Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Excluded Middle

"We're good guys, but we can't be good every night" - The Hold Steady, Our Whole Lives.

I think I'm going to have to come out of character for this one.

For the first five episodes of True Detective, I took great pains not to discuss it as a show, but to take apart in as portentous a manner as possible, to reflect both the show's tone and the legion of fans who took to the internet to discuss in the greatest detail what the hell was actually going on.

Because, really, what else can you do with a show that seems so clearly destined to disappoint fans of the supernatural thriller by never really getting anywhere supernatural than by pretending to take it utterly at face value?

Fun though this approach was, it's not something I can employ for episode six, precisely because the Neelyian aspects, already little more than window-dressing, were essentially missing entirely. Yes, there's that genuinely unpleasant scene when Cohle tracks down a former victim in a mental hospital, but that aside this is all about how Cohle and Hart fall out.  You could replace the warmed-over remains of the Dora Lang case with pretty much any other crime and it not really make a difference to what is going on here.

Except that this, quite pointedly, isn't true.  I'm hardly either alone or original in pointing out this show's similarity to the first season of Twin Peaks - the slow drip of kind-of-maybe supernatural goings on, the focus on a murder performed under disturbing ritual circumstances. Hell, even the names of the murdered girls sound similar. This is the Lynch Frost masterpiece with the humour and warmth stripped out to allow for more fucking. But this comparison is dangerous, because it threatens to lead us down the wrong path.  The obvious questions to ask after noting the similarities are whether the show will, like Twin Peaks, ultimately jump with both feet into a lake of queasy weirdness, and whether the whole damn thing will disintegrate as soon as answers arrive.

My guesses on those questions are "no" and "quite possibly", for the record, but they're not what we should really be focusing on, as I say.  Consider what else Twin Peaks was. The resolution to the Laura Palmer case (as oppose to what followed) is sufficiently fascinating that I'll break my own blog laws and avoid spoilers as much as possible here, despite the show being way past my five-year rule for television. Alas, I do have to reveal though that during the second season and especially during the film prequel Fire Walk With Me, the topic of sexual abuse within a family reared its head.  The actress who played the victim of same has talked in interviews about how victims of abuse have come up to her and complemented the show for its handling of the subject, saying it helped them deal with their own circumstances.  In the end, at least while Lynch was at the reins (before quitting at watching the show go into free-fall without him), the fantastical elements of the show were just wrapping to both blunt the force of and explore the darkness of what is ultimately and horribly a merely human problem.

Ultimately, I think True Detective is taking the same approach, with even less interest in the trappings than Lynch showed.  And there's a reason for that disinterest. TD is a far more coherent show than TP (I don't mean that as an insult to the latter; I've always rather loved Lynch's dream-logic chaotic sprawls, at least until he started taking the piss with INLAND EMPIRE).  It's mission is more clear; to offer up a desperately fucked-up scenario of children being kidnapped, abused, terrorised and murdered, and to cloak it all in religious practice and imagery.

There are two immediate consequences of this, only one of which is crushingly obvious: another dissection of Christian optimism in the face of the crimes of its hierarchy. In this, True Detective is quite some distance from original, of course. Hell, Twin Peaks itself did something not entirely dissimilar, just from a familial rather than theological angle. Films and TV shows featuring depraved priests and preachers are two a penny, to the point where devout characters who are neither villains nor fools are actually hard to come by.

Where the show breaks from the pack a little way is in how smartly it links the hypocrisy of those who would cloak themselves in religious authority whilst abusing children as just the inevitable end result of a society which can only function through lying to itself and keeping order through violence. The cops are punching suspects.  The fathers are slapping their children. Everyone is telling themselves they're a good person at heart, meaning their innumerable fuck-ups should be considered isolated incidents and forgotten about immediately. It's not so much that being a man of God and taking photos of sleeping naked kids is worse than someone else doing it, it's that being a man of God makes doing it and getting away with it more easy. Priests don't become paedophiles; paedophiles become priests, and everyone else believes whatever lies they can to tell themselves this is all part of a plan that will one day make sense to us all.

This brings us to the second, far more hidden corollary to the show's foundation: Cohle is every bit as deluded as everyone else, just in entirely the opposite direction.  While Hart is busy telling himself lies about the grace of God and the importance of his family, Cohle is regurgitating the scariest, bleakest shit he can find to justify his belief that life is somewhere between wretched and useless, and actively designed to torture us (he's also pissing away his smug moral authority by screwing his partner's wife as well, of course; one wonders how his none-more-black philosophy is going to spin that particular dalliance).

If the proper response to those who insist God is necessary for a fulfilled life is to throw Douglas Adams at them, then the dark image of that approach holds for Cohle.  Why would we possibly need fringe theories about extra-dimensional observers to realise that this life can profoundly suck?  And, following on inevitably from that idea, why would we need the Yellow King to be a servant of some insane gibbering scion of madness from outside time for us to realise how utterly fucking horrifying he is?

That, it seems, is what True Detective is doing.  Not using the barest minimum of horror-fantasy trappings to ease the bitterness of the pill by placing it at a remove from our everyday experiences, but to point out that for some of us the everyday experience is so chillingly, unimaginably terrible and terrifying as to render attempts to dress it up as the work of unknowable forces utterly redundant.   It is, just as faith can be, a security blanket, a way of imagining a world that's even worse than ours is to make us feel better about what we've got.

Hart is not the deluded man of faith and Cohle the cynical observer.  Both of them are deluded, in opposite directions, for exactly the same damn reason.  And perhaps the show is working to try and wrap us all up in this delusion too. We don't need BOB in a world that produced John Wayne Gacy Jr. There is no monster at the end of the dream, because there is no dream.  There is just reality, cold and rational and unbearable.

The Yellow King is fake whether he is real or not.

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