Flat Circles, Pagan Spirals, And How ‘True Detective’s First Season Was A Critique Of Binary Thinking


This review discusses plot points from the full run of True Detective in detail.

“The light is winning,” True Detective’s Rust concedes at the end of the HBO hit’s first season. Or it’s got the momentum, at least, even if the deficit displayed on the scoreboard remains monumental. After seven-plus hours of his paeans to darkness and the inexorable pointlessness and tragedy of human existence, Rust’s closing line throws everything that came before it into a very different, well, light.

A number of critics (including on this site) find fault with that last-second reversal, labeling it a betrayal or holding it as emblematic of the show’s ultimate punt on many of the big questions of power, corruption, violence, and institutions’ control of individuals that it had seemed to raise. But it’s worth setting the question of whether or not True Detective kept its thematic promises aside for at least a moment to appreciate the technical craftsmanship of the storytelling that brings Rust through the improbable arc.

True Detective is built around binary relationships – optimist and pessimist, cop and crook, faithful and bereft. The usefulness and failings of these binaries are a recurring background presence in the season, and in some ways the show has more to say about binaries than it does about any of its plot-level ideas. Rust’s concession (or perhaps it’s a revelation of some long-lit and tightly guarded spark of optimism in him, which could explain why a committed pessimist who’s bad at parties would bother not just to bear witness to the “raw deal” nature’s offered humankind, but to be police, to be one of the bad men who keep other bad men from the door) is a shift in one of these binaries, and it’s worth examining it specifically to think about the broader structure that drove the HBO hit’s first season.

Throughout True Detective’s first season, creator Nic Pizzolato relies upon two combating shapes: the open spiral and the closed circle. “Time is a flat circle,” in Rust’s idle (and meme-friendly) philosophizing, and Pizzolatto’s camera finds visual examples of that closed loop notion in highway interchanges and the bottoms of Lone Star tallboys and the drum magazine on Reggie Ledoux’s AK-47. Spirals adorn Childress’ victims and one is scarred into his own flesh just below the nape of his neck – a location that means someone else had to have carved the shape into his body – to say nothing of the spiral-ish labyrinth that hosts his final showdown with our heroes. If the dominant geometry of human history and experience is Rust’s “flat circle” — where everything repeats, where free will is an illusion, where humanity marches witlessly around some sort of existential grindstone — then fighting crime and catching bad guys and mourning our long-dead toddlers is all pointless playacting.

The spiral, on the other hand, makes for a more hopeful metaphor for existence. Whether they collapse inward or wind outward from their centers, spirals suggest progress from one state to another, implying an uncertain future that can be influenced by present action. The intoxicating nihilism of Rust’s “flat circle” speech and the abstract brutality of the largely-unseen cultists for whom the spiral is a unifying symbol suggest there’s only one assessment of which notion of human existence is right and which is evil.

By converting Rust from a despairing advocate of circular history to a reluctant adherent to the heartening, spiraling idea that light has been bringing the universe closer and closer to a tie ballgame, True Detective reverses its original stance on this symbolic stand-in for philosophical inquiry.

We know the symbolic reversal of that moral binary matters a great deal, since symbolism is so essential to how True Detective works. The show is rampant with the stuff, and its leads are walking symbols of diametrically opposed values systems. The DNA of each man’s worldview is on hardly-veiled display in their very names. “Rust Cohle,” the corrosive and elemental force of brute rationalism, rendering life’s mysteries into plain inevitabilities of time and force, in the same way the earth’s internal forces turn carbon into coal. “Marty Hart,” whose gut goes slack in retirement, the heart-driven man who turns into Fat Marty, Mardi Gras, the guiltless intuiter and womanizer who’s good with people and great at the version of grade-school show-and-tell that adults call happy hour. Here, too, Pizzolatto organizes his clearest symbolic language within a binary structure, while also choosing one that is marked by classic cultural ideas of manhood and its rightful place in society.

More broadly, binaries are easy for an audience, and here they created a very engaging playground. But binaries are also simplistic and deceptive. The masculine binary that animates True Detective crowded out a lot of the shadowy complexity that attends real-world institutional conspiracies around power, murder, and sex. It also seems to flatter some classic cultural notions about strong, tough, brooding men being both rightful arbiters of good and evil and sufficient protection from the latter.

In choosing to locate his story within the Rust-Marty dynamic, Pizzolatto foreclosed a great many possibilities including that of female characters who are fully human or who demonstrate agency outside of how their lives collide with the menfolk they orbit. The space Pizzolatto clears with his choices gets allocated to spooky atmospherics and layers of conspiracy that implicate the most powerful political and religious figures in True Detective’s Louisiana in a drug-fueled ritual-based murder and pedophilia cult cobbled together from scraps of mainline Christianity and transgressive literary traditions. Other shows that handle similar subject matter have made very different choices about how to approach incest and violence against women and provoked very different kinds of contemplation. Taken together, art like Top of the Lake and The Fall and August: Osage Countyand True Detective serve as patches in a quilt of ideas about those subjects.

Some of those patches approach this material with a sure and settled viewpoint and find the right characters to bring that viewpoint to fierce and even triumphant life. Others function more as mirrors than as declarations, and I’d argue True Detective is one of these. Those old, flawed ideas about hard men keeping us as safe as we are docile and loyal that Rust represents? The show’s resolution calls all of them into question, as they fail to net any of the powerful men and institutions that were participating in the Carcosa cult and settle for destroying only its most prolific member. Those binary notions of how we should be and how we should view our species and our place in space-time get dislodged by the show’s conclusion. It isn’t that the spirals vs. circles, Marty vs. Rust, good vs. evil dynamics get resolved in surprising ways, it’s that they prove irresolvable and false by the time it’s all over. Rather than endorsing one or another clear or doctrinaire worldview or conception of reality, True Detective suggests its best to lean on a pastiche of many different elements, in much the same way that Adam Gopnik recently argued that the rump plurality of non-atheist non-religious people have set out to do for themselves in defiance of the self-appointed authority of both Pope Francis and Richard Dawkins alike.

“This world is a veil,” the revival-tent preacher with the Elvis haircut says in one early-season episode. As it turns out, that idea is a better representation of what True Detective has to say about human nature than anything. The spirals and circles, crowns and Yellow Kings, philosophizers and affable broskis are all feints at an orderliness that the real world never actually exhibits on its own. We think we’re making sense of the world around us, but we’ve made it into a veil that is legible to high-functioning animal neurology built to identify important patterns or to create them where none exist. The questions we think are worth asking and the binaries that seem worth organizing your life around prove useless.