Obsessive-Compulsive Noir

‘True Detective,’ Obsessive-Compulsive Noir, and ‘Twin Peaks’

Two detectives and millions of viewers consumed with solving wayward clues in the hunt for a killer—we’re talking about Twin Peaks, of course.

ABC Photo Archives/Getty

No show has so happily scattered clues and jealously guarded its secrets as this one. A woman is found dead in a doom-gray town. Two detectives are dispatched to hunt down the killer. Their differences grate on the case. They sink into a nightmare as it soon becomes clear that there could be more than one victim—multiple girls have vanished. They interrogate members of this strange community and discover that many of them might be complicit in a dark conspiracy. You could twist yourself into a knot trying to untie the leads, but that hasn’t stopped obsessed viewers. It’s the obsession that matters, the procedural of code-breaking and theorizing that gnaws at you. What’s worse, there could be no solution to the mysteries.

I am of course referring to Twin Peaks.

Or perhaps I’m simply describing a hardened genre. There’s also Forbrydelsen and its American remake, The Killing, Broadchurch, The Fall, The Bridge, Top of the Lake, Zodiac, Se7en, The Red Riding Trilogy, and even the astounding Korean film Memories of Murder. True Detective fans count as some of our most ardent viewers and would probably be familiar with all these offerings. But for the few who are not, it goes without saying that much enjoyment can be had by injecting yourself with these dark brews. (And, for the few, here is the customary spoiler warning.)

That’s because the detective mystery, after all, is a form capable of high development, as anybody named E.M. Forster could have told you. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot, Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel. “The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king” is a mystery plot. What Forster couldn’t anticipate was this type of plot: “The queen was murdered in a ritual, the Yellow King probably did it, but no one knows who he is until all this mumbo jumbo about Carcosa and dark stars and spirals are deciphered.”

For the uninitiated, this is the True Detective plot. In 1995 in the Louisiana wilderness, the body of Dora Lange is discovered blindfolded with deer antlers on her head and positioned as if praying to a tree—you’ve seen the image in the sleeves of a few grunge CDs, I’m sure, but it’s still not a fun thing to picture, and the sight might chase away a few viewers. Detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), nihilistic and moody, and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson), philandering and hypocritical, are tasked with solving the murder. Good luck with that.

But the clever thing that got many of us paying immediate attention was a video camera. It’s almost the first thing you see, as it fixes its gaze and records the testimonies of Cohle and Hart not in 1995 but in 2012, when, no longer officers of the law, they are asked to recount the morbid case. In other words, True Detective begins with two former detectives telling a story that might or might not be true. It turns the whole proceedings into revisionist history, as the narrative constantly folds upon itself, as if you’re stuck on one page of a book while you run your finger back to earlier paragraphs, constantly fact-checking and verifying. The show’s creator, Nic Pizzolatto, a Louisiana crime novelist who also wrote two episodes of The Killing, has shrewdly nestled his police procedural inside a series of Chinese boxes. Plunge the geekfest needle in the vein and it’ll enlist a passionate involvement with both the putting together of the story as well as the peeling apart of the story.

This is the feature that has come to define our experience with the big, dark detective mysteries on our screens today. Such television shows and movies are not film noir. They are poached instead of hard-boiled, boasting anti-heroes with nihilistic worldviews who are nevertheless vulnerable. They are self-referential, sculpted by parody or subversive of conventions, and ambitiously re-inventive. The stories are splintered and refracted, the progressions coiled. Crucially, the sense of doom is cluttered with information, layered thick with codes to break and puzzles to solve, but none of which may lead anywhere. This is not neo-noir, but what might be called obsessive-compulsive noir. Narrative has become interactive unpacking, the sprouting of theories, the closing off of oneself to the world outside (for the characters and for the viewers), and the retreat into the cosmos of information within. The conventions of noir, of fleeting interactions with worldly mysteries, are not abandoned in obsessive-compulsive noir, nor are they being repeated and perfected, but they are being congested and imploded.

True Detective is foreboding, expansive, puzzling, sometimes infuriating, and lovely to look at. But True Detective's dogmatic obsessiveness hangs on the recurrence, everywhere, of a handful of spooky symbols that are sprinkled around the set like potpourri candles: “dark stars,” spirals, “Carcosa,” “the Yellow King.” Carcosa and the Yellow King can easily be cross referenced—if their “cosmic horror” adds something for you, very well; to me they are rather unnecessary. Some of the mutterings of Rust Cohle come from the perfectly elliptical and safely imprecise musings of Thomas Ligotti. “I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution,” Cohle says. “I think the honorable thing for our species to do is to deny our programming. Stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction. One last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.” All this is shallow nihilism appropriated as a kind of dark grammar that’s evasive of creativity. “It’s all one ghetto, man, giant gutter in outer space.”

Over the course of eight episodes, Cohle and Hart tell their interrogators that they killed the murderers in 1995 in a shootout and rescued two girls from their wood shack, but the events as shown to us peel away from reality. Hart actually shot one of the men, Reggie Ledoux, in a fit of rage—the detectives’ stories aren’t so true, after all. Unfortunately, the body of another woman wearing deer antlers turns up in 2012. Under this constellation of clues, the leads all point to a clan of wealthy and entrenched Southern Louisiana men, the Tuttles and the Childresses, who include a governor-turned-senator, two sheriffs, a reverend of a megachurch, and a green-eared spaghetti monster that’s also a lawnmower man, all of whom kill, torture, and rape women and girls in a ritual that they’ve plagiarized from Ambrose Bierce, Robert W. Chambers, H.P. Lovecraft, and Mardi Gras. (Hence animal masks, dark stars, Carcosa, and the worship of the Yellow King.) They seem to have obtained their victims from schools that the Tuttles built all over the region, (“the king’s children were marked, they became his angels”) sacrificing them at their “Carcosa” compound hidden in the wilderness. Cohle and Hart keep at the case 17 years later—surrender is not an option. (“Death is not the end,” as some characters recite, in something like a trance, to which I can only say, rats!)

The tendency is to overthink this zeal for cosmic nuttiness, but what passes for some as the uncovering of secret agendas that have perverted public gatekeepers seems to me only crippling juvenilia. The occult symbols, the occurrence in schools, the conspiracy of the wealthy, powerful, and hypocritical—all this reminds one of a regressive buying-into of satanic ritual abuse, the moral panic that swept the 1980s and found its horrors discredited in such debacles and wastefulness as the Thurston County case, the Martensville scandal, and the McMartin trial, which, at its conclusion, was the longest and most expensive criminal trial in U.S. history. Cohle seems to feel, as Don DeLillo did in Underworld, that there was “some deeper meaning that existed solely to keep him from knowing what it was,” but some simple research beyond Googling might have prevented Pizzolatto from squandering his protagonist’s dedication. Pizzolatto has said that if you Google “Satanism,” “preschool,” and “Louisiana,” you’ll be surprised at what you find. But he also said that he never read Lawrence Wright’s Remembering Satan, which chronicled the Thurston County abuse case and revealed the trouble with coerced and recovered memories about satanic rituals. “The focus on mysticism and child abuse are both governing concerns of mine,” he said of his Louisiana setting, “and fit the place very well, based on my life experience.” Granted, there are key differences between the ‘80s’ satanic panic and Pizzolatto’s terrors, in that cases like McMartin had no physical evidence and relied solely on children’s testimonies while True Detective offered ample bodies. But it’s hard not to see True Detective as yet another tale that appeals to our clichéd fears of ritual horrors.

It is possible to name an ancestor to this obsessive-compulsive noir: David Lynch. Twin Peaks, for a full miraculous season, was foreboding, expansive, puzzling, sometimes infuriating, and lovely to look at, like True Detective. But unlike True Detective it was also droll, playful, quirky, invigorating, and creative. The additional meaningful resemblance between the two is the accretion of unstable clues that lured viewers to embody the detective—Twin Peaks’ memorable tagline was, after all, a question as well as an invitation: “Who killed Laura Palmer?”

Lynch, ever the spirited mind in flight, never had to crib much from infatuations of college boys. He had his own fixations with golden ‘50s tropes. The symbolic vocabulary of Twin Peaks was properly literary, by which I mean it was personal, whimsical, and recklessly satirical. The Black Lodge, the Red Room, One-Eyed Jack’s, Diane, Invitation to Love, the Log Lady, BOB and MIKE, and the dozens of other zesty characters—all were parodic gems of levity that Lynch dreamt up in his sleep or during his “transcendental” meditations (perhaps the same thing), little aerial jazz riffs that end up being so full of its own life and life’s unexpected mysteries and absurdities that every element seemed to map onto the deadly dull tropes of conventional America while at once destroying them. Agent Dale Cooper’s “damn good food!” “damn fine coffee!” and “they’ve got a cherry pie there that’ll kill ya!” never stray far from cliché, but they never fail to fortify life’s appetite, either. The river of helpless hints isn’t designed to lead to the mystery’s solution, but to scatter interpretations and surrender to Lynch’s brand of surreal coherence.

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Lynch’s movies don’t really have a point. As David Foster Wallace memorably put it, “The absence of point or recognizable agenda … lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don’t. This is why his best films’ effects are often so emotional and nightmarish (we’re defenseless in our dreams, too),” he wrote after visiting the set of Lost Highway and turned his experience and thoughts into one of his best hybrid essays, “David Lynch Keeps His Head.” “This may, in fact, be Lynch’s true and only agenda: just to get inside your head.”

But by the time True Detective arrives at its own system of allusions, the symbols seem embarrassed of originality, planted like afterthoughts to add red herrings and blind alleys in an otherwise hackneyed and self-important whodunit that reinforces our moral certainties. The “clues” do lead to the mystery’s solution, but the Gothic air is sucked out of the show once we reach the point where we can see the obvious answer. There are some loose ends, but as Hart tells Cohle in the finale, “we ain’t gonna get them all.” Satisfactorily or not, most of the “what will happen?” questions that viewers have been asking were answered by the time Cohle, with Hart, walked into the dimly lit night in the final frame, saying, “If you ask me, the light’s winning.” So optimism had been the point all along? Again, David Foster Wallace had the right idea when he pinpointed David Lynch’s shortcomings, which applies perfectly to True Detective: Lynch gets in trouble—in the second season of Twin Peaks, in Wild at Heart, in Fire Walk with Me—when his odd clues that go nowhere “seem to the viewer to want to have a point—i.e. when they set the viewer up to expect some kind of coherent connection between plot elements—and then fail to deliver any such point.”

We can blame Twin Peaks for our obsessions with “what’s next”—or, more specifically, we can blame the ABC executive that required Lynch to solve Laura Palmer’s murder. It is great fun to pore over clues and tunnel into a tree trunk like termites, and I am not apologizing for a guilty pleasure. True Detective profited from the Internet’s fostering of obsessive-compulsive theorizing. Thousands of false detectives simultaneously picked up on spirals on the walls, five beer-can men, five Ken dolls, five-point Lone Stars, five horsemen, yellow ties, spiral tattoos, star tattoos, Vietnam, banh mi, Alaska, Louisiana, neon crosses, flower paintings, flower dresses, lawn-mowing, yellow crowns, pageant crowns—on and on and on. But the Internet’s theories were so much more dementedly and deliriously inventive and clever than anything the finale could have ever hoped to pull off.

In the end, “what’s next” is one of the more inadequate motivations in film, and one that is almost certain to leave you with a sense of disappointment that verges on betrayal. Again, Mr. Forster had it right. “Curiosity is one of the lowest of the human faculties,” by which he meant the need to find out what happens next. “To appreciate a mystery, part of the mind must be left behind, brooding, while the other part goes marching on.”

The key is how much we can brood, and what is meant by brooding—is it to daydream, or is it to agonize over every detail? Instead of engaging in stubborn restructuring into coherence, I’d rather surrender to the unconsciously erratic. Geekery for its own sake is rather tedious. The worst thing that happened to Twin Peaks was that it was renewed for a second season, and that Lynch was pressured to start providing answers. He fashioned BOB, the demon spirit who lived in the Black Lodge, but such an explanation satisfied precious few of us. The best thing to happen to it was the aborting of the third season, which effectively ended the series in a cliffhanger. It terminated the “what’s next,” though it ensured that successive generations would be possessed by their curiosity over Twin Peaks. Twist-prone films like The Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense, and Memento are merely revisions, requiring you to go back and watch them again, though once more is more than enough. Since Twin Peaks, Lynch has been making mysteries that do away with the preoccupation with twists or “what’s next” entirely, and his films since have induced repeated fanatical viewings. Inland Empire, with its rabbit-headed people and strange disappearances, tied us into knots trying to unbraid the strands of reality and dream. The film is befitting of its name—it is an empire of signs. But the movie that first marked the apotheosis of this fierce distortion was Mulholland Dr., which managed to be belligerently nonsensical but absolutely captivating, so much so that we are still haunted by its madness—or is it a deeper sanity? Lynch invented a personal astrology where keys are cut, but the locks are never fashioned.

To True Detective’s credit, it is not Twin Peaks redux, though we wish it were as sexy and dangerous as Mulholland Dr. It does try to reinvent the detective drama through suspensions of the time sequence, and it is quite fun to experience the discordant jangling of hints, false leads, close calls, the detour eating lanes that Cohle and Hart go down. There is a strong impulse to derail viewers as well as to elicit determination, among its characters and its viewers alike, to get back on the horse to pursue the truth. As my colleague Andrew Romano wrote, True Detective tumbles down two pathways of storytelling, the first of which is investigation, or storytelling as a search for the truth, while the second is religion, or storytelling as an escape from the truth. “You gotta get together and tell yourself stories that violate every law of the universe just to get through the goddamn day?” Cohle says at one point. Pizzolatto’s script invites brooding, as long as we’re not left behind.

In other words, there’s a lot to like here. Instead of brooding, I’d rather just sit back and enjoy the march. Consider the oil-smoke of the bayou as Cohle and Hart drive through the Louisiana countryside, the sky black-brown and thick with decay. “Pipelines carving up this coast like a jigsaw,” Cohle says with customary solemnity, but for once it rhymes with the desolate dirty boot of America that the director, Cary Fukunaga, offers up as background, but which serves to shroud the script’s lack of depth. The superb sound and music helps, too, especially when it supercharges the humid air, as when they first discover the body of Dora Lange, or when songs like The 13th Floor Elevators’s “Kingdom of Heaven” corrodes the atmosphere at the end of the third episode, when the two find a drawing of a deer-antlered woman inside a burned-out church. T Bone Burnett is the master curator for the soundtrack, enlisting the Melvins, John Lee Hooker, Lucinda Williams, Captain Beefheart, Slim Harpo, Wu-Tang Clan, Boogie Down Productions, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Grinderman, Townes Van Zandt, and The Black Angels to paint a down-and-out America that descended from a dark and dirty rendering of the blues.

But there are also plenty of things to dislike. The college-essay level of metaphysics. The tone-deaf writing that allows Cohle to dismiss a perfectly reasonable woman whose only crime was being Marty Hart’s mistress. “With all the dick swagger you roll you can’t spot crazy pussy?” No, I can’t. The misogyny of the show has been well covered and even defended, as intentional, arising from the point of view of two flawed men, Cohle and Hart. But it’s part of something bigger. The problem is that obsessive-compulsive noir rather resembles adults playing a children’s game, and it smacks of a boy’s game, which would explain a couple of sex scenes that seem directed by a 13-year-old boy—a charge hilariously leveled on Game of Thrones by SNL and ought to be brought up again regarding True Detective. The Killing and Top of the Lake aren’t so much fixated on what’s next, the whodunit, or the build-up of glyphs and signs, but on the effects of family and community tragedy, as well as on the fears and strengths of women placed in the middle of these atrocities. No surprise, then, that these psychological studies were created by women—Veena Sud for The Killing, and Jane Campion, with Gerard Lee, for Top of the Lake.

That is not to say that the focus on Cohle and Hart does not spawn two compelling performances. It does, even though McConaughey mostly looks like a walking hangover, right up until the final shot of the series, when he finally utters something that can be interpreted as an affirmation of life. He sticks to ghoulish intensity, but that’s all you can do when you’re given lines like, “Someone once told me time is a flat circle.” In his darkest register he gives advice to “the Marshland Medea,” a woman who’s killed her baby. “Prison is very, very hard on people who hurt kids,” he says. “If you get the opportunity, you should kill yourself.” McConaughey delivers the line looking like a rotting skull. The scene is supposed to present Cohle’s almost mythical ability to extract confessions—that easiest of resolutions for dramas on screen. So, if True Detective is supposed to give some insight into police investigations, I’m drawing a blank. Cohle seems to have blind luck behind him as he stumbles into one obvious clue after another. As for Hart, he really doesn’t do much. In other words, there’s not much that’s true about the detective work.

It helps if there is some deeper truth inside the noir worth obsessing about. The trippy puzzle of Twin Peaks was a mechanism by which to explode and parody the conventionality of America, particularly the America presented on soapish network television—there are dark secrets to every family, but they’re not infidelity and love triangles but killer demon spirits and rooms in the woods where you lose your soul. Mulholland Dr. plunges the cultural devastation of Hollywood to the same level of critique, declaring Tinseltown’s worshippers too ignorant about the Dream Factory’s proximity to delusion and nightmare.

Or take the British three-part feature Red Riding, which was released theatrically in the U.S. as three films. Like True Detective, it spans many years, the episodes bearing the titles 1974, 1980, and 1983, some of those years being when Britain was terrorized by a serial killer dubbed The Yorkshire Ripper. Reporters, investigators, and victims are buoyed by their immersion in the murders and sink in defeated oblivion. The scope to chronicle the heavy years bring the weight of social history to bear on Britain before and during Thatcherism’s conservative hold, years that were suffocated by economic and moral paralysis—a general mood that a serial killer contributed to and fed off of like a parasite.

The same could be said of the authoritarian years in South Korea that Memories of Murder dramatizes, the fear being that the economic stagnation during Chun Doo-hwan’s dictatorial reign and the subsequent political upheaval allowed the killer to repeatedly escape right under the detectives’ noses. For example, DNA testing wasn’t available, and samples were sent overseas only late in the game, while one detective’s bullying is so over-the-line that a key witness gets crushed by a train when he runs away in fear. The murder is never solved, and continues to haunt Korea to this day.

Zodiac’s obsession with information and communication provides an even more solid foundation. Read the movie as an essay on how a relatively small-time killer could have hooked onto the media like a leech and constructed an entire mythological hysteria that consumed detectives, victims, reporters, even cartoonists with a penchant for puzzles, not to mention the public’s morbid imagination. The case of the Zodiac killer also remains unsolved. The film, appropriately, simply refuses to call it a day.

How about True Detective? One can say that it comments on the apathy towards the south, of how the nation didn’t give a damn about Louisiana until after Hurricane Katrina, just as the sheriffs operating around Cohle and Hart neglected to investigate disappearing girls around the Bayou. It’s not a bad idea to build a show around, which is something that Treme tackled, but to say that’s True Detective’s modus operandi wouldn’t be the strongest reading. To everybody’s credit, nobody is making this claim. But it is a missed opportunity that the show ignored the greater national panic over satanic ritual abuse, which did reach a peak and a period of debunking by the mid- and late-1990s, precisely around the time of the Dora Lange discovery. True Detective did many things well, and it was compelling when it was devoted to compounding its mystery instead of wrapping it up. It promised narrative and stylistic playfulness it couldn’t deliver on, nor was it able to resonate with anything that is representatively bigger. It only held our curiosity ransom, and turned us temporarily into obsessive-compulsives.

Obsession would be appropriate if the dogged pursuit was worth it, or that the warning against obsession is a central motif, particularly when an answer is impossible—if the ending never comes, as if time really is a flat circle. The inconclusiveness is the point, because the unending obsession is the point. True detectives never give up.