True That

By Kelsey Osgood 03/10/14

True Detective may be over, but the addictive head games are just beginning—an Infinite Jest for our age and what that says about the nature of alcoholism.

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In the heart of most rational beings lurks a joyful conspiracy theorist, yearning for the moment when the opportunity to intellectually over-analyze a mystery might appear. For me, and some eleven million other people, HBO’s show True Detective has provided just such an opportunity.

(I am so dependent on the swampy Kool-Aid that I will continue drink it even after the backlash inevitably ensues when the Yellow King is revealed to be, say, anyone other than Maggie's father.)

In case you happen to be among the 300 million not yet hooked on the show, a bit of a primer: True Detective is dark detective drama based in the moody, meth-laden Bayou, and it stars Woody Harrelson as Marty Hart and Matthew McConaughey as Rust Cohle, a police duo assigned to solve a murder with distinct Voodoo flavor. Since the show’s premiere in January, increasingly obsessive viewers have been entranced by the distinctive look of the series—all droopy Spanish moss-covered cyprus trees and crumbling church facades—not to mention the bleak philosophizing of Matthew McConaughey's sinewy Cohle.

If you’re going to distract yourself from the truth about the nature of existence, you’d do better turning toward engrossing television 

Frenzied writers have toppled over one another to squeeze as much readable content from the show as possible, and many have succeeded in composing thought-provoking pieces on everything from the show’s apparently misogynistic overtones to its at-once bleak and stunning landscape. An anthology could probably be compiled about the literary influence of a meta-fictional book entitled The King in Yellow, a book of short stories published in 1895 that centers around a play that drives anyone who reads it insane. In short, it’s a complete free-for-all. As Andrew Romano, writing in the Daily Beast about the anti-Christian themes in the show, stated, “At this point, the Internet is thick with theories purporting to explain what True Detective… is ‘about.’”

I cannot claim to know what the show is “about”—as if it could be one single thing—and, despite my best intentions, I have yet to hit upon an as-of-yet unmentioned epigrammatic tome written in the seventeenth century that actually pinpoints the identity of The Yellow King, True Detective’s villain. But I am a conspiracy theorist at the most frustrating, and in some ways most invigorating, stage in her investigation: the point at which her walls are covered, Beautiful Mind-style, in notes that suggest, but do not confirm, a network between seemingly disparate details.

Take one part Infinite Jest, True Detective and its progenitor The King in Yellow, by Robert Chambers. And alcohol as escape, shock absorber, and entertainment. Throw in some death of God, Nietzsche, and nihilism (errr, anti-natalism)1 and we're good to go—

The jumping off point looked like this: Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s famous behemoth of a novel, centers on a videotape so entertaining that the viewer will become obsessed with watching it till they lose interest in eating or sleeping and, eventually, die. The fact that both Infinite Jest and The King in Yellow feature characters orbiting around an unknowable object—a potentially fatal negative space—seemed (of course) to be more than a coincidence. Connections between the three pieces of Entertainment began to pile up: the presence, in both works, of Virgil-like figures who serve as underworld tour guides; the fact that, in True Detective, the seminal piece of evidence is a videotape that Harrelson’s character Marty Hart can’t stomach watching; the slightly massaged Nietzschean idea of eternal return, with which McConaughey’s Rust Cohle is obsessed, and the central image of an actress following an old acquaintance around and around a revolving door in the deadly VHS in Infinite Jest; and, by no means lastly, the way in which the characters’ lives in both True Detective and Infinite Jest are governed by alcohol, even though they drink wildly varying quantities of it.  

In Infinite Jest, most of the drinking has already been done. As we enter the story, many of our main characters are in a Boston-area halfway rehabilitation house, or are dead by their own hand, unable to withstand life without the drink. There are flashbacks to inebriated moments, and the artist-as-a-young-man character, Hal Incandenza, whose father was the auteur of the deadly piece of entertainment, is a pothead. But mostly, it’s abstinence that looms large for these characters. Much has been made of how much Wallace drew on his own life experience in rehab and twelve-step groups to write the book, and indeed, he did at least bump into the barriers of anonymity that are erected to protect the recovering. Mary Karr, for example, a memoirist who was romantically involved with Wallace, called his character studies of fellow group members “unkind.” She also said that she believed sobriety “kept him alive way longer than he would have made it otherwise.” In my reading of his work, it also guided him away from an embittered intellectualism and overwhelming pessimism, the same kind of mindset (spoiler alert!) that McConaughey’s Rust Cohle often displays. The gentle aphorisms of AA sprinkled throughout Infinite Jest tell us an enormous amount about what Wallace himself learned from recovery, and what he had chosen, at that point in his life, to observe as truth: that you are not “terminally unique,” that it’s okay to rely on that which speaks more to your soul than your brain, and that alcohol, or drugs—or videotapes—seek to distract you from the complex and yet beautiful nature of existence itself.

In the universe of True Detective, however, it is certainly not okay to ignore the facts in service of your own sanity, and if you need a buffer, like liquor, in order to deal with the awful truth about the nature of existence, then so be it. To wit, while the heroes of Infinite Jest are sober, those in True Detective are straight-up lushes, and the closer the detectives get to a break in the case, the more they seem to imbibe. In 1995, when they first begin work, Cohle tries to avoid drinking, with which he has had “trouble.” Hart, despite his classic insistence that he can have “just one beer,” drinks like a man going through a mid-life crisis, but also makes a nod toward cutting back, particularly when he and his wife hit a rough patch.

Though both men work towards some degree of abstinence, they clearly cannot control themselves when tempted, and when they start drinking things quickly go awry. Hart, for one, drunkenly storms his mistress's house and punches the young man in her bed in a blaze of jealousy. While undercover, Cohle takes massive hits of cocaine to prove himself to an old outlaw acquaintance named Ginger, and washes it down with cheap beer. Perhaps knowing things were about to veer off course, Hart tries to get to the back of the biker bar. "My buddy . . .I'm worried that he might have started drinking again," he tells the bouncer. (The bouncer's contempt for Hart's concerns a whole other humiliation alcoholics and their beloved co-dependents know too well.) A short time later, Cohle and the crew, fueled by a number of illicit substances, are storming a stash house in police uniforms (and establishing one of the great tracking shots in TV history). How quickly a bump and a drink can spiral out of control.

By 2012, when the pair reunite and start to follow old leads, they are full on chugging. Cohle, for his part, insists that the officers questioning him go on a beer run on his behalf. He works his way eagerly through the six-pack, and then slips a flask from his jacket pocket and starts on that. Later, both leads pour generous glasses of caramel-colored Jameson as they talk about the dark turns their lives have taken, and swig from fictional brews as they piece together the morbid puzzle. None of this is necessarily for the worse, because as they lose their societally imposed ideas of correct behavior, they also narrow in on the killer’s identity. They cannot afford to turn away from the terrible truth in front of them, because if they do, innocent blond females will be killed. Dying of cirrhosis is a small price to pay.  

There’s more to say here, surely, much of it about belief in God and organized religion and whether humanity is inherently good or inherently evil. But what does it all mean?  Probably nothing, but I, for one, think if you’re going to distract yourself from the truth about the nature of existence—and you’ll have to, because we all do—you’d do better turning toward engrossing television shows rather than toward the bottle.2  And in case you’re anxious to keep going where I’ve left, do remember that there is a whole world of conspiracy theorists out there ready to distract you from whatever your Truth is. They drink at a bar called Reddit.  

1Throw Ringu (or its American remake) in there and you’ve got yourself a Johns Hopkins U. Press book, or at the very least, a masters’ thesis at Gallatin. To all graduate students focused on addiction, modern literature and Pessimistic thought: you’re welcome.

If you’re thinking I’ve been zeroing in on meaningless detail, consider that this piece, in part, is homage to Wallace and the bravery implicit in choosing to self-preserve. Also, consider what Marty Hart calls the “detective’s curse”: "The solution my whole life was right under my nose… my true failure was inattention."


Kelsey Osgood is the author of How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia. She last interviewed film maker Paula Eiselt for The Fix.

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