Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

True Detective Revisited: Matt and Eric Have a Facebook Kerfuffle

In Film Theory, Television on April 15, 2015 at 11:06 am

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by Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

[WARNING: Spoilers ahead, NSFW, and definitely not for the squeamish.]

Yesterday, Matt was trying very hard to get Eric’s attention (perhaps because Eric has been so busy with historical work that he has been neglecting TheSplitScreen for months), which may explain these two tweets that showed up in Eric’s Facebook feed:

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As a devout and hardcore fan of all that Season 1 of True Detective does, Eric could not resist this bait. In short, Eric considers that season in its entirety to be the finest single season of television ever aired, hands down, no contest. Plus, it was late in the afternoon, and Eric was tired of thinking about his current project at hand, so he jumped in the fray. What follows is a (mostly) unedited transcript of the exchange between Matt and Eric. We invite you to join this conversation and give us your impressions in the comments section.

Matt: What I mean is: give me a show that knows what it is and what it’s doing and actually pulls it off, and I’m more forgiving. Brilliance that doesn’t pay off within the parameters of its own devising is a frivolous undertaking at the end of the day.

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Eric: Sorry, dude, but on a purely technical scale, that six-minute, single-take tracking shot in the projects at the end of Ep 4 IS one of the most innovative things I’ve seen, particularly on a television show. Yes, there are lots of outstanding single-take tracking shots from movies, but this thing ranges from outside to inside several times and has so many moving, ancillary parts (that aren’t just people cooking in a kitchen or doing fixed activities) and physical challenges for the principals that I have no freaking idea how they pulled it off.

M: That tracking shot is, aside from the philosophizing of Rust Cohle, the most-written about thing having to do with that show. Cool. It’s great. I like the show. It’s not new, though maybe for television, and the story collapses on itself to the point that this vast conspiracy involving at least ten killers (mentioned by the show’s creator and writer himself)? Yeah, no, we got him: the one guy who killed that one girl that one time twenty years ago, so all good and concluded.

I’m really just on a pro-Justified screed today, so take all of this however you wish.

E: I’ll also tell you this: As someone who has traveled extensively in southern Louisiana (and not just in touristy New Orleans), who has wandered through the shit show of fortress ruins that serve as the set for Carcosa and seen how the folks in the surrounding communities live, I have never, ever seen any film or television show that so accurately captures those people and the feel of that region, which must be the ninth circle of hell on earth.

And that’s before I even get into any of the writing, the exploration of Rust’s philosophical take on the world, or his personal revelatory experience at the hands of the Yellow King, all of which still haunt both [Eric’s wife] Teresa and me DAILY.

M: I’m down with all that. It’s really good at mood, atmosphere, and works as philosophy. As a piece of detective fiction which sets itself out to work within a set of generic parameters even if it’s busting them at the seams and undermining certain expectations, its conclusion doesn’t work as having solved the mystery of what they were in fact setting themselves up to solve (“they” referring to both the characters and the show’s writing staff).

Look, I really like True Detective. I really do. I can point out flaws I see in it and still like it. A lot. And I’m looking forward to the next season. But…this is where I am on it. Unpopular opinion? Maybe. But I’ve thought about it. A lot.

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E: I’d argue that the frustrating aspects of the apparently tidy resolution are exactly the point of the season and much of Rust and Marty’s discussion in the last episode, not to mention the Yellow King’s warnings to them in the fortress. What matters is erasing him, catching him, from a purely police procedural point of view, but it will never stop the evil that exists in the world or dissuade the underlings, the enablers who will tolerate or even embrace that evil. Something else will come to fill the vacuum. The entire system is corrupt, which is just a microcosm for the world in Rust’s eyes. That charismatic preacher will never do time for what he allowed and participated in. None of those elected officials or police officers will ever do time for what they allowed. None of those masked men in the video will ever be identified and prosecuted. The only hope is to erase the present source of the evil, to find some justice in stopping the Yellow King from ever being able to do again what he has done for decades; and of course, in seeing that done, in seeing how it plays out, we the viewers understand that the Yellow King’s evil was bred from the evils that were once perpetrated on him as a child.

At the end, Rust understands (through his vision) that time may not be the flat circle of eternal recurrence he (and Nietzsche) imagined but is instead the spiral that the Yellow King’s followers spoke of. All comes back round again but not necessarily in a precise repetition of the past using the same bodies and the same actions.

M: Yeah, that’s the argument. Still doesn’t help the fact it’s a detective show with a mystery at the center of it.

This is basically my sentiment toward the ending and the response you’ve just offered, which is the one always offered. Read this back when the show ended and thought it was one piece that got what made me not care as much as everyone else about what TD ended up being.

E: I think all of the above turns the police procedural (and this police procedural in particular) on its head. Why bother chasing evil if the evil cannot be eliminated? Why uphold justice if justice is never pure and often empty? This is heady stuff and certainly different from what most police procedurals cover, especially in an eight-episode arc.

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M: Because it doesn’t, to me, actually end up turning the procedural on its head, despite assertions otherwise.

In fact, as is my main contention, after episode three, it becomes a very standard detective thriller, and drops nearly all of the menace felt in the Rust Cohle interview/v.o. we’ve had in the previous episodes. The occultism, the nihilism even, are largely side-lined as the plot moves forward with tracking down clues and checking out leads.

E: The aspect that resonated most with me is that it speaks truth about how evil generally and this evil in particular operates. Your Washington Post article says this: “Great mystery stories often end with the bad guys getting away with it. But they don’t usually end with the audience sort-of/kind-of knowing who the bad guys are, but not really, because actually we didn’t even meet most of them, and we know they have some kind of pagan cult, but we don’t really know exactly why they were killing people, or why two killings were public and dramatic and the rest were covered up so well nobody even knew they happened, or whether half the clues the story dropped pointed to anything or not, or why or why or why …”

If you have spent even five minutes in Louisiana away from the Disneyworld that is New Orleans and in the culture depicted in this show (or any similar culture, for that matter, including many of the rural communities of South Carolina), then you know that REAL LIFE mysteries on this scale do not resolve with full revelations of the questions outlined above. Those questions almost always linger, leaving people with unspeakable (and almost always unspoken) pain that lingers for the rest of their lives.

This is how I believe this show turned the procedural (or the “great mystery story,” if you prefer) on its head. This is genuine. This is how it most often turns out. And if you want evidence of that, you might be interested in this video about one of the season’s influences–a real life Ponchatoula, LA, mystery that remains a mystery, even though the bad guys confessed and were put away.

M: I know, I know. It’s okay Eric, you can like the show more than I do. It’s good. You think I’m arguing it’s bad. I’m arguing that what it does is, in fact, something that does not work for me. I only contend that I should neither have to care what real life is like in rural Louisana or that it was related to a real case in Lousiana for the show to function on the actual terms it is operating on, which it clearly sets out for itself even from the show’s title: TRUE DETECTIVE was a magazine of detective stories based loosely and lasciviously on real life stories. Ergo, it is placing itself within a well-worn tradition as a piece of fiction, which it still is. But you’re arguing that its mood and its relation to the rural south being depicted on TV in a state of “realism” that is neither here nor there should trump that. Okay. I say it doesn’t.

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Our conversation ended here, but if we had had more time, Eric would have responded that Matt’s final assertions prove the point of genre twisting rather than denying it. He also would have prattled on about how the mystery here is much more about questions of good and evil, and the unknowable that accompanies that, and he might have pointed to a variety of themes that hint at this–the original murder scene as the Tree of Life, Cohle’s obvious function as a Christ figure that is amplified by the “crucifixion and tomb scene” at Carcosa, the dialectic between Rust and Marty over what it means to be a “good man,” etc.–and how all of those dynamics point to the fact that the “Great Mystery” matters much more in True Detective than who shot John, so to speak, in almost exactly the same way that Pulp Fiction is not simply Tarantino’s attempt to recreate the excesses of the pulp fiction stories for funsies but is instead a vicious social critique of the people sitting in the audience watching Pulp Fiction. But that’s another topic for another day.

Eric’s not really sure what Matt would have prattled on about in response. But we both do like to prattle on.

All images used in this article are screen captures from videos presently available on YouTube and are the property of HBO. No copyright infringement is intended, and their use here for purely editorial and educational purposes falls under the requirements of Fair Use as defined in the Copyright Act of 1976 and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

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