Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Schopenhauer on the bayou

HBO's True Detective mixes a whodunit, nihilism, obscure literature and Louisiana detectives. Somehow it all works.

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I resisted True Detective for a while. The HBO series, which follows sunken-eyed loner Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and his supposedly straight-shooting partner Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) as they investigate the death of a lost girl named Dora Lange, seemed to be trying too hard to hit the obligatory marks for overwrought cable-TV crime shows.

There are the damaged, difficult men. There are the elaborately staged murders, clearly the work of one of those symbolically inclined serial killers. And there are the women, mostly sidelined in the usual roles: wife, troubled teenaged daughter, prostitute, stripper, corpse.

But I ended up getting hooked by the ineffable weirdness of the "talking in cars" part of the series, in which the two men drive through the flooded-out flatlands of rural Louisiana while Rust goes on and on about existential dread.

Rust can be antisocial and silent. But put him in a moving automobile and he gets positively chatty about the tragic burden of consciousness, the futility of life, the impossibility of love,and the dreary determinism of human nature.

Basically, True Detective is like a ride-along with Schopenhauer.

In philosophical terms, Rust explains, he's a pessimist. "Human consciousness was a tragic misstep in human evolution," he tells us. "We are things that labour under the illusion of having a self."

Or how about, "Death created time to grow the things it would kill?" With its comic combo of murky poetry and undergraduate-stoner cosmology, that would probably be my personal favourite.

Marty, on the other hand, is pretty much unimpressed: "People round here don't think like that," he says stolidly.

Maybe not, but guys like Nic Pizzolatto, southern novelist and True Detective's creator and writer, think like that. And fixated Internet fans definitely think like that.

The series starts with two detectives, who are, in turn, being interrogated by two more detectives. Finally, the viewers themselves become detectives. True Detective is carefully calculated to create Rust-like obsessives, consumed not just with the question of murder but with the larger mysteries of life, death and time.

Concentrated into eight episodes -- with only two more to come -- True Detective has sparked a frenzy of Internet-theorizing, semiotic speculation and clue-hunting.

We're tracking arcane references, Googling Nietzsche's idea of eternal recurrence, checking Wikipedia for an explanation of M-brane theory (after a standout scene in which Rust explains multi-dimensional space-time using old beer cans).

We're scouring the web for information on Medea, Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome, and the Yellow King. We're researching the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Robert W. Chambers, Joseph Conrad and a certain 12th-century Franciscan mystic.

For true True Detective fans, signs and symbols are everywhere, and not just in those Etsy-from-Hell twig sculptures. Searching for patterns, we parse the colour of men's ties, wonder about Marty's Pink Floyd T-shirt, examine annotated maps of Reggie Ledoux's tattoos. We even investigate that incongruously cheery Big Hug Mug that Rust uses as an ashtray during his interrogation. (One dedicated decoder points out that Big Hug Mug is an anagram for "humbug gig." How about that?)

But are we falling victim to "the detective's curse" that Marty keeps mentioning, of being so busy chasing things down that we miss what's right under our noses?

This is a series that sets up cop-and-criminal clichés in order to knock them back. It's a narrative that's constantly talking about narrative, about how we use stories and why. In this meta-meta setup, the serial-killer plotline becomes a red herring. As Pizzolatto himself has admitted, "You can probably tell I don't give a (damn) about serial killers." Clearly, the big question in True Detective isn't "Who Killed Dora Lange?"

It might not even be "What is the Meaning of Life in a Cold and Indifferent Universe?" Rust's nihilism soon careens past dark and deep towards weirdly hilarious. With its wordy, windy, brainiac trappings -- oh, that Rust, talking about ontological fallacies again! -- it could be just another well-disguised distraction.

True Detective contains an elaborate, interlocking series of intellectual puzzles and patterns, but Pizzolatto might be using them to lead us on. Viewers expecting a dramatic, definitive reveal of the Big Bad in Episode 8 are probably in for a letdown. If this show is about anything at all, it's about uncertainty -- and about all the crazy things humans do, all the crazy stories they tell themselves, in their attempts to avoid it.

"This is a world where nothing is solved," Rust reminds us, which is a pretty un-detectivey thing for a detective to believe. "There is no closure," he adds, for good measure.

At this point in True Detective, you can just go with it and embrace the uncertainty. And if that doesn't work, you can always try Marty's take: "Stop saying s like that. It's unprofessional."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 1, 2014 D14

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