The Flat Circle: A True Detective roundtable

Jaime Weinman and Adrian Lee discuss the buzzy HBO series that wraps up its first season Sunday
Woody Harrelson, left, as Marty Hart. Matthew McConaughey, right, as Rust Cohle. (HBO Canada)
Woody Harrelson, left, as Marty Hart. Matthew McConaughey, right, as Rust Cohle. (HBO Canada)

Just before the season finale for HBO’s True Detective airs on Sunday, Maclean’s writers Jaime Weinman and Adrian Lee talk about the season that was, what the serial nature of the show means, and where the series goes from here.

(NOTE: there are spoilers for the first episode, but no direct reveals of the events of the episodes that follow. Still, you should definitely watch the show before reading this.)

ADRIAN: So Jaime, we here at Maclean’s haven’t gotten around to writing a whole lot about True Detective specifically, which is too bad, because it’s gotten so very deliciously in-the-zeitgeist. Maybe it’s the circles I run in, but it’s all anyone’s talking about – from the fantastic performances by Woody Harrelson (Marty Hart) and Matthew McConaughey (Rust Cohle), to the wild conspiracy theories that watchers have been generating en masse, to the amazing flights of cinematographic sorcery, to the smacks of literary allusion. And now, as quickly as it’s captured so many people’s imaginations – enraptured as we are by the much-hyped “golden age of television” – it’s about to be all over, because it’s a serial show, so each season will tell its own individual story and have its own characters and then move on completely in the following season with different actors, plot lines, and all. So I think the best place to start with this is probably by asking you: What do you think of the show so far, with the season finale around the corner?

JAIME: I think True Detective is an entertaining package. The acting is very good, the direction is good – and kudos to HBO for making it possible for one man, Cary Fukunaga, to direct all the episodes, something that almost never happens in dramatic TV and which gives the show a visual cohesiveness that most shows can’t have. For me, the big controversy over the show is not so much over whether it’s entertaining, but whether it’s something more than an entertaining murder mystery. Certainly it wants to be; the writer, Nic Pizzolato, is no fan of the crime procedural, and has peppered the show with signifiers of his aspiration to something more: philosophical nuggets, literary references (this is the one with Robert W. Chambers; The Following is the one with Edgar Allan Poe), Southern Gothic sensibility and evil clergy. In some ways it’s like The Mentalist with all the cases of the week cut out, a story about the search for a serial killer whose tentacles seem to reach throughout all of society. (Serial killers on TV are always very well-connected. Real serial killers aren’t so lucky.) I feel like the show’s aspirations to be taken seriously, as something more than a murder mystery, are a weakness – or maybe it’s just that as an HBO show with the network’s massive hype machine behind it, we couldn’t just view it as a regular creepy murder mystery even if we wanted to. Either way, True Detective doesn’t really work for me as a subversion of the procedural genre; it’s too bound up with those clichés. But if it can stick the landing and wrap up the story satisfactorily, it’ll be a fine creepy Southern murder mystery, perhaps in spite of itself. But maybe that’s me. What do you think? Do you feel this show succeeds in going deeper, being more philosophically penetrating, than the usual TV cop drama?

ADRIAN: I want desperately to like it, and all the indicators are that I should like it. Big-name actors! Allusions to a big, important, smart plot! But in a way I can’t help but feel like those are just tricks to hide the fact that the plot is actually fairly thin. A lot of the time, especially in those early episodes, the plot was less developmental and emerged more out of deliberately obfuscating dialogue – cop talk, or plot lines alluded to that we just weren’t supposed to understand at that point. The conspiracy theories are hinted at in there, sure, and they’re nimbly alluded to by lighting or colour or all manner of other breadcrumbs, and there are so many things that people have found, even beyond The Yellow King stuff that’s going around – I read this super-interesting feature about how it’s heavily influenced by the writings of comics icons Grant Morrison and Alan Moore. But the problem for me is that the conspiracy theories, fascinating that they are, are essentially fan-made. It feels like we’ve made the hype, not the show in itself. It’s the first series I remember in a long time where the appeal is so fuelled by the Internet in this way. To me, True Detective to me is a fine show on its own, but a great show because of the Tumblrs, the memes, the videos, the many contextual thinkpieces. What would this show be without the fervour that it has so quickly curried? I just can’t shake the feeling that it is – as you said once, in the office – that this is like a Criminal Minds for the literati. That doesn’t make it bad, it just feels like a cheap appeal to what we’ve been told, that we’re in the golden era of TV because of channels like HBO making sparkling-crisp quality television with all the elements that True Detective hits. In an early episode, Hart talks about that classic detective’s problem: “The solution’s right under my nose, I was just following the wrong clues.” That feels a little bit like an inside joke about a show that feels more clue than actual problem.

JAIME: I wouldn’t say this is the first show where the fan-made conspiracy theories are more interesting than the solutions on the show; that arguably goes back to the pre-Internet era, when fans were obsessed about the meaning of Twin Peaks, but the show didn’t have the same degree of interest in what it meant or who the killer was. I think that’s often a divide between the people who make TV and the people who watch it. The makers of Twin Peaks, Lost, Battlestar Galactica or True Detective tend to be more interested in what’s happening in the moment, or the emotional impact it can have, than what it all means; fans want everything to make sense. I think the explosion of fan theories is a fun example of the interactivity of TV: fans deepen a show, or at least add to it, by creating their theories about it.

ADRIAN: I think True Detective‘s buoying by the online froth indicates that if Twin Peaks were released today, we’d see it conveyed across so many memes, and it’d have a very different kind of legacy; it’s seen as much more artistic than this show, and that may have something to do with the Internet. But yes, Lost is a perfect example I completely blanked on – but remember how that one ended, and the profound online disappointment from everyone who gave it way more credit than it deserved? That’s probably the biggest thing I can’t shake: I’m worried True Detective is headed that way. After all, the internet giveth and the internet taketh. Just look at the latest (and frankly hilarious) video that’s making the rounds about the Yellow King theory. We’ve bent ourselves into think piece pretzels trying to figure out where this show is taking us, and now the Cohle-like razor focus that we’re using to figure it out is being ironically razzed. That’s also kind of why I think the serial quality of this show might be its downfall. That format means that it risks being in a position where it’ll take just one half-baked story or one disappointing acting pairing to make people start to turn off. We are a fickle society, especially when it comes to endings: we like completion (at least, that’s what we said when Breaking Bad tied up almost everything neatly with a bow), but we disliked it when the creator of The Sopranos told us precisely what the last moment of the series was supposed to mean; we like open artistic interpretation, but we hated Lost.

JAIME: I think the limited-series serial format is the only possible one for this story, for a number of reasons, but mostly because it seems to have been written for really charismatic, high-powered star actors. Well, you can’t get big stars for ongoing TV, even now. TV can make stars, or it can attract former stars, but for someone you recognize right now as a star in his prime, like Matthew McConaughey, eight hours of television is all you can get before he makes his next movie. And the star power, the automatic respect that true stars command, is what keeps his character from tipping over into absurdity; if we can take his character seriously, it’s because we now take McConaughey seriously.

ADRIAN: Welcome to the McConaissance, Jaime. This is the time in which we live.

JAIME: Well, I always say you can tell how serious an actor is by whether or not he keeps his shirt on. That’s why Vladimir Putin is not taken seriously as an actor. But anyway, back to the limited-serial format, it also allows them – in theory – to wrap up the story and put a bow on it, without the need most shows have to find a new story for season 2. The Killing tried to get around this problem by stretching its case over two seasons, and it enraged everyone. If True Detective comes back for another season, it’ll probably be a new case with a new set of characters, maybe (imagine it!) women this time. Effectively, this seasonal-anthology format is a way to do miniseries while still folding them into a larger ongoing series, which are much easier to sell as packages after the initial broadcast. What HBO is trying to do here is revive the prestige miniseries in a way that gets around the fact that miniseries are a hard sell nowadays.

Woody Harrelson, left, as Marty Hart. Matthew McConaughey, right, as Rust Cohle. (HBO Canada)
Woody Harrelson, left, as Marty Hart. Matthew McConaughey, right, as Rust Cohle. (HBO Canada)

ADRIAN: I agree with you that the serial format will whip up natural interest by being able to attract magnetic A-list performers who wouldn’t necessarily get to TV in a traditional lengthy series, but that feels extraneous to the product itself – distracting matters of hype. It also makes me wonder where they go next (just look at one of the most popular Twitter hashtags, #TrueDetectiveSeason2, proposing unlikely odd couples to be the next detective pairing). No matter the story or the characters, the series is always going to be named True Detective, and despise archetypes Fukunaga may, but it doesn’t change the core premise. And Rust and Marty do, ultimately, adhere to types of cops we recognize: Rust the oddball savant, Marty the work-focussed philandering boozehound. There are other things he can do, but I wonder at what point the well runs dry, especially for a show that was basically fully formed and as-it-exists when it was pitched to HBO, and now has the difficult task of producing a whole new series, basically, with these new expectations. I guess this is mostly conjecture until we see how the finale ends up, but that in itself feels like a failure: a lot of the actual action took place in the second-last episode, and a lot of the actual detective work happened sort of off-screen and take-my-word-for-it. It felt a bit rushed. This could be one of the most important season finales to happen in a long while – I do hope they pull it off.

JAIME: I would say that even if the ending is disappointing, people will still feel the journey has been worthwhile. The trick is – and this is an advantage of the limited-series format – not to overstay the story’s welcome. People talk about Lost as if the finale ruined it for everyone, but really it just put the button on years of frustration they had with the show’s vague mysteries. Same with The X-Files, where at some point fans became frustrated because it was clear the writers had no solutions to the questions they raised. But True Detective is a short series and, despite its storytelling complexities, it’s a rather simple story about two damaged men who team up to solve a crime. We’ve already seen the two men team up in the 2012 timeline, which was one thing a lot of us were waiting for. Now if the killer is revealed and it makes a certain amount of sense, I think that’ll be enough.

Will that make it a profound show? I don’t know, but I don’t think it matters that much. As I’ve said before, it’s a good solid entertainment. That’s what makes it different from the U.S. remake of The Killing, which was so bleak and depressing and rain-filled that it constantly told us every moment that this is serious, this is not entertainment, you’re not supposed to have fun. The cinematography, broad acting, and mystical references on True Detective make it a good ride for people who just want a murder mystery, while other viewers can parse the many references to the economic and social conditions in America, and try to figure out what the show is trying to say about the gap between America’s winners and losers. It’s true that the next series of True Detective, whatever it turns out to be, will have a tough time attracting viewers because of the lack of suspense about what’s going to happen next (assuming, of course, that they just don’t leave the resolution of the mystery for the next separate series).

ADRIAN: That would, honestly, infuriate me. Unfulfilled promises is a core tenet of disappointment, TV or not. Plus, I can’t see how they can wrap everything up with a solution that has few holes, or no holes at all. It feels a bit like it could be headed to inevitable disappointment–the curse of capturing the e-imagination with wild flights of fancy that might actually be better than the formal ending.

JAIME: Sure, but they can always claim the real horror and tragedy of life is that there are no solutions. And as for getting people to watch a second series without these characters, HBO is so good at publicizing shows that this shouldn’t be as big a problem as it would be for another network. As long as they get big-name stars and a fetching premise, this series of mini-series can continue to do well under the True Detective banner.

ADRIAN: I’ll admit it, for all my leeriness about whether this show is actually great, I’ve certainly been right there, coming up with conspiracy ideas of my own and watching every episode in a dark Toronto bar, for mood purposes, and I’ll certainly watch its next season. Weirdly, too, I had a dream last night that Kyle Chandler was going to be one of next season’s detectives, which I think more than anything speaks poorly to the quality of dreams I have. Either way, my favourite theory for how True Detective is going to end belongs to my friend Josh: That Cohle moved to Louisiana in the first place to pursue this case, because his dead daughter was killed by the Yellow King – and that maybe he even planted the body of Dora Lange at the tree in the first episode, to bring attention to it, on the anniversary of his daughter’s death.

JAIME: I have always had trouble coming up with theories about where a show is going to go, maybe because I used to wind up falling in love with them and liking them better than what the show offered – which, realistically, is almost certainly not true. (Whatever we write in our heads is highly unlikely to be better than what the writers come up with, even if what they come up with is bad.) So my only theory about the identity of the Yellow King is that there is only one person yellow, evil and well-connected enough to be him, and that is Tweety Bird. “I tawt I taw a Twue Detective!” he cries. Iris out, that’s all folks! Another triumph for Time-Warner intellectual property.