Wonders of the Invisible World

by Henry Farrell on March 10, 2014

[Warning: Over-long ruminations and significant _True Detective_ spoilers below the fold]

Nic Pizzolato, the executive producer and writer of _True Detective_ says in “interview”:http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2014/02/02/writer-nic-pizzolatto-on-thomas-ligotti-and-the-weird-secrets-of-true-detective/ that the show owes a lot to weird fiction writers like Thomas Ligotti and Laird Barron. I’ve no doubt that’s true. However, the show’s organizing tensions aren’t those of Ligotti, Barron and their crowd; they more closely resemble those of another and much better writer of the supernatural; Robert Aickman.

Ligotti and Barron are Lovecraft’s children, or better still, weak and flickering shadows of their father. Ligotti’s fiction isn’t really interested in human beings – the characters in his stories are crude puppets in a show scripted to show the awesome cosmic futility of it all. After you’ve read two or three, the monotony starts to overwhelm. Barron is better and certainly more apt for Pizzolato’s purposes – his stories are often about the breakdown of tough-guy ideals of masculinity in the face of the unknown. Again however, they start to sound like each other very quickly; indistinguishable characters bound together by ligatures of cod-Nietzschian philosophizing, in which vast, pitiless universal forces explain themselves at length to the doomed protagonists, telling them precisely why they are so unimportant. The void turns out to be quite chatty; who’da thunk it?

Aickman, in contrast, is quite definitely interested in individuals. If he has a secret model, it’s Kafka’s _Before the Law._ Aickman’s characters differ in many of the ways that real people differ, but are similar in one. They are trapped in their lives in ways that they do not really understand. In the classic Aickman story, the supernatural irrupts into these lives to confront their authors with their actual circumstances, encoded in a metaphor. The revelation, such as it is, is oblique. Its message is for its recipient, and its recipient alone, but it cannot really be understood by her or him, only apprehended. Even so, it creates a dialogue between the individual and her situation, completing some circuit between them that provides no escape route, but instead a kind of bleak satisfaction. The reader only eavesdrops on this conversation, picking up hints as to what is really being said. These hints are enough.

This seems to me to be one useful way of reading the conclusion of _True Detective_ (obviously, there are many possible readings). The finale is generic Southern Gothic, albeit high quality generic Southern Gothic. Fine old families gone to seed. Parricide. Old houses overwhelmed by accumulated layers of detritus. Ruined buildings overtaken by the greenery. The confrontation with the murderer, both the product of generations of in-breeding, and the incestuous progeny of a hundred Hollywood maniacs. Taken on its own, it’s a little disappointing.

But it shouldn’t be left on its own. It’s a distorted reflection of other mysteries that are never resolved. Jacob Mikanowski has a fine essay on the show in the _LA Review of Books_, which talks to how the show’s landscape and backdrop tell stories that the plot itself only indirectly alludes to. The petrochemical industry that is tearing up the Louisiana landscape. The mother of a dead daughter, whose nerves have been irretrievably damaged by chemicals in her workplace. The network of Christian schools, set up to work around the bussing rules which themselves reflect battles over race that are never directly alluded to.

These hidden structures are the real Invisibles, whose workings shape and constrain the lives of everyone depicted in the show. The power of the Tuttle family is a way of making hidden relationships graspable for a moment, reducing the vast inhuman systems of economy and power into a single point, an individual or small group of individuals whom we can hold accountable (or at least pretend to hold accountable).

There’s yet another world that is largely invisible to the main characters. Marty talks twice (if my memory is correct) about the Detective’s Curse – the detective’s inability to see the solution that is right under his nose. He also talks, in a rare moment of self-awareness, about how his greatest infidelity wasn’t his sexual unfaithfulness; it was his inattention to his family. Marty’s unforgivable weakness is that he can only see his family through the distorting lens of his own ongoing crisis of identity. He’s trapped by who he is into walking the same patterns again, and again, and again, and again, unaware of the ever-tighter spiral that he is enfolding himself within. He doesn’t think of his family as real people. When he meets his wife in the third arc of the show, for the first time in two years, it’s clear that he only has the vaguest sense of his daughters’ adult lives.

So too, Rust is trapped into being who he is, by the memory of the daughter whom he accidentally ran over. The world of _True Detectives_ is a world of broken fathers. Carcosa – the realm where perpetual repetition is made visible – is one metaphor for their situation. Another is the Tuttle family, in which Marty’s violent paternalism and need to control the women and children in his life turn into murder and incest.

The final show, where Marty’s and Rust’s lives collide with their reflections in Carcosa, provide a kind of ambiguous catharsis. Under one interpretation, the resolution uncritically confirms the structural sexism of the show, in which women are bit players. While both men start to come to terms with their family histories, their most important relationship (as it has been throughout the show) is with each other. Underneath their verbal sparring, their love for each other defines their lives (Maggie recognizes this when she figures out that having sex with Rust would be the one truly unforgivable transgression she could commit). The show’s main characters start in a man-centric world, and will continue in it, indefinitely.

Another interpretation, which seems to me to be equally plausible, is that the catharsis of the closing episode is false, and deliberately so. The darkness continues. Marty’s inattention to his family has had profound costs. The show strongly suggests that one of Marty’s daughters has been the victim of sexual abuse, in ways that mirror the detective story, just as the detective story mirrors the story of Marty’s family. Marty doesn’t seem aware of this at all. If Marty and Rust conclude that the light as winning, it is only because they fail to see the darkness that surrounds them, and cannot see it, so long as they continue to live in a world of purely brotherly camaraderie, a war of light against dark where one responds to male violence only with more violence and leaves women’s business to the women. Even when you are confronted with your true situation, you cannot necessarily free yourself from it. The detective’s curse means that you do not escape from Carcosa. You only think that you do because you are willfully blind to the Carcosa that surrounds you, the labyrinth made of the circle that is invisible and everlasting.



CK MacLeod 03.10.14 at 5:12 pm

Nicely done, though I think the critique of the ending is in its own was as too-neat as the ending itself, or simply recapitulates or re-extends the, of course, finally imponderable matters of whether light or dark, or form or void, is “winning,” and whether the “detective’s curse” is something we can live without, among other problems. To insist that the light is certainly not winning returns you to Rust-Cohle-ist unhappy consciousness, of the always implicitly self-contradictory statement of belief in the irredeemable mistakenness of life itself. In this respect a resort to value presumptions, which may not be wholly unrelated or in themselves wrong, and which may even have been uppermost in the mind of the auteur – I’m referring to the recognizably leftist-feminist critique – seems overly convenient and prejudicial.


Ethan Gach 03.10.14 at 6:19 pm

Henry, this was an awesome read, and really helped me to better appreciate what was going on last night, and why its execution was ultimately half-baked.


Dan Kärreman 03.10.14 at 8:24 pm

I like that the text of the show was played straight, and that the subtext is so immensely rich – Henry really nailed that. I also liked how it gently proposed the idea that we end up surrendering to sense-making, by letting Rust the straight shooter wobble on his relentless anti-spirituality. Love, purpose and forgiveness is the human condition. The irony of suggesting that the light is winning in almost complete darkness was also a nice touch. I think that the structural sexism was particularly well done, as it showed how it damages everyone, and that everybody are worse off from it. It is probably the most feminist show I’ve seen for a long time. It has been suggested that it was a bromance at heart, but if anything it was an unmasking of the idea of bromance, and an unflinching look on how trauma substitutes for emotions in male relationships. Rust and Marty may not care for each other, but at least they now share the same trauma.


What? 03.10.14 at 9:15 pm

This analysis is one of the few I’ve seen that actually focuses on the philosophic content of the conversations.

What do you think about it?


Nine 03.11.14 at 12:50 am

Since some of the the show’s ur-lovecraftianism seemed similar enough to Alan Moore’s fairly recent “Neonomicon” to the point of possibly being inspired by it, and i could be wrong about the similarities having only watched the odd episode , i wondered if it was headed towards a similar conclusion. But they seem to have gone gothic instead.


JamesP 03.11.14 at 7:43 am

The concluding conversation, as several people having pointed out, is also taken from Moore – specifically from TOP TEN.


Nine 03.11.14 at 8:22 am

Ah, that’s interesting. So then Moore should be throwing a tantrum in 5, 4, 3 …


Straightwood 03.11.14 at 1:26 pm

As much as I would like to see “True Detective” as an antidote to the utterly nihilistic “Breaking Bad,” it is just another piece of exploitative long-form shocker TV. With formulaic regularity, the sex, gunplay, atrocity photos, conspiracy theorizing, and boozing mark the script tempo of each episode.

What is particularly shameful is the edging up to the last taboo in shocker TV, the depiction of the killing and mutilation of children, something even the bloodthirsty ancient Romans did not permit in the arena. This pornography of forbidden violence is the big draw in True Detective, the equivalent of the lurid picture on the cover of the pulp fiction paperback. It is clothed in artistic pretensions, but it is just profoundly ugly, evil entertainment pandering to the worst instincts of a jaded, thrill-hungry, amoral audience.

This is what we want to see. This is who we are.


Shelley 03.11.14 at 3:18 pm

I like that “the show’s organizing tensions.”

We each have those, too?


CK MacLeod 03.11.14 at 4:08 pm

The comparison to the Roman arena is obviously strained, Straightwood, since the arena wasn’t a place of theatrical “depiction,” but of sometimes theatricalized enactment or re-enactment. The distinction is important, even if it has blurry edges, especially regarding depiction of sex acts. At the same time, the “want to see” on the “forbidden,” along with sundry bad and worst instincts, seems to be a universal characteristic of human life on Earth. So, it’s not just who “we” are, but arguably who we’ve always been, more or less.

I agree though that the contemporary TV audience seems jaded, the HBO audience especially, since any bid for our attention at all has to compete with offerings like GAME OF THRONES, which has been much less shy about last taboos, and revolves around acts of extreme and sadistic violence, including against children. THE WALKING DEAD has pulled the rock up on that last one, too, if from a different angle. One irony is that, in the case of TRUE DETECTIVE, the willingness both to hold back at all (never showing us exactly what was in the horrible video), and also to embrace a narrative of personal redemption, will be treated by many critics, even ones as thoughtful and imaginative as Mr. Farrell, as culpable compromise.

Such critics seem to be especially disappointed that Rust and Marty settle for catching one killer, when their entire society is implicated, and that they find comfort in “brotherly camaraderie,” when we have been shown that they’re unregenerate misogynists and victims of their own misogyny in a misogynistic world. I am reluctant to take any of these TV shows too seriously, and I suppose it’s also possible that my judgment might be fatally impaired by long exposure to all this evil ugliness, but I think there is an argument for TRUE DETECTIVE, or for the story it encourages us to tell ourselves, for its “redeeming social value,” similar to the argument that can be made for BREAKING BAD, if less forcefully now than before its rather deplorable – so widely lauded – final episode.


Gordon Finlayson 03.11.14 at 5:37 pm

@ Straightwood. There is something to what you say. But it is too crude. Take the sex scenes. There were four. Marty and the ‘crazy mistress.’ Marty and his wife. Marty and the young ex-prostitute whose life he turned round. And Rust and Marty’s wife. None of these were meretricious. Each was fraught with psychological complexity and redolent with moral opprobrium.

I see the show’s organising tensions rather differently than Henry. Rust and Marty are realists or ‘detectivists’ about the facts. But they also know that the truth outstrips the evidence they can provide for what Rust calls the sprawl.

They also have a keen sense of the the judicial and legal system is cumbersome and unlikely to achieve justice. (One of the unsatisfactory features of the wrap up, is that it simply repeats the earlier loop in the story, when they kill a villain, but don’t really clear up the whole sprawl. In the end, the more powerful and respectable villains, go scot free.)

But both protagonists also have an unshakeable conviction about natural justice, which justifies in their view unlawful killings, violence, threats, deception. In Rust this sometimes fold over into vindictive acts, like telling the mother who killed her child to consider taking her own life, (although he might have just seen this as which might be good prudential advice.)

In short they are both moralists of slightly different kinds. But in Rust’s case – and as the most complex and interesting character, one presumes that if anyone does, Rust speaks for the author, at least in some moods – his moralism cannot be squared at all with his theoretical outlook on the world – disquisitions about the meaninglessness of existence, the quasi Nietzschean-Schopenhauerian thesis that morality is just a comforting illusion etc. etc. (Rust says that people don’t forgive, they just have short memories and other stuff.) No moral realism there – if anything – though he does not know this – he’s a projectivist. Anyway, his moral convictions don’t appear to be shaken by his – apparently sincerely held – theoretical beliefs, but he cleaves to them anyway.


Straightwood 03.11.14 at 7:04 pm


To put it crudely, what these shocker serials do is dip us in shit so slowly that we grow accustomed to it. That is why half of the Breaking Bad audience is still cheering for Walter White after he becomes a multiple killer and finally admits that he became a criminal monster because he liked it and it made him feel “alive.”

In True Detective, the overwhelming horror of the crime under investigation acts as a blanket waiver for the not-so-good guys, allowing them to display their personal nastiness, ranging from existential nacissism to summary executions, for our delectation. We get to enjoy both the lesser and greater evils. It’s a win, win for the decadent viewers!


SusanC 03.11.14 at 9:11 pm

H. P. Lovecraft was more than just an author, he created an entire genre. So it would obviously be unfair to criticize True Detective as just being a Lovecraft rip-off, that’s just the genre it belongs to. It’s bit less clear to me that “derivative of an Alan Moore/Grant Morrison derivative of Lovecraft” has similarly become an entire genre in its own right, but maybe it has.

But in any case, Alan Moore can be a bit problematic at times (see earlier CT thread on Alan Moore), and you could extend those concerns to many of his imitators. So I have a certain amount of sympathy for Straightwood above.

What position does it put us in, that we like watching this stuff? Does even watching the fiction make us a little bit complicit in the ritual sacrifice of the (fictional) victim?

Oh, and @12: one approach Lovecraftian horror fiction can take is that the protagonists’ fear of unspeakable alien horror lets them justify to themselves their doing all kinds of bad stuff, until the reader realises that the protagonists have become worse than the supernatural horrors they are trying to defeat. (c.f. also Slavoj Zizek on religious or Hegelian self-justification). At this point, the Lovecraftian tradition is for the characters to end up in an insane asylum, or devoured by alien horrors.


Straightwood 03.11.14 at 10:37 pm


None of these were meretricious. Each was fraught with psychological complexity and redolent with moral opprobrium.

Not so. Marty’s infidelities are not at all integral to the mystery story. They provide grounds for the requisite injection of raunchy sex, a checklist item for the new “golden age” long-form TV scripts. Moreover, women are consistently degraded throughout True Detective, serving mainly as victims of deliberate assault or chronic neglect. True Detective is about males bonding through the sharing of horrific experience and breaking of taboos. The relationship between Marty and Rust is pathological.


roy belmont 03.12.14 at 12:36 am

Re Straightwood’s thesis:
Just taking a break from another thread which has consumed far too much energy, and I haven’t watched any television for over 6 years now, but I do know a little about art and literature. And this seems to center there.
There’s a trajectory in the visual arts that pretty easy to see, as one might expect. It explodes in the 20th century. Like a real explosion it’s hard to define the particulars, but you can see the rapid violent dis-integration of narrative and realism. Hyphen because it’s not so much a deteriorating as an actual process of loss of integrating connection. Much lamented at each step. With consequent partisanship and rallying etc.
But no getting around the inevitability of it, it’s as logically consistent as a machine.
So in the little world of TV, wouldn’t you expect a steady move from the kind of fairy-tale dramas of past decades moving from early days replication of theater, toward an increasing “realism”? Then hyper-realism, toward something like the essence of raw sensory stimulation?
And since the mercantile drive is gratification, wouldn’t you expect the steady increase in a requirement of something like true horror, in crime shows? That staple of early days TV, Because the people want it. Oh and it works pretty good at directing cultural moral flows too.
The breaking of taboos as selling point, by a process that creates and confirms taboos in its audience to begin with.
That self-justifying near-absurdity kept showing up in the 70’s when the data started indicating Americans were actually getting a little dumber as time went on, and people were pointing at the TV, because kids were spending more time watching that than with their families or at school.
And the TV said “Oh no. We’re just giving people what they want.”
Seemed kind of recursive, that.
An exegesis of progressively more depraved violence for for progressively more jaded voyeurs. Because it sells.


Nine 03.12.14 at 1:48 am

SusanC@13 – “So it would obviously be unfair to criticize True Detective as just being a Lovecraft rip-off,”

Actually, the criticism of the show is that it doesn’t have the courage of its Lovecraftian convictions since it uses Lovecraft merely for atmosphere and internet meme-generation. If the plot has to talk of “carcosa” etc then Cthulu really should show up at some point … that’s how David Lynch would do it.


Nine 03.12.14 at 1:48 am

SusanC@13 – “So it would obviously be unfair to criticize True Detective as just being a Lovecraft rip-off,”

Actually, the criticism of the show is that it doesn’t have the courage of its Lovecraftian convictions since it uses Lovecraft merely for atmosphere and internet meme-generation. If the plot has to talk of “carcosa” etc then Cthulu really should show up at some point … that’s how David Lynch would do it.


Alison P 03.12.14 at 2:16 am

I think Cthulhu does show up. That chap doing the James Mason impression is not the Bad Thing, the worshipped thing; the evil King is something which permeates time and space, almost to the exclusion of everything else. Some people ally themselves with this force, and others resist it.


CK MacLeod 03.12.14 at 3:13 am

Not sure where anyone gets the idea that the show had “Lovecraftian convictions.” Though Pizzolato had openly admitted to using horror fiction material, the central reference is, obviously, to TRUE DETECTIVE, not WEIRD TALES. The killer-cult might believe in evil spirits or black magic or some such, but nothing ever happens in the show pointing to anything other than the a naturalistic explanation of events. The moment that Rust is briefly distracted by something that looks possibly otherworldly is the moment that he’s caught off guard and stabbed. The rules of the TD genre are pretty clearly set, including frequent exploitation of the weird and or the other kind of “mystery,” but never a final reliance on it.


Nine 03.12.14 at 5:01 am

That “central reference” is 110 % 20-20 hindsight. There was more than enough weird tales in the show halfway thru’ – deliberately so i’m sure – for it to have gone either way & such was the widespread speculation. Which, in fact, is how Lovecraft works too – all the freaky occurrences in Innsmouth could have a naturalistic explanation. Except, in the very end, it turns out to be Cthulu or whatever.


CK MacLeod 03.12.14 at 5:15 pm

Well, no, 20/Nine – the central reference is 100% frontsight, bein as how the title of the show is “True Detective.” The TD structure is, as you describe, and, speaking very generally, the opposite of the Weird Tales. The TD finds the explanation that may skirt along the edges of the other kind of “mystery,” and may well turn out to be “stranger than fiction.” The WT, or the genre-typical WT, includes a search for a reasonable answer, and discovers that it lies beyond non-weird reason.

A Cthulhu ending for the show would have been the equivalent of McConaughey or Harrelson or Pizzolato interrupts the action and gives some Straightwood or roy belmont rap about how it’s all pointless garbage anyway so they’ve decided not even to wrap it up – the kind of non-solution solution or genre-betrayal that probably wouldn’t set well with the premium cable audience or be good for the show’s prospects. Maybe they’ll try it in Season 5, but I doubt it. In any event the “widespread speculation” was never well justified in my opinion, but it increased the fun a little, opening a window of doubt even for those of us confident that there wouldn’t be any unforgivable rule-breaking.


Nine 03.12.14 at 7:51 pm

You can derive the “central reference” of a work from just its title, really ? Marvelous.
What’s the “central reference” of Don Quixote ?

“even for those of us confident that there wouldn’t be any unforgivable rule-breaking.”
Yup, with this I agree, there never were any David Lynch’s in the TD crew – the whole thing now looks like a genre drama that works because of its larger-than-TV superstar cast.

As for the rest .. we’ll have to agree to disagree.


Gordon Finlayson 03.12.14 at 10:42 pm

@14 & 12. Well yes and no. The whole story of True Detective is heavily character driven. It is not an Agatha Christie whodunnit, but a story of two characters undergoing an important journey through life. Marty’s character includes his hypocritical sexual ethics. Family is the most important thing to him, but he destroys it, mainly through persistent infidelity. (This is :noted by Marty as an example of the detective’s curse neglect of the obvious, because it is obvious.) He is licentious but punishes his daughter for being a ‘slut’ and beats up two boys who had consenting but underage and illicit sex with his daughter. There is large hint that one of his daughters was sexually abused. His partner, Rust, observes, and dislikes Marty’s hypocrisy on this score, which is a growing source of tension between them. So Marty’s sexual indiscretions are integral to that story, and not to see that story as a central part of the mystery is a mistake. That said, I agree your main point that True Detective exemplifies the basic recipe of sex, violence and killing the baddies characteristic of most Hollywood crime films. But there are better and worse versions of this and this is one of the better ones.


QS 03.14.14 at 3:08 pm

I find it interesting how a TV show–good by its standards–simply needs to deal in existentialist thought to send the intelligentsia a-twitter. Guess we don’t have enough being-toward-death in our society. The detective bit of the story was half-baked. And you can get Southern Gothic from any number of sources that don’t lead to such pontification. We were watching for McConaughey-cum-Heidegger.

Comments on this entry are closed.