Thoughts on True Detective Season One

I heard about True Detective from all the usual places on the internet.  It was one of those perennial “it” shows from a couple years back because of its apparently deep exploration of the psychology of its main characters and the overlay of Lovecraftian horror on top of a typical police procedural.  I’d heard it was good, and I’d also heard that it was a show that was very much not written with a wide audience in mind.  That’s to say, this is a show meant for straight white guys; the protagonists Marty and Rust are full of the man feels, and characterization of all female characters relies exclusively on the maiden/mother/whore trichotomy.

Our monsters. (Image credit: IMDb)

This series pulls from a lot of different storytelling traditions that end up complementing each other quite well.  On the surface, you have a police procedural where a couple of detectives work to solve a mystery surrounding a series of murders that involve bizarre arrangements of the victims in various tableaux.  Go one step deeper and you have a heavy mixture of Southern Gothic with lots of depictions of the grotesque in rural Louisiana.  Go even deeper than that, and you get the psychological drama of Rust and Marty, who are very similar men that really differ only in their level of self-awareness.  At the deepest level, you have the Lovecraft mythos intertwined with everything; Rust’s PTSD and nihilism make him an ideal conduit for cosmic horror, and the serial killer’s channeling of the King in Yellow in his rituals are suitably creepy.  Being able to see all the different layers together makes for compelling television, even when it’s marred by the show’s unacknowledged sexism.

There are some elements beyond the sexism that are a little harder to grok in terms of how problematic they are.  A lot of it is wrapped up in the presentation of Southern Gothic, especially as relates to the way people in abject poverty are portrayed.  We learn late in the season that there’s a sizable conspiracy to cover for the serial killer, and it’s related to a prominent family in the state who hide behind their wealth and cultural clout.  That’s not problematic; I actually find it really refreshing that the show makes a point of highlighting and subverting the usual narrative trope of upright Christians being assaulted by perverse Satanists (nothing depicted in the show is indicated as Satanic; Rust actually serves as a useful cypher here as he insists on identifying elements of the killer’s rituals as derived from Vodun and Santeria, religions which are oft-maligned as witchcraft).  What I do find problematic is that when the killer is finally revealed, we see that he hews close to many common stereotypes about poor, rural whites: he’s overweight, lives in filth, and appears to be carrying on an incestuous relationship with his intellectually disabled sister.  It’s akin the grotesquery depicted in other stories like the film Deliverance, and it extends the Lovecraftian motif of horror at twisted, “inferior” bloodlines to white people (of course, Lovecraft was an unapologetic racist, and there were also certain kinds of white people who weren’t white enough for his tastes).  It’s a distinctly classist depiction, which is disappointing in a police procedural that otherwise tries to diverge from the conservative storytelling of its genre.  Altogether, I think this is a case where the attempt to subvert the hypocrisy of white evangelicals is interesting but ultimately fails as the fundamental horror of the killer is still that he’s overweight, unwashed, and enamored with a cosmology that’s distinctly non-Christian.

All in all, I really enjoyed watching the first season of the show.  I hear that the second isn’t so good, so I’ll probably skip it.  There’s only so much sexism and casual classism that one can take in our brave new world, y’know?

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