That other HBO show that divides everyone started again the other night, and is already being covered by Cheryl Eddy on the main page. If you want a recap, go there. But there wasn’t a discussion about the episode on the OD, at least not from a certain angle.*
I probably need a second viewing before I come to any real conclusions. But in the meantime, some structural comparisons with the first season might be interesting, and they seem to show Nic Pizzolatto inverting quite a bit of what the show established the first time around. There also seems to be a broader array of metatextual narratives informing the work this season.
Let’s see where this goes:
Inversions and Comparisons
- Last season there was was a frame narrative dividing the present from the past. The way the frame narrative worked, with Cohle and Hart telling Papania and Gilbough their own versions of the story, we always had to wonder if we were dealing with a reliable narrator (putting us in the detective role). This time around we start and stay in the present, with only one quick cut to Velcoro’s bare-lipped past. So there aren’t the same questions of authenticity and authority — so far we can know we’re getting the story straight.
- Last time we were dealing with partners who were pulled apart by a case, we’re dealing with individuals who seem to be made partners because of a case, another inversion of the first season
- Unlike the first season, which opens on a clear-cut mystery, this episode waits to get to that part until the end, again inverting the structure of the first season’s first episode.
- Both seasons have a ancillary sub-plots about women who choose to go into sex work on their own free will. We’ll see how it’s developed in this season, or if it just leads to Athena being an anchor on Ani’s soul.
- The first season dealt with how a landed southern family developed and maintained its status via unethical means. We get a nod to something similar in this episode with Frank talking about federal grants with guaranteed payments on cost overages for commercial development along the rail corridor. That means the development deal he’s trying to facilitate is also a get-rich-quick scheme, “A chance for the grandkids to be part of one of those old California families who don’t even remember where the money comes from.” Some may recall that kind of cost-plus deal is partly what made the latest Iraq and Afghanistan adventures cost so much — private contractors being guaranteed government payment for their services no matter what the price. It’ll be interesting to see if this season provides a critique of that kind of government excess.
(In an odd bit of irony, a Louisiana post-production company that worked on the first season of True Detective is now being sued for fleecing a tax credit scheme designed to attract television and film production to the state. Not sure if this is art imitating life, life imitating art, or just a coincidence on par with pulling over to find the City Manager dead at a picnic table.)
- This episode lacked the overt psycholingophilosophicalizing of the first season, although it doesn’t take a linguistic anthropologist to parse the musician singing “This is my least favorite life.” I’m not sure a convenient bard can take Rust Cohle’s place, but it’s interesting that the overt acacacademic antinatal nihilism has been shifted from the mouth of a main character to the songs of a bit part.
- If there’s any occult work going on, it may be with Justin Lin and his camera, because he can work as much magic with it as Cary Fukunaga.** Other than that, though, we’ll just have to see if anything worth noting emerges out of the Eliot Bezzeride’s cult plotline, or some of the paraphernalia in Caspere’s home.
Questions and Metatextual Observations
The title of the episode is “The Western Book of the Dead.” Which book is that? Is it the one with the maps in Caspar’s place? Or is the title just meant to be more symbolic? Or is it both? Remember the opening song, “I had to leave a life behind / I dug some graves you’ll never find.” Are some of the graves noted in a book of the dead?
The overhead shots of the refinery — that’s probably not that last we’ve seen of it, and it too promises to be more figurative than literal. If you’ve ever really looked at one of those places, they’re a messy maze of machinery, which is probably going to become a visual metonym for the political machinations we’re about to get stuck into.
When we first saw Caspere sitting in the back seat of the car with the sunglasses on and the bird next to him, did anyone else think “This seems like something David Lynch would do”? Of course you did, or at least a number of you said so in the comments. And just to drive the point home, the very next shot was of the sign for Mulholland Drive. So we can add Mulholland Drive to True Detective’s metatextual library.
But that’s not all. On the metatextual shelf right next to Mulholland Drive is The Maltese Falcon.
What we get in True Detective is a dead man named Caspere with a bird, and in The Maltese Falcon we get a man named Kasper who gets a bird and ends up dead. That is, in Dashiell Hammett’s book Kasper is killed by an underling he betrayed named Wilmer, while in the film the police apparently nab Kasper before Wilmer can kill him.
Safe to say the writer Pizzolatto is primarily working off primary texts, and it’s as if we’re picking up where The Maltese Falcon left off. But it makes for some good speculation: Did Caspere the City Manager betray or try to set up an assistant or some other flunky, and is that how he ended up with no eyes on Mulholland Drive? The Maltese Falcon may be this season’s The King in Yellow.
Maybe. Or not. There might be another metatextual body of work Pizzolatto is working with and splicing into his world. After the first season ended, Pizzolatto described the second season as “the secret occult history of the United States transportation system.” That should have sounded familiar to some, especially if you’re a reader in England.
British writer David Peace has used very similar language to describe some of his work. His quartet of novels Red Riding, the first of which is set in 1974 and was published in 1999, is described as an “occult history” of Yorkshire and its police department. (Occult history in this case simply means buried or hidden history, but there are a few ritualistic echoes.) In 2009 the quartet was turned into a brilliant three-part miniseries that premiered on English television and was screened in select theaters in the U.S. Well worth your time, and stars among others Sean Bean, Andrew Garfield, David Morrissey, and Mark Addy, so it more than fills the genre cast quota.
The first installment follows the intersection of organized crime, the Yorkshire police, and the actual Yorkshire Ripper killings. It features a journalist named Dunford (played by Garfield in the film) trying hard to uncover and disclose connections he finds between a developer and businessman named Dawson (Bean) and a number of missing girls, one of whom are found dead on Dawson’s land with swan wings sewn to their backs. The local authorities, and even some journalists, are far less interested in what Dunford can show than they are in shutting Dunford up, because they want the business Dawson can bring to their Northern England backwater. Let’s just say Dunford doesn’t end up as well as the journalist in True Detective.
Any of that sound familiar? Let’s see: A shady businessman and developer? Check. A journalist trying to uncover and cover that story? Check. Police working with the shady businessman and against the journalist? Check. Missing girl? Check.
Peace then went on to write GB84 (2004), an “occult history” of the 1984-85 UK miners strike; The Damned United (2006), an “occult history” of the Leeds United football club; and in 2007 he started another trilogy called Tokyo Year Zero, based on the actual serial killer Yoshio Kodaira in post-WWII U.S.-occupied Japan. So Peace is clearly in on occult histories angle and is currently working on a true detective story.
One thing to note about Tokyo Year Zero is that the second volume, Occupied City, is told in a Rashomon-type fashion, where different characters offer their take on the narrative, and the audience is left to puzzle it all together. Whadaya bet this season of True Detective, the second volume, also ends up being told in a Rashomon fashion like the second volume of Tokyo Year Zero, and we’re left to piece together Frank, Ani, Paul and Ray’s different versions of the story?
S’all I got for now. But seriously, see Red Riding if you’re into these kinds of stories. The Maltese Falcon ain’t bad, either.
* I posted a version of this in the comments of Andrew Liptak’s “Join Us For The Return Of True Detective!” post.
** There are rumors of William “French Connection and Exorcist” Friedkin getting on board to direct some later episodes. If that’s the case, do yourself a favor and check out the newly-restored edition of his 1977 masterpiece Sorcerer. If it didn’t have the misfortune of premiering within weeks of Star Wars, you’d probably be more familiar with that film.