The Literary 'True Detective'
Inside HBO’s new series that calls to mind a Southern Gothic novel with a mythological twist.
“You’re in Carcosa now,” the scruffy, disturbing predator donning multiple 666 and white power tattoos named Reggie Ledoux tells detective Rust Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey) in the fifth episode of the inaugural season of HBO’s True Detective.
Deep South previously highlighted the hit show before, pointing out in this article that the series filmed in Louisiana, and that some of its footage was shot in the sugarcane fields near Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie.
The plot of True Detective, at least upon first glance, seems familiar to fans of most crime procedurals. It features two male partners (the other being Marty Hart, played by Woody Harrelson) investigating what they believe to be a serial killer preying on young women.
True Detective piqued the interest of many Southerners for its bayou setting. Like I said, the show filmed on location in Louisiana and has a slow, Southern Gothic feel. Broad, sweeping shots of Louisiana landscape (open fields, sprawling trees, a tent revival, oil refineries on a muddy river) play a big part in creating the show’s aesthetic. As well, McConaughey brings his distinct Texas drawl to his character, much whiskey is drank by nearly everyone, and the music, selected by T Bone Burnett, is beautiful, including a scene that makes use of Lucinda Williams’ wonderful and achy country tune “Are You Alright?”
In addition to the initial attraction to the show, viewers now — both Southern and otherwise — are taking interest in the series for a different, intriguing reason. True Detective has been slowly building a mythology throughout its eight-episode run that is reminiscent of shows like LOST and Twin Peaks, as well as the fiction of folks like William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Furthermore, peculiar literary references have been dropped along the story arc like breadcrumbs inciting conspiracy theories, fan fiction and a level of engagement from viewers that few shows are able to muster.
True Detective is a literary television show that makes full use of literary forms and specific references in its narrative and resulting mythology. It is a series to be savored and devoured slowly — and the lore built into the show demands a deliberate, engaged pace of viewing to properly consume it.
In case you’ve missed some of the literary references — or you’re interested in hearing more about the literary nature of the HBO television series — here’s a brief guide to some of the tenets of True Detective.
One of the features that distinguishes True Detective from the majority of American television shows — and I would argue adds to its literariness — is its anthology style format. Traditional American TV, well, usually goes on and on with story arcs that last sometimes over 20-plus episode seasons. But like another series that has filmed in Louisiana and Deep South has covered, American Horror Story, each season of True Detective will feature different actors in unique fictional universes that allow for fresh plot lines. That means this season of True Detective is more like a novel than a cop drama likely to be syndicated on TBS someday. The anthology format allows the creator and actors to give a more detailed, devoted run at a single story. It goes deep, rather than wide. As well, the tight-knitness of the constraint of an eight-episode project leads to a more novelistic approach to storytelling. Writing engaging dialogue is important, because there’s not a whole lot of time to develop characters. Another literary trait within the series is its use of fragmented time periods; True Detective employs flashbacks as an instrument to tell the story of the two partners (for the first seven episodes this means alternating between present day and 1995). As well, the viewer has to deal with unreliable narrators, as its unclear through the first few episodes if Rust and Marty are telling the truth, when they’re lying, and for what purpose.
The literariness and mythology built into True Detective can’t be discussed without mentioning the show’s writer, Nic Pizzolatto. The short story author and novelist was born in New Orleans, raised in Lake Charles and went to school at the University of Arkansas and Louisiana State University. His first novel, Galveston, was published in 2010 and has been described as “Southern noir.” Pizzolatto is in a position unique to a fiction writer and novelist who has spent a lot of his working career in academia. Not only is he writing for the show — he basically is writing the entire show. In an interview with Men’s Journal, Pizzolatto told Andrew Cotto that “As creator and show runner, I was on set the entire time, worked with the actors, and no creative decision could be made without my consent.” The level of direction and amount of authority Pizzolatto has in creating the world of True Detective is unique to the television industry. Where normally a team of writers work together to create a series, the direction of True Detective is, more or less, under the guidance of Pizzolatto’s pen. The author’s influence — especially one from South Louisiana whose expertise is in fiction writing — certainly contributes to True Detective’s literary nature.
Whispers of voodoo cults, traveling Bible-thumping tent revivals and fundamentalist ministry men play a huge role in the lore of True Detective. One of the recurring characters — and a possible suspect — is the Rev. Billy Lee Tuttle, a cousin of the former governor of Louisiana who has shown up multiple times in the show. Tuttle ran a ministry that offered private schools as an alternative to the wickedness of public schools to rural families, and some of the killings Rust investigates have ties with Tuttle schools. In a recent episode, Rust confronts Tuttle and asks him questions about his schools, specifically about a former employee named Austin Farrer. No explicit connection is made about the reference in the show, but Austin Farrer is the name of a British theologian in the early 1900s who was friends with C.S. Lewis and made interesting philosophical conjectures about the Gospels. Another minister, Joel Theriot, was part of a Tuttle ministry that did traveling tent revivals. Rust and Marty initially investigate Theriot and his revival when first pursuing the case, and Rust later visits him alone (with Theriot drunk and no longer a preacher) seeking answers about Tuttle and possible connections to the murders. Rust, too, makes frequent speeches about religion and the ridiculousness of God. He’s sort of an armchair philosopher, except one who totes a gun and has spent time undercover with bikers who deal crystal meth.
The reference to Carcosa I mentioned earlier is an intriguing one. Like I said, upon capture, the infamous Reggie Ledoux tells Rust Cohle, “I saw you in my dream. You’re a priest too. I know what happens next. You’re in Carcosa now.” The mythical place known as Carcosa is first seen in a short story titled “An Inhabitant in Carcosa” by Ambrose Bierce, a Union solder who fought at the Battle of Shiloh who later became a prominent editorialist and author. Bierce’s brief yet bizarre and loquacious Carcosa story was printed in 1886 and tells the tale of a man from the ancient and fictional city of Carcosa, a place Bierce doesn’t physically describe but says is “ancient and famous.” In the story, the speaker is lost and can’t find Carcosa; he calls for and asks strangers about his home and ultimately sees it destroyed from far away. In True Detective, the Carcosa Reggie Ledoux speaks of may or may not be confined to the booby-trapped compound out in a field where Rust and Marty rescue two children who have been kidnapped and tortured.
The Yellow King
Reggie Ledoux invoking Carcosa in the mythology of True Detective becomes more interesting when the most fascinating piece of the series’ lore (so far) is discussed: The Yellow King. Through six episodes of the series, The Yellow King has been mentioned a few times. First, Rust comes across an allusion of The Yellow King in the scribbling of a murdered prostitute, Dora Lange, whose death the pair of detectives are investigating. Rust not only sees “THE YELLOW KING” penned in bold letters in the middle of a diary page, but lines from the play as well as crude yellow drawings of a kinglike figure and black stars. Another mention — a big plot changer — of a “Yellow King” happens when Rust is interrogating a man that’s been charged with robbing a pharmacy and killing people. In the midst of a brutal examination, the man begs Rust to cut him a deal and informs him that there’s more to the story of the children they saved at Reggie Ledoux’s compound by saying, “I’ll tell you about the Yellow King.”
The mythology of The Yellow King harkens back to a book of short stories titled The King in Yellow by a British author named Robert Chambers. Chambers published the volume in 1895, and The King in Yellow is a play within the book that also acts as a motif for a few of Chambers’ stories. Within Chambers’ universe, The King in Yellow is a two-act play in which the mythical city of Carcosa is mentioned often, and the play is described in the story as follows: “The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterward with more awful effect.” Ultimately, the reader discovers The King in Yellow is a drama that makes its viewers descend into either despair or insanity — it is a play that makes its audience crazy. So far, True Detective hasn’t revealed who The Yellow King is or if it’s even a character in the story.
One thing is for sure: True Detective is a rabbit hole, and much more will be revealed — and probably more questions raised — as the last two episodes of the series play out in the coming weeks. It’s the kind of show writers love to probe, investigate and create theories about, and the type of series academics will most likely write papers on and teach in classes.
True Detective is literary, substantial and gives viewers something to chew on. True Detective, like all great and influential literature, also aims high and, through six episodes, has bitten off a lot with its depth of mythology and lore.
We’ll see in the next couple of weeks if Pizzolatto, McConaughey, Harrelson and the rest of the True Detective crew can deliver — or if the show will feel like the “flat circle” of time, the world Rust Cohle so despairingly tells the men interrogating him about, the kind of world “… where nothing is solved.”
Kate / March 16, 2014
I found this review enormously informative & valuable for my understanding of the narrative of True Detective. I ‘m impressed that Deep South would give such a balanced analysis & not try to trivialize the darkly mysterious nature of this region’s culture. I believe the ending will lead us to next season’s attempt to capture the monsters in the Tuttle family. If there is to be a next season, given that both stars are so in demand – what I loved about this experience was the acting -the sheer force of Harrelson’s & McConnaughey’s performances. The casting was brilliant .
Lyle / May 28, 2014
what Kate said.
Bite Size Terror / June 25, 2015
Nice article, but you missed the most important literary reference in the whole series–“The king in Yellow” by Robert Chambers.