We are now deep into True Detective’s second season which featured a shootout similar to the one in season 1, episode 4 which gave the sense of a whole, anonymous town descending into total anarchy and violence. The shooting scene from this season’s fourth episode was more controlled. The 4 or so gangsters involved stayed close together for most of the time, creating a tight moving, escaping centre of violence, killing police officers and bystanders.
The scene was tragic. Innocent workers were dragged into ferocious, drug related violence. On the level of storytelling, the scene served a cohesive function in emotionally uniting the three main detectives, played by Colin Farrell, Taylor Kitsch and Rachel McAdams. In a strong, mostly silent aftermath scene, the three protagonists gather in shock to form a triangle amidst a sea of bodies. They only briefly glance at each other, trying to process what just happened. Kitsch’s character, a struggling Iraq veteran, remains the most composed of the three.
In True Detective, underneath the dialogues and varieties of philosophical musings lies the bleak realm of violent actions and consequences. This dark coloured, atmospheric underpinning is evoked throughout the second season in stunning, terrifying bird’s-eye shots of huge highway intersections and desolate, cold city views devoid of any meaningful human activity. These shots show a dense and unforgiving sprawl without mercy for the individual, sentient being. A strange, claustrophobic feeling emerges from these views, perhaps because the highways leave an impression of fenced off, completely and violently defined, inescapable concrete constructions with no free or non-corporate space left. It suggests that the landscape itself must, absolutely must have an impact on the individual psyches inhabiting the place. That the environment, with its incisions, zoning, fences and toxic fumes forms a quasi active superstructure under which one can never be free or progress. This superstructure is a perpetual, menacing force underlying and guiding all life taking place within its territory. It also forms an active part of the overall story architecture pushing forward the dramatic unfolding.
True Detective portrays an interdependent relationship between environment and people. What makes the two seasons strong is not necessarily individual scenes or storylines, but the otherworldly, existentialist component. Here, crime comes out of a precise landscape. Crime in True Detective is related to landscape, to geography, territory, earth incisions. It hints at how human acts are guided, accompanied, framed by the larger environmental contexts humans are inserted in. It is not just a neighbourhood True Detective depicts; it’s an entire haunted region unloading its weight on people’s shoulders. True Detective is geotrauma applied to crime fiction. Geotrauma in the sense that the multilevel mutilations afflicted upon the environment are somehow reflected back to the people. The interweaving of a vast time frames into the narrative, with season 1 spanning 17 years, adds to a sense of an ongoing captivation by landscape. The protagonists seem to be unable to leave the place, whether Louisiana or fictional Vinci. They are not enjoying it, but they stay to finish some task or because they have missed the opportunity to leave. In this regard the series has a captivating, action driven, non-humourous approach of storytelling where every human or non-human element rides quite fatalistically further down into gloom, burdened by the economic and environmental superstructure and indebted to some persons or a resolution taken years ago. Yet the protagonists are also somewhat proud of going down their path, indirectly celebrating this American, sheer force of dramatic storytelling. We suffer with McConaughey and Farrell’s doom mood and enjoy it, they enjoy it too; we are all implicated in the unfolding, savouring every bit of dialogue during the ride into the abyss.
It is this atmospheric-existentialist side that distinguishes True Detective. A narrative framework, superstructure imbued with geotrauma haunts the general mood of the series. It provides the series with an abstract, violent tension infiltrating human decision-making and general well-being. An ephemeral, ever-present gloom inspired by Lovecraft and similar fiction. Creator Nic Pizzoletto devours existentialist-nihilist philosophical writings from Ray Brassier, Thomas Ligotti to Eugene Thaker, probably via Nick Land’s countless blog entries and Reza Negarestani’s geotrauma defining Cyclonopedia. And many other writings that inform the overall geotrauma superstructure into which the individual narratives are inserted.
Together with the generally excellent acting, True Detective creates a cohesive fictional world in which environment and protagonists are in constant interrelation. The protagonists react not only to the tasks at hand, but to the overall spectral tone that the environment provides. The landscape portrayed is, essentially, sick. True Detective, and particularly the bird’s-eye views somehow touch on abstract, transgenerational questions, such as ‘what has been done to the landscape by building a highway there, by cutting lines into this hill?’ ‘Was there a reaction the hill might have had receiving such a violent incision into its shape, its very being?’ ‘Is it good to have a spatially defined and economically regulated city all over this valley?’ ‘What effects do all the zoning, constructions have on the human psyches wandering and driving through it?’
The environment is a main character of True Detective. The series depicts its multifold effects on people. As a side note, Kitsch’s character of an Iraq veteran is intriguing when thinking geotrauma in an international and military context. His Fallujah combat experience hints at the exportation of scars onto other parts of the world. The Iraq invasion successfully introduced geotraumatic stress to a foreign place (rather than… democracy), thus creating a weird replication of the ‘home front’, the massive American corporate infrastructure that might put equal pressure on its inhabitants.
On an even deeper level the series deals with a reflection on the interrelation between land use, inhabitants, economy, social forces and time. Fictional Vinci is like the perfect nightmare of an imagined Indian – or a bird perhaps – inhabiting these valleys before the invasion of the Europeans transformed the entire area. The foreboding of this ancestor or animal haunts the present and vice versa. This side of the series evokes the cursed hotel in The Shining built on an Indian burial site. Ghosts from the past haunt the hotel and Nicholson’s character. A repressed or forgotten unconscious violently reveals itself. Similarly, True Detective establishes connection points to a past or alternative place, before the massive geotrauma events occurred. It does it mainly through musings of some kind, McConaughey’s Rusty Cohle character was particularly strong in evoking such vibrations (of a pessimistic variety, but not only). Now the land has been transformed. Now the valleys and hills are covered with highways, these heavy, artificial arteries connecting places. Season 1 featured a less populated landscape, but there was a similar take on a haunted territory that has its effects on people (playing with the theme of an inbred’s inbred take on religious deviation).
In all its fictional exaggeration of impending doom, True Detective might be the only realist series of a contemporary America haunted by the past, by missed opportunities, by debts of all kinds (this modern form of slavery), by trauma brought about by environmental stress. Yet, as a dramatic narrative, True Detective shines like a jewel in the advancing darkness.
A Brief History of Geotrauma or: The Invention of Negarestani http://www.thestate.ae/geotrauma-psychogeology
interview on influences: http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2014/02/02/writer-nic-pizzolatto-on-thomas-ligotti-and-the-weird-secrets-of-true-detective/
long portrait of Nic Pizzolatto: Like True Detective, Galveston is as much about place as people. If it were a painting, he’d call it Landscape with Figures. In America, fate has always been determined by terrain, the first explorers overwhelmed by the mountains and rivers. “The descriptions in Galveston are what we filmed in True Detective,” Nic told me. “That’s one of the reasons I consider the works so connected. The [characters] inhabit a poisoned dystopia. It’s literally toxic…. These stories take place in areas where the revelation has already happened. The apocalypse has come and gone, and no one’s quite woken up to that fact.” http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2015/06/nic-pizzolatto-true-detective-season-2-better-than-season-1
short interview on Season 1 Interviewer: The landscape itself is a rather looming presence. What can you tell me about your choice of venue and what it means for the story? Nic Pizzolatto: The landscape is literally the third lead in the show. This is the area of the country where I grew up, and I knew the kinds of environments waiting for us there. Very detailed, prosaic descriptions of setting were a large part of the script: taking these opportunities to witness the contradictions of place and people, to feel a sense of a corrupted, degrading Eden. It was always going to be a rural show, but originally in the Ozarks, which I also know. Out of a few subsidy states, I chose Louisiana for the move because there were all these personal connotations and knowledge of the place I could bring to bear. It enabled me to write landscape that was almost as full as the characters, and that became an important guidepost in the writing: the awareness of contradiction, the landscape as culture. http://www.arkhamdigest.com/2014/01/interview-nic-pizzolatto-creatorwriter.html
short interview on Season 1 Nic Pizzolatto: Rust Cohle something of a metaphysician and as a character he’s extremely close to my heart. The landscapes and culture where these men operate are the landscapes and culture where I grew up, so it also meant a great deal to bring my personal vision of that place to a national stage, to throw the landscapes that haunt me onto the television. https://litreactor.com/interviews/10-questions-with-true-detective-creator-nic-pizzolatto
Here some environmental shots from Season 1 (mainly Louisiana landscapes) and Season 2 (mainly highways and industrial areas). The beautifully conceived, slightly overphotoshoped intros visually exemplify the convergence and cross-pollination of humans with territory. I added some Turner paintings as he was one of the first to sense and depict the profound landscape alterations connected to the industrial revolution that would alter the face of the earth.