Television can be trivial, populist, unadventurous and mind-rotting – but it can also be brilliant. At its best, television can certainly be an epic form. Its long-running series structure allows for incredible scope and ambition, beyond that of a movie, whilst also maintaining cohesion and intensity. One only has to look at examples of recent television extravaganzas, such as HBO’s Game of Thrones, to see the epic potential of television. Game of Thrones is overtly epic, with its high-fantasy setting, dragons, wars, and tremendous cast, drawing on the historical events of the War of the Roses and Fall of the Caesars, as well as on Tolkien’s corpus for inspiration. However, in this series, Entering Carcosa, we are looking for the less obvious epics, the ones that ask us to re-evaluate epic values or styles in intriguing ways. A story doesn’t need to be told over eight seasons to be epic. In fact, one of my favourite television series of all time is True Detective, told in a mere eight episodes. For the purposes of this article I will be focusing only on the first season, which I believe stands alone as an epic.
On the surface of things, HBO’s True Detective seems insufficient in scope to be called ‘epic’. Compared to the complex, world-spanning military drama of Metal Gear Solid, or the intergalactic wars of the Horus Heresy, a series of killings on the Louisiana bayou seem relatively small-scale. However, True Detective uses symbolic significance to elevate the narrative to a timeless story about good and evil. In essence, the entire series is an extended metaphor for something deeper. Director Cary Fukunaga’s awesome cinematography draws out the concurrent themes and moods of Nic Pizzolatto’s writing. Again, a collaborative epic effort.
‘It’s all just one story, man… Light versus dark’. These lines are uttered minutes from the series’ close, yet True Detective never strays into hackneyed simplicity. Its characters are grey, complex, and at times downright repugnant. In the first episode, Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) asks Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey): ‘Do you ever wonder if you’re a bad man?’, to which Cohle responds: ‘The world needs bad men, Marty.’ The oldest epics challenged the idea of good and evil as clear-cut definitions. Odysseus is a heroic leader who is trying to do what is right. But he is not perfect. Unlike his wife, Penelope, who remains faithful to him throughout his 20 year voyage home, Odysseus strays, betraying Penelope with both the sorceress Circe and Kalypso. True Detective pushes the envelope even further, showing us two despicable anti-heroes and asking the question of whether their ultimate good deeds outweigh their sins.
The Odyssey is certainly one of the three key models for True Detective. The show spans a twenty year period, paralleling the time-frame for Odysseus’ voyage home. In particular, it focuses on three periods: 1992, 2002 and 2012. It begins in media res in 2012, as Marty Hart and Rust Cohle are called into their old office to be interviewed about a recent killing in the same ritualistic style as the ones they dealt with in 1992. Marty Hart very much typifies an Odysseus character. He is quick-witted, personable, and naturally looked-to for leadership, earning promotions fast. He is also unfaithful to his wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan), unable to resist the lure of younger women. Rust, on the other hand, is very unlike Odysseys. Though he is a thinker, he is alienating to those around him. His atheistic, nihilistic worldview and self-punishing asceticism trouble those he comes into contact with. He experiences visions, which he dismisses as the result of his years infiltrating a drug cartel, though he admits at times they feel like: ‘A mainline to the secret truth of the universe’. These issues stem from the death of his daughter, a death which psychologically scars him and destroyed his marriage.
If Rust is based on anyone, it is in fact, ironically, Jesus, the Bible crucifixion story being the second key influence on True Detective. The more I watch the series, the more obvious it becomes. Like Jesus, Rust is a radical social reformer un-intimidated by social opinion. Rust speaks in imperative language, a trait of Jesus’ speech patterns. In addition, Rust uses religion (even though he claims not to believe in it) to extract confessions, breaking down his subjects until they ask him for forgiveness. His monk-like existence (in a minimalist room with no furnishings) echoes Jesus’ humble origins and nature. Rust’s only notable decoration in his room is a crucifix. He claims he doesn’t ‘believe’ in it, but likes to meditate on ‘the garden’ (aka, of Gethesmane) and how Christ was willingly able to give up his life for others. Rust Cohle’s name is almost an echo of the meaning of Adam’s name in Hebrew, which means ‘red’ or ‘earth’ – Jesus was thought to be ‘Adam come again’, a kind of new beginning for mankind. I could go on and on about the many parallels, but it has already been written about at length by other writers.
Suffice to say, we have here a story about two modern interpretations of mythological/theological heroes. Rust, in particular, certainly qualifies for the epic description. He is from an unusual place, Alaska, where the ‘stars are brighter’, a far-out world to the deep, warm South of Louisiana. However, he moved to Texas, away from his home and father, in a way self-orphaning. He has a magical power, which are his visions – visions which often help him on his case – and his synaesthesia, a condition which confuses the translation of senses by the brain, meaning he can taste ‘psycho-spheres’ and smells. Rust has an obvious sense of justice – he is a homicide detective, after all, and a good one. He possesses a special red toolbox of equipment which is hidden away under the boards of his house containing AK-47s, grenades and other tools, such as a liquid concoction and syringe for simulating drug-use (which he uses to re-infiltrate a biker gang). Rust has a tragic flaw, which is his nihilism and lack of belief, which is healed in a moment of true catharsis at the end of the story.
Marty and Rust must hunt down a serial killer who has secretly, in the shadows, been haunting Louisiana for some time. Like the epic Beowulf, a ‘monster’ resides at the heart of the story as the central obstacle to be overcome. Or perhaps more aptly, like Theseus and the Minotaur, which I believe is the third significant narrative influence for True Detective. At the end of the tale, when the killer is finally tracked down, Rust and Marty enter a literal labyrinth filled with the bones of decades of raped and murdered children. They must, like Theseus, navigate this maze in order to find the monster at its heart. In Rust’s own words: ‘To realize that all your life – you know, all your love, all your hate, all your memories, all your pain – it was all the same thing. It was all the same dream, a dream that you had inside a locked room, a dream about being a person. And like a lot of dreams, there’s a monster at the end of it.’ This profound philosophy and soliloquy, reflections on the nature of existence itself, is another reason True Detective can be considered epic.
Scope is one thing, but we already know style maketh the epic. True Detective has style in abundance. The script is labyrinthine in itself, full of nuances and complexities that reward subsequent viewings. It shifts from black comedy to poetry to sordidness effortlessly. In the second episode, Rust looks around at the desolate town and says: ‘This place is like somebody’s memory of a town, and the memory’s fading…’ A beautiful poetic image (and extended metaphor) that perfectly encapsulates both their bleak surroundings but also Rust’s more spiritual, artistic character. Marty’s put-down is hilariously delivered and salt-of-the-Earth: ‘Stop saying shit like that.’ Whilst some people have said they found the series difficult to get into because of the way the characters talk (and I can’t disagree the thick Southern American accents and phrases are hard to decipher, particularly for non-US audiences), it is this very thing which elevates it. There is a rhythm and metre to even the most banal exchange of insults, the most libidinous comment, the most corporate excuse. Like Shakespeare, you have to tune your ear, but once you break in, your mind picks up the meanings.
Both men act as guides for each other at different points in the story. Throughout the investigation, the relationship between Marty and Rust and which of them is most dominant swings. Rust drives many of the investigative breakthroughs, but it is Marty who is able to buy them more time with his superiors, who are ever more eager to hand it over to the task force and be rid of it. Marty smooths things over with Rust and the others, guiding him through the social malaise and securing his position (until their falling out in 2002). Rust encourages Marty to love his wife and be a better man. This alternation subverts the idea of a guide in the traditional epic sense. Neither one is the ultimate guide, both in turn have their strengths and weaknesses.
In addition, True Detective frequently plays with our expectations for their characters. For example, Marty claims: ‘I was steady and Rust was smart’. At first, we believe him. Rust seems a genius, Marty seems a great ‘family man’. But later, the series challenges this. Marty ultimately cracks the case. His comment about Rust, that he has a ‘tendency for myopia’ proves correct. However, Marty is inconstant in that he is unfaithful to his wife and friends, and suffers from wild mood swings. His hypocrisy, as well, when dealing with the two teenage boys who slept with his daughter is palpable, the very definition of unsteady.
Rust, on the other hand, though seemingly an intellectual giant, is ultimately not the one to make the final case breakthrough, as his thinking and worldview is mono. But, he is the one who never gives up on solving the case and understands its true, wider implications. Even when it seems that he and Marty’s relationship will be irreparably destroyed by Rust’s liaison with Maggie, he does not fight Marty with his full strength, suffering significant injury through holding back, remaining bizarrely loyal to him. Similarly, in the early days of their relationship, he never gave away to Maggie that Marty was betraying her – whilst also never directly lying to Maggie (this kind of masterful ‘treading of the line’ is also another reason he is comparable to Jesus, who was legendary for his ability to circumnavigate very ensnaring questions and accusations). Rust, in fact, is so remarkable not because of his speeches or philosophy, but because of the sheer depth of his integrity. He is the ‘true’ detective of the title, who remains unshakeably loyal to his purpose no matter what.
Arguably, the two interviewing officers Maynard Gillbough (Michael Potts) and Thomas Papania (Tory Kittles) are also guides as they force Rust and Marty to go back through their past and details of the investigation. This is an intriguing play again on the trope, as Maynard and Thomas are actually really trying to wrong-foot Rust, Marty and also Maggie – whom they interview towards the end. Though they do end up doing the right thing at the close of the investigation, trusting Marty and providing backup when he makes the call, they are antagonists for the majority of the series, as well as guides for the audience and their interviewees.
I’ve said there are three key story influences on True Detective: The Odyssey, Theseus and the Minotaur, and the Bible, but there is also a fourth key influence on the setting, which is the mythos of the Yellow King, particularly the collection by Robert W. Chambers: The King in Yellow. Now, we finally come to the title of this series. Entering Carcosa. Carcosa is a mystical land ruled by the King in Yellow in Robert W. Chambers’ stories. The King In Yellow is not only a personage in this world, however, but also the name of a play in the ‘real’ world. Reading this play drives you insane and brings the phantasmagorical to life.
Carcosa itself is only hazily described in Robert W. Chambers’ tales. We get the sense of a kind of fantastical realm warped by ancient ruins, colossal lakes, sprawling beneath a sky full of ‘black stars’. Carcosa is mentioned several times in True Detective as the place to which Rust is ultimately being drawn for his final confrontation with the killer, who may be the King in Yellow, or an incarnation of him. Carcosa seems both a spiritual dimension beyond the veil of reality and a physical space (the labyrinth at the end). In a brilliant scene in the final episode, Rust experiences a vision where the firmament opens up and a swirling vortex of stars pours down into the darkness. The gate to Carcosa itself, or just another hallucination resulting from neural damage? Rust’s visions seem to become more frequent the closer he gets to the killer. Could he have glimpsed something beyond the real? Or does it mean, as Rust is told by the killer that: ‘You’re in Carcosa now’ – he has already crossed over.
Carcosa, needless to say, is a metaphor for hell. By using cosmic, Lovecraftian horror (Robert W. Chambers was a tremendous influence on Lovecraft), True Detective neatly sidesteps the well-worn path of so many horror movies, instead giving us something more sinister, evasive and mysterious. Carcosa is a place, a state of mind, but also – most importantly of all – a feeling. It is not-quite-rightness embodied. It is Rust’s skin-crawling sensation that the town is not real, just a ‘memory of a town’. It is Marty’s feeling that his life is ‘slipping through [his] fingers’. Carcosa is the hell that creeps up on us in unexpected moments, the constant threat that the universe is not quite right. Rust feeds his interviewers cosmic theology, claiming that ‘Time is a flat circle’, that we live the same life over and over again and can never escape it. This morbid nihilism is thought, by some, to be merely a smokescreen to wrong-foot the investigators, but I think at some deep level Rust believes it. He believes there is something wrong with the world. That more than anything else is Carcosa. True Detective brilliantly subverts the epic by bringing Hell to Earth, but not in an obvious way. It brings it to us in the insidious doubts of our lives.
The references to The King in Yellow also serve as a kind of subversion of the invocation to the Muse. The King in Yellow is worshipped by many people in the story secretly, and the pervasiveness of his worship is only truly known at the end of the series. As the story unfolds, the king becomes an increasingly sinister presence, felt in every scene but never quite seen. There is a feeling that the Yellow King is the one controlling events, leading the story where it needs to go. The muse has become a frightening demonic force in the narrative.
On a side note, there is much debate about who, truly, the Yellow King is. Is it Errol Childress, the Killer? That would be perhaps the most obvious solution, but the killer does not identify himself as the king. In fact, he refers frequently to higher powers which he hopes to ‘ascend to’. Is it Rust, then? The killer refers to Rust as ‘My little prince…’ (incidentally, ticking another box for epic heroes: royalty). Does this suggest he has a place in Carcosa too, a lineage? Or, most weirdly of all, is it mundane Marty? Marty’s second name, Hart, weirdly chimes with the antlers the killer attaches to many of his victims’ heads. The antlers are described by Rust as a ‘crown’. There is also a moment when Marty steps into a club in search of one of the drug dealers who might be supplying the killer with his LSD cocktail, a concoction he uses to presumably make his victims more compliant. A ray of yellow light falls across Marty, illuminating him. Coincidence or deeper meaning? It is, after all, Marty who finally closes the case. Never has the Muse been imbued with such a sense of mystery.
Ultimately, the epic can be expressed in so many different ways, but all epics tap into something deep within us. A craving for a higher narrative of existence. A sense of cosmology – aka, an order to the universe, an explanation why things are the way they are, whether that be visualising mountains as the result of a tap-dancing god, the rivers as the seed of a giant bull, or an understanding the disharmony of life as the result of a deeper struggle against cosmic darkness. Metal Gear Solid, The Horus Heresy and True Detective are vastly different works, and all of them have had many hands in their creation, but they are unified in the way they help us to define who we are and what heroism is. In an era of increasing deceit and cowardice, where no good deed goes unpunished and no crime goes swept under the carpet, we need epic narrative, and definitions of heroism, more than ever before.
We’ve now come to the end of this series. I do hope you enjoyed it, it was an absolute pleasure to write. I would love to have your suggestions for other modern epics so that I can write more of these articles in the future. A few of you already have recommended some stuff, so I’m going to spend some time checking it out. Who knows, part 5 might be coming sooner than you think! Thanks for being there.
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Until next time, my friends!