True Detective is apocalyptic by the most conservative definitions. The southern gothic cop genre is the context for a narrative in which a revelatory message of eschatological salvation is conveyed by a supernatural force to a human actor. The message reveals another world. It transforms its recipients. It also presents normative banality as revelation, following a really gripping, super violent spectacle. Classic apocalypse.
Most of the action of the first four episodes of True Detective takes place at the retrospectively cast turn of the millennium. The show's two main characters Rust (Mcconaughey) and Marty (Harrelson) are both ex-cops who achieved hero status for their handling of a notorious homicide case in 1995. In 2012 (end of the Mayan calendar if you wanna read the signs) the case has been reopened. A murder resembling the one our protagonists worked in 1995 has appeared, begging the question of how the same serial killer could be on the lose considering he was apparently shot by them a 17 years earlier. Rust and Marty, now estranged, are hauled in for questioning. Through a spliced narrative whereby we both hear what Rust and Marty tell the detectives, and see what really happens, a deeper mystery develops. Because this is a Southern Gothic, the mystery involves poor 'white trash' psychos, women as suffering housewives or whores, mass-rape, child abuse and hoodoo.
Apart from the fact that True Detective is a stellar example of the genre, what particularly interested me was the contemporised take on millennial angst, particularly in relation to masculinity and paternity. While Marty is a decadent Last Man, slipping in to affairs and drunkeness, seeking only comfort and release, Rust is a nihilist whose misanthropic views are delivered in monologues back dropped by the misty landscapes of Southern Louisiana Bayou country. It is end of the world territory, passing by the windows of the cruiser. A place where civilisation is propped precariously on brick pillars above the impending floodwaters of our own vile design.
Seeing nothing but cruelty, suffering and ignorance, Rust thinks the decent thing for humanity to do is bow out. Quit breeding and end the anthropocene. His views shock the conservative Marty but align nicely with those of the Voluntary Human Extinction movement, an environmentalist group that cropped up in the 90s making pretty much the same claim. It was a popular shock-view for the millennial fringe. Downers and politically induced abstinence as a strategy to save the world from your own self-righteous proclivities.
For Rust, the look in the eyes of photographed murder victims always conveys relief. In the end, he says, they realise how easy it is to let it all slip away. Why doesn't he kill himself? He tells himself 'he bears witness' but suspects the truth is he 'lacks the constitution for suicide'. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rust's grim speeches don't win him any popularity contests in the cop-shop (though they certainly did on my couch) where belief in an underlying order of things might be thought to be a prerequisite of employment. We soon learn that Rust's career path was forged through pure junky death-drive. The irony, or perhaps the path to faith, lies in the fact that he hasn't been killed in his suicidal escapades.
Of course, Rust wasn't born this way. It takes the compassionate probing of a virtuous woman (Marty's wife Maggie) to discover that Rust's nihilism is the result of trauma (damnit!). His young daughter was killed in a car accident. His marriage crumbled under the profundity of the loss and Rust began to envy his daughter her 'innocent', painless death. She becomes a saint in his imagination, sparing him 'the sin of fatherhood'. Now even the 'well-adjusted' can understand. He doesn't really hate paternity; he's not a monster, just sad.
This might have been my first dissapointment. Why can't we have a creative nihilist on TV? Why does he have to be a victim overcoming injustice?
Rust's monologues and mythanthropic declarations are supposed to both convince us of his status as a good man pushed to a place 'beyond hope' and, later, sow doubt in our minds regarding his involvement in the case of the bayou serial killer. It is the contention of the new detectives that Rust is the perp they have been looking for and as they present their case, we are unable to find anything in our own recollection that would shoot them out of the water. We the audience put our faith in Rust's redemption. It's a pretty standard plot and I gotta say I was reminded of Charlie Kauffman's exasperated line delivered through the mouth of Nic Cage in Adaptations, "You explore the notion that cop and criminal are really two aspects of the same person. See every cop movie ever made for other examples of this."
That said, the accusations of the detectives do cast light on some of the obvious contradiction of Rust's words and actions. Namely, why the hell is someone who thinks the human race should take on a project of voluntary extinction so obsessed with saving children? Wouldn’t it be better to just kill all the kiddies and leave the adults to their evil, post-menopausal end of the millennium debauchery and death? Can we have a TV show about that? To the very end Rust's position as self-appointed saviour of the orphaned and abused belies his professed enthusiasms for ending it all as reveals a messianic fervour for having the last, good word.
The landscape of True Detective is littered with false prophets: The Reverend Tuttle whose creationist schools project reeks of child abuse and conspiracy. The tent revivalist charismatic. The outlaw biker gang named appropriately as 'The Iron Crusaders'. Its the middle ages all over again. The illiterate are taking up arms and declaring apocalypse on the horizon. Rust is the messiah to lead us on a journey to the truth.
The excellent first half of the season climaxes with a spectacular battle in which Marty and Rust kill the terrifying Satan worshipping ice heads and rescue the abused children. It's a classic good over evil with a twist relating to human frailty and police procedure that builds a great deal of suspense as we head in to the 'tribulations' section of the narrative. If we have read our bibles we already know there now needs to be seven years of unrest culminating in a final battle between good and evil and a revelation. And it needs to happen in four hours or four horses, something like that.
Despite the fact that Marty and Rust know they didn't really crack the case, they try to move on with their lives. For Marty, this means joining the famed late nineties fundamentalist super-bowl The Promise Keepers, a Christian men's group who meet in football stadiums in order to make promises regarding their gender 'purity' and responsibilities toward women, kiddies and Christ. Promise Keepers dubs itself as a 'catalytic event for men' but its basically a millenarian movement from which men make normative claims about their gender roles within an apocalyptic rubric that casts them as figures of authority based on the divine form of the patriarchal, hetero family.
Promise Keepers works on the premise that you can substitute apocalyptic (pure/impure, damned/saved virgin/whore beast/messiah) binaries for any process of adaptation in a changing culture where men are being asked to take on different roles and to acknowledge the difference of others. They are essentially defensive, normative and indicative of what might once have been referred to as a 'masculine crisis', but now days is mostly just called whining. We'd suggest trading the stadium for the therapist but the Promise Keepers would probably stone us with copies of the bible or The Minimal Self. It's an astute plot device for Marty then, who likes to be the boss and saviour but also likes to pass the buck. It is also a great foil to Rust's performed extinctionist zeal. Essentially, they are two sides of the same millennium commemorative coin. If I could cast a late nineties political/religious battle I would probably set the Promise Keepers against the voluntary extinction movement. Then I would have a UFO land right there in the middle of it all and a bunch of anthroposuspect greys come out and blaze up a dooby.
Unsurprisingly Marty's apocalyptic men's group doesn't make him much easier to live with. His quest for purity means that he slut-shames his teen goth daughter but still can't resist cheating on his wife. Rust too, who seemingly modified his nihilism in order to snag a hot doctor soon sinks into the tribulations. It comes to a head with a punch-up between the two, exactly seven years after their battle on the Bayou. They have turned on each other. They fail to see the bigger picture. At the beginning of the third act of the season, the two men are damaged goods.
The message is clear. The millennial battle has passed but evil still reigns. The men must prove their purity and their authority before it is too late. At this point I was ready for the show to go either way. The suggestions of church conspiracy, corrupt old southern dynasties and the wide shots of oil refineries made me sure we would get an ending that resembled every book James Lee Burke's Dave Roubicheux detective series. The nods to Twin Peaks (the place where the cool kids put their millennial zeal) made me wonder if we were heading in to the territory of the crypto psycho/religious art wrap up. Either would have been excellent.
Disappointingly, the show eschewed the supernatural for a western style show down. Rust, the damaged but not beyond redemption crusader V the singularly most 'damaged dude' of the show, the dude who shows men who think they are damaged what real damage looks like and specifically, shows Rust what happens when you give yourself over to the darkness of pure misanthropy, like, for real. The antichrist in the final battle is a serial killer of the 'idiot-savant, swamp dwelling nightmare' trope. Obviously, he's gotta die. We know that even before we get to the mounds of dead kids in the crypt of creepy stick-tents.
The final showdown has some excellent violence and a suggestive view of the cosmos that looks for a moment like it might crack open ala Sliders but turns out to be a visual gimmick and one of Rust's visions. Rust and Marty resolve their dude issues in order to kill the freak sex-fiend together. Wounded but not killed they awake in their hospital beds to find, if not transcendence then at least a profound moderation.
Rust, who glimpsed some kind of afterlife from where he lay, comatose in the psycho's crypt, now knows that fatherhood is not a sin and that his daughter is awaiting him in the primeval warmth that lies below this painful life. Marty too can moderate his take on purity in order to be better friends with his ex and accept his ex-goth daughter who, it turns out, was only dressing that way cause she was an untreated proto-depressive, yet to find her tolerant boyfriend. The men turn to each other and their previously latent homosocial bond for redemption and we get an glimpse of them as a bickering odd couple, spending the rest of their lives sharing coolers of Lonestar, being nice to their respective future-girlfriends and fuddling through the crazy maze of manhood in the wake of the evil of their prime.
Before I wrote this, I was tantalised by an interview in which the show's creator Nic Palazzo supposedly revealed alternative endings. In it, he claims that the supernatural, inconclusive or tragic endings for the show were uninteresting, 'easy' and unrealistic (we could be forgiven for not realising that realism was one of his goals). "What was more interesting to me is that both these men are left in a place of deliverance," says Polazzo, which is fine.
But in delivering these men from tribulation to calm twilight we the audience have, once more, been delivered from the turbulence of millennial angst and tension into a kind of apocalyptic forgetfulness. Order is restored, the order of banality. We are delivered once more into the tired, normative conclusions that these kinds of narratives have carried as long as we have been consuming them, fiending for them like the very drug addicts they villify. Is it wrong to wish for something else? Some hybridized post-apocalyptic noir mutation that turns the tunnel of genre in to a kaleidoscope? It can be a jarring blow when your imagination is engaged and then blocked. Again, classic apocalypse. I guess I'm just a gal who loves to get her heart broken by the same old genres.
There is something else going on in my dissatisfaction with the resolution of True Detective and it has less to do with apocalypse and more to do with my personal, nostalgic aesthetic preference.
In the finale, the angst, the nihilism opposed by fanaticism, heavy drinking, mething and slut-goth ambience of the late 1990s are replaced by the moderate bromancing of the 2010s. The New Jerusalem is, sadly, a pragmatic acceptance that things are neither dark or light but beige. There might be ghosts and monsters but they are just a lunatic fringe, not actual horsemen of the apocalypse. So cheer up, it could be worse. At least we have a moderate liberal administration, the internet and good pals and beer to wait out heaven with. I liked it better when the end was nigh.
When earlier, in my favourite episode, the horrifying Reggie Ledoux tells Rust that he has seen him in a dream. That they are doomed to repeat the fight and that the Yellow King knows all about it, I thought we were heading to some seriously weird terrain. At that point, anything seemed possible, as I'm sure it does for all those gripped in pre-apocalyptic fervour. The line 'time is a flat circle' seemed to signify a cue to the opening of the space-time continuum and the emergence of something unfathomable, or at least really, really cool. But, in the end, it seems that once again, if we are doomed to repeat anything it is just the banal acts of our lives in which we fish, make empty promises, be nice to children, loyal to our bros and watch endless rehashes of the same plots on TV hoping in vain for them to reveal a braver newer world.