There is no reality in art. All perspectives are mediated. Everything is uncanny—at once familiar and strange. David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks tipped this fragile balance in favor of the latter. In Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer’s body washing up on a beach unlocked a metaphysical journey—the gauntlet of the unconscious. The tangles of the mystery mounted the deeper one dug. Swaying traffic lights, rustling trees in an unnaturally illuminated forest, sedately billowing smoke, methodically carving buzz saws; these lyrical mid-narrative elisions signaled an untethered collective unconscious rising and subsuming. The further we go, the more we lose our way in a dispersed atmosphere. The logic and momentum of the murder-mystery is short-circuited. Hidden in this dreamscape are terrifying, inexpressible truths, perhaps darker and more upsetting than our waking consciousness can handle. These syntagms represent being pulled, perhaps unwillingly, into a full-on phantasmagoria. The suction of the uncanny surges and consumes rational cognition.
True Detective operates in reverse. In True Detective, the bizarre, ritualistic killings of Dora Lange and Ben Caspere set off ball-of-yarn-type searches for the truth—there’s a discernable center but a lot of necessary unraveling. True Detective’s visual and structural motifs are what truly signal the connection between these two shows. True Detective’s title sequence, for one, similarly melds the human and the industrial in a splattered collage of stunning, evocative imagery. Twin Peaks’ languid, unsettlingly placid opening segued in and around the outskirts of the eponymous town. Set to Angelo Badalamenti’s swelling, dreamy score, it unfolds like a disquieting nature documentary where a lush northwestern forest and the heavy machinery in the remote mill that churns through it operate in beautiful harmony. In Twin Peaks the conflict is sublimated in an unnatural rhythm, in True Detective, the propulsive and transparent music of T-Bone Burnett, and the disjointed overlaid images of characters and factories, place the themes right in the open.
Twin Peaks pulled the world through the looking glass, True Detective pulls everything back out, and all is mangled and irreparable. In the process, the murk of “the real”—the grit and grime of a recognizable Louisiana and Los Angeles—is spotted with reminders of the dream world. In these settings, inexplicable and knotty ritualism and barely-suppressed primality remain. Structurally, the shows also counter one another. Twin Peaks teased a murder-mystery, but the evidence and details of Laura Palmer’s case quickly became background to the cultivation of tone and atmosphere, before turning supernatural. True Detective, on the other hand, is ardent about narrativizing—even when it is jumping around in time, the dots are always connected. The show likes to tease out numinous subcultures, but ultimately these are just veils, and the answers are far simpler, if no easier to reconcile. Between seasons, True Detective has even redoubled this effort. In the first, the main characters—Rust and Marty—were in perpetual conflict with their environment—outsiders in the wilderness trying to make sense of it. In season two, the list of principals has grown, and each one is a product of the Los Angeles sprawl. There are no outsider eyes, and the derisive soliloquies that defined the show in season one are all but gone. Everything is less metaphysical, less ritualistic and iconographic, and much more straightforward. It’s as if the series hollowed itself out in the middle.
Many critics have jumped on this early, eager to note that the characterizations are comparatively whittled down to a succession of glowers and grunts. #TrueDetectiveSeason2 was always going to be a letdown, and that’s the point. The humor, the chemistry, the wit is a shell of its former self. More importantly, the camera’s caress of the landscape is more disjoined. Lukewarm reviews and disappointments are instructive more than damning, offering holes through which to glimpse a larger process perhaps fortuitously touched on. The limitations of narrative are glaring as the show repeats what it did before but with less satisfying and cohesive results. The evidence is spottier and harder to follow. Pieces of information crop up seemingly out of thin air and are quickly resolved. The season hastily hurdles toward wrapping up its case, eager to get to the speculation and skepticism on the other side, but less inclined to garner momentum from it. The arcs for each season are strikingly similar—bizarre, seemingly ritualistic killing generates news and pressure to close the case, it gradually reveals widespread corruption and sadism extending to the halls of power, everything gets wrapped up in an unsatisfying way, a leap forward refresh resets where all the principals stand in relation to the case and their professional careers, and, presumably, a burst of renewed righteousness stirs them to bring closure. All of the complications that were woven into the serial killer plot of the first narrative are excised or severely muted. The cyclical motifs of the first season are reiterated through this repetition of narrative, but it feels more like circling a drain than repeating an infinite pattern.
Season one was prone to dissembling, but in season two, these digressions have migrated. These asides no longer come from lengthy, dialogue-driven driving sequences or interrogations. Now, they are confined to brief lyrical passages operating outside the perspective and style of all that surrounds them. Beautiful panoramas of the cityscape cut through the narratives. These are not establishing shots and they are not shadings of setting. The philosophy of the show lives in these ellipses, and, importantly, it is not human-centric in this season. In this way, the show has inverted itself—the setting has evolved from the primality of the bayou to the hypermodernism of the urban sprawl, and the characters have devolved from creatures capable of self-examination and philosophical thought to animals primed only for survival; all else is buried down and unarticulated. This is the end of the line, and the result is appropriately robotic.
While season two’s setting ups the environmental clutter, the narrative is straighter, with little room for dalliance. Each character has an arc and the group has a case to solve together. Season one kept the mind racing trying to keep track of all the layers as it jumped between several different timelines. Two lets the city’s abundance of visual stimuli fill in for this. The city itself is dehumanizing and destabilizing and the human mind has fallen behind its own creations. Season one employed complex narrative structures and lengthy monologues. The storylines were fracture, fragmented, and unreliable. In season two, the interconnectedness and fallibility of the human mind is not internal but external. We are no longer filtered through the depths and disconnects of the human mind and of memory. Season two suggests our cognitive depth has been flattened in the new landscape, swallowed by the demands of progress and advancement, rooted out and atrophied over time.
The humans in these True Detective narratives are never in harmony with their surroundings. They are either being subsumed by them or they are gradually destroying the environment. This has also shifted between seasons. In the first, the land was largely open and untouched, fertile terrain for hiding all manner of depravity. In season two, the overgrowth is replaced by skyscrapers and concrete, metastasizing industry spreading interminably. There’re plenty of places to hide but the overall feel is far more claustrophobic. The open spaces of the first season are replaced with a mangled clutter of man-made materials—steel, concrete, waste—attempts to flatten and overpower the natural world. Random, jutting, organic lines are replaced by the geometry of architecture and interstate. In the process, the setting of the first and the setting of the second are equated as flip sides of the same coin, seeming opposites that measure the entire spectrum of human destruction. We can’t escape the primal urges no matter how much we try to sublimate it in civilization and culture.
True Detective traffics in the contrast between micro and macro visions, ruminating on how it all uneasily fits together, and trying to reorient our perspective and expose the inconsistencies. We lie to ourselves and boost our importance; we trick and deceive ourselves into overlooking the details which holds us back from truly progressing and evolving. Everything circles back on itself rather than moving forward—a flat circle, if you will—but we willfully skew our perceptions to fit a particular linear worldview, discounting other vantages. This ingrained narcissism is necessary for survival but, paradoxically, it is our downfall.
True Detective routinely squares our view with a benevolent overseer through these bird’s-eye views of the city and civilization. These are shots that lack a particular perspective, blowing things up to the point where we are aligned with an omniscient gaze, surveying the proceedings and the world that we’ve created with an eye not for detail but for totality. In these moments, we are assured that all is well, that, in the long run, it is the whole picture that matters, and these individual storylines filled with pain and suffering are inconsequential. When we are down on the ground, everything is dirty, dingy, and weathered. When we are up in the sky, the multitudes are strikingly lovely. When viewing the narrative from the characters eyes, it is all confusion and depression. When viewed from above, it is all about the colony, the marvel of our collectivism and our progress, and the narrative is immaterial. The stark disparity between the beauty and transcendence of these moments and the persistent grimness of all else, as well as the way these moments undermine the persistent emphasis on narrativity, signals a greater thesis at work, one that aligns this all-seeing vantage with the self-deception occurring at ground level. These two halves don’t match up and don’t correlate, and they likely never have.
True Detective proposes little difference between humans and ants. The only differences are that humans are far less efficient, far more self-destructive, and we have the capacity to ruminate on our failings. As a result, the more humans try to exert control over the world, the more thoroughly it succumbs to the trauma, and the less habitable it is. This certainty is why Lynch and Frost’s harmonious vision of nature and industry is so unsettling, and why it feels like a mundane nightmare. True Detective rips these apart and posits that the duality of our sentience is that we have the ability to spin complex philosophical inquiries, but we also have the capacity to devise unspeakable evil, and these two ends are mutually informed. But, if we squint just right, we can will ourselves to overlook it all.
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.