MovieBob - Intermission
True Detective: The King in Yellow

Bob Chipman | 10 Mar 2014 10:30
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NOTE: The following piece contains significant spoilers for the first season of True Detective.

In the first moments of the first episode of HBO's excellent True Detective, a newly partnered pair of detectives - one a plain-spoken brute, the other a bloviating intellectual - are assigned to investigate a murder. At the conclusion of the story Sunday night (the series is planned as an anthology, with each season telling a new story based around new protagonists) they discovered the identity of the killer, brought them to justice (if in the Biblical sense) and solved the case.

That is, without exaggeration, all that happened. The barest, simplest, basic outline of a Detective Story: Crime/Investigation/Solution. What's more, it was a solution that made sense, answered the relevant questions and - as a bonus! - broadly tied-in with overarching themes introduced throughout the main narrative. And yet, despite the Swiss-Watch precision of it's payoff, I have a feeling it's going to be received in some quarters as a letdown akin to the finale of "LOST;" for many still the benchmark for mystery shows that bungle in summation.

Some background: The majority of the story in True Detective's inaugural season takes place in Louisiana between 1995 and 2002, and centers on the relationship between Woody Harrelson's Detective Marty Hart, a stiff-jawed good ol' boy, and Matthew McConaughey's Detective Rust Cohle, a Texas transplant who speaks in rambling nihilistic riddles and alludes to deep psychological wounds from a years-long undercover stint. The story of their partnership, and its eventual dissolution, is told in flashback from the present; where they are being interviewed (separately) by a second pair of detectives for reasons that are not immediately made clear.

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We learn that the two men first came together on the case of a missing woman whose body was found mutilated, bound and posed as if in prayer with strange symbols carved into her skin and a "crown" of deer antlers on her head. Cohle, a spartan-living aesthete who never stops working, immediately suspects a ritual-killer and/or full-blown cult conspiracy. His logical leaps seem to pay dividends when he connects the body to multiple earlier murder/rape (mostly of young girls) cases where evidence and witnesses make oblique references to child-sacrifice and devil-worship in a secret place called "Carcosa" and a sinister figure called "The Yellow King." There's also a seemingly separate case, that of an abducted young girl who claimed to have been menaced in the swamp by a creature she called "The Green-Eared Spaghetti Monster," that Cohle insists must be connected as well.

Marty contends that they could just as easily be dealing with a garden variety sicko (or sickos) adopting mythic symbols for kicks; but he goes along out of what feels like a morbid fascination for the way Cohle's mind works. An early break that seems to solve the case makes local heroes of them, but in 2002 Cohle becomes convinced that they only scratched the surface... and this time his obsession drives a professional (and personal) wedge between them.

In Sunday's finale, the two men reunite in the present day to finish things once and for all... and (I said there'd be spoilers, kids) it turns out they were both right. Sort of. There is indeed (or was) a group of locally powerful, well-connected men gathering in a secret location they called "Carcosa" to sexually abuse children in "rituals" cobbled together from Mardi Gras, fictionalized versions of voodoo and pop-mythology (Carcosa and The Yellow King are both references to a late-19th Century book of supernatural horror stories by Robert W. Chambers), but in the end there was nothing genuinely supernatural about them. Just another pack of thugs appropriating "mystic" iconography like the Ku Klux Klan and their "Grand Wizards;" and the so-called Spaghetti Monster killer is little more than just another would-be Ed Gein playing around in the remnants of so-called Carcosa, the last withered branch of a "cult" that seemingly succumbed to the same post-Industrial entropy that's consumed the rest of the show's desiccated vision of Swamp Country.

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