True Detective, Episodes 1-5
Like a lot of dreams, there’s a monster at the end of it – Cohle
A flashback structure suggests an endgame taking place after the act of recollection has concluded. If we trust the storyteller, we know the past does not hold all the answers to the questions we care about.
A mystery also promises answers at the end of the road. In this sense, flashbacks and mysteries are complementary, holding out interest in the eventual resolution of a “what” and “why.” Yet if you contain the mystery within a flashback, as True Detective appears to do, there are a few curious effects.
For one, the structure of True Detective promises by the end of its first episode that whatever else is being accomplished, the flashbacks will be providing false answers. Not false information—even if Hart and Cohle lie to their interrogators, there is no suggestion the show has lied to us. But whatever “what” and “why” it supplies, on the killings, will fail to resolve matters.
Further, the flashbacks ensure the effect is not accidental; the show wants you to know this. A chronological narrative could have presented the 2012 investigation as a late-act twist, revealing that the solution reached was at best incomplete. Unfolding the same events in a flashback structure removes the significance of the “what” without resort to deceit. True Detective never provides enough information to make informed guesses about the killers, yet it has reassured the viewer this is not in service of tricking us. There is no anxiety in being kept out of a false loop.
Thus, for all the appeal of True Detective‘s weird details, I suspect its reticence to provide a rich supply of information for viewer inferences is a clue that its mystery isn’t in freeze-frames. We have not, and will not, learn enough in the flashbacks to actually “solve” the killings.
Further, we don’t know anything about the world of the present day, and it would be unsatisfying in the extreme to re-do the murder investigation from scratch. Instead, whatever mystery is of chief interest to the show must be possible to solve with what we know of the characters before its final stretch; and that means that the unanswered questions are about Hart and Cohle, the threads of past and present contained in the two leads. Something about them is different now. True Detective‘s combination of narrative structures makes the most sense for answering a question separate from a killer’s identity: why did the past hold false answers—and what about the characters made them mistaken?
The cops interviewing Hart and Cohle have put at least one theory in play, and it is credible, considering that by all appearances, the key incongruities are within Cohle. Hart is recognizably the same man. He may have carried along his demons, but if so, he has retained his ability to cover them up and look the part. Cohle, on the other hand, has given up. We spend time with Cohle in 1995 as a warrior-monk, and experience him in the present day as a man burnt-out on whatever faith he once held onto. We learn about characters by seeing what they care about, and Cohle in 2012 seems only to enjoy the performance. He takes his most evident delight in having a reputation.
The show’s facility with making the old Cohle riveting, however, comes paired with a commitment to undercutting his practical appeal. The story isn’t intent on the hero-figure Cohle cuts as an end in itself. After all, it consigns his years as a bereaved undercover addict skirting boundaries and trading bullets with the cartels to a few lines of unstaged dialogue. True Detective places another species of prestige cable drama within the haunted eyes of its lead.
This is fitting for a “post-” series, and its structure only reinforces its agenda. The archetypal hero and his collection of compelling quirks—synesthesia, insomnia, heavy weaponry, a healthy drug tolerance, single-minded obsession—led nowhere. Our Holmes did not actually solve the case. And the story requires that the burnt-out man left occupying his body will be the one who actually will.
Or the cops may be right, of course; Cohle could simply be lying, covering up a transition from a knowledgeable critic of a terrifying medium to a budding artist. A change in a character that we recognize from what we once knew, however, would still entail a different mystery than one where the answer involves a fixed point in a gradually-filled-in mural.
True Detective wants to reveal answers only possible through the way it has told its story, and “whodunnit?” has far more direct paths. Cohle ends the first episode requesting “the right fucking questions.” When it comes to True Detective, I’m most interested by what mystery it will finally reveal itself to be.