I had no interest in watching the Legion television show.
Bill Sienkiewicz is my favorite comic book artist of all time.
I like Sienkiewicz so much I can spell his last name correctly without looking it up. I like Sienkiewicz so much that he was the first artist I featured when I first started this silly Sunday Comics thing last year.
Sienkiewicz, along with Chris Claremont, created the character of David Haller (“Legion,” Professor X’s son). David first appeared in the last page of The New Mutants #25, Marvel Comics, March, 1985. (The issue is about the underrated duo Cloak & Dagger).
The New Mutants was/is my favorite childhood comic book. (By which I mean: Sienkiewicz’s run on The New Mutants was/is my favorite childhood comic book).
Here’s David’s début:
The next three issues of The New Mutants (27-29) tell the Legion story line.
I recall liking the Legion story of The New Mutants, although it never stood out as strongly as The Demon Bear Saga, or the issues where Magneto took over The New Mutants’ leadership. But that isn’t why I had no interest in watching the Legion television show.
I had no interest in watching the Legion television show because every single Marvel television show that I’ve seen so far has been boring, or garbage, or boring garbage. And don’t even get me started on the execrable X-Men films, which have squandered so many good storylines. (Although I thought Deadpool was great, which sort of counts as an X-Men film, and I do have an interest in seeing Logan).
Anyway, after a few critics and authors I admire tweeted that Legion was, like, actually really good/excellent/thrilling/etc., I looked up the show, and saw that the showrunner and creator is Noah Hawley. That’s the dude who did FX’s Fargo, another TV show I was also wary of which also turned out to be excellent.
So, over the past four nights, I’ve watched the first four episodes of Legion. (I’ll watch the fifth tonight).
The show is fantastic.
It’s the first “superhero” show I’ve seen that succeeds not just in its script, casting, and themes, but aesthetically as well. Hawley smuggles in references to the original New Mutants run in a way that doesn’t feel like fanservice—but the other reference points here go past comic books and into film: Legion openly steals from Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, Alfonso Cuaron, and Wes Anderson. (I mean this as a compliment). Hell, there’s something Pynchonesque about the show too, in its themes of paranoia, its treatment of the concept of reality, its streak of dark but somehow zany humor, and its subversive sexiness.
The casting for Legion is pretty great too. The guy who played the guy who died in the car crash on Downton Abbey so he could leave that show and get better shows does an admirable job as David. The temptation would be to play David as batshit crazy, but the portrayal is measured, often archly comical, and ultimately sympathetic. (Shit, I just looked that guy’s name up—I saw him on a web episode of High Maintenance as a stay-at-home dad who enjoyed wearing women’s clothes and thought he was great, but also thought, Damn, hope Matthew Crawley can get some higher-profile gigs—anyway, that dude, Dan Stevens, is in that new Disney live action Beauty and the Beast film with Hermione Hogwarts, so I guess he’s doing fine).
Where was I? Oh, casting—yeah, there are solid performances here. Aubrey Plaza plays a dead junkie who may or may not be a ghost in David’s head. Jean Smart (aka my least favorite Designing Woman) plays the not-Moira MacTaggart/not-Prof. X character Melanie Bird. Smart was smart in the second season of Hawley’s other FX show, Fargo, which also featured Rachel Keller, who is basically the second lead on Legion as Sydney Barrett (not subtle, I know), David’s untouchable girlfriend. And the show basically had me when Bill Irwin showed up. Like I said, it’s great stuff.
Probably my favorite thing about the show so far though is that it doesn’t seem particularly interested in being anyone’s franchise. It stays true to the paranoid spirit of mid-eighties Claremont X-Men, and seamlessly combines plot and aesthetics in a way that a show about a telepathic and telekinetic mutant would have to to succeed. It’s also dark without being self-serious or self-important. (So many superhero films and shows fail utterly here).
Anyway, I’ve loved the first few episodes, and even if the showrunners fuck it all up, hey, it’s just TV, right?
Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest, and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?
“Young Goodman Brown,” Nathaniel Hawthorne (1835)
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” was thrumming through my head the second time I watched “Chestnut,” the second episode of Westworld. In Hawthorne’s classic American tale, a naive youth ventures into the dark evil woods—for reasons never fully expressed—and witnesses his community’s Satanic inversion: Witches and wizards and a “devilish Indian behind every tree.” The narrator’s gambit (Was it all just a dream?) doesn’t ultimately matter—Brown’s experience irrevocably change him. He crosses the threshold of his domestic door, traipses into unknown terrors, and becomes a new person.
Last week, in my review of Westworld’s pilot, I wrote that the series engages “that mythic American promise: The Frontier, the Territory that Huck Finn swears to light out to in order to duck the constraints of those who would ‘sivilize’ him.” For Twain the territory is freedom; for dark Hawthorne the frontier is freedom’s dark twin terror. We find a bit of both in this episode of Westworld. (Along with wizards and Indians).
Our naive youth here is William (Jimmi Simpson). William arrives at Westworld for the first time, “guided” by his loutish friend Logan, who chooses to “go straight evil” (if I may echo a guest’s line from last week). Westworld’s pilot episode pulled a bait-and-switch last week, presenting Teddy Flood (James Marsden) as the naive youth, new to town, only to reveal that he is actually an automaton, a “host.” William provides a more traditional audience surrogate, and his opening sequences are closer to what we might expect from a traditional pilot episode. William’s entering Westworld also feels a bit like the beginning of a video game. (Westworld often feels like a video game. I mean that as a compliment).
We enter the Westworld with William; we savor the bespoke attire he’s offered; we glance with apprehension and desire at the guns on display. In a pivotal shot, William—and perhaps the audience—must make an important choice: White hat—or black?
William chooses white, and much of his narrative in “Chestnut” is spent establishing his contrast to his “friend” Logan, who has donned a black hat, of course. William shows empathy, restraint, and civil humanity to the park’s automaton hosts, whereas Logan uses and abuses them with sadistic abandon. While Logan engages in an orgy (thanks HBO!), William rejects sex, declaring that he has “someone real waiting at home.” William hence represents a “family man” archetype. Perhaps he’s like Young Goodman Brown who just wanted to get home to his wife Faith.
Will crossing the threshold change William too? Yes. Of course. It’s a television show. For Hawthorne’s hero the results were dire: “A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man, did he become, from the night of that fearful dream.” Maybe Westworld will find a more optimistic path for William.
But this isn’t a show that’s generally optimistic about domesticity. In the pilot episode, we saw that one android father can simply be swapped out for another android father. (Mothers, android or otherwise, remain absent). In the one glimpse of a full family we get in that episode, we hear the father advise that crossing the river is “too adult” for the son. The Territory is a wild space ripe for masculine domination. Westworld continues the American fantasia of exploration and destiny-manifestin’.
“Chestnut” continues Westworld’s breaking down of familial order in two plot lines that seem to converge. In one such plot, The Man in Black (Ed Harris) kills the cousins and then the wife of a host he claims is an “old friend.” (More on the Man in the Black in a moment). In a second plot line, told mostly in nightmare-flashback mode, Thandie Newton’s character Maeve is a mother whose family is apparently killed by Indians. (More on the convergence of these plotlines in a moment too).
I was happy to see Maeve get screentime this week. Her nightmares throughout “Chestnut” echo Hawthorne’s observation that our dreams alter our realities, that our night-consciousness is vital, real. (Perhaps this is Dr. Ford’s design when he injects “reveries” into his automaton’s new programming system in Westworld’s pilot). Maeve’s dreams begin to affect her work performance, so she’s hauled repeatedly into Westworld’s underground body shop for reconditioning—and a possible decommissioning. Maeve delivers the same monologue three times to different guests in the episode. Each segment feels like a separate audition, the producers leering offstage. Westworld again draws attention to its own form, its metatextuality, its “TV-showness,” as it were.
Maeve’s “truest” performance comes underground—she somehow bypasses “sleep mode” and wakes up in the middle of the (real) nightmare: the Westworld labs and body shops. In an echo of the scalping motif that slices through the episode, Maeve grabs a scalpel and takes off, running deeper into the nightmare. The sequence is aesthetically arresting, wonderfully weird, and ultimately devastating when she finally happens upon the heaped bodies of her android fellows. Maeve’s underground odyssey furthers the Big Plot of Westworld thus far: How much consciousness–and self-consciousness –do these androids have? I’m digging how the series takes on memory, dream, and reality.
Maeve’s performance is under pressure specifically because Lee Sizemore, Westworld’s narrative director (ahem, head writer), wants to cull dead weight to make room for his new campaign, “Odyssey on the Red River.” Sizemore, who we’re invited to view as a kind of Hollywood hack asshole, assures the assembled management team that this new storyline’s grotesque savagery (meta meta meta) will make it look like “”Hieronymous Bosch was doodling kittens.” Sizemore’s smugly assured that Dr. Ford, who hasn’t commented on the story in years, won’t interfere. So of course Ford shoots him down.
Ford is the true magician of Westworld. He regards Sizemore as a huckster, a fraud peddling cheap tricks. Ford blasts Sizemore’s claim that Westworld will “tell the guests who they are,” arguing that Westworld’s true potential is to transform and transmute the guests into what they can be. Ford notes at one point in the episode that the guests crave nuance, subtlety, mystery. They want witchcraft; they want a spell that transmogrifies chaos into magic.
Where does Ford’s magic come from? Boredom! In a wonderful discussion with (what I’m assuming simply has to be) a replicant version of himself as a child, Ford twists the old idiom and suggests that “only boring people cannot conceive of boredom.” He guides the replicant child to a desert vision of the “Town with the White Church,” pointing to the imaginative possibility of the Territory—to the frontier’s magic. The Black Sabbath in the wilderness is all in the wizard’s mind. “You see what a bored mind can conjure,” Ford tells the boy, and then charms a snake, declaring, perhaps a bit glumly, that, “Everything in this world is magic, except to the magician.” Ford dismisses the boy, and later brings Bernie Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) up to the surface to survey the desert terrain, the rocks where he will build this church. (Bernie dons a brown baseball cap. No black or white stetson for Bernie).
But The Man in Black: He’s pure Black Hat. Compellingly, Dr. Ford’s thoughts on subtlety and magic parallel The Man in Black’s. (White wizard/Black wizard?). “When you’re suffering, that’s when you’re most real” he snarls at an automaton he’s interrogating, echoing Emily Dickinson’s “I like a look of agony / Because I know it’s true.”
The Man in Black’s back in town, not a stranger, in search of something called The Maze, willing to scalp androids, smash families, kill cousins, wives, daughters, etc. to get clues—ah but wait, I’m forgetting, They’re just androids, right?
Is The Man in Black an android too?
“I’ve been coming here for 30 years,” he reminds us. (Westworld wants us to remember this three-decade benchmark—recall that the last time the park faced trouble was thirty years ago). But then, and perhaps without much of that magic subtlety, he tells us: “In a sense, I was born here.” Egads!
Black’s plot converges with Maeve’s nightmare in a Satanic reverie. Indian marauders have chased Maeve and her (dream)daughter into a cabin corner; one enters and shape-shifts into The Man in Black, knife out, ready to scalp her.
Is this now? Is this then? Is this real? Is this dream?
I started with Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” so I’ll end with it. The Man in Black—but also Dr. Ford, perhaps—recall to me Brown’s traveling companion into the woods (lovely dark and deep), an old wizard who bears “a considerable resemblance” to the young (good?)man. The old mage steers YGB deeper into the Frontier, into the Territory, into the Weird, and he protests about going over the line:
“Too far, too far!” exclaimed the goodman, unconsciously resuming his walk. “My father never went into the woods on such an errand, nor his father before him. We have been a race of honest men and good Christians, since the days of the martyrs. And shall I be the first of the name of Brown, that ever took this path and kept–”
“Such company, thou wouldst say,” observed the elder person, interrupting his pause. “Well said, Goodman Brown! I have been as well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans; and that’s no trifle to say. I helped your grandfather, the constable, when he lashed the Quaker woman so smartly through the streets of Salem. And it was I that brought your father a pitch-pine knot, kindled at my own hearth, to set fire to an Indian village, in King Philip’s War. They were my good friends, both; and many a pleasant walk have we had along this path, and returned merrily after midnight. I would fain be friends with you, for their sake.”
Hawthorne here lays out an American history of religious persecution, the murder of indigenous peoples, and hypocrisy, themes that find their echo in Westworld’s continuation of the American myth.
Or maybe it’s the Territory itself, the dream/nightmare of the Frontier:
America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting.
Naked Lunch, William Burroughs (1959)
Watching HBO’s new show Westworld, I couldn’t help but think of the late American novelist William Gaddis’s obsession for player-pianos. The narrator of Gaddis’s final novel Agapē Agape howls that the player piano “was the plague spreading across America…its punched paper roll at the heart of the whole thing, of the frenzy of invention and mechanization and democracy and how to have art without the artist and automation, cybernetics.” Here was the idea of art, the artifice of art. Spiritless spirit. Automation.
Director Jonathan Nolan threads these automaton player pianos throughout “The Original,” Westworld’s ironically-titled pilot episode. The motif is a perhaps-unsubtle reminder of Westworld’s core conflict—automation vs. spirit, real vs. copy, authentic vs. simulation. Human vs. machine.
You know the story of course: whether from Westworld’s source material (Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name), or from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner or Philip K. Dick in general, or The Matrix, or Battlestar Galactica (original or reboot), or Pinocchio, or AI, or Pygmalion, or Baudrillard, or just generally being alive in the 21st century….or…or…or…you know the story of course. (Oh, and, uh westerns too, natch).
Knowing the story enriches this particular reboot (or reimagining or re-whatever) of Westworld’s pregnant possibilities, and “The Original” is at its finest when tweaking its tropes.
For example, James Marsden’s fresh-faced Teddy Flood arrives to Westworld a noob, a surrogate for the audience—just another “Newcomer,” a human tourist among the amusement park’s android “Hosts” looking for fun and trouble, right? An early reveal shows that he’s actually a Host too though (gadzooks!), an automaton pining after fresh-faced series lead Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores Abernathy. (I suppose having a fresh face is easy when the lab operatives can grow you a new one each night).
The bait-and-switch gambit with Flood plays out in a riveting scene with ringer Ed Harris, the Man in Black, hardly a “Newcomer” and a seemingly unwelcome guest. He reveals that he’s been coming to Westworld for “over thirty years,” and we later learn that the theme park’s automatons haven’t had major glitches in (You guessed it!) thirty years. “We’re overdue,” says Westworld’s operations manager, Theresa Cullen (played by Sidse Babett Knudsen–and by the way, that quote’s from my bad memory so don’t quote me on it). Foreshadowing! With the Man in Black creepin’ ’round and takin’ automaton scalps Blood Meridian style, there’s sure to be trouble!
But wait—Westworld can make its own trouble for its own damn self without mysterious outside agents, thank you very much. Dr. Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins, another ringer, and please don’t make me comment on the symbolically-overdetermined character name) has updated the “Hosts” with a new operating system, which includes a new program for “reveries.” These reveries have the replicants all fucked up. In short, the automatons, the Hosts, start going off-script (literally)—asking philosophical questions about the nature of their reality (and pouring milk over corpses).
Ford doesn’t care though—as he explains to Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard Lowe (Westworld’s head programmer), humanity, what with curing all its diseases, etc., can’t progress anymore — “This is as good as we’ll get.” So, like, why not trigger the Singularity? To return to our player piano motif, if only momentarily, Ford would like to inspirit art into the artificial. He wants, or at least moments of “The Original” suggest he wants, to teach the Hosts to play.
But the security forces behind the scenes decide it’s probably not good for their guests to be subjected to unknown quirks. They remand some of these suspect automatons to a creepy Bluebeard’s closet full of other decomissioned replicants that surely won’t be any kind of problem down the line in Westworld, right?
As my quick overview suggests, Westworld brims with potential. Indeed, “The Original,” despite a tight plot, often feels overpacked. There’s not just a season’s worth of plot lines lurking in here, but a whole series’ worth. As a result, “The Original” leaves many interesting characters on the margins for now (Thandie Newton’s brothel madam in particular). I suppose keeping key players on the sidelines makes sense, especially as the pilot is exposition-heavy as it is (a fault with any number of TV pilots, from Game of Thrones to The Sopranos. Not every show can emerge autochthonous and fully-realized out of the gate like True Detective).
And yet even stuffed with emerging plots, Westworld finds time for a cinematic shooting-slaughter sequence that I suppose many viewers found thrilling but I found admittedly cold. With zero stakes at this early point, the scene felt like any other American TV show where meaningless bodies are gunned to pieces. Maybe that was the point though?
In any case, the punchline to the shooting sequence—one of the Newcomers (a prototypical Ugly American doof) Saves the Day! right before the baddie-Host can give his Big Speech—the punchline didn’t make me laugh so much as grimace. “The Original” is full of tonal inconsistencies and missed opportunities for sharp satire and dark humor. I hope Westworld loosens up a bit, gets a bit weirder, bites more from J.G. Ballard’s playbook. The pilot seems to go for profundity over weirdness, as if the showmakers must telegraph at all times: This is a Dark Serious Show. (Did I mention that director and creator Jonathan Nolan is Christopher Nolan’s brother?).
If the arcade shooter sequence is a dud (or, rather, the simulacrum of a real shootout, an authentic inauthenticity), the final scenes of “The Original” make up for it. In an echo of Blade Runner’s final sequence, Hopkins’s Ford squares off with his creation, Dolores’s father Peter. Peter has found a photograph depicting a girl in Times Square, and the cognitive dissonance of this unreality has him goin’ straight-glitch, quotin’ Shakespeare, and generally blowin’ android gaskets. We find out he’s been rebooted a number of times, and was once the leader of a cannibal cult in a Westworld scenario called “The Dinner Party.” (Har har! That pun works on at least two levels). Peter perhaps has realized he’s but a player in play—but not a true player, just a copy of a player, a simulacrum.
Westworld is acutely aware of its own layers of simulacra. The show constantly calls attention to itself as a show, as a play. Early in “The Original,” the camera pulls up from travelers on a train to reveal a god’s-eye diorama of the terrain—a moving diorama that recalls the intro to Game of Thrones (the show Westworld would replace in your hearts and on your screens). The Westworld is surveyed by producers and showrunners making adjustments—just like Westworld. We have here a metacommentary on television, a self-consciously postmodern (and thus, post-postmodern) gesture. Not just automation and artifice, but artists! Not just player pianos, but players!
The diorama shot also reveals the Big Dream embedded in Westworld’s Big Nightmare. We have here that mythic American promise: The Frontier, the Territory that Huck Finn swears to light out to in order to duck the constraints of those who would “sivilize” him. “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America,” declared Charles Olson in the beginning of Call Me Ishmael, his study of Melville’s whale. “I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.” The Newcomers, the tourists, flock to Westworld because it is a safe and constrained territory, a SPACE that is sivilized, yet masked to appear otherwise, garbed in the myth of danger, the empty promises of our National Pastimes, Sex & Violence. Dr. Ford plants reveries—dreams—into his automatons, disrupting civilization’s veneer of order. This is the new Frontier that Westworld promises to explore.
RIP Garry Shandling, 1949-2016
I grew up with Garry Shandling on TV—weird, enigmatic even—dry, sure—watching him when I was too young to get what he was doing. But he stuck out more than others to me when I’d watch Carson late at night with my grandmother. And then watching It’s Garry Shandling’s Show on Fox sometimes, with my parents: it was like Newhart (and Bob Newhart’s stuff in general)—I didn’t quite get it (yet), but I wanted to get it. It wasn’t dumb—and when it was dumb, it was dumb in a smart way.
And then came The Larry Sanders Show. I was, what, 13? 12? HBO wasn’t really HBO yet—sure, it had The Kids in the Hall, Tales from the Crypt, *ahem* Real Sex, and the largely forgotten Dream On—but it’s hard to imagine contemporary laugh-trackless-meta shows without The Larry Sanders Show.
Saying The Larry Sanders Show was ahead of its time is an understatement. Sure, it had its progenitors (Albert Brooks’s Real Life comes to mind—hell, The Muppet Show too)—but The Larry Sanders Show somehow synthesized its parts as both a show about a show, but also, like, a show. The late-night show on The Larry Sanders Show (uh, The Larry Sanders Show) was very very funny.
The writers’ room segments (and all the showbiz backstage stuff) were/are hilarious too; The Larry Sanders Show is the obvious progenitor of not just 30 Rock, but any number of dry, deadpan shows that purport to look behind the scenes (Veep comes quickly to mind, as do Curb Your Enthusiasm and Arrested Development).
The Larry Sanders Show was so overloaded with talent that I’m not going to bother listing all the names. Suffice to say that the show was basically a starting point, or at least an early stomping ground, for a large number of Gen X comedians and actors. Shandling was great at letting other people be funny, even as his character Sanders expressed deep anxieties over being replaced by the younger, hipper Jon Stewart. In a sense, Shandling was a Boomer bridge between a style of comedy he had grown up with and been influenced by, like Johnny Carson’s reserved irony, and the new (but not new) irony of Generation X.
And while Shandling let the Gen Xers have their time on his show, perhaps the funniest stuff on the show came from its more senior cast members. God bless, Artie; God bless Hank.
Garry Shandling was fucking funny and I’ll miss the guy. I follow(ed?) him on Twitter and he was tweeting just a few days ago. I think his legacy and influence on contemporary television can’t be underappreciated.
- The final episode of the second season of True Detective airs on HBO tomorrow tonight [9 Aug 2015]. Popular and critical consensus seems to decree that this finale can only redeem Nic Pizzolatto’s supposed sophomore slump. I’m very much looking forward to the episode, as I’ve looked forward to each episode this season.
- Season 2 of True Detective is a much, much better show than its many noisy naysayers might maintain. It’s a neon noir satire, a potboiler bubbling over with lurid, sticky flux. It’s hilarious and anxious and abject. I riff more on it in point 10 if you want to jump down there now. (Or indulge my anxieties, if that’s your deal).
- A friend of mine pointed out over drinks a few weeks back that this season of the show will be reevaluated in a few years, after the True Detective serials have run their course. We agreed that the season will likely be reconsidered in a far more positive light. (Think season 2 of The Wire, if you will).
- Re: point 3—I’ve talked about the show all season long with friends—texted about it, etc. There’s something still vital there, no matter how much it may seem to curdle compared to season one. Maybe you’ve talked about it with your friends too, no?
- And re: point 4: I’ve had more people email or tweet me asking me to write about True Detective than anything ever. So, like, I’m trying, here.
- And re: point 5: I’m guessing folks wanted me to write about this season maybe because I wrote about it so damn much last year: About its agon with consciousness, its dreams and nightmares, its literary touches, its weakest episode, and its werewolves. And then I kind of failed to write, at least immediately, about the finale, and when I did write about it, I buried it in a riff on things I wish I’d written about, writing:
…I could not bring myself to write about the ending, in part because of the (perceived) negative backlash the conclusion received. I felt the need to address haters and doubters, when what I really wanted to comment on was the sheer beauty of the episode—its aesthetics, its greenness. Critics emphasized the bromantic ending, or the moment where Cohle seems to retreat (uncharacteristically) to metaphysics, but for me the signal moment was achieved when Hart is asked by his ex-wife and children, who attend him in his hospital bed, if he is alright. This question links back to a domestic lull in the middle of episode four. We see Hart and Cohle as roommates, as Lucinda Williams’s gentle song “Are You Alright?” plays. This is the middle of the series, and also the central question of the series: Are you alright? At the end of the series, Hart attempts to affirm that he is alright, but it is clear to everyone—audience, family, and Hart himself—that he isn’t.
- In that big fat quote above, I wrote that “I felt the need to address haters and doubters” about the end of season one; similarly, part of the anxiety of writing about season 2 is that one falls into the position of having to address the “discussion” — almost all negative chatter — about season 2 — instead of, you know, discussing the mood, aesthetics, and tone.
- And of course season 2 was born into a kind of Oedipal anxiety over its progenitor. Season 1 seemed to come from nowhere, black, electric, crackling with the charisma of its two leads.
- (I’m such a nerd that I had a dream a few weeks before the début of the second season where I dreamed I saw the second season and it wasn’t nearly as good as the first. Inside the dream, I knew that this was my subconscious helping to deflate anxieties. And over a fucking TV show! What’s wrong with me?) Well let’s get to whatever point I might have:
- The second season of True Detective can be read as a satire—on noir, on L.A. stories, on hardboiled pulp, on masculine anxieties. Yes: But it also plays as a satire on television itself, on viewer expectations even. Sincere satire never fully announces itself as such. This second season of True Detective is sincere satire.
- One satirical reading rule for True Detective Season 2 is introduced in the first episode, “The Western Book of the Dead.” In one of its more memorable sequences, Ray Velcoro dons a mask before beating up an Los Angeles Times reporter who was working on an “eight-part series” to expose corruption in Vinci. The scene reads as a metatextual prick at viewers hoping to have this eight-part series laid out neatly for them.
- The lurid violence here succeeds by connecting to a kernel of pathos for its perpetrator, Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell). Velcoro is surely the reason to watch this season. He anchors the satire in sincerity.
- We can find similar sincere satire in True Detective season 2’s superior cousin, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation of Inherent Vice. There are plenty of plot convergences between these two, but the tonal overlap is more interesting to me.
- Well, plot of course—
- —but wait a moment with plot: Mood. Ambiance. Tone. —Of course they are linked, plot and feeling—but this season has done a marvelous job evoking the dreadnights of David Lynch (and if the directors seem to borrow a bit heavily from Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway, so much the better). And The Long Goodbye. And Chinatown (talk about Oedipal anxieties!). But also Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (why not?). Or even The Big Lebowski.
- And the plot? What? Another reading rule, indulge me, indulge me, comes in the series’ overuse of aerial shots of L.A. freeways—big converging loops, sometimes black white gray, but often glowing lurid neon at night. The plot is easy to write off as a shaggy dog mess (see also Inherent Vice, Twin Peaks, The Big Lebowski), but it’s not. It does fit together (just like the plots of those examples I proffered parenthetically). You can even have someone explain the plot to you if you like. Ascending from the confusing and abject trenches, the looping freeways’ tangled violence resolves into a beautiful, complete, pulsing picture.
- And there are other reading rules that guide a viewer toward TD2’s satire—the bizarre cliffhanger “death” of Velcoro at the end of only the second episode, for example. The scene was thoroughly convincing in its morbidity and illogic, an illogic predicated on its audience’s intimate relationship with hoary TV tropes of yore.
- Or the insane gunfight at the end of the fourth episode (an answer, we know—and not a full answer, just a different one—to the famous thrilling single-take shot at the end of the fourth episode of the first season). The scene begins with nonchalant swagger and escalates into Michael-Bay-on-the-cheap territory. The hyperbole untethers from reality—it really gets out of hand fast—delivering an overabundance of violent spectation. The satire punctures any veneer of reality—but only momentarily. The end of the scene finds our detectives realizing how awful things went.
- Or? Or the body of our (ostensible) murder victim, Ben Caspere, chauffeured about a la Weekend at Bernies? Or the scene at the Chessani estate? Or Woodrugh’s cheeks flapping in the wind? Or the saloon that Velcoro frequents, with a witch guitarist on retainer? Or the Elvis impersonator? Or the Good People commune? (Reminds me that I forgot to namedrop The Source Family in points 15 or 16). Or the garbage apocalypse movie? Rick fucking Springfield? The masks? The dildos? The knives? The teeth? The eyes? Or the fucking orgy scene, with its wonderful syrup soundtrack?
- The satire overwhelms, I mean, re: point 19. The satire normalizes, elides its own satirical contours. L.A. and Environs of TD2 is absurd, abject, and surreal. It’s fun stuff.
- And this, re: point 20, is what maybe fails to connect with so many viewers who’ve been so critical of the season—It takes itself too seriously! is a common accusation. But no, I don’t think it does, not a bit.
- This isn’t to say that the actors aren’t acting so seriously—sometimes to the point that they appear to be in entirely different series from each other. Vince Vaughn is an easy example here. He’s not just playing against type as Frank Semyon, he’s playing against strength. And common sense. And maybe even good taste. (Although I don’t think good taste has anything to do with TD2). Vaughn’s Semyon occasionally comes to life when he’s back in his rough-and-tumble element, but for the most part, his character seems to be one long deadpan (emphasis on dead) satire of audience expectations.
- Let me anticipate: Look, pal, are you saying that Vince Vaughn is bad on purpose in True Detective? No. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that he was a bad but interesting bet for the role, and I think he was cast as a satirical jab at audience expectations.
- And but still, re: point 22, re VV’s Semyon: When, on his revenge kick in ep 5, he delivers the simile “It’s like blue balls in your heart,” what other option is there but to laugh hysterically? I mean, spit out your precious bourbon even, if it’s in your mouth! Blue balls in your heart is a satirical metaphor, the punchline to the series’ set-ups of masculine anxieties. It’s an especially excellent example of one of many, many lines in TD2 that oozes pulp. The audience is to chew that pulp and like it. (Or do a spit-take).
- 25 points seem like too many points in a riff, as these things go, and too much has been written about True Detective Season 2 anyway—which attests maybe to its zeitgeistiness, if not its greatness. I’ve enjoyed the season very much, and I do not care at all if its loops cohere into some greater picture in the finale. I’ll happily settle for some ridiculous hardboiled neon noir satire.
In an early scene in “Person to Person,” the series finale of Mad Men, Joan Holloway tries cocaine for the first time. “I feel like someone just gave me very good news,” she beams, offering an advertising tag. The coke-sniffing detail seemed odd to me at first—perhaps it was another way for the series to signal the end of the sixties, to introduce the next drug, the next product to fuel future decades.
The final moments of “Person to Person,” however, show that the cocaine scene is an early reading rule. Joan’s testimony of the “Good News” comes from artificial inducement. Impermanent, intoxicating, and addictive, the coke here prefigures the Coke at the show’s end. Fittingly, Mad Men ends with a television commercial, the 1971 “I’d Like to Buy a the World a Coke” Coca-Cola ad.
The ad itself is a genius piece of propaganda: Buy a Coke, become a better person. Not feeling so good? Buy some more Coke. This ad strikes me as a prototypical example of what Slavoj Žižek would critique a few decades later as “the ultimate form of consumerism,” products that allow us “to be a consumerist, without any bad conscience, because the price for the countermeasure, for fighting consumerism, is already included into the price of a commodity.”
What’s the countermeasure, the counterforce then? All those supposed-values of the 1960s, which Don plunders for his career-restoring campaign. He cribs this vision of peace, love, and understanding from the New Age hucksters who are only too happy to take what’s left of our ad man’s money.
Don’s insight comes through a (purposefully facile?) moment of catharsis. In group therapy, a man takes the empty chair that Don’s counselor would have liked Don to fill himself. Don is spared testifying; the stranger will perform in his stead. He tells a story about feeling like a product on a shelf in a fridge, isolated, alienated. The core of his little monologue is about not understanding love, not knowing how to love or be loved. In a rare moment of empathy, Don has his big important cathartic release, and hugs the man, who has reminded Don of what Don already knew, but had been ignoring: People want to feel loved.
Earlier in the season, Don shot down an ad idea that had to do with love — “Love again? We always use that,” he says (or something close to that). But here, disconnected (almost all meaningful conversations in the episode are mediated through telephones), he’s reminded that what people want is touch, the sensation or feeling of love. And he can sell them that: The feeling of the feeling of love.
Here’s the show’s last moments:
The pat montage ties an unusually neat bow on the series’ major storylines. I’d argue that it’s best read ironically, something of a send-up of our desires, our wish for the characters we “love” to experience “love.”
This ironic reading bears out in light of the notes that punctuate the conclusion. The meditation-leader promises “new lives…a new you,” words that might be used to sell almost anything, from soap to hope. A chime then initiates om meditation, and the series ends with three notes: The chime, a smile on Don’s face, and the opening bars of “I’d Like to Buy a the World a Coke.” The chime recalls a ringing cash register, and Don’s smile is an epiphany of how to sell love. Matthew Weiner ends his seven season project with an ad, a cynical joke on the audience. I loved it.
Or maybe my ironic reading is wrong. Maybe there isn’t a cynical joke on the audience here. Maybe the simple resolutions were the best Weiner et al could do. Maybe the show is just a really good-looking glossy prime-time soap opera (it is), and like all soap operas it was designed to sell soap.
After hinting a few days ago that he might be reviving his cult classic Twin Peaks—
—David Lynch dropped this:
David Lynch and Mark Frost will return to writing, producing, and directing new episodes of Twin Peaks, which will run on Showtime. The new season of Twin Peaks will take place 25 years after the end of season 2. So maybe we’ll finally get to see what happened with Agent Cooper and BOB and the Black Lodge…
1. A couple of years ago I wrote a pretty long essay about rereading Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666, a dark, compelling, violent, mysterious book that I’ve reread in full three times now, a book that I frequently return to, a book that seems to leer from the shelf too often, Hey, you’re not done with me, you know that, right?
What Bolaño and Baring-Gould do in these books is explore madness and violence and the ways that our world tries to (or fails to) contain madness and violence.
—and suggested that
Bolaño’s werewolves are, in line with Baring-Gould’s, people fated to madness and violence, but also relatively normal people. These werewolves contain within them a dreadful capacity for violence.
3. (What I want to say is that any speculation I might offer about the forthcoming conclusion of season one of True Detective I have already offered, at some length, in an essay (about two other texts) which I composed a few years before True Detective aired).
4. Well so and anyway: “After You’ve Gone,” the penultimate episode of True Detective.
In some ways the most straightforward episode to date, even disappointingly so, a bit of a police procedural, serving mostly to realign Cohle and Hart, demonstrating that despite their fight and their differences, they are also very similar. But you already know that, you know what happened in the episode, right? The obsession then is for an answer: Where does this all go? Who did the crimes? Who is The King in Yellow? How does it end?
5. I now lazily link to an article that rounds up some of the conjecture — the “theories” — about how the show will end. You’ve read some of these, right?
6. This kind of conjecture is fun, or maybe “fun” isn’t the right word—maybe what I want to say instead is:
True Detective compels many of its viewers to obsessively hunt down clues in each frame. There’s a thickness to the show’s repetition of key images and phrases—spirals, stars, sets of five figures, antlers, crowns, crosses that dissolve into targets, etc.—a seeming preciseness that invites us to impose our own order, our own narrative.
(This is the kind of conjecture that Hart repeatedly warns Cohle not to indulge in).
7. I’m reminded here of Juan Antonio Masoliver Ródenas’s prologue to Roberto Bolaño’s unfinished novel Woes of the True Policeman:
What matters is the active participation of the reader, concurrent with the act of writing. Bolaño makes this very clear in his explanation of the title: “The policeman is the reader, who tries in vain to decipher this wretched novel.” And in the body of the book itself there is an insistence on this conception of the novel as a life: we exist—we write, we read—so long as we’re alive, and the only conclusion is death.
True Detective, like True Policeman—and, like Bolaño’s masterpiece 2666—all invite the active participation of the reader. But also the woe.
8. There is no supernatural solution to the mysteries of True Detective. From the outset, True Detective has posited (the illusion of) human consciousness as a part of nature that seeks to define itself against nature: the real.
In True Detective, the supernatural is the product of terror and fantasy. It is imaginary. (And of course therefore no less real than the natural, the real, thanks to human consciousness).
9. From the beginning of Baring-Gould’s The Book of Were-Wolves:
It will then be seen that under the veil of mythology lies a solid reality, that a floating superstition holds in solution a positive truth.
This I shall show to be an innate craving for blood implanted in certain natures, restrained under ordinary circumstances, but breaking forth occasionally, accompanied with hallucination, leading in most cases to cannibalism. I shall then give instances of persons thus afflicted, who were believed by others, and who believed themselves, to be transformed into beasts, and who, in the paroxysms of their madness, committed numerous murders, and devoured their victims.
The emphasis is mine.
10. In the sixth episode of True Detective, Cohle says to Hart: “You, these people, this place … you’ll eat your fucking young as long as you have something to salute.” The indictment is broad, dark, and perhaps paranoid, but it serves to highlight the series’s keen attenuation to infanticide, to the infinite loss and dramatic mourning that underpins begetting.
11. Cohle has lost his daughter, and her death at such a young age, he says, spared him “the sin of fatherhood.”
Hart has essentially lost his daughters, ruined his life, ruined his (illusion of the) status as a family man. The thing that mattered—his family—was “right under his nose” the whole time.
On the job, both Cohle and Hart—separately—witness the awful deaths of infants; in both cases, the men snap, disconnect, quit.
12. (At this time, the reader is invited to sift through his or her own recollections of True Detective (if he or she so desires) and set aside examples of infanticidal violence).
13. Many fans of the show have speculated that Martin Hart is the King in Yellow, a notion fueled by the show’s stores of symbolic images, as well as Hart’s own actions.
The theory is intriguing, but I seriously doubt that Hart will be revealed as a perpetrator in the crimes of the Tuttle case. However, he is capable of slipping into werewolf mode: Threatening his lover Lisa’s new beau with horrific violence and then declaring, “I’m not a psycho–I wouldn’t have done those things” (the past perfect tense there is so strange); slipping on gloves to assault the boys who had consensual sex with his daughter Audrey; etc. etc. etc.
Hart’s actions are the strange double bind of the patriarchal lawman who sets to rule with sanctioned order—and, specifically, to rule and control the sexualized female body, which is oh-so-important to begetting. Does he serve and protect? Does he terrorize and menace? Both and at the same time.
But I’d argue that Hart is illusioned, that his identity is constituted in maintaining an illusion, an illusion that Cohle is too keenly aware of (“…you’ll eat your fucking young as long as you have something to salute”).
14. There’s a heap of corpses at the core of Bolaño’s 2666—women who are raped, murdered, discarded. Bolaño sends various detectives—many of them good detectives, true policeman—to find the killers, but there’s no satisfying answer: Just plenty of killers, plenty of werewolves. As the novel reaches its (non)end, we await the promise of a Giant (The Tall Man), a Big Answer. But the answer is inadequate, incomplete.
15. The capacity to transform into a killer, a werewolf is always there. Just put on some gloves. Just slip on a mask.
Or maybe take your mask off.
I had an intuition that “Haunted Houses” would likely be the weakest episode of True Detective. Structurally, the episode has a lot of work to do to set up the two final episodes (which I expect to be very strong—although episode four, “Who Goes There,” has set the bar really high). Metaphors like tying loose ends or connecting the dots don’t apply well to True Detective—which is, I’d argue, a show about the insanity of looking for satisfactory answers to, y’know, life and death—but “Haunted Houses” nevertheless underlines some of the plot points that will coalesce (or shatter) in the finale episodes.
We finally get to see why Hart and Cohle split up in 2002, and the moment is deeply dissatisfying in its obviousness and predictability, although there is a teleological neatness to seeing Hart fall apart, disappointing both of his partners—Maggie and Cohle—both of whom seem to have seen this coming. Indeed, in this episode, Hart fulfills a prophecy from the second episode, when Cohle wryly suggests that he’s putting a “down payment” on the child prostitute he feebly tries to “rescue” from the woodland brothel.
“Haunted Houses” focuses heavily on Marty Hart, which might be why I found it less engaging than what’s come before. There’s no aggravating Cohle monologue in this episode, and his actions are confined entirely to 2002, where he’s raking through the slime of old cases — “dead women and children” — causing headaches and pissing people off. Cohle, who has lost his own daughter, is keenly attuned to the infanticidal cost of existence. In the episode’s standout scene, he slowly, patiently extracts a confession out of a swampland Medea who has killed all of her children. Cohle has earlier revealed that the simple core of his interrogation technique is rooted in the idea that everyone has sinned and that everyone wants to confess—and he gently guides the mother to confession. Then, in a strange but somehow caring tone, he ends the interrogation: “If you get the opportunity, you should kill yourself.”
Cohle’s detective work begins to knit together the major threads of what we now might as well call the Tuttle case: The big people who are involved in sick shit. The series isn’t at its best when it’s doing the police procedural thing, and even soaked in Southern Gothic noir, some of these scenes play out in broad strokes—but those broad strokes will likely build a foundation for the rest of the drama to unfold on.
The Cohle sequences that don’t involve his detective work seem to frame him from Hart’s point of view—his lines are never quite wholly contextualized as they are in earlier episodes, seasoned and weighted by 2012 Cohle’s dark ramblings. When Hart calls Cohle’s observations on the Tuttle (non)case “pure gibberish,” there’s clearly an invitation here for the audience to agree—or not.
Not that Hart has done anything meaningful lately—let alone “anything heroic,” in his own words. Most of “Haunted Houses” conjures him in wholly abject terms. In the opening scene, he mercilessly beats the two boys his daughter has had (consensual) sex with. The scene is violent and cruel, quickly telegraphing the fact that Hart is a bully. (When asked what types of detectives exist in the opening scenes of the first episode, “bully” is the first descriptor on Hart’s list). He leaves, gets in his car, shuts the door, then opens it again to vomit: Abjection: His guts spilling out, his borders unrestrained. He’s sick. That abjection is underscored later when Hart feels shame at carrying a shopping bag brimming with tampons, and then heavily underscored when his commanding officer refers to him as a “walking tampon.”
Hart attempts to reassert his manhood—his kinghood?—throughout the episode, first by violating the civil rights of the boys in the cell and then by having an affair with a woman young enough to be one of his daughters. When he finds out that Maggie has fucked Cohle in revenge (in brutal and confusing scene), Hart begins to choke her, threatens her, before redirecting his rage into a physical attack on Cohle. None of this behavior helps him to reassert his sense of identity; the 2005 segment closes out with Hart cuckolded, shamed, bloody, abject.
Of course that’s not the end of the episode. In episode four, Cohle left the interrogation room, having got a read on detectives Papania and Gilbough, and also severing (or at least displacing) one of the show’s formal conventions, the interrogation scenes. In episode five, Hart does the same. The interrogation scenes have been a simple but effective way for True Detective to reveal the ways that truth—and implicitly identity—is a construction, a narration: A performance.
Leaving behind the interrogation sequences opens the last two episodes up to something new, which begins in the most interesting part of “Haunted Houses” — the last few minutes, when 2012 Hart meets 2012 Cohle (his first appearance in the episode). Cohle has clearly been tailing Hart, and he hails him from behind (ex-cop pulling over ex-cop), a kind of anti-interpellation, or an interpellation into some other, darker (dis)order. While “Haunted Houses” doesn’t evoke the strange thrills and weird questions that made the first half of the season so compelling, it nevertheless sets the stage for something dark and ugly—some kind of monster at the end of the dream.