True Detective, the hit HBO miniseries that launched last January, has become the subject of widespread speculation regarding its plot, characters, story arcs and hidden meanings. Not since the series Lost has a show captured the attention and imagination of such an enormous audience around the world, spawning articles, blogs, and analyses all over the internet. Even reputable news publications such as The Globe and Mail and The New Yorker have knit-picked its underlying themes and literary references to reveal a complex piece of television history that’s so much more than a TV show.
True Detective, created by Nic Pizzolatto, tells the story of detectives Rustin Spencer “Rust” Cohle and Martin Eric “Marty” Hart as they investigate a series of brutal, satanic murders of women and children in Louisiana. Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) is a hot-tempered, but relatively normal, family man who is partnered with brilliant, nihilistic Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey). Much of the show is told through flashbacks, narrated by both detectives as they are interviewed by other detectives in the present day. Eventually, the flashback device is retired, and the two detectives meet to finally put an end to the mysterious, interconnected murder cases.
Despite the rampant conspiracy theories about the show’s underlying meanings and numerous Easter Eggs (intentional inside jokes or hidden features), True Detective is probably worth watching purely for the entertainment value and the strong performance from Oscar winner McConaughy. After all, who doesn’t like a good “who dunnit” story with murder, struggle, and satanic undertones? But, as evidenced by amateur bloggers and news outlets alike, there is a lot more than meets the eye to this saucy HBO sex-murder romp. If you’re a fan of the show, you might have already picked up some of the things detailed in this list. But for those who simply enjoy the show for what it is and abstained from research into its more mysterious aspects, there is a lot to learn.
It’s not just the symbols and references that keep people guessing. It’s the background of its creator, its jaw-dropping direction, and the utter complexity of one of its main characters that makes True Detective truly intriguing.
5. Created, Written and Directed by a Novelist
It’s no surprise that True Detective takes has its fair share of literary significance. Its creator, writer, and sometime director is himself a novelist. Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, Pizzolatto studied at at Louisiana State University where he received awards for his writing. Beyond working in entertainment, he has been published in established and highly-read literary journals such as the Iowa Review, Oxford American, and the Atlantic. His first novel is Galveston, a violent tale of a terminally ill gangster with a conscience on the run from his loan-shark boss. Pizzolatto takes influence from actual “true detective” stories and pulp novels. As an accomplished novelist and story writer, Pizzolatto purposely inserts enigmatic literary references, symbols and allusions in his show that not only add to its dramatic effect, but also to its universal appeal, sending its viewers down the rabbit-hole of a full-bodied and cunning narrative.
4. Heavily Influenced By Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow
True Detective is rich with literary references. Michael M. Hughes, a blogger for the science-fiction website i09, was one of the first to point these out when he discovered that many of the images and symbols are also found in the 1829 short-story collection The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. Most of the references to the collection are found in the confessions of the murderers wherein they often mention “the yellow king”. But that’s hardly the only literary reference; according to The Globe and Mail, Alyssa Rosenberg of ThinkProgress speculated that the show has more supernatural tendencies than previously considered. She also discovered that the city of Carcosa, an evil “place” featured heavily in the show, is found in a story by Ambrose Bierce, and represents “an alternate reality in which one can see one’s own death.” Another author of The Globe and Mail even argued that there are parallels to The Heart of Darkness, the famous novel by Joseph Conrad. As the publication points out, the many interpretations of the show’s references may not be completely accurate, but there’s a great deal of fun in trying to “decode” them.
3. Did you Spot the Hidden Strange and Disturbing Symbols?
In dealing with the occult and satanic rituals, symbols of demonology are bound to arise. They are indeed plentiful in True Detective. Among the list are spirals, antlers, tent-like figures made of sticks, strange and unusual recreations of ritualistic murders, and dark vortexes. The spirals may represent the musings of Rust about the infinite loops of time, and the metaphorical spiralling of both detective’s lives as they progress through the investigation, according to Joseph C. Gioconda of Vigilant Citizen. Hart’s family life begins to crumble more and more, and Cohle experiences more frequent real-time hallucinations a result of his drug use as an undercover narcotics officer. Both men “spiral” out of control. In one scene, Hart finds his daughter’s dolls arranged in a way that resembles a ritualistic murder. But why? This is done to emphasize that the crimes are no longer separate from the detectives’ internal lives. They actually become an inseparable part of their personal history, a fact which propels the show further into supernatural, even horror-genre territory. The many symbols contribute to the show’s weightiness.
2. One of the Longest One-Take Shots in Television
Nothing proves the skill and prowess of a director more than an extended scene or long shot. These types of scenes require a great deal of coordination, rehearsal, and skilled performances from its actors. It take days or even weeks to plan, but when it’s pulled off, it can leave the audience dumbfounded, even breathless. A “long shot” is an extended scene without any cuts or breaks. In the case of True Detective, the long shot lasted an incredible 6 minutes – a very long time in the television, or even movie, world. In the shot, Rust is undercover, and robs a house with his former gang in exchange for information he desperately needs. But the heist goes bad, and he has to escape from the police and the gang he is robbing, all while making sure the man with the information isn’t killed (as depicted in the above photo). From the start of the robbery, to Rust’s daring getaway, the action-packed scene with gun fights, fires, and multiple locations never cuts. The episode was directed by Cary Fukunaga. According to him, in an interview with The Guardian, the prolonged shot is an invaluable device to convey a heightened sense of intensity and tension.
1. The Enigmatic Mind of Rust Chole
Rust Chole is himself an enigmatic parable. He’s known especially for his gloomy outlook, pessimism, and poetic monologues about the progressive downfall of civilization. He’s obsessive, pensive, courageous, and will do anything to get to bottom of who is responsible for the sickening murders. Often misanthropic, many of his monologues deal with very heavy issues such as death, life, and the stunted and evil nature of human existence. But what is Cohle really getting at in his melancholic diatribes which are such a significant part of the miniseries?
One of his more famous quotes is; “Time is a flat circle and we are trapped in eternity, doomed to repeat our lives over and over again.” According to Jason Shankel of io9, what Cohle really means is that there is no escaping the fate of being human, of reliving the shame of human existence forever. Another famous quote; “Since we are conscious, our only escape from the prison of time is to gain a higher perspective of ourselves.” Here, Cohle reiterates the scientific theory of M Brane, where there are alternate cycles of time other than that of a linear sphere. It’s only when people perceive the world as universally timeless can they really see who they truly are.