True Detective: More Than What Meets the Eye?

13 Jul


Written by: Maria Leia

In its first season, True Detective developed a reputation for being the thinking man’s crime drama, a philosophical procedural whose finale disappointed some viewers when Rust Cohle’s nihilistic worldview gave way to a soulful epiphany following a near death experience in Carcosa. The first couple episodes of the second season have also been a letdown for those expecting the same kinds of profound platitudes and abstract imagery. While it’s true that the show has its flaws, to give in to the critical backlash is to miss out on what is still one of the most thoughtful and original programs on TV.

A major component of the first season’s creepiness and general sense of unease was what Rust called the “psychosphere” or the “sprawl” – his certitude that the murders were not the work of one individual but the symptom of a sickness pervasive in the society that surrounded him. The systematic abduction, rape, torture, and killing of women and children ended up being part of a conspiracy that stretched from powerful clergy down to lowly public servants. The use of imagery went a long way toward presenting this – the antlers affixed to the heads of the victims and the strange stick sculptures made by the perpetrators pointed to the bestial nature of the crimes, and the spirals etched into corpses and journals resonated thematically with the assertions of Rust and Reggie LeDoux that “time is a flat circle”: we cannot escape our nature and are doomed to repeat life’s patterns ad infinitum.


The second season has already shown the same affinity for symbolism. During Semyon’s monologue at the beginning of the second episode, a shot of his eyes is cut with a pair of water stains on the ceiling, which is then cut with a shot of Caspere’s burned-out eye sockets in the morgue. The visual transition explicitly links the two men, as Caspere’s death has contributed to the sense of despair conveyed by Semyon’s monologue about his childhood trauma. Cohle’s poetic musings may be absent from season two, but the themes of psychosphere and sprawl are still very much intact. Frequent overhead shots of the LA highways snaking under and around each other in all directions (is there a city better described by “sprawl”?) are used for transitions, and as in season one, characters are introduced at a furious pace, forcing us to identify with the detectives’ job of cataloging and sorting through facts and faces to determine who is connected and who is not. Once again, there is a sense that a dirtiness pervades the atmosphere, a grime that coats everything it touches, and our protagonists will have to wade waist deep in it to uncover the truth.

The contrast between season one’s cosmic horror and season two’s hard boiled noir is likely the main source of displeasure for many fans. While the religious ties and Lovecraftian affectations drove home the other-worldliness of season one’s marshland puzzle, the city setting of season two leaves little room for metaphysics, instead leaning on the kind of prose employed by crime stylists Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy. A heavy dose of Nietzschean existentialism is present in both seasons – all the show’s characters are weary, downtrodden souls searching for meaning in the midst of despair.

Three episodes are not enough to judge a show that sets up its themes and plot threads so carefully. In order to make sense of this season, keep watching. Episodes are available on HBO Go, Comcast, DirecTV, and Dish. Showrunner Nic Pizzolatto has earned the right to take his time setting up the story before it kicks into high gear, and if the first season is any indication, it will be a ride well worth taking.


Maria is a writer interested in comic books, cycling, and horror films. Her hobbies include cooking, doodling, and finding local shops around the city. She currently lives in Chicago with her two pet turtles, Franklin and Roy. 

Photo credit: HBO, True Detective

3 Responses to “True Detective: More Than What Meets the Eye?”

  1. Justin July 13, 2015 at 9:41 am #

    I’m liking season two so far. I never expected it to be a rip-off of season one. It would distress me if it was. But, like you said, both seasons are linked by the exploration of the darkness within society aka the “sprawl”.


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