Before You Were Born and After You’ll Die: True Detective in Context

By Joe Sykes

True Detective, wri. Nic Pizzolatto, 2014. Runtime: 8 hours

True Detective is a wrestle over time. As such, it fits into a southern American tradition, centred around William Faulkner, that attempted to understand the relationship between the South and varying perceptions of time. In Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Quentin Compson, sitting in his room at Harvard, reflects on his Southern past:

“I give it to you, not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it.” Compson muses, “Because no battle is ever won…[t]hey are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”

Compson is deeply affected by his Southerness. He is stuck in time, unwilling and unable to move on from his past which lies somewhere back in Mississippi. In the end, time wins out as he descends into madness and eventually kills himself. There is something about the South that seems to encourage this conflict between stasis and progression. It is a historical place, resting on notions of myth and memory that even its critics fail to avoid. Christopher Hitchens, in his essay on the Confederacy, writes that there is “an inescapable historic texture to the Old South”, a sense of romance, an imperishability. As life changes rapidly, as life speeds up, the South tries to retain its sense of timelessness, fighting back against the never-ending prescriptions of modernity.

The South has always had an uneasy relationship with the modern world. In the 1880s, as newly-minted Southern capitalists strove to make a quick buck out of the old plantation lands – recently vacated by master and slave – Southern writers constructed a literature that hailed the virtues of a romanticised past. Authors like Thomas Nelson Page and Thomas Dixon created a fiction of idyllic plantations, kindly masters and obedient slaves, all working in communal harmony. This was an alternative to the lived experience of the Industrial Revolution that was forging a new Southern identity, one built around the business values their Northern compatriots had long ago adopted. As traditional social relations folded under the weight of Industrialisation, Southerners retreated into an ideology that cast the long-cherished values of chivalry and obedience as part and parcel of their identity.

True Detective emerges from this tension. The fallacy of capitalistic Progress is emphasised by the silent factories which slowly decay in the background as the Spanish moss droops over the two detectives. The factories are a scar on this romantic world and their encroachment will lead to a rupture, an outpouring of evil. The bayou is a swamp-like jungle that actively discourages the settlement of human beings; both scenes in which the detectives venture deep into this wilderness end in brutality.

Rust Cohle may be a self-described pessimist who thinks “human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution”, but he also has an acute insight into the physiological strangeness of the Louisiana landscape. On visiting one of the villages and small towns that dot the swampland, he tells his partner Marty Hart, “This place is like somebody’s memory of a town, and the memory is fading. It’s like there was never anything here but jungle.” The people here live in constant awareness of their insignificance. Enveloped in the all-consuming arms of their surroundings, they recede further and further from the world outside. The locals first fall back on religion and then on something darker, more disturbing. In one of Rust’s cop car meditations, a hallmark trope of the show, he reproaches Marty: “if the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward, then brother that person is a piece of shit; and I’d like to get as many of them out in the open as possible.” In actuality, the terrifying centre of True Detective is far darker than the relative benevolence of religion. At least religion grants its believers a moral compass. The world that Marty and Rust discover is devoid of virtue, regressing not just to the birth of Christ but to a form of Dionysian paganism far removed from traditional morality. Even Rust, with all his guff about the corrupted nature of man, is appalled by the extent of this ethical decrepitude. These people are more than just depraved, they are trapped in time, trapped by the South’s inability to negotiate the perils of modernity. For every Atlanta, there are a thousand of the small towns and villages that dot the backwoods of Louisiana.

In Faulkner, this inability to comprehend the ‘inexorable march of progress’ leads to madness. Darl Bundren, in As I Lay Dying, describes his family as moving “with a motion so soporific, so dreamlike as to be uninferant of progress, as though time and not space were decreasing between us and it”. The “it” here is the object of the family’s journey; they are taking their mother to Jefferson, the local town, to be buried. Jefferson represents something modern for the Bundrens. The town has commodities. The patriarch Adie Bundren is able to acquire both new teeth and a new wife there. It has medicine and motorised vehicles. Darl cannot come to terms with the notion of modernity and progress and loses all sense of selfhood; he is taken away and institutionalised.

What is challenging about Faulkner’s vision of the South is that it attests to this ideal of stasis: that not changing is somehow a good thing, that at some point between the Civil War and today, the South lost something inexplicable. Even Faulkner, probably the greatest of all Southern writers, is unable to resist the trap of Southern romanticism, a genre that revels in the image of the South as the old world, blighted by the vices of democracy, capitalism and racial equality. True Detective also envisions a blighted land, however it is not the loss of tradition that entraps the South but rather its incessant insistence on searching for the old in the midst of the new. The protagonists, or villains, don’t go mad like Darl Bundren but go evil.

Both Quentin Compson and Darl Bundren are, in the words of Faulkner critic Richard Adams, “crushed because they do not want to move”. The malice at the heart of True Detective emerges from the same instinct. Surrounded by landscape, insignificant in the face of nature, the murderers act without inhibitions on their most perverse desires. In As I Lay Dying Peabody, the family doctor, says that “everything hangs on too long, like our rivers, our land: opaque, slow, violent; shaping and creating the life of man in its implacable and brooding image.” This grants a deterministic quality to the life of the South. Imprisoned by landscape, they resort to ritualistic violence, paganistic dances of death, in thrall to their surroundings.

Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Fukunawa construct a visual representation of Peabody’s words in the final act of the show. We are confronted with a montage of all the places where violence has been committed. There are no humans here now, just the inexorable creep of nature. These are places where violence will be committed again and again because these places are timeless. They are the literal invocation of what the old lady says to Marty: “all around us, before you were born and after you die”.

In any other setting this would all be portentous nonsense but Louisiana and the Southern landscape grants the show a seriousness that is fully justified.  It must be remembered that Hurricane Katrina, the cataclysmic event that wiped out half of New Orleans, has an ongoing resonance throughout the show. Katrina was a stark reminder of the precariousness of life in this swamp land. In True Detective it lurks in the background, allowing the murderers an anarchic space with which to recalibrate their killing spree. This anxiety over the power of the natural world allows Pizzolatto to engage with a distinctively Southern tradition that ponders the difficulty of time and the difficulty of progress.

150 years after the Civil War, the South still has an alien quality about it. Its heartlands are very far removed from the modern American metropolis. (The little towns, of course, all assume the same form. Not everything can escape the tentacles of modern American capitalism.) In True Detective the effort to comprehend and come to terms with time, in the Faulknerian sense, have been abandoned. Rust Cohle’s final affirmation of victory in the face of darkness rings hollow as we remember those landscapes tinged with violence, destined to repeat over and over. Rust thinks he has won but he’s just one of Quentin Compson’s philosophising fools. These communities, these people are trapped by time and nature. There are no winners in the violent depths of the bayou.

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