So look. Everybody and their grandmother is talking about HBO’s True Detective; which, having aired its final episode tonight, has firmly cemented itself as a work of television perfection. But I’m not interested in doing that dance*. I don’t feel like recapping the premise (it’s great), or the visual direction (it’s stellar), the genius of the dialogue (it’s genius), or the performance of Matthew McConaughey (which, holy fucking shit). I have ZERO fucking interest in one of those abominable “recap” articles, which serve no purpose I can identify.
What I want to talk about is purely story-structural. It’s something I need to get off my chest about True Detective, as a writer, which I’ve not seen anybody else express. I want to talk about how True Detective is an act of genre- sleight-of-hand, which exists within the framework of one kind of story, while carefully being another.
(If you’ve not finished the show, bla bla bla spoilers etcetera.)
(And if you haven’t seen True Detective, you’re a jerk, and this post will mean nothing to you.)
I used the word “framework” just now. It’s a word I like a lot. Anybody who knows me personally will roll their eyes when they hear that word, because it slides out of my mouth in just about any discussion having to do with story structure in the slightest. It’s handy that way.
The framework of a story, at least the way I use it, is a combination of a lot of different factors. It’s a collection of facts and background information, sure, but more than that, it’s the spine of a work. It’s the mold into which all that molasses-thick tonal substance is poured. If a story is a house, the framework is, well, the framework: the structure of foundation and support beams that give everything a shape and hold it together.
True Detective seems to be a detective story. It establishes a framework which looks, at first glance, like the framework of a detective story. But it’s not. Because True Detective is not a detective story. It’s a character study, which just happens to be about a detective, and just happens to depict a collection of events in his life which, if told differently, might have been a detective story, in some parallel universe.
That’s some pretty heady shit, so let me unpack it, and put it another way…
What Viewers Expect
You enter a detective story with certain expectations, which the story is quick to acknowledge and bolt up into place.
There will be a Mystery.
There will be a Conspiracy.
There will be a Killer, who may or may not be The Real Bad Guy.
The Cops will be stupid and fuck things up.
The Detective will be the only catalytic force propelling the plot. The entire universe will try to resist him, but he’ll be his own worst enemy in his quest, because he’s got FAULTS, with a capital F and U. For a while, these Faults will fuck him over. Then they’ll flip and do the opposite.
Things will go from really quiet to really loud, really quickly.
Then they’ll speed up.
There will be a big shocking Twist right near the end, which will be a bit boring, because you already saw it coming (though if you didn’t see it coming at all, it’s probably boring for different reasons). The Twist will (hopefully) drive the Mystery home for the Detective, make him really sad, and make us think about The Point of It All.
Then the Mystery will be solved, either by the Detective, we the viewer, or both. The Real Bad Guy will get his comeuppance (or get away) and The Detective will either win, die, or some combination of the two.
These are the things we’ve learned to expect. The detective story is a sub-genre, and like all sub-genres, it’s got damn specific signposts. True Detective knows this. It puts all these signposts in place from the word go. It builds its framework in the shape of a detective story, sets all the pieces upon the board, brings the orchestra to a ready, flicks the power switch…and then…
What True Detective Does Instead
…and then it tells a character study. Tells a story about a guy going through some soul trouble. Tells a story about a guy driven into the intellectual comfort of Cool Guy machismo-nihilism by the death of his daughter, and how he overcomes that and learns to live again. (Also a story about another, slightly-less-important guy who wears a similar mask of Eastwood-style I-don’t-give-a-fuck, to hide his own spiritual dissatisfaction with the state of his life and marriage.)
And the thing is, what makes this worth talking about, is that it doesn’t set you up and then take a left turn, as similar combinations of sub-genres often do. It’s not like the show is going, “Detective story, detective story, detective story — CHARACTER STUDY! Ha! Bet you weren’t expecting THAT!”
True Detective is a character study from the word “go”. It’s just a character study told within a framework that seems like somebody originally set it up to tell a detective story. It’s like somebody broke into Cormac McCarthy’s house, took the notes for his next gritty southern revenge novel, and used them to pen a slapstick comedy instead. As you watch, you can feel all the puzzle pieces in place, there, in the background. You know that they all fit and make a detective story, and maybe that’s the show you’d get to watch, if you lived one universe over from ours. But here, in this universe, you only get to witness things through the lens of a character study.
And I think that’s pretty fucking brilliant.
I can think of a lot of other stories that do stuff like that, but only two on TV. And, tellingly, they’re both police/detective shows — a genre which, perhaps more than any other, serves as a litmus test to a writer’s understanding of story structure.
The first is The Wire. It accomplishes its version of this trick in a different way: by taking TWO sub-genre frameworks (one of a cop show, the other of a gangster flick) and hurling them into one another like a particle accelerator, so that between them, they actually tell an ensemble epic. For all its whirling cherry-tops and drug-raids, The Wire exists in the exact same genre as Game of Thrones.
The second is Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex. That’s a series which sets itself up like an episodic police procedural. After two episodes, you know the drill: Guy shows up, guy hacks thing, Section Nine swoops in, gets wrecked, Kusanagi goes for the hail-mary and saves the day, Yakko, Wakko, and Dot show up to spin the Wheel of Metaphysics, get chased off the Warner Lot, and Batou and Kusanagi finish out the episode by talking about Cant or Hume or whoever. Roll credits.
But, by the time the series concludes, we realize all the episodic one-shots have been apiece with one another (both narratively and thematically) in that they’ve been subtly building a singular argument, between them, about the relevance/purpose of individual consciousness in the midst of burgeoning technological singularity. And all the while, you weren’t watching a police procedural, but a work of classic speculative sci-fi, in the vein of Dick or Asimov. And, even wilder: you knew it the whole fucking time! You knew it as you were watching!
The care with which these three shows are crafted–the self-discipline which their writers show, in ever avoiding the easy trap of indulgence–is something I find utterly fascinating. They all know what they intend to be, well before so much as a single word is every put to paper. And then they are that, unflinchingly and unswervingly, no matter how often they let you start to wonder.
True Detective is a character study which lives in a world someone built to tell a detective story. There’s a lot it leaves unsaid, which might be relevant if this were a detective story. Except it’s not.
Did a drunk-driving Rust accidentally kill his own daughter? That’s a reasonable assumption.
Did Maggie’s father molest she and Marty’s eldest daughter? I think so. Was he involved in the old-money conspiracy of the Tuttle Foundation? Could be!
And what happens now, to all those Bad Guys who got away?
Dunno. Don’t care. None of it matters, really, because it’s not relevant. Because True Detective isn’t that kind of a story: it’s only shaped like one.
And that’s super fucking interesting to me.