If you’ve read this column before, my contempt for television should come as no surprise. Besides it being a mouthpiece for the status quo and a tool for coercion and value-shaping, it’s just straight-up bad for art. I could never stand the cheap storytelling involved when stretching a show out for season after season. Like many mediums in our culture, this allows for profit over art. The goal is to sell commercials and not to tell a story.
So when I heard that HBO’s latest offering, True Detective, would be a self-contained eight episode series, I was intrigued, and, with a nudge from my brother, I decided to check it out. To my surprise, I became totally engrossed and found myself engaged with one of the best pieces of art I have encountered in a long time. Now that the series is over, many are touting the failure of the finale. The serial nature of the show allowed for frenzied conjecture in the weekly downtime between episodes, and in an effort to sleuth it out, I think many forgot what we were watching and their disappointment stems from their own fabricated expectation.
The show by and large is a statement about narrative. By narrative, I mean the stories we tell ourselves to make sense out of an often chaotic reality. These narratives range on a scale of size from the personal (identity), to the cultural (social roles/family roles), to the institutional/ideological (religion, science, law). This focus is exactly why I was so drawn to the series. I see us faced with no greater issue in our time other than coming to terms with our relationship to language. Language has a mind and drive of its own. Narratives have an impetus for survival, and we have reached a point where that drive for survival has become parasitic. The environments of the Earth and of our society no longer support the predominate narratives of the West: unchecked perpetual growth, wealth inequality, power and class structure, the eminent domain mentality that allows us to live out of balance with the resources of our planet. These narratives feed off of the fear and greed of human psyches the way a tick feeds on the blood of its host. They have made us sick and we must come to terms as our very survival depends on it. The main characters in the series, Marty (Woody Harrelson) and Rust (Matthew McConaughey), each encounter the three categories of narrative that I have laid out. Much of the series directly addresses their struggle with their own identity. Marty tells himself he is a good father, a good husband, a good cop, a good person, etc. None of these are true as his actions betray these ideas continuously (ruining his marriage and family, riding Rust’s genius, killing a man in custody, beating the kids involved with his daughter). Similarly, Rust touts the philosophy of a nihilist, yet his actions are that of a hero. He is driven to right wrongs and protect the innocent. The examples are many, but to me none are more potent than when they raid the stash house in Episode 4, and he protects the young boy. The end of the series represents a shift of both characters to adjust their extreme narratives toward something more even-keeled. Marty becomes a realist and tells Rust they will never catch all the bad guys. Rust sees a new vision of hope and decides that the good of the universe exists.
But the real accomplishment of the series is the broader implications. Throughout the eight episodes, the characters come into contact with all kinds of institutions: religious congregations, the procedural bureaucracy of law enforcement, the hidden corrupt conspiracy behind charity and education. But, the stepping stone between the personal and the institutional would be the cultural. The show says a great deal about families. Marty is obviously entrenched in his concept of family and what he believes to be a man. Rust’s lost daughter and broken marriage are his silent motivation the entire time. Even our elusive killer is motivated by the horrors he experienced via his twisted family. Rust refers to the “sin of being a father” at one point during the series: the sin of bringing a child into this fucked-up world. This is one of the darkest statements he makes during the series, but also one of the most powerful.
At this point, I can’t help but be reminded of the author and thinker Robert Anton Wilson. In his book The Cosmic Trigger, RAW spends a good deal of time on his struggle with losing his daughter. She was tragically murdered in a random act of violence. Writing about how he responded to this, he explains that the Western interpretation of karma is quite flawed. By adding too much emphasis on the idea of moral justice, the West pulled karma more toward the concept of sin. RAW writes, “Buddha simply indicated that all cruelties and injustices of the past are still active: their effects are always being felt… Since most humans are still controlled by fairly robotic reflexes, the bad energy of the past far outweighs the good, and the tendency of the wheel [of karma] is to keep moving in the same terrible direction, violence breeding more violence, hatred breeding more hatred, war breeding more war. The only way to ‘stop the wheel’ is to stop it inside yourself, by giving up bad energy and concentrating on the positive.” Marty and Rust are the heroes because they find a way to stop perpetuating what they inherited. Errol perpetuates the horror. He says as Rust plods deeper into the fortress of Carcosa, “You know what they did to me? What I would do to all the sons and daughters of man.”
To further the relevance of this connection to karma, we could easily see Rust as a Bodhisattva. In his coma, he enters the blackness where his definitions (narratives) become undone and he feels the pure love of his daughter and even his father and he seeks to unify with it. He offers the same surrender that he saw in all the eyes of the victims in the crime scene photos. But, he comes back. A Bodhisattva is someone enlightened enough to reach nirvana, but forsakes it in order to return to the world and help others become enlightened.
We stand on the edge of twilight. A darkness stretches out before us and this is our only hope. We still fight each other when we all suffer and writhe in the thorns and snarls of a broken system. Just behind the veil of narrative, Wall Street dolls out record bonuses and stocks hover near record highs. This would not be possible other than through a story. They have many: It’s the fault of immigrants or terrorists or socialists or people poorer than you, but no matter what, we promise that this is the only way. Things must stay exactly as they are. Our only hope is to come to terms with our narratives. Find the wheel in yourself. Which direction is it spinning? And, if it is spinning toward the light, look honestly at the world around you, stand up tall, and speak loudly, for we are in desperate need of new stories.