Thoughts, Uncategorized

True Detective, the Hero’s Journey, and the State of Modern TV

HBO's "True Detective" Season 1 / Director: Cary Fukunaga

Yes, I’m aware this is a film blog;
but I’ve recently been moved to write something about the small screen. For the cinema, you see, may well turn out to be the shimmering pretender to television’s crown, as Ron Burgundy so eloquently put it; long-form visual storytelling, with its deep, calculated inhalations and exhalations in narrative and character that take seed over many episodes, is a true rival to any of the latest ninety-minute blockbuster. Art doesn’t have to be one thing – it can grow and evolve, like many of the great programmes to emerge over the last few years. The Sopranos is obviously the catalyst for moving TV away from being disposable, to indispensable, from its inception as far back as 1999 – but it’s taken the more recent handful of years, and the unstoppable, impossible-to-ignore new Golden Age of American television, for us to not only notice the medium’s full potential, but realise what it’s done already.

The steep increase in quality and inclusion of, admittedly, cinematic tropes has pushed such shows to the swirling centre of pop culture. Breaking Bad is the, ahem, crystallisation of everything that’s come before; the apex of writing, directing and production evident in its fifth season gave us a main character that’ll influence narratives for a long time to come, plus some of the best acting the box has ever seen. When it ended, I felt wretched; what was the point of watching anything else, now that not just my addiction, but a nation’s collective fixation, had run its course? I was living in a post-Walter White world, looking for something to fill the void left by a show that delivered everything I thought I ever wanted from one. Fortunately, I was living in a time where the medium is thriving, an age of Netflix and crowd-funding; an antidote came much sooner than anticipated in the form of True Detective, the child of writer Nic Pizzolatto, and brought to life by Cary Joji Fukunaga – in a rare case of a director being at the helm of each episode in a season. Matthew McConaughey has said that upon reading the scripts, True Detective felt like a long movie – which explains a lot in terms of TV’s current place in culture. And what the show does particularly well is to realise its own scope in terms of long-form storytelling over multiple seasons (Season 2 is nearly in the bag), but also the big picture of its own fictional world – and the definitions that at once characterise it and, at the same time, confine it. This dark cat-and-mouse thriller, and the way it’s executed on every level, has come at a perfect time in America’s Second Golden Age of Television.


On surface level, True Detective has a conventional narrative arc, and while it handles the tropes and, sometimes, even conventions of the procedural thriller ‘genre’ above averagely, it remains filled with just those; tropes and conventions. What we’ve all seen before a hundred damn times. But True Detective‘s point is just that; that such surfaces exist, and will always exist. It’s all in how you construct them and, in this show’s particular case, break through them to get at what lies underneath. Throughout its eight episodes, each one bound with strenuous relationships and serial killers, an increasingly grizzled Rust Cohle – played magnificently by the now Oscar-winning Matthew McConaughey – waxes nonchalantly about such surfaces. His conversations, and sometimes outright altercations, with partner Marty Hart (a wonderful, constantly pouty Woody Harrelson), evokes with ever greater depth about the very nature of reality, and our individual perceptions of it; Cohle asserts rather convincingly that we’re all experiencing the same dream, with the occasional monster thrown in. British screenwriter John Yorke has a book out entitled Into the Woods; it’s clear that whatever setting your story takes place in, your hero’s journey is always the same. Delve into the darkness, into the woods, and you may find the object of your motivations – and bump into some evils along the way, too. Cohle understands this, completely and with his fair share of physical and emotional injury, just by the time the finale’s credits roll upward into the star-studded blackness of the last shot. His experience with such monsters in the world he inhabits is a different kind of experience for us as viewers – but really, they’re the same. We really do go into those dark, dank places of Louisiana with Cohle; after all, just like he says, the physical universe is merely in the mind.

And that’s what’s behind the triumph of True Detective in a post-Breaking Bad landscape, where we’ve already seen and will continue to see even more programming that pushes the boundaries of the episodic moving-picture format;  by similarly acknowledging, just like Rust, that any narrative in any artform will concern light versus dark. Or, how he puts it succinctly himself, ‘It’s just one story. The oldest’. It knows that its good man-gets-bad man narrative isn’t new, or even particularly fashionable – it’s what it does with the story that matters. The Monomyth, the Seven Basic Plots – but the possibility of an infinite number of permutations. TD tackles that head-on, and as a result delivers some of the most profound, intelligent, cathartic messages and moments I’ve experienced – including ones I’ve had with cinema. The courage and insight of its ontological discourse is, by my watch, unmatched; what else have you seen recently that takes a stab at the human condition in such a confrontational manner? And miracously, it never feels trite or forced; Marty’s reactions to Rust’s intense speechifying on life’s futility are ones we’d probably rebuke with ourselves. But this only acts as a mirror to our own ignorance, an in-built fear that’s gestated by the familiarity of everyday life, to see the universe in the distinct, unprejudiced shapes our callous (yet curiously loveable) detective does.


Even for the greatest nihilist on TV in recent memory, who’s also a drunk degenerate and near-militant atheist, he receives something akin to a resolution in the aforementioned final episode. For a show that was almost smothered in darkness, where the good guys don’t catch all the bad guys in the end, there’s a glimpse of something more sublime that’s at the core of not just the show, but man’s perception of space, time and the gooey stuff in between. Rust manages to catch a glimpse of such a thing, a ‘substance’, in which he can feel nothing but his dead daughter’s love. The twirling galaxy-esque manifestation, which appears to be one of the character’s infrequent hallucinations at a rather inconvenient time, is a heroic move by Pizzolatto and Fukunaga; they’re tearing away at the fabric of not only Rust’s universe, but by nifty meta proxy, the universe of the television programme itself, its storytelling. It’s formally daring stuff – but could what Rust saw and consequently describes in the episode’s closing moments be Heaven? I don’t think so. Rust was always describing the base level of reality, the plane of absolute truth underneath the physical world, throughout the season; that we’re all a bundle of memories, and nothing more. I believe True Detective was always searching for a non cop-out, non-religious theme, and it nailed it with a peculiar mix of ambiguity and clarity, seeing its finely drawn characters receive something for their seventeen year-long struggle against darkness – Cohle stared into the abyss, and it was beautiful.

Of course, shows with such massive intentions will forever garner negative opinion; accusations of style over substance, and a misogynist slant towards its female characters, or sometimes even complaints about the ‘basicness’ of the show, are just some of them. But I feel that’s entirely overlooking what the show is beating against, for each of its hour-long episodes; it achieves subversion by sticking to the rules, or rather the viewer’s own preconceptions, but underlines this by conveying that it’s all merely a skeleton for the themes of the show – and for every other show. However you tell it, there will be elements in narrative that no matter what order or guise they appear in, recognisable or hidden, quantifiable or sparse, they will will suck you into the world of a story.

It’s now been nearly a week since the story of Rust and Marty has come to an end, leaving me in a state of despair similar to the one caused by Breaking Bad  – but with a hankering for solving crimes over cooking meth. While I’m sad that we’ve seen the last of McConaughey and Harrelson in these roles, what’s so exciting about True Detective is that it’ll be furthering its brilliantly handled themes of existential anagrams and bravado storytelling with brand new locations and characters. We won’t be carrying on Marty and Rust’s journey, but at the same time we will be. It’s just one story.

~ ~ ~

Follow the editor at @GaryGreenScreen

About GaryGreenScreen

Freelance film critic.


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Gary Green: Freelance film critic.

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