakable acts of ritualized cruelty in True Detective appear to be part of a secret society, and some of the pictures glimpsed in the show appear to call attention to the very worst possible aspects of this culture. Essentially, many have theorised, certain members of True Detective’s society are barbaric monsters who may have incorporated the cultural traditions of the world around them into their own acts of depravity.
Some True Detective viewers have also examined the philosophical concept of Nihilism presented in the face of an unrelenting evil. Nihilism essentially means that all truth is meaningless because essentially – according to my understanding of the concept – life is just a chaotic series of random events. This bleak worldview is certain that not only is there no God but that there is absolutely nothing bigger connecting the world. It’s a pessimistic and extremely bleak view of the world, endorsed wholeheartedly by Rust Cohle.
Arguably, Rust began to adopt this philosophy after his daughter died because he could not make sense of such a tragic event. This nihilism serves him well as a detective at times but it also, as Marty points out time and time again, makes him extremely contemptuous and at times inhuman. Of course, a 180 is pulled on us in the last episode as Rust – when confronted with entering the empty void he knows exists and fears above all else – is faced with an even more powerful feeling, that of connectedness.
One of the reasons True Detective’s last episode was so compelling was because the show really became about how Rust was able to face death and pure evil. In that moment he was able to throw off his nihilistic shackles and change his entire perspective on life. Essentially he was overwhelmed to learn that in the end, light is greater than darkness.
Paganism – which could be summarised as the concept of man worshipping the cruellest version of nature as his God – was also a popular filter through which fans interpreted True Detective, specifically the notion of men behaving like primitive beasts who only care about their desires and who reject the notion that we can be compassionate creatures. It’s no accident then that the evil cult in True Detective wear animal masks when they commit their acts of barbarity and lash out against their inability to control nature by destroying the purest form of humanity. This is also echoed, as many other online writers have pointed out, in the Dora Lange murder in which she is positioned at the altar of a tree, wearing antlers. Paganism is seen to be connected to ritualistic practices and beliefs not necessarily found in the major religions of the world and as such it has a connection to primitive and darker times in humanity’s history.
In reference to True Detective the actions of the cult and their barbaric practices also harken back to a more monstrous and primitive time in our society. Thankfully at the end of the show after Rust and Marty stop The Spaghetti Monster, they both realize that, as Rust so eloquently puts it, “If you ask me the light’s winning”.
“The light’s winning”
It’s quite something for a TV series to send fans scurrying to the philosophy books to divine the mystery at its heart, and an impressive accomplishment for True Detective. Ultimately, the series did a smart job of taking us on a compelling narrative ride by circumventing traditional mystery and cop show clichés, even if it did resolve itself somewhat predictably. The conclusion was a captivating one that allowed for a variety of theoretical interpretations, as we’ve seen.
Despite True Detective’s deeply dark psychological and philosophical undertones, maybe the real shock from writer Nic Pizzolatto was that after all the chaos and acts of violence, we were left with a feeling of hope. Perhaps its message is that when people unite for the greater good, the seemingly uncontrollable forces in the world can in fact be kept in check. Clearly none of these interpretations would be possible without the genius behind the show. Nicely done Messrs Pizzolatto and Fukunaga, nicely done.
Read our spoiler-filled episode reviews of True Detective, here.