One Last Midnight: The Philosophy of ‘True Detective’

Take a ride through Carcossa with this video primer on the cosmic horror and philosophy of ‘True Detective.’
True Detective X
By  · Published on February 14th, 2019

True Detective is back on HBO for a third season and, much like the anthology series’ grizzled characters, who fade into darkness for a decade only to return to the fold older but wiser, Nic Pizzolatto‘s roman noir is back on the horse and ready to kick ass again.

After the much-derided second season seemed to bring all of the look but none of the feeling of the first, the new riff starring Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff has been a back-to-basics move, bringing the stoic philosophizing and grander cosmic narrative of Season 1 to bear on another set of morally ambiguous cops.

The first season struck a chord when it premiered in 2014, and there was a lot of early buzz for the stellar star turns of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as Detectives Rustin Cohle and Martin Hart, respectively. But it was True Detective‘s wide-ranging literary and scholarly influences that set it apart and assured its place in the pantheon of hard-boiled entertainment.

The video essay below from Wisecrack, written by Leo Cookman and hosted by Jared Bauer, shares our enthusiasm for Season 3’s return to form and lays out True Detective‘s deeper influences.

What immediately hooked viewers on True Detective was the feeling of a larger narrative. The Idea was that something dark and foreboding lurked beneath the surface of the show’s more conventional cops & criminals plot. That was in large part due to the influences of writers in the realm of weird fiction and cosmic horror that Pizzolatto mined for his story.

Among more familiar writers like H.P Lovecraft and James Ellroy, True Detective has also referenced the works of more obscure weird fiction writers such as Ambrose Bierce, Robert W. Chambers, and Thomas Ligotti. These references enhance the feeling that something bigger is moving behind the scenes and off camera. McConaughey’s Cohle suspects a greater conspiracy of child abductions and ritual murders, involving the powerful Tuttle family and their religious schools. Coupled with mysterious references to The Yellow King and Carcossa, these elements propelled the season forward.  So it was frustrating to many viewers when the season ended on an ambiguous note. When Season 2 returned with a totally new set of characters in a new location, the feeling of being short-changed was palpable to a lot of fans.

While HBO viewers were understandably taken aback, ambiguity is a familiar trait in both weird fiction and cosmic horror. Coupled with Cohle’s penchant for pessimist philosophizing, it was all but guaranteed that the end would come to naught for these characters. Pizzolatto treated story elements from his favorite authors as canon rather than simply influences, much like comic book writers might approach writing a story in a particular universe. By allowing the darker pieces of his character’s world to drift in and out of focus, he created texture and mood, before ultimately letting the pieces fade back into the swamps of the Louisiana bayou like the greater evil at the center of Cohle and Hart’s investigation.

Television viewers are not generally known for their love of ambiguity (see the Sopranos‘ ending ) but in novels and short stories, it’s a much more accepted quirk, especially in noir fiction, Pizzolatto’s home away from television. In this case, as in The Sopranos, it does create a lively debate over the importance of resolution. Is it better to have everything wrapped up in the end, or to have unresolved questions? For the philosophers and horror writers on Pizzolatto’s bookshelf, the answer is simple: the worst is all but certain, and the end doesn’t always matter.

The deeper roots planted by these literary and philosophical references gave the first season layers that may not have been there otherwise, and the hints are there for a return in Season 3; maybe even a connecting thread to the mysteries of Carcossa. As for the lack of resolution to the search for what The Yellow King really was in the end, as Rust says, time is a flat circle. In other words, not everything has a satisfying ending. And that’s ok.

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Actor of little renown, writer of none, jack of exactly three trades