It’s been a busy summer and early autumn for True Detective, despite the final episode of its ballyhooed first run having concluded way back in March. There were accusations of plagiarism lofted at creator/writer Nic Pizollatto, who swiftly swatted them away by arguing the difference between wholesale lifting and transparent pastiche. Not to mention that entire gossip blotters survived on season two casting chatter, which shifted from premature (and erroneous) whispers surrounding Jessica Chastain to Colin Farrell, Vince Vaughn and Rachel McAdams’ more recent, concrete confirmations. And last month, HBO cannily began re-airing TD every week following episodes of Boardwalk Empire, threatening to overshadow that fine show’s bloody end.
This past Sunday night, Detective’s pivotal halfway point got its encore close-up. “Who Goes There” turned heads with its epic, climactic single-take tracking shot, which sent steady viewers into a cinephile frenzy and convinced an even larger audience of holdouts to catch up and catch their breath. That seemed to be the moment when millions of people began paying really, really close attention to True Detective, dissecting its methods and motives and creating a community of obsessive thinking no less dense than philosophical ex-junkie cop Rustin Cohle’s (Matthew McConaughey) gothic investigation of the soul.
In this “golden age” of cable drama, we’re no longer couch potatoes, armchair critics or passive consumers.
By the time episode six, “Haunted Houses,” showcased Maggie’s (Michelle Monaghan) snaky CID-interview skills, Pizolatto’s creole crime caper had inspired a fan-driven alternate-universe of exterior thinking. True Detective’s onscreen reality was, suddenly and merely, a hazily agreed upon North Star for far-reaching theories. There was the Rust-and/or-Marty (Woody Harrelson)-killed ’em-all camp; those who were sure that Marty’s daughter, Audrey, fell victim to the Yellow King’s assault, or possibly even her father’s; that a clan of so-called “Five Horsemen” acted out these ritual rapes and killings (props to the Reddit user who pointed out that Rust Cohle is an anagram for Horse Cult); a growing circle of believers in the notion that Maggie’s dad was chief among said sadistic equestrians; the popular and understandable suspicion that cops past and present were directly or otherwise complicit; and, most infamously, a forum fanatic who managed to relate the Dora Lange case to a decades-old grudge cemented in Vietnam. (Personally, my conspiracy radar first pinged once Rust raised that crown of sticks overhead in fifth chapter, “The Secret Fate of All Life.”)’
As we know now, there was no cosmic interference pulling Erath, Louisiana, further away from grace. Nor did Maggie’s dad join forces with Rust to indoctrinate Audrey into the Five Horsemen’s annual deviance and donate her Barbie dolls to Tuttle Ministries. Turned out that evil force stealing the lives and innocence of so many women and young children, the conniving omnipresence who commanded the loyalty of ne’er do wells like Reggie Ledeaux, was the Spaghetti Monster-cum-lawnmower man himself, Errol Childress. And while his narrative – abused, traumatized child who grew up with a yen for incest, rape, murder and fantasies of lording over minions from his labyrinthine plantation hideout – is extraordinary, the climactic showdown between he, Rust and Marty, coupled with Rust’s near-death revelation about our miraculous existence, left many feeling limp.]
Perhaps it’s a coming-of-age affirmation that TV now incites philosophical debate about authorship and intent.
A certain minority, encouraged by Pizolatto’s perhaps too-frequent insistence on dissuading daydreamers (a shame, and somewhat selfish, given the series was his own opportunity to creatively indulge), walked away not just satisfied, but smug. Another group (one I’d include myself in) kicked themselves for falling under the spell of sidebar analysis, sharing in a climactic experience with visceral thrills but just a bit of envy for those who stuck by their conviction that True Detective was more character-driven genre work than muddled mystery. Then there are the lucky few who watched all 10 hours the way God and Pizolatto intended: patiently, as they were broadcast and without counsel.
But as has been popularly observed, our current, prevailing condition is that’s simply not how we engage with content in this oft-dubbed “golden age” of cable drama, no matter a series’ star power or prestige (let alone the whims of its creators). We’re savvier, more curious and more connected than ever before, qualities fundamentally at odds with but duly compelled by distrust (thanks, Dexter, The Killing et al) and irreconcilable demands on our time. We’re no longer couch potatoes or armchair critics, or passive consumers prone to fretting over who killed Laura Palmer at the expense of being overcome by Twin Peaks’ exceptional strange. Twenty-four years and countless televised twists and swerves later, we’ve internalized David Lynch’s lessons and, for better or worse, chosen to actively impose our cynicism and imagination in equal measure. For True Detective, that meant manifesting Erath as a Twin Peaks of the mind, when all along it was rooted in the paths of two flawed, familiar men stumbling toward a truth that was always there for the finding, not wickedly left among clues in children’s scribbles and roadside bánh mì.
Perhaps it’s a coming-of-age affirmation (whether it be golden or some other canonical hue) that TV now incites philosophical debate about authorship and intent. The main challenge for its creative ranks, then, is to welcome that rite of passage without losing their nerve or failing to adapt. True Detective was, with an admittedly brief period for reflection, a benchmark in that process. As an early experiment in new expectations, it could be a bit unfair to author and audience alike, but that tension undeniably emerged as part of its hold on conversation. And to Pizolatto and crew’s credit, only a story with special gravity resonated with that kind of starry-eyed weight.