There's a Monster at the End

I know today is Monday, and it's usually time for Feminist Monday. However, I stayed up late to watch the True Detective finale last night and well... my brain is full. I'd like to talk about that for a bit. I'm thinking I'll post Feminist Monday later today--which will be in the spirit of Daylight Savings Monday anyway. ;)

In the past, I read a lot of True Crime. My reasons why have to do with my childhood relationship with monsters and my hunt for the ever-elusive 'silver bullet.' I've since quit reading True Crime for ethical reasons.[1] I also read a lot of Crime Fiction which edges (maybe even overlaps) on Noir. Sadly, none of these genres have anything healthy to say about women. As a Feminist, I'm aware of that. I'm also aware that not every story needs to say something healthy about women any more than every story needs to say something healthy about men. The problem we currently face is that a MAJORITY of stories say something unhealthy about women (and other minorities) if they're mentioned at all. We're not dealing with an even playing field here. This is why there's push back, and this is why there should be push back. With that out of the way...

Anyway, I had some thoughts about True Detective.

One of the things I loved about it is one of the things that creates some flaws. It's also how I write, myself. So, I've my own perspective on it. This series falls under the "dark, gritty, and realistic with fantastic overtones" category. Again, that's my favorite. The reason why is because I enjoy stories that question reality. What parts are real? What parts are imagined? It all ties into pattern recognition and how the human brain works. We're hard-wired to see patterns--even patterns where there are no patterns. It's deep in the science of perception. (I've said this many times before.) What we think we see and what we actually see are two different things. We're hit with far too much information via our senses to process it quickly enough to act. If we waited to sort through all that data, we'd never get out of bed. Thus, our brains take short cuts. We base decisions upon previous experiences, or cues that resemble previous cues. We sort through a vast amount of data for the bits that are important. Sometimes we miss the important stuff and walk into a wall, but more often than not we guess correctly--well, correct enough to avoid getting hurt. Whether or not its the correct picture of reality is a whole other animal. That's how people acquire engrained behaviors that might save their lives in a given situation but repeated long-term, that life-saving behavior might be unhealthy bordering on abuse. This is the stuff of the psychotherapists' couch. True story.

So, True Detective. At the beginning it's established that Detective Rust Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey) sees things that aren't there. This is important to remember. It's easy to loose track of because Rust is the only character with a grip on what's happening. He's the first character that correctly spots and interprets the killer's pattern. It isn't until later that his partner, Detective Marty Hart (and the viewer with him,) signs on with Rust's view of events. But again, we're accepting the point of view of a character who's hold on reality is just a bit off as fact. If you ask me, that's a big factor in this story. Oh, sure. He's reliable enough to be a police officer, but in the trailer Detective Hart (played by Woody Harrelson) tells us he's the reliable one, the steady one. Rust is the smart one. Rust is always philosophizing about this or that. His head is always in the clouds. He's always analyzing things--even overly so. Marty is constantly telling him to shut up. He doesn't want to hear about how we're all just sentient meat and life has no meaning. (Another hint at what's really going on.) Marty wants nothing to do with that. Marty wants to catch the bad guy. He doesn't care why the bad guy is bad. He doesn't want to know what the bad guy is thinking. He just wants to stop the bad guy. Rust, on the other hand, leads the investigation because his brain recognizes patterns that Marty's can't. Over and over, Rust happens to be right. As we come to accept Rust's altered interpretation of the real situation (a serial killer on the loose) more and more, the plot takes on a fantastic quality. The fact that the killer (who we don't see) seems to be very intelligent and very well connected and has escaped previously due to these two factors, gives the killer another layer of power--the power of mystery. That elevates the bad guy in the viewer's mind. It sets a certain expectation.

But what if Cohle is wrong? What if the bad guy is only a dumbass who has read a lot of freaky books--the same freaky books that Cohle has read? Personally, I love the idea that more meaning may have been assigned to the bad guy's actions than was actually there. The story as I see it, is about humanity's sketchy relationship with patterns. What is it that Nietzsche said? Something about gazing too long into an abyss and soon enough the abyss gazes into you? I love the idea that part of what the viewer thinks is the bad guy is what Cohle has put into him. In the end, the bad guy is only himself and a lesser being--not the magical powerful thing that Cohle fashioned him into. I love the idea of investigators walking that tight-rope between reality and the meanings they assign to the patterns they discover and always wondering what's real (and will solve the case) and what isn't (and will become a dead end.) I also like the idea of the mysterious bad guy (once vanquished) not quite matching the image created for him. This is reality. Think about the times when you've achieve a hard fought goal. Don't you usually come out of it feeling "is this all?"

Jeff VanderMeer and I had a short talk about this. He hates the ending of the series. I adored it. But it got me thinking. What happens when you set a story in a realistic world that touches the borders of unreality? If you're not careful, you lose the cohesion of reality. Thus, the author has to work twice as hard to keep things real. Unfortunately, this sets up a certain expectation in some readers/viewers that the end of the story will be (somehow) the ultimate answer to whether or not reality is unreality. Honestly, there's no good answer to that question, and after working with fiction that borders on reality for a while now... I'm of the opinion that you can't answer the question. Because if you absolutely answer "reality is reality and the supernatural elements are all in the character's mind" then reality loses its magic. If you answer "reality is the supernatural" then reality loses its reality and the whole thing flattens out into just another fairy tale. So, I've reached the conclusion that the best answer (as a writer) is the open-ended one. The one the reader arrives at for themselves. Unfortunately, there are readers who aren't happy with that. (See Inception.) Me? I like it just fine. Either way, True Detective is a great show in that its causing these discussions. I much prefer that to simplistic answers.
[1] It began to feel as though the process of trying to understand the 'why' the genre was evolving into tawdry sensationalism and thus, benefitting the monsters more than the victims. I'm not a fan of that mindset.
Hrm, I'll have to check it out. Your last paragraph reminds me a lot of Lost, and how a lot of people hated the ending, wanting more answers. I don't believe stories have to spell everything out for us, and it's OK for mysteries to remain mysteries. It's the characters and their journeys that count.
it's how i feel too, obviously. now... i'm not saying that's what happened with true detective. nonetheless, it's very worth watching.