“A Dream About Being A Person” | Another Riff on True Detective

1. I’ve watched each of the first four episodes of the first season of True Detective at least twice now—compelled to do so, staying up later than I should have to do so.

2. Everything that follows is full of spoilers, although I won’t be discussing the plot heavily. Fair warning, okay? Also: The video clips in this riff are NSFW.

3. I wrote about True Detective after its first episode “The Long Bright Dark” zapped me with its philosophical dialogue and heavy tone. In particular, I was taken—am taken, like most viewers of the show, I suspect—with Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), a nihilist who intuits the illusory structure of consciousness.

4. “The Long Bright Dark” is one of the best first episodes of a TV show I’ve ever seen, its slow burn pointing toward a payoff that the fourth and most recent episode has already delivered (the climax of that episode (the so fucking-climactic climax), midway through the season, must surely be balanced (imbalanced) with some other, different climax in the season’s second half). I’ll admit though to a slight—very slight—disappointment in the second episode, “Seeing Things,” which feels at times overstuffed, as the showmakers compress so many of the plot points and back story that will propel the rest of the narrative.

5. “Seeing Things,” as its title implies, examines the ways that perspective (and blindness) inform our sense of identity. After four years as an undercover narco, Cohle experiences hallucinations—but he’s keenly aware of his hallucinations—he sees that what he sees is an illusion, but he also sees that what he sees is no less real, in a sense, for all its unreality. Cohle contrasts strongly here with Hart, who sees himself as a family man, a patriarch, a good guy—but he’s a philanderer and a bully. Even when confronted with his young daughter’s interest in aberrant sexual scenarios, his impulse is to look away. Hart’s paternalistic horror at finding an underage girl working in a sylvan brothel is contrary to Cohle’s intuition that the girl’s circumstances might be improved under the care of the madame. For Cohle, identity is always destabilized, an hallucination.

6. In one of the scenes set in 2012—the interrogation scenes–

–(Have I failed to discuss this structure? I have failed. I am sorry. Look, clearly the two detectives—one a rookie, green, callow, both black—clearly this pair, an othered version of Rust and Hart, seem intent to jam Cohle up, pin the 2012 murder on him. But Cohle knows that, knew it before he walked into the room. When he cuts the top off of his empty Lone Star tallboy and uses it as an ad hoc urinal, how else am I to read this, gentle reader, other than a territorial pissing?—he knows this terrain. He marks it—both with his piss (abject essence) and the weird little totem he sculpts from the aluminum scrap. Where was I? Oh).–

7. In one of the scenes set in 2012, Cohle, asked why he wanted to move from narcotics to homicide, paraphrases 1 Corinthians 12:12 “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.” (Significantly, Cohle suspends the ultimate referent of that body, Christ). Asked what the verse might mean, Cohle says, “I was just trying to stay part of the body.” The body here—any body, all bodies (as the verse promises)—is an abject body, figured in the body of the victim that initiates the series, which thematically doubles the body of Cohle’s dead daughter. The verse promises that an individual can, via his or her (abject) body, find an identity.

8. But staying part of the body is hard, especially when the body is so goddamn stupid. The opening scenes of episode three, “The Locked Room,” seem to respond directly to Cohle’s biblical citation:

The scene also repeats the conversation Cohle and Rust have about identity in the first episode; again, Hart rejects Cohle, who seeks to reveal “our mutual illusions.”

9. The phrase “our mutual illusions” comes in the final climactic monologue of “The Locked Room,” where Cohle, in prose that could have come straight from Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter, posits human existence as wholly abject, “a jury rig of presumption and dumb will . . . it was all . . . a dream you had inside a locked room. A dream about being a person”:

10. (As I wedged a Cormac McCarthy reference into point 9, I may as well wedge another one in here: The second episode of True Detective pretty much wholesale lifts the scene in No Country where Sheriff Ed Tom and his sheriff friend lament that folks don’t say “Yes sir” and “No ma’am” anymore).

11. If “The Locked Room” slowed the pace of True Detective, returned some of the moodiness and philosophy to this police procedural, then episode four, “Who Goes There,” synthesizes everything that’s come before it into a throttling, thrilling climax.

We see Hart fall low, fall apart; for the first time, he has to recognize what he has been hitherto unwilling to recognize—namely, his own blindness, his own pride. His entire identity has been wrapped up in the idea that he is a father and a law man, but his approach to both of these roles has been dishonest—he’s a cheater, an absent father, and a bully. But flashing his badge doesn’t get him that far in “Who Goes There.”

For Cohle, identity is fluid, discontinuous, and unstable. When he goes “undercover” as “Crash,” connecting back with a motorcycle gang in the hopes of finding the suspect in the murder case, he doesn’t put on a mask so much as he simply becomes a different version of himself (which is the same version).

The end of the episode plunges into a nightworld operating on Lynchian logic; to call it dark would be an understatement, and Hart, despite all his macho posturing, is unsteady here, stumbling even. Perhaps for the first time in a long time, Hart sees that he cannot see.

12. The final moments of “Who Goes There” coalesce in a strange costume drama (Cohle as Crash in biker garb; the biker gang leering and lurid in cop blues). We’ve moved from the swampy, indeterminate bayou into the concrete box of the projects. No easy exit, but the terrain is somehow just as malleable for Agent Crash Cohle, who doesn’t so much command the screen as navigate it. The last shot of the episode is an uninterrupted slow burn that boils over, seers with a volitional energy that I haven’t seen on film since Children of Men. The scene reaches its end, the partners make their getaway from the scene of the crime, and the camera—via a helicopter shot—rises above the fray, its eye the eye of god, an impossible, inhuman perspective that surveys the whole indiscriminate mess: Seeing:

12 thoughts on ““A Dream About Being A Person” | Another Riff on True Detective”

  1. I have watched every episode at least twice, too. This show’s something else, in a great way. It’s hard to watch at times, so intense. But, it rips and sinks its talons into the consciousness. I was left breathless at the end of the third episode, and even more so at the end of the fourth. I noticed the long shot at the end, too, and wondered how many times it was rehearsed to get to the level of… unreal-Real it hits once it starts. There is a unfettered genius rattling in this show and I cannot wait for the rest of it.

    Also, I watched “Pervert’s Guide to Ideology” for the first time last night (been waiting twoish years or more for it). Lots of hard truth in it, more serious in tone; even though Zizek is serious in his obscenity he might proceed with.


    1. The Zizek is good if repetitive (and ultimately predictable once you figure out his Lacanian pattern—but always funny enough to hold interest). I actually think True Detective can be explained/described in a Lacanian model—the show is about a navigation of The Real-Imaginary-Symbolic (with Cohle as the lead detective/navigator). Marty Hart is total “No/Name of the Father” too—with the illusion that he authorizes the “no”/”name” (when really he is simply inscribed in its symbolic order).


  2. I’ve heard great things about True Detective, I really need to start watching it. I’m so tempted to read your post, but I’ll have to return after I’ve finished watching the episodes.


  3. I like the growing divide between what is said in the 2012 interviews and the action in the 1995 scenes. And the scattered “King in Yellow” references, including statements by the preacher that are more Old One religion than old time religion (“which is the stars and the wind between the stars” and “the face you wear is not your own”).


    1. Yes! The preacher does tap into that primal stuff, and the quotes here—especially about the masks, “the face you wear [that] is not your own” is exactly the thematic stuff that this show does that so compels me. The King in Yellow is horrifying—the monster at the center of the maze.

      My buddy Damon has brought up the whole “unreliable narrator” thing a couple of time in our conversations about the show—it’s a great touch, one that dramatizes how we create illusions, how time allows (necessitates) our creation of illusions. Cohle’s lies seem more programmatic — more like he’s trying to stick to a narrative that protects Hart and their casework; Hart’s lies are more delusional—lies about his own qualities as a husband, father, and lawman.


  4. There’s so much to enjoy with this show and like other great ones it requires multiple viewings to fully appreciate just how much is being done.

    The angle I’m most interested in seeing progress is the metagame between Old Cohle and the present day detectives, the Sphinx-like Det. Gilbough (Brother Mouzone!) and he-of-bad-pokerface Det. Papania, who Hart and Cohle immediately identified as the weak link.

    I’m glad you think my “unreliable narrator” observation is a great touch, by the way ;)


    1. Papania quite literally tips his hand in one scene—Cohle is talking about his dad’s leukemia, and Papania starts riffling the file (revealing his card). There’s also a moment where Gilbough has to put out his hand to restrain Papania from interrupting (no poker face).


  5. Side point I read in another comment thread: Cohle’s undercover name “Crash” refers directly to his daughter’s death, the incident that undid his life, his “dream.”


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