For our first assignment in freshman literature (Fall 1989), we were asked to read T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. We puzzled our way through lines like,
At the violet hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi, throbbing waiting,
I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives…
Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mounts
Which are mounts of rock without water…
But we were all a little fuzzy on the facts. In class the next day, we were all pleased when one brave soul (not us) admitted he hadn’t really understood any of it. The professor posed a curious question: Do you need to? Is it possible, he continued, to feel something from the poem without having a clear idea of what’s actually being said? Eliot (or perhaps it would be more precise to say Pound, who cut out so much of the interconnecting tissue of Eliot’s poem) believed it did. You didn’t need to know that “the wasteland” described the desolate landscapes carved out by the first world war. You knew about deserts, about wanting, about thirst, and that was enough.
This same notion, of emotion wrung not from clear narrative but from evocative words and phrases, from atmosphere, seems to be at work in HBO’s series True Detective.
The second season, which finished up just over two weeks ago, has been mercilessly criticized as incomprehensible. Rolling Stone’s “What Went Wrong with ‘True Detective’ Season Two, is ruthless, beginning, “Ben Caspere, the murdered man at the heart of True Detective’s second season, got his eyes burned out with acid. To many viewers who stayed with the series to the end, he got off easy.”
Many of these criticisms were leveled by people who only a year ago were praising the series’ first season. In January 2014, The New Republicprinted their review, “Once Again HBO has the Best Show on TV,” which compared the plot to Faulkner and noted, “ ‘True Detective’ has the aggressive casualness and dense texture of a novel by a writer who doesn’t care if he’s only ever going to be mid-list.” In short, the second season was pretty dense on a number of levels (I won’t quite say “incomprehensible,” but…), but so was the first season. And perhaps that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Here’s what’s clear in the second season (don’t worry about spoilers; you can’t spoil an incomprehensible plot, right?):
The rest of the plot is muddled at best. A number of underworld dealings take place involving a complicated system of criminal activities. A great deal of money changes hands and also some diamonds. A lot of people on both sides of the law do a lot of unsavory things. The finer points? Well, they’re sometimes lost in the atmosphere. But what an amazing atmosphere that is, beginning with T. Bone Burnett’s tribal soundtrack, but including moody visions of Los Angeles’ seamier side and actors portraying characters so burned out they can barely conjure up reasons for living at all.
And yes, there’s a lot of complex dialogue. At one point, Ani’s father explains, “Some people can’t handle the deep trip. I fear he is a destroyer. In my day, you understand, it was about consciousness expansion, tracing the unseen web. Children are a disappointment. Remain unfettered.” Wait, what?
Here’s the thing: the producers know exactly what they’re about. Snatches of dialogue are deliberately obscure, plotlines deliberately mixed up and hard to follow. Part of the strategy, of course, is simply to convey the confusion at work for all the characters. This is a murder investigation, after all, and True Detective wants to make sure we understand that murder is not a simple matter. Nor are human lives for that matter. And they are never more confused than when they are the product of random chance as opposed to some sort of organized fate.
In the end, it’s the relationships that matter, just as they did in season one, each characters’ life intersecting with the others, impacting one another, sharing experiences, developing trust or distrust. In some ways those lives intersect even more than in season 1; yet in other ways these characters remain more separate and distinct, never truly finding a way to connect. At the end of the first season, Rust and Marty have developed an uneasy sort of partnership.
In this season we crave that relationship, we want to find the buddy connection somewhere – ok, we hate each other, but we hate crime even more – but that never really works out. As a result, this show captures life more truly than perhaps anything else on television. If modernist poetry makes one useful prism for viewing True Detective, the Hollywood film noir offers another. In fact, I would guess that it’s no coincidence that this season was set in Los Angeles – all the best noir novels and movies took place there. And like True Detective, often those films had plots so dense no one could follow. The Big Sleep, the great Bogie and Bacall film, offers a good example.
At the time of its release, critic Bosley Crowther wrote, “The Big Sleep is one of those pictures in which so many cryptic things occur amid so much involved and devious plotting that the mind becomes utterly confused.” Allmovies.com points out that the screenwriters (including one William Faulkner) became so confused they were forced to consult Raymond Chandler, who confessed even he wasn’t completely sure what was going on (this may be an urban legend, but it gives some idea of the film’s twists and turns). Things aren’t any less confusing watching the film now, only we’re not watching it for the plotline. Something else compels us. Complaining about the plot in films like this one was always beside the point. They were about the atmosphere, the relationships, the dialogue. You don’t understand True Detective in that sense; like The Wasteland; you can only feel it.
MK Adkins has a Ph.D in English that he occasionally uses to think about literature, but more often uses to think about television, music and film. Adkins is the author of two popular culture books as well as numerous articles and reviews. Until recently, he worked as a college professor but made the decision to devote himself full-time to writing and podcasting in January 2019.
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