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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Thursday, May 30, 2024

Decoding HBO's 'True Detective'

It was a night like any other. I wrapped myself in a blanket burrito, took to the television and traversed the channels until I happened upon HBO’s latest endeavor—an eight-episode collection called "True Detective." Its menacing black claws had me ensnared by the end of the first episode and with each passing week, they dig deeper and deeper into my psyche. If I could go back in time, maybe I wouldn’t have chosen this path—alas, there is no turning back.

"True Detective" is by no means an easy watch—a show as incredibly motivic as this one presents itself as a test of observation and recollection. I offer to you my humble attempt at decoding the colossus that is "True Detective." May it serve as a catalyst for the generation of your own theories and a bridge to spare you from a rapid descent into madness.

The plot is disjointed and meta in nature. For this reason, I found it useful to map it out. We are immediately introduced to the present-day story in which a pair of detectives are interviewing Marty (Woody Harrelson) and Rust (Matthew McConaughey). The plot then oscillates between these interviews and a series of flashbacks to the events that took place circa 1995, the year in which Marty and Rust began investigating the ritualistic murder of Dora Lange. Things are further complicated in the fifth episodes—spoiler alert—when the flashbacks skip to 2002, seven years after they are said to have caught the supposed killer, when new evidence suggests the Yellow King killer is still at large. We don’t yet know what occurred from 2002 to the present, but the years seem to have taken their toll on the now haggard Rust.

A bit of research shed light on some of the literary references that pepper this season and its ties to the macabre world of weird fiction. Characters repeatedly allude to “The King in Yellow,” an imaginary work within the collection of short stories written by Robert W. Chambers. According to legend, all who read its cursed prose are driven to madness and doomed to a life of depravity. Whether intentional or not—I choose to believe it’s the former—the allegory of the Yellow King has morphed into a metaphor for the show itself. After a mere five episodes into the first season, I feel completely consumed, and apparently I’m not the only one.

Since the show’s premiere, sales of the previously obscure book have skyrocketed and it is now on Amazon’s list of best sellers. Many other motifs seem to have been derived from the book as well, including mentions of the city of Carcosa and recurring imagery of black stars.

With the story in place and some motifs identified, it is time to explore the viability of a few theories I have concocted. Be kind—most of these manifested themselves during the wee hours of the night while I lay awake mulling over clue after possible clue. 

The writers seem pretty intent on making Rust look guilty. Throughout Marty’s interview, the detectives consistently steer their inquisition in the direction of Rust but it isn’t until episode five that they explicitly state their suspicion. Could Rust be the Yellow King? I am inclined to say no. I’ll admit I’ve questioned his innocence—he chose the case, knows how to cover up a crime scene and seems to operate on a different plane of reality— but so forcefully planting the idea in our heads would render his involvement cliche and obvious.

This brings me to another, more radical theory. Rust frequently experiences hallucinations—clouds seem to catch fire and swarms of birds assemble into choreographed black swirls. Sure, they could be explained by his days spent deep undercover in narcotics, but what if they’re not? Weird fiction hinges on the essence of fantasy and the supernatural. Could there be more to this mystery than the starkness of reality?

Lastly, it’s possible the crime extends far beyond the bayou. Governor Tuttle is quick to dispatch the case to a group cronies. Maybe there’s a cult of bureaucrats kidnapping women and children for use in satanic rituals. It could explain how a potential informant was able to kill himself in prison. Better yet, Marty’s father-in-law is presented as a wealthy and affluent man and it’s evident that something’s awry with Marty’s eldest daughter—she is caught drawing dirty pictures and later exhibits a degree of sexual promiscuity. Maybe he’s in on it and Marty’s children are paying the price.

I can confidently say I haven’t felt this captivated by a television show in, well, ever. That being said, heed my ramblings with caution. Before you know it, you’re losing sleep, quoting Nietzsche and buying weird fiction on Amazon.

Do you have your own theories about the elusive "True Detective" story line? Chat about it with Callie at ckollenbroic@wisc.edu.

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