Reviews, The Craft
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Leaving Carcosa: Post-Mortem on True Detective

This is coming in a bit late for those who have already finished watching the first series of True Detective (I wrote this the night after the season finale, but real life interfered with the posting,) but I figure the show will have a long tail as people watch it later, so here we are.

So first, some background: I only started watching True Detective because I heard about the King in Yellow connection.

For those unaware, the King in Yellow is the name of a collection of short stories written by Robert Chambers, published in 1895. He borrowed the city of Carcosa from writer Ambrose Bierce, but otherwise introduced the idea of the mysterious titular entity, a occult ‘Yellow Sign’ and a play that would drive its viewers insane. Only four stories in the collection directly concern the King in Yellow, but that was enough. Chamber’s work was lovingly appropriated by H.P. Lovecraft and merged with the greater Lovecraft milieu, becoming part of a rich body of horror mythology, the King in Yellow accepted as one of the names of Hastur. The King in Yellow has inspired rock bands, RPGs and countless stories and novels.

So an HBO story centered around the King in Yellow was, in my opinion, a big deal. I was there.

I hated the two main characters, neither of which was particularly likable (that’s been a very popular theme of late in TV shows and movies, hasn’t it?) but with only eight episodes I figured there was no harm in sticking with the series and seeing how it played out. From a story point of view, it plays out well. Without giving anything away, I have to say that no guns remain on the mantle piece after the story’s conclusion and it doesn’t pull any punches or play any tricks. It’s ultimately a tale of two men demonstrating some damn good detective work, stronger together than they are apart in spite of their differences. Thus the name of the show.

What it is NOT, however, is an supernatural horror story.

So I thought this was fascinating in light of all the rampant reddit speculation and conjecture about what was really going on, the deal with Marty’s daughter and father-in-law, and generally speaking, all the attempts to turn this story into something much more supernatural than it now seems it was ever meant to be.

“But wait,” my husband protested, “what about the flight of birds who formed the yellow sign? Rust saw that, and he wasn’t hallucinating at the time.”

“How do you know he wasn’t hallucinating?”

“Because they use a specific visual language whenever he hallucinates. It’s glowy. Since the birds weren’t glowy, he really saw them do that.”

Hmm. Interesting point, particularly when the director has been so adamant about not lying to the audience. By my memory, the non-glowy versions of hallucinations happen only twice — the bird symbol and what Rust sees at the end. So perhaps Rust only assumed those two instances were hallucinations? Maybe so. Could there be a core of Lovecraft supernatural to the story after all, as our story villain claims in the last episode when he boasts how close he is to ‘ascension?’ It’s possible. There might be some magical realism hiding in this show’s self-described corrupted creole soul, but it’s so well hidden that the argument could go either way.

However, even if that’s the case, there’s a chasm here, formed from the audience’s expectation of supernatural horror and the production company’s creation of a well-spun detective tale (I’m not going to get into my problems with women in the show right now and instead will just stick with the crime vs. supernatural elements.) And so it occurred to me: this show is the equivalent of putting the wrong book cover on a book. I’m sure this wasn’t intentional. All the branding for the show and all the opening elements are suggestive of a noir crime thriller with a heavy southern vibe.

And yet…

…intentionally or not, bringing the King in Yellow into the story brought with it a sense of expectation. The King in Yellow has baggage, and that baggage says ‘weird shit will happen here’. Because True Detective broke new ground (don’t quote me, but I’m pretty sure if you want to find a story about the King of Yellow that doesn’t include supernatural elements you have to go all the way back to the original collection by Chambers) I suspect that many of its viewers weren’t really prepared to deal with a mundane (if exceptional) crime series. If I removed my own preconceived ideas about the inclusion of the supernatural, if I wasn’t picking this up thinking it was a Lovecraft story but in fact a crime drama a la Silence of the Lambs, how would I feel about it?

I loved it. I really loved it. It surprised me by ending on an extraordinarily beautiful, positive note that struck me as incredibly unusual for a show so ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic.’ The show reminded me of something that Flannery O’Conner might have written, lurid and gothic but with this core note of grace that strikes with hammer bell purity right at the end.

Oh, and by the end of the season, I loved the two main characters. Rust, the nihilist, finds grace and hope, and Marty, the narcissist, learns to put the happiness of someone else before his own. It was really lovely.

I have to mark it down a point or two because women were only ever victims, trophies or succubi, but it’s an exceptional bit of storytelling. I’m very curious to see what story next season brings.

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