A Rambling Riff on True Detective

1. So usually after I watch the newest episode of True Detective—this week, that means episode five, “The Secret Fate of All Life”—usually I rewatch the episode and then want to write about it and feel stymied. Last week, I had to (was compelled to) rewatch “Who Goes There” immediately after the first viewing.

This is a long lead up to saying, basically, that I haven’t gotten to rewatching “The Secret Fate of All Life” yet, because this episode compelled me to go back to the beginning, to start from “The Long Bright Dark.”

2. So some quick thoughts on “Secret Fate” (with the caveat that I haven’t rewatched it, along with the caveat that these riffs are written to an audience which has already watched the show):

3. The major theme of “Secret Fate” is time. This episode argues that time is an illusion (just as earlier episodes argued that identity is an illusion)—that time is a trick of perception.

In one of the many monologues that alternately (simultaneously) thrill/annoy viewers, Rust Cohle paraphrases a little string theory:

In this universe, we process time, linearly. Forward. But outside of our space-time, from what would be a fourth-dimensional perspective, time wouldn’t exist. And from that vantage, could we attain it? We’d see, our spacetime would look flattened. Like a single sculpture with matter in a superposition of every place it ever occupied. Our sentience just cycling through our lives like carts on a track. See, everything outside our dimension, that’s eternity. Eternity looking down at us. Now, to us, it’s a sphere. But to them, its a circle . . .

4. The episode also repeatedly calls back to Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal recurrence. Reggie Ledoux, caught, captured, his execution imminent, declares that, “Time is a flat circle.” In a moment that made me laugh out loud, Cohle sneers, “What is that, Nietzsche?”

5. From Nietzsche’s The Gay Science:

The greatest weight.– What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”

Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?… Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

6. What I like most about “Secret Fate” is that it squares the show’s theme of time against the show’s formal structuring of time—this is a show that splices the now with the then (set against the backdrop of the dream).

7. A shift:

So by now, apparently, everyone on the internet has read “The One Literary Reference You Must Know to Appreciate ​True Detective,” Michael Hughes’s article on io9, which claims that said reference is Robert W. Chambers’s intertextual collection of weird tales, The King in Yellow. (The book is now one of the top downloads on Gutenberg). Anyway, so, well, and, okay—I read the book, or really, I read the first half, and then skimmed the rest. I mean, look, I know better than to think that a text as strong as True Detective relies on some other text to be truly appreciated or understood (etc.), and there’s a whole side riff I’m tempted to leap into here about how aesthetics, culturally-determined or not, is wholly intuitive for me at this point (etc.)—I mean, I get that the book informs the series in some way, but I very highly strongly suggest that, no, The King in Yellow is not some magical secret intertextual key that unlocks the dark mystery at the heart of etc.

(I never watched the show Lost, but I know that it helped drive up sales of Flann O’Brien’s marvelous surrealist masterpiece The Third Policemanaudience members were led to think there was an answer there).

In any case, sure, TD mastermind Nic Pizzolatto is clearly riffing on The King in Yellow, which, yes, does hover around dark themes of insanity and displaced identity, but no, it’s not some skeleton key. However, the first tale in the collection “The Repairer of Reputations” is worth reading for its weirdness alone.

8. And so while I’m rambling: I was gonna write a True Detective reading list, but someone already did it. And published at [shudders] BuzzFeed. It’s actually a pretty good list—Flannery O’Connor, Bolaño’s 2666, Nietzsche, and Cormac McCarthy are all on there (I would’ve added more McCarthy, but Child of God is spot on).

Add to the list: Carson McCullers, Derrida’s The Gift of Death, Kristeva’s Powers of Horror, and the Wikipedia entry for Bohemian Grove.

9. Something cool: This site: We keep the other bad men from the door. The picture at the top of this riff comes from the site.

10. Last bit of this rambling riff:

One of my favorite aspects of this show is knowing that it ends.

When Cohle riffs on time in “Secret Fate,” he points to an eternity not of infinite time, but of no time. Compare to Wittgenstein:

Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.4311).

The show is, in this sense, already finished; its strategy of layering and interweaving time periods (focusing on ’95, ’12, and now ’02) formalizes this theme.

So and anyway, with the show finishing, folks are starting to get antsy about, y’know, season two. This led to a fun hashtag game [shudders at having typed “fun hashtag game,” feels deep shame that he’ll publish the phrase anyway] on Twitter: #TrueDetectiveSeason2. Samples:


12 thoughts on “A Rambling Riff on True Detective”

  1. In any case, sure, TD mastermind Nic Pizzolatto is clearly riffing on The King in Yellow, which, yes, does hover around dark themes of insanity and displaced identity, but no, it’s not some great key.

    Yes, this. The whole show is about human failings, so viewing The King in Yellow as some sort of guide is completely missing the point. If people need a guide, they should use Cassius’s comment to Brutus.

    Somewhat off-topic, but I wonder if TD will get around to using Dylan’s “Man in the Long Black Coat.” Or maybe it’s too on-the-nose.


  2. I love this show, w/out hesitation.

    I understood the Yellow King reference pretty quickly in the show, and knew that the “green-boogey-monster” the girl sees, the description the cops have w/ the drawing, is indeed the true insane one, as he has pulled his guise on to be the Yellow King. I agree w/ your points that the book itself won’t present a “key” to understanding b/c the understanding is in that this madness, like Cohle said originally, is about iconography, representation and a masquing to try and hide the insanity/madness/whatever-else/blah-blah-blah underneath.

    Again, there are no keys to the door, only that you have to know which door to step thru. We are experiencing the passage thru doors in the hallway, the narrative, of “True Detective.”

    Damn this is a great show. Always enjoy yours riffs here, Edwin.


  3. Great riff, thanks for that.
    Some of the writing is good, interesting, and some of it is horrible, way-way trying too hard. McConaughey and Harrelson make the sometimes awful dialog work.
    Still love the show…


  4. I’m not convinced of TD’s greatness yet (I’ve been burned before, so now I’m TV-shy), but there are moments, my favorite of which you began to mention. I’d argue that 2014 will end without besting ““What is that, Nietzsche? Shut the fuck up.”

    Thanks for shuddering through the hashtag game as I hadn’t come across this one and it’s worth searching out.


  5. oh I’m so glad to read that you watch the episodes over and over. partly becuz I’m a huge Matthew McConaughey fan, but mostly because this show hits the heights of excellence any which way you look at it — dialogue, characterization, plot structure, cinematography, soundtrack — I’ve watched all the episodes at least twice. thanks for this post, which gives lots of places to go for further insight into the philosophical under-pinnings of Rustin Cohle’s endlessly appealing darkness. I tell my friends true detective is the best thing on tv since the sopranos but I’m starting to think it’s better than even that show. The characters are much more interesting. Not to mention the occasional hit of Nietzsche!


    1. Not a bad essay, although I think she takes the series to task for not doing something that it doesn’t actually attempt to do—and that socio-cultural/feminist critique leads to a weak reading of the dialogue, couched in the easiest criticism possible: “The emperor’s naked.”

      The problem with arguing that an emperor is naked is that necessitates the following structure:

      I see you seeing something that I can see that you cannot actually see.

      There’s a recursive corollary to this though:

      I can see you not-seeing that I can see something that you think that I think that I see that is not actually there (etc.).


  6. While I enjoyed TD season one, I think Nussbaum’s critique that the show is mostly hopped up empty Brogramming is probably correct. I don’t think it’s aged very well in the intervening five years… But hey, there’s nothing wrong with some cheap thrills every now & again!


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