Monday, March 10, 2014

True Detective--How Very Conventional Of You

Atmospheric music, creepy ambiance, masterful acting by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, and non-linear storytelling elevated this serial killer story from the utterly predictable, but it never managed to fully leave the cliches behind.

One of the things I am expecting to see by tomorrow morning is the True Detective backlash--the internet outrage that the story didn't follow through on it's own promises. I never expected this to take a turn into Lovecraftian horror, and I never expected a cameo from the Elder Gods or Cthulu. But I did hope we were going to get a bit more resolution, a bit more explanation of the tropes that were invoked here. I wanted things to pay off more than they did, even as I cynically expected that they wouldn't.

Let's just make a list, shall we? We'll start with the things that just got

  • We never got an explanation for the cats that were nailed on the doors of the African American church from episode 1.
  • What church did Dora start attending, and why did she think she was going to be nun (like she told her friend at the bunny ranch)?
  • What was "The King in Yellow" anyway? Anybody? Bueller?
  • What about the black stars? And the devil catchers--why were they found where they were?
  • The "green ears" on the "Spaghetti Monster" were literally green paint? How green do you suppose those ears actually were? I much prefer the internet conclusion that it was a green noise canceling headset.
  • Maggie's father wasn't implicated at all? 
  • Audrey's precocious sexuality wasn't related? The creepy rapist doll set up, the dirty pictures she drew, the goth phase and the sexual acting out--were just challenges for Marty to handle, and not clues "right under his nose"? That was sure a missed opportunity.
  • Who did Maggie marry after leaving Marty?
  • Who were the five men we saw in the video (and echoed in the photo at Dora Lange's house, and in Audrey's doll diorama, and Rust's tin men cut out of beer cans)? 
  • What caused the scarring on Errol's face anyway? What was the relationship between Errol and everybody else?
  • Why paint antlered figures on the church wall back in episode 2 (IIRC)? Who did that, and why?
  • Why did Errol (and the others?) pose Dora in the cane field in the first place? Then why do it again from the bridge in St. Charles? What was the logic behind their practices anyway?
  • "Death is not the end?" Where did that come from? And why did the old lady domestic servant know about "Carcosa?" What role did she have?
  • What was the point of the spiral tattoo/brand/paint marking? Did it have some meaning--like at all? Or did it just tie things together so the plot seemed to make some sense?
  • The pharmacy shooter who killed himself in prison--who arranged for that whole scenario? I gather that there really was a phone call, from the pay phone out in the middle of nowhere, and that the means he used was provided by the police officer who was also named "Childress," but who was involved?
  • So instead of any kind of explanation of the "paraphiliac map" and the meaning of the murders, we just get some vague handwaving around "Satanic worship" and "voodoo mashup" and unresolved daddy issues? That's just lazy storytelling. 
  • What was the deal with Errol's accents? And why did he keep that woman/half-sister around?
  • If there is no record of Errol (birth records, newspaper birth announcement, etc.) and no evidence of his existence in the business records--how was he getting paid for mowing the cemetery and abandoned school properties?
  • Who's corpse was that in the outbuilding that Errol went and talked to and why wasn't that body ever missed?
  • How did Billy Lee Tuttle--the incredibly successful creepy evangelist with the schools--reconcile all that creepy stuff with his professed religion?
  • Who was drugging the preschool kids and how? Were the teachers involved? Why?
  • Why was Dora's abdomen knifed? Was there some significance to that, that it was limited to that and not more general mutilation?
  • Where did the giant wreath around the hollow in the tree come from? 
  • What the heck did "making flowers" and "can you smell the flowers" even mean--I get that it was a metaphor for sex between Errol and Betty, but why that one?
  • Who shot the dog at the end? Why?
  • Whatever happened to the "Anti-Christian task force?" That was quite a McGuffin--showed up once, referred to a second time, and then disappeared entirely. It was never a threat, and it should have been if the Tuttles were trying to cover up their involvement. 
  • Maybe the Tuttles were just trying to keep their creepy cousins from getting into trouble, but weren't themselves actually involved, so they were only willing to go so far? Then who were the other two men?
  • What was the deal with Rust tasting "aluminum and ash" on the way to Errol's place--he did the same thing in episode 1 (I think). Was this supposed to be synesthesia? The taste of the "psychosphere" he pissed Marty off about early on? Are we supposed to take this seriously as a real thing?

Shall we talk about the cliches?
  • Seriously, Rust has a religious near death experience?
  • The final manhunt in "Carcosa"--they seriously didn't call for back-up? As soon as Rust said "this is the place" and they had no cell phone reception--they didn't just drive away and get backup? That's fundamentally stupid. 
  • The stupidity is compounded by Rust chasing Errol through the woods and aqueduct (seriously, what the hell was that?) without waiting for Marty to provide back-up? Dumb.
  • How did the cops know to show up--when, where, and with that much support? Did Rust's bar owner boss send off all the packets to news outlets and police departments? So Marty and Rust were lying there in Carcosa for two days (minimum)? (Twenty four hours before the boss sent the packets, and another 24 hours estimated for mail delivery, reviewing the packets, and mobilizing.) They didn't even have that location confirmed when Rust made up the packets.
  • Seriously--they shot the perp AGAIN? Seriously? With no blow back, since they aren't even actually cops anymore either?
  • Also--could we load any more Sooper Speshulness onto poor Rust Cohle? He's got mad detective skillz, knows snipers, can headbutt a guy to submission while impaled on a knife, demonstrates, formidable B&E (breaking and entering) talents, suffers from LSD flashbacks, has synesthesia, and articulates "deep" philosophical insights into the insignificance of humanity in the cosmic scheme. Oh wait--he also looks like Jesus in the hospital and even get a wound in the side, and is apparently immortal.
I'm sure there are more things that will turn up, either I will remember, or they will be hashed over on the internet. In the end, the script was fundamentally the same story we have heard many times before--sadistic and flamboyant serial killer with a taste for naked female corpses. Also, a weird predilection for arts and craft projects--the antlered crown, the devil catcher, the paintings on the walls of abandoned churches and his own outbuildings. A lot of nihilistic bloviating about stark cosmic "truths." A cop with an explosive temper and a bad marriage. Vague handwaving at the killer's motive--what was done to him, mixed with "devil worship" references but no real explanation. 

The most interesting thing about the script was the nested time frames. The most watchable part of the series was the acting by Harrelson and McConaughey. The thing that gave it gravitas was the atmospheric music. 

The disappointment I felt in the resolution of the plot came from the piling on of specific details (The King in Yellow, the Black Stars, etc) that meant nothing and went nowhere. Possibly, in the context of a novel, those kind of specific details serve to ground the story in a material world, to give it the patina of plausibility. In a visual medium, however, the "real world" is already present--embodied even, in the locations and the actors. So the details that need to be included in a novel to create that illusion of reality, tend to stand out too obviously in the television version. So the internet goes nuts, taking the inclusion of specific details as more meaningful than they end up being.

And there were some very interesting theories that I saw, posited in the last week. "The Yellow King" was a boat, not a person. The missing women were used to breed the line of Tuttles/Childresses, and then murdered when they either failed to conceive the first time ("He only liked them the once") or after they gave birth. The Munchausen by proxy mother was a victim of the cult. Audrey was exposed to the cult. Maggie's father was connected to the cult. The Wellspring schools project was a feeder of victims to the cult.

None of these ideas were definitively addressed, one way or another, including all the open issues I set out above. I expect we are going to see some very disappointed commenters in the next 24 hours.

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