** contains spoilers**
** and Legos**
I don’t write about television much on this blog, but I watch my fair share. And like many people I finished up the second season of True Detective last night and found my mind all aswirl with it well into the morning. I know this season had its problems; still, I looked forward to it on Sunday evenings, perhaps mostly for Colin Farrell’s incredible acting and the fun of sinking into a show so moody, so gritty and potent and hell-bent on its own weird vision, that it was like skipping a cup of coffee just to gnaw on the grounds.
I’ll confess that, going in, I was anxious for the show’s writer, Nic Pizzolatto, and I don’t even know the guy. Season One had been a sensation, and I was as caught up in it as anybody. As a writer, I wanted so badly for Pizzolatto to be able to duplicate that brand of crazy magic he had going last year.
And then, as a writer, I was disappointed–but, to my surprise, also relieved–that he didn’t quite manage it.
This was not out of schadenfreude, but because the whole gamble of art, the whole reason writers are such obsessive and desperate individuals, is that we are aiming, always, for that kind of magic. For one person to hoard it, to be able to tap into it at will as if there were some easy formula — that would ruin it for everybody, the writer and the audience alike. It would be like the magician at a kid’s birthday party plopping down, lighting a cigarette, and dully outlining the trick behind every single illusion he was about to perform.
We know now, after season two, that that magic is still the ideal, and it is still out there. Sometimes, some of us may hit on it. Most of the time, we won’t. In the off-chance that we do– those moments when we’re writing and the reader is totally invested and the story is going gangbusters for the door–we’ll know what that feels like, and we’d sure better enjoy it, because it might be a while before we strike it again.
There are many things I appreciate about the vision of True Detective: the moodiness, the country noir, the way Pizzolatto writes dialogue (even if Vince Vaughn struggled mightily to deliver it), the preoccupation with human suffering. “Pain is inexhaustible,” detective Ray Velcoro says, “It’s only people that get exhausted”: which, of all the things there are on earth to write about, seems one of the truest. Pizzolatto wants to show you a thousand lives (and not just the thousand lives of Rust Cohle), which is both a humanitarian impulse and was, perhaps, part of the problem with Season Two — viewers complained it had too many characters, too many plot points, and I agree that it was strangely diffuse where Season One was incredibly honed.
But what I think was more of a problem was the fact that in Season One, the audience got to feel like a participant. We got to be detectives. The story was being revealed from the ground up.
In Season Two, I felt like every bit of information was coming at me too hard, from the top down. I was being told. There was no real room for the viewers to form opinions, or theories; there was no room to defend a character or indict him; there was, really, nothing to debate ’round the water cooler. This was the difference I felt the most.
But back to the show’s preoccupation with suffering, which I think is significant. Pizzolatto is attuned to the psychic suffering of the individual and he renders it very well. That’s part of what has kept me on-board with the show even when others dropped it last season, disturbed by the violence (in particular, violence against women and children). Violence can certainly be useless and exploitative in some iterations, but at its most effective, what it does is express a power differential. There’s probably nothing truer about human history, about American history, than the endless changeover of wealth and power.
That’s what Pizzolatto was going for, I think, with all the overhead shots of the fields and floodplains and the highways snaking endlessly up the nearly-thousand-mile coastline of mythical California. A century and a half ago, people from the east coast and the midwest came to California and sent back postcards to their families left behind. “I’ve seen the elephant,” the pre-printed postcards said. California was the myth and the legend, the unseen thing. It was the land of milk and honey, human potential ungoverned, everything for the taking. If people could go wild, if they could grab what they saw, how would a place turn out?: California.
Violence, in True Detective, serves a purpose: it’s a barometer. It illustrates who has power at any given time and it shows you that power is rarely fair. Every day, people enact multilayered violences against one another. Some are truly unfair. Others contain a modicum of justice. Whole cultures, Ani tells Ray, would have condoned what he did (kill the man who hurt his wife).
There’s a secular grace built into True Detective, and it takes the form of identifying another person’s suffering and meeting them there. You don’t know, Pizzolatto is saying, what goes on in the house next-door to yours. You don’t know what’s going on with the woman in the next cube. The writer’s imperative is to illuminate this: the struggle of the individual, the beauty in the horror; the light and the dark, always at war.
I’m going to end–because it’s late and because this is my blog, dangit!– with a little personal nod to a trope that came back several times in the show this season: that of the vulture, the carrion-eater. The opportunist ever-eager to clean up the mess.
I grew up in northern California, in a slight hick-pocket of an otherwise very classy vineyard town, on an oaky old hillside littered with acorns. Deer led their fawns through our yard on misty mornings, wild turkeys bobbed shyly through the dry grass, and vultures circled daily, silent and commonplace as flags. I once stood out behind the house at sunset and felt a whoosh of air above my head without even hearing it: it was a ghost-white owl, swooping just above me and landing like a specter in a tree, with just enough contrast to the gloaming to be dimly seen.
I was amazed by that owl but it was always the vultures I liked best, ever-present and dutiful in their grisly role. Occasionally, there’d be the phenomenon of looking up and seeing what looked like thirty or forty vultures overhead, so high above you would never have noticed them unless something else caught your eye. They carried on a whole life on another plane, in the thermals. How could they smell anything that far up, how did they understand to convene? I liked not knowing.
Vultures featured prominently in this season of True Detective— alerting detectives Bezzarides and Woodrugh to a crime scene in one episode, and– much to my weird thrill– following right on Frank’s heels in his last moments, though whether those are supposed to be real vultures or metaphorical ones, I couldn’t say. But for Pizzolatto to explore the history of power and opportunism in California, and to include the lowly buzzard in all its significance — well, all I know is that California can keep its condors; it’s the vultures that’ll oulast us all. I couldn’t help but be reminded of this Margaret Atwood poem I’d read decades ago, “Vultures,” and if those last lines don’t speak to what Pizzolatto was doing in this season of True Detective, I don’t know what would.
by Margaret Atwood
Hung there in the thermal
whiteout of noon, dark ash
in the chimney’s updraft, turning
slowly like a thumb pressed down
on target; indolent V’s; flies, until they drop.
Then they’re hyenas, raucous
around the kill, slapping their black
umbrellas, the feathered red-eyed widows
whose pot bodies violate mourning,
the snigger at funerals,
the burp at the wake.
They cluster, like beetles
laying their eggs on carrion
gluttonous for a space, a little
territory of murder: food
Frowzy old saint, bald-
headed and musty, scrawny-
necked recluse on your pillar
of blazing air which is not
heaven: what do you make
of death, which you do not
cause, which you eat daily?
I make life, which is prayer.
I make clean bones,
I make a gray zinc noise
which to me is a song.
Well, heart, out of all this
carnage, could you do better?