How HBO's True Detective Won the Internet by Donald McCarthy

The early trailers for HBO’s new drama, True Detective, promised great acting thanks to leads Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, but the plot looked like it’d be landing in the well-worn serial killer genre recently mined, some might say to a fault, by DexterCriminal MindsThe Following, and Hannibal. Dead women, a case unlike the detectives had ever seen before, an alcoholic, and a journey into depravity: all of these are overused tropes of the detective genre and while the trailers hinted at a more mature take on the on the subject matter, the show still looked to be a little old hat for HBO.

That prediction turned out to be wrong and the obsession social media and the internet at large have with True Detective, not to mention the ratings of 11 million viewers, tells us that the show hit on something new. Articles on the show’s mythology, one that refers to short stories written over one hundred years ago, have been popping up everywhere. Even The Guardian has jumped into the fray with an in depth analysis we normally associate with critical looks at novels as opposed to an eight episode television show (I think television is just as worthy of such a critical look, but it’s still a minority, although growing, opinion). I can’t think of a drama that has provoked so much speculation and outside reading since the earlier seasons of LOST. Perhaps therein lies something of an explanation for the obsession: with just eight episodes and then a conclusion viewers know that their investment will be paid off in some fashion or another and they don’t have to fear cancellation or years of waiting.

This does mean all discussion on the drama’s season arc needs to happen within eight weeks. And it’s sure happening. A search of Twitter for “True Detective” or even “yellow king” gives a plethora of results that will take hours to get through and by the time you’re done more will have cropped up. If you hashtag True Detective on a Sunday night then you’re seemingly one of thousands as people talk about the twists and turns, the dialogue, and, perhaps most of all, the terrifying imagery of the show. Take the moment at the end of the third episode: Detective Rust Cohle reminisces on finding meth cook/serial killer suspect Reginald Ladeoux (a great name) at a compound in the marshes of Louisiana. We flash to said compound, pushing in on it, before there’s a cut to a man in his underwear wearing a gas mask while carrying a machete. He turns slightly, maybe to look at us, and the picture freezes before the end credits roll. Underwear and meth have been explored to great comedic effect in Breaking Bad so it was particularly jarring to see True Detective use it as unsettling imagery, in a manner very reminiscent of how Twin Peaks showed BOB’s killing of Laura Palmer at the end of the second season premiere without seeming like it was stealing from David Lynch’s show.

There are plenty of other quality dramas airing around the year such as Mad MenBoardwalk EmpireGame of Thrones, let alone the recently deceased Breaking Bad and Enlightened. But what makes True Detective so noteworthy is that within six episodes it has reached the heights of Game of Thrones’s social media presence. Remember how the internet erupted over the mass slaughter at the end of Game of Thrones’ third season? Well, True Detective’s large moments are fast approaching that level of exposure. Or how about all that chatter at the end of LOST’s first season about what was in the hatch? True Detective has people talking just as intensely about the identity of the “yellow king” who is apparently murdering people in grotesque, almost religious fashion over twenty years or more. The catch is that True Detective had people obsessing over this mystery all of three episodes into the first season.

So where does this obsession come from? Why in such a short period of time has True Detectivegarnered so much attention?

It’s not just that a whole story is toldin one season. There are a number of elements at play and the top one is probably the performances the leads put in. Matthew McConaughey has undergone a reevaluation lately as he’s appeared in better and better films, climaxing in his Oscar nomination for Dallas Buyers Club (and in an odd twist Woody Harrelson was supposed to have McConaughey’s part when the script was first optioned in the 1990s- must’ve been the work of the Yellow King). McConaughey’s take on the nihilistic yet contradictorily empathetic State Police Detective Rustin Cohle is a television performance up there with James Gandolfini and Bryan Cranston, albeit, not over the same length of time. Cohle is a character rarely seen on television or even in film: a misanthrope who has no problem pointing out uncomfortably true problems with the world be it about the downfalls of human consciousness, his screeds similar to Thomas Ligotti’s and E.M. Cioran, or arguments for atheism and the dangers of religious belief. The show sometimes mines humor from Cohle’s monologues, no doubt about it, but it also treats his beliefs seriously and on occasion proves them to be true, especially in regards to religion.

But Harrelson’s performance is almost just as noteworthy. Harrelson brings an element of truth to Detective Marty Hart and he does so in a way that makes his character very, very ugly such as when he tells his mistress he’ll “skull fuck” her for telling his wife about their affair. Yet he can also be absolutely hilarious, especially when reacting to the pessimistic statements that Rust utters. Harrelson makes Marty a character that you deplore in certain circumstances, such as whenever he’s with his family, and one you cheer on in others, such as when he rescues Rust from a gang war. The contradictory sides that the show never lets you forget for long make Marty Hart a real character.

These combined performances, two of the best to have graced the television screen, are bringing in viewers, especially since both are already big names. Twitter has already begun guessing, and joking, about who the leads will be in the second season and if you want some laughs check out the hashtag #truedetectiveseasontwo to see what Twitter is getting up to in between episodes. When the excellent performances are matched with a mystery, one with supernatural undercurrents, the obsession starts to become understandable.

So let’s talk about that mystery.

The brutal murder of a prostitute sounds like the beginning of many a crime novel so what is it about the mystery that has captured people’s attention? Is it simply the fact that it might be a serial killer or that a cult might be involved?

I don’t think so. True Detective’s writer, Nic Pizzolatto, crafted two amazing characters which right away makes us more interested in the crime: we’re invested in them so therefore we’re invested in what they’re searching for. Pizzolatto also peppers the mystery with a layer of supernatural, as if one of the demonic paintings on the walls of a burnt out church might walk out, killing everyone it sees, or the Yellow King who circles the edge of the story might stride into view, death following it.

At times, supernatural events seem to happen even though we know there are rational explanations. Rust explains that he has acid flashback and we see these from his perspective, such as visions of his dead daughter or birds forming the insignia of the Yellow King. At other times, the surreal is put right into the narrative. Rust and Marty encounter a sketch of a “spaghetti” monster a little girl claimed chased her through the forest during the night. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, the killings seem to happen through sheer force of evil, as if it doesn’t matter if the detectives catch the killer; the evil will force someone else to pick up where the last one left off. Reginald Ladeoux implies this very idea when he’s captured and tells Cohle that Cohle will be the next to do the deeds of the Yellow King and Carcosa (the difference between the two has yet to be elaborated on in the show, but in previous literature Carcosa is a ruined city).

And then there’s Rust Cohle’s monologues. As he reminisces about the past, he’s prone to misanthropic rants, but in episode four he goes even further, appearing aware that he’s in a television show. He describes how time can appear differently from a “fourth dimension” that looks down upon him and this dimension sees time as a circle, with events happening again and again. This can be read as a critique of investigative procedurals where there’s a dead body at the start of every episode, the police go through the same motions, and at the end it’s all tied up. Each episode is the same and there’s no change to the formula. No matter what happens in the previous episode, the next one will be exactly the same. You can go watch CSI (and its spinoffs), NCIS (and its spinoffs), Law and Order (and its spinoffs), HouseCastle, and more. We don’t have to stop with just that reading. The monologue can also be read as a comment on the show itself. All the heinous events we see occur again as the story is only eight episodes long and then stops; all that remains are the episodes, ones we watch again and again. The children captured by Ladeoux will always be captured by Ladeoux since the show will be watched again and again, especially on DVD (Cohle does say time is a flat circle to those watching events and this TV/movie addict thinks DVD when he hears flat circle). At any moment we can bring up a scene of True Detective, meaning the characters are permanently trapped within the eight episodes. The self-awareness of Cohle’s character hasn’t led to him talking to the audience, but it’s there, leading to more of the unnatural, creepy vibe True Detective has mastered.

There’s another side to True Detective’s assault on internet discussions. The show has also started a debate on the use of women and nudity in cable dramas. True Detective doesn’t have a huge women presence as the show is seen through the point of view of two men and I’d argue that the show needs to be set that way in order for its unusual structure to work. Recently, two articles have approached the question in intelligent fashion: one by Emily Nussbaum and one by Willa Paskin. I side fully with Paskin, but I understand Nussbaum’s frustration with gratuitous nudity in general and it’s started off an interesting discussion, one that is more than worth having. Nic Pizzolatto even tweeted Paskin’s article shortly after its publication. Even more intriguingly, in a recent interview with Buzzfeed Pizzolatto talked about how he doesn’t think the nudity is necessary and it’s in the show only as a mandate from above (worth noting- True Detective only has two or three scenes of nudity and that’s very little compared to Game of Thrones or even Boardwalk Empire). As someone who has written about HBO dramas quite a bit for this site and others, it was heartening to see a creator say this, but also sad to hear that HBO thinks a lot of its viewers only watch for breasts. I can assure you that I’d rather watch Rust and Marty interact for another scene instead of a gratuitous nude shot. As Nussbaum points out, there’s nothing wrong with nudity or sex scenes, but it’s insulting when they’re put in there because the studio believes we’re only entertained if there’s skin on display every so often.

While not quite as widespread, True Detective’s anthology format garners attention and most reviews of the show make certain to mention it. This is a fairly new format, one started by American Horror Story a couple of years ago. Basically, each season is its own story and the characters from one season don’t appear in the next- however, the writers (or writer in True Detective’s case as Nic Pizzolatto writes everything) stay the same and the directors tend to stay relatively consistent, too. This means the show relies on an authorial vision as opposed to an ongoing narrative. I’m sure season two of True Detective will explore new themes and ideas, but I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if themes and ideas from the current season crop up once more.

There’s a danger to this format, one that a certain kind of writer might thrive on, because if a season’s story is weak there’s no loyalty to the characters to get them through it. I wasn’t particularly enamored of Justified’s third season, but I came back for the fourth not only because previous seasons had been good, but also because I adored the characters. This hook is gone with an anthology series and adds an extra bit of tension as the show goes forward.

The show’s unique elements and discussion points have not only brought large ratings to the HBO drama, but also tons of internet traffic. Internet traffic doesn’t always mean great ratings, far from it, but it’s interesting to see when and why the two coincide. If nothing else, the interpretations and essays on True Detective show that there is an audience on the internet that is hungry for great fiction and wants to talk about it, figure out what it’s saying about life. Considering how often think pieces about the end of literature or the lack of relevance of “elitist” entertainment crop up, I find the obsession with exploring True Detective quite heartening. It’s certainly a sign that audiences are beginning to embrace certain television shows as if they’re a literary experience, thus expanding the way we interact with stories.

Now let’s go find out just who the hell the yellow king is and if it’s responsible for Rust’s god-awful mustache.


Donald McCarthy is a teacher and writer. His fiction has appeared with KZine, Cover of Darkness, and The Washington Pastime. His non-fiction has been featured in The Progressive Populist, Screen Spy, and AOL Patch News. And here, too, but that was probably obvious. His twitter is @donaldtmccarthy and his website is donaldmccarthy.com.