|This map depicts many of the key locations—both in narrative and in production—in True Detective. Hover over a marker for detailed information.1|
The intricate mapping of Louisiana below Interstate 10 in HBO's 2014 series True Detective generates more than just the obvious voyeurism of extreme poverty that marks so many shows about Louisiana, such as Swamp People (History Channel) and Duck Dynasty (A&E)2 or about "true crime" in rural areas, such as Cajun Justice (A&E). True Detective is a show about precarious life as much as it is about catching a serial killer. The mystery plot is standard fare: two male detectives, on the trail of perpetrators of an apparent "Satanic ritual abuse" killing, uncover a dusky underworld of cults and corruption. However, the way True Detective links a critical understanding of Louisiana with a type of cartographic character development relies more on the intensities of place than a sequence of defining moments. Rust and Marty, played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in virtuoso performances, travel from Lake Charles to Avoyelles to Lafayette to lower Terrebonne to Beaumont, Texas, to suburban New Orleans to Erath, tracing intensities and textures of relationships in particular places to income, education, landscape, and health disparities. Rust is a Texan, a detail that is constantly used to justify his utter strangeness, to portray him as an intruder, and to set up a Louisiana only understood from the inside. He is also a mystical nihilist whose popularity gave rise to fans hunting down and interpreting his allusions to nineteenth century weird fiction, Nietzsche, and M-theory during the run of the show. Before moving to Louisiana to work homicide, Rust spent too long deep undercover in vice, heavily drugged, delivering gun justice to cartel thugs. Marty, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette alum and good old boy, is his more or less straight-laced partner. Their story begins with investigating the death of a young woman found in a canefield, naked and trussed, wearing a crown of antlers. It ends with them killing a man who had done the murdering, but who was only a relative of one the real masterminds: a cabal of politicians, nonprofit leaders, businessmen, police, and meth cookers who stage gruesome murders, kidnap children, and control state politics, education, and revenue. Rust and Marty will not pursue them because True Detective is an anthology series, and their story is over.
|Richard Misrach, Sugar Cane and Refinery, Mississippi River Corridor, Louisiana, 1998 from Petrochemical America, photographs by Richard Misrach, Ecological Atlas by Kate Orff (Aperture, 2012). © Richard Misrach, courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York; Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco; and Marc Selwyn Gallery, Los Angeles.|
|First image of True Detective's title sequence, 2014, sequence by Antibody and Elastic. © HBO.|
If you have followed Southern Spaces's coverage of Petrochemical America, you will recognize the images that open True Detective, beginning in the title sequence with Sugar Cane and Refinery, a photograph by Richard Misrach of a dirt road through a cane field, terminating in a ditch.3 An oil refinery shrouded in smog looms over it. It's a busted up Emerald City, desaturated and toxic, an unreal city in an industrialized Oz. HBO has three shows set in Louisiana: Treme, reimagining a New Orleans broken by flood and evacuation; True Blood, swamp-and-vampire melodrama full of bodies and camp and carnivalesque violence; and True Detective, a show that might fall under a genre called Louisiana apocalyptic noir.4 Like Petrochemical America, this genre is concerned with lifting the veil on the dirty truths of the wetland, not so much the titillations of satanic murder sprees but petroleum conspiracy and ecocide. True Detective's big reveal—which does not come when Rust and Marty catch the deranged, stereotypical murderer, but accumulates from the title sequence—is that the southern Louisiana land- and waterscape lies at the nexus of corporate-produced inequality, fragile bodies, toxic waste, indigence, political bullying, and an unruly ecosystem.
What makes True Detective unique among representations of Louisiana is that its attention to the particularities of place undercuts the image of the wetlands that is all spectacular gumbos and alligator fishing. Borrowing the political imperative from Kate Orff and Richard Misrach's Petrochemical America, True Detective exposes the contemporary disasters that structure Louisiana life. The narrative flashes back to the 1990s when the biggest hurricane was named Andrew, and cycles in and out of a diegetic present in 2012, when the name of another hurricane had yet to leave people's lips. Hurricanes, however, are not the only traumatic events spiraling through the narrative; there's also the aftermath of desegregation, the rise of private education, the loss of permanent archives from years of flooding and reflooding. And there's a not-so-subtle critique of the state's despotic governors—the one in the 1990s segment, named Edwin, tied to the corrupt structures of power, certainly feels familiar. But this show is neither documentary nor polemic, only mappings. To quote Patrick Clair's pitch for the opening sequence, "We've zoned in on the idea of personal geographies."5 True Detective inscribes into the critical geography of Petrochemical America what Gwen Ottinger found lacking in the book: stories of people.6
The superimposition of personal onto critical geography is evident in the title sequence as a ghosted image of McConaughey's character, Rust Cohle, fades into the photo of the refinery and canefield. The overarching visual techniques are compositing and double exposure, combining photographs mostly from Misrach's Cancer Alley exhibition (Petrochemical America) with the outlines of bodies and faces: the face of Harrelson's character, Marty Hart, containing a tangle of highway cloverleaves,7 a valve wheel containing the church in Misrach's Cypress Swamp, Alligator Bayou,8 the bare ass of a woman squatting on top of spiky heels containing the refinery that began the sequence. The faces of people—mostly characters from the show—break apart, joining traces of maps and machinery, becoming hybrid people-in-place. In one particular image, Rust's head appears in outline, but only the area below his nose retains photographic density, the top-half of his head fading to nothing. In this nothing, the pyres and scaffolding of a refinery yard jut out, and, right as the image jumps to the next one, a trace of the Mississippi River remaps the border of his head. This combination of photography and geography also finds its precursor in Petrochemical America: Orff's visual arguments collage Misrach's photos with mapping.
The images in the sequence move from desaturated and bleached out to luminously dark to sparking red. It's a bit heavy-handed, this travel into the Louisiana night of industrial apocalypse through the pictorial bodies of cynical men and lushly naked women. True Detective is, after all, homage to the hardboiled murder mysteries of the mid-twentieth century, a genre defined by its gritty-but-honorable men and femmes fatales. True Detective is also on HBO, a cable and satellite network that practically invented the made-for-adult hour-long drama with another busted up Emerald City in the prison saga Oz and has reached its gratuitous "adult themes" saturation with True Blood. Unlike the opening sequences for Oz or True Blood, however, True Detective's sequence insists on the importance of geography and people.9 And despite True Detective and True Blood both being set in Louisiana, featuring intense violence, and having "True" in their titles, these shows share little else. Where True Blood's title sequence—like its plotting and characterization—is hypersaturated, paced for blooming or exploding rot, True Detective's opener features a world in chemical sterilization. Rather than a sexy, murky adventure swamp, its Louisiana is in tension between a postindustrial fade to iron surrounded by barren earth and the wild rule of plants and reptiles. As Rust says in the first episode, "This place is like somebody's memory of a town, and the memory is fading. It's like there was never anything here but jungle." Here, we find the sad landscapes of Misrach: a place overrun by pipes and salt water, religious statuary from another era, swamp and canefield, fog and abandon. But then again, as Rust's partner Marty replies, "Stop saying shit like that, it's unprofessional."10
In the eight episodes of season one, Rust and Marty uncover strange genealogies and rigged systems, sometimes reluctantly and always at great cost to their lives and security. They commit awful violence against people, such as during the lauded six-minute-long take at the end of episode four.11 To set this scene, Rust enters a world of one-percenter bikers, dark roadhouses, and thickly masculine tropes—which is saying something given that True Detective is a show about men living in a brutally masculine world. This world is the Texas that Rust claims as his origin, a place reminiscent of the imagined "Western" hells in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian or No Country for Old Men. Rust trades his involvement in a robbery for information on a deranged meth cook who might be the killer. Rust and the bikers storm a housing project12 (which Ginger, a white biker, calls "Coon Country") to get a stash of drugs. Things fall apart. Ginger kills a hostage. Rust takes Ginger hostage, dragging him in and out of people's houses, over a fence. SWAT arrives with helicopters and they light up the houses with a firefight. The scene involves one camera following Rust as he weaves through the neighborhood, escaping the war he brought to the unsuspecting bikers, who were bringing war to the much more unsuspecting project residents. This is a tense, personal way to film an action sequence, and it underscores the richness of exploring space in narrative film and the cruelty of True Detective's ropey heroes, who bring an army of white men (bikers and police) to wage a battle in the all-black projects.
|Map of long take from "Who Goes There," 2014, from We Keep the Other Bad Men from the Door, a graphic tribute to HBO's True Detective. Infographic by Nigel Evan Dennis. Courtesy of Nigel Evan Dennis.|
If we don't feel that this scene emplaces us, it is effective at associating Rust with a way of moving through a world: macho, aggressive, distant, rooted in his environment, yet ready to navigate and change directions. Rust's hyperawareness (sometimes tinged with hallucinations) causes him to pontificate a lot. He says crazy-sounding things that make for good Internet memes. He is cocky and sinewy. He is also swift with his logic and usually right about it. Compared to Marty, he is alien. When Marty tells Rust that his (constant) dismissive observations about Louisiana are unprofessional, it's also a way of staking a claim for the people who do live there, who are not outsiders with easy quips. When their investigation in 1995 leads them to a big tent revival, Rust asks Marty, "What do you think the average IQ of this group is, huh?" Marty replies, "Can you see Texas up there on your high horse? What do you know about these people?" Rust's reply positions him as a quasi-anthropologist, someone savvy to the statistics and social problems: "Just observation and deduction. I see a propensity for obesity. Poverty. A yen for fairy tales. Folks puttin' what few bucks they do have into a little wicker basket being passed around. I think it's safe to say nobody here's gonna be splitting the atom, Marty."13 Rust embodies the kind of cynical, yet politically progressive attitudes in HBO's past programming (The Wire, Oz, and the documentary series America Undercover). But he also embodies the kind of hip blogger criticism found on websites like Gawker, Daily Beast, Jezebel, and Uproxx when they write about a place such as Louisiana, a style that exposes problems in Louisiana and portrays them as obvious absurdities from a place living up to its caricature. When Marty repeatedly tries to shut Rust up ("Let's make the car a place for silent reflection from now on"14), it serves as a check on the tendency to make glib generalizations, to be cruel with analysis, to forget that people are still there, living in the places we analyze. We might still root out the bad—Marty is, at least nominally, a cop—but temper that goal with compassion.
|True Detective's distinctive script inspired several fan memes, including True Detective Valentines (top image, http://truedectivevalentine.tumblr.com) and Time Is a Flat Circus (bottom image, http://timeisaflatcircus.tumblr.com).|
Marty is pretty much a terrible person too. After delivering a brief taxonomy of detective types ("the bully, the charmer, the surrogate dad, the man possessed by ungovernable rage"), Marty claims the following category: "I'm just a regular guy with a big ass dick."15 He is an affable jerk, the kind of detective who takes nights off to have sex with women he's "saved" on the job and takes weekends off to spend time with his family. His simplistic vision of Louisiana is where, in Marty's words, "folks enjoy community" and "a common good."16 He attempts to emotionally manipulate his much smarter wife, Maggie, played by Michelle Monaghan, the lone female regular in True Detective.17 He fails, loses his marriage and family. He deserves to. He loses Rust, who becomes vicious and obsessed when he realizes they didn't actually get all the murderers when they closed the case in 1995. But throughout, there are certain things Marty can't abide: while Rust handcuffs their lead suspect, Marty finds two children, one dead, who were clearly tortured and raped. He storms out of the cabin and puts a bullet through the handcuffed man's skull. Because the show had thus far split the narrative between 1995 and 2012, this scene is thick with dramatic irony: in killing this man (who was only part of the cabal), Marty forecloses the possibility of catching the rest of the men responsible. Instead of Clint Eastwood, we get a regular guy with an impotent sense of justice and a big gun.
Marty's misogyny is more infantilizing than hateful. While driving with Rust through a marshland of salted, dead cypress trees, Marty asks, "Do you ever wonder if you're a bad man?" Rust replies, "No, I don't wonder. The world needs bad men. We keep other bad men from the door."18 In this way, True Detective makes a case for both the rusty knife of critique and the fragility of living lives in a precarious place, even as it interprets the world as men minimalizing the collateral damage inflicted on women and children from the actions of worse men. The Manichean optimism breaks apart as the show goes on, charting the complex geographies of structural inequality, political overdetermination, and incoherent Louisiana imaginaries. And the surety of the detectives' masculine agency fragments. True Detective is built on the "women in refrigerators" trope that structures the genres it pays homage to—principally the hardboiled mystery à la Raymond Chandler and the film noir à la Double Indemnity and Chinatown. It uses women as both things-to-be-saved and erotic obstacles for the male leads, a sexism typical for much mystery/thriller-based narrative media. After years of decline and in the face of mounting evidence that everything from policework and state groundskeeping to meth and murder exists in a continuous ecology of violence and power, Marty and Rust become capable of doing only one thing right: taking out the monster made possible by all the other bad things.
|Marty and Rust, capable of doing only one thing right, from True Detective's final episode, "Form and Void," 2014. © HBO.|
Many viewers who were initially thrilled about the smartness of True Detective found the ending anticlimactic, and rightfully so. It panders to the worst stereotypes of "southerners" in cinematic history: the killer is a schizophrenic man named Errol Childress, living with his dimwitted sister-lover in a decrepit mansion full of random bullshit, keeping the body of his dead father out back, and lording over a spooky lair that was once, among other things, a fort for Confederate soldiers.19 But to rule True Detective a lousy mystery with a cheesy villain is to miss the critical work this ending does. Past their glory days, the detectives, both living secret lives of loneliness and regret, knowing that the case that made them famous was a sham, muster their lives towards the righting of a single wrong. Rust and Marty know that this righting will only stop the most spectacular edge of deeply rooted disease. True Detective's actual villain lies everywhere and nowhere, among the apparatuses of power that structure life in Louisiana. A backwater villain such as Childress is possible because of the machinations of power that lay pipe through bayous and neighborhoods and dig ship channels into estuaries, that subject the poor to living in "somebody's memory of a town," that name them, count them, and separate them. When Rust kills him, he's only killed an effigy. When Rust survives—a thing he did not want to do—he does so knowing that his actions did not alter the landscape in Louisiana. Some viewers might view the last moments (Rust says, looking at the sky, "Well, once there was just dark. You ask me, the light's winning."20) as a cheap, positive note. Yet, made possible by the anticlimactic end to the mystery plot, Rust's last lines affirm the will to survive an increasing state of disaster, to contest things held immovable or sacrosanct or inevitable by locality.
Since 2002, Louisiana has wooed filmmakers and television producers through the state's Motion Picture Tax Incentive Act, which offers a 30 percent tax credit on production expenses over $300,000 and an additional 5 percent credit on local labor.21 Because out-of-state production companies have no Louisiana tax liability, the credits can be exchanged for cash. For the most part, this use of Louisiana is either invisible or obnoxious: shows shot on stages in Shreveport or which use places in Louisiana that can stand in for anywhere, such as WGN's Salem, which is set in Massachusetts but is filmed entirely in Louisiana,22 or shows that follow people hoping to capture some version of Louisiana exoticism, such as Duck Dynasty. True Detective is an exception, one that slips through, incorporates, and critiques the official narratives of Louisiana optimism, its representation in rural poverty porn, and the flashy exposés of the state's political, economic, cultural, and medical ineptitude. It is clear to me, a Louisiana native, that the show was mostly shot on location. Novelist Nic Pizzolatto, also a native, pitched True Detective as an original concept and wrote each episode. The show provides ample evidence of his familiarity with Louisiana geography and politics.23 With the long drives on Highway 90, the boarded-up gas stations, the trailer parks, even the golf course on Chateau Boulevard in Kenner, True Detective takes full advantage of its setting, filming a Louisiana rarely found on television.
|Richard Misrach, Holy Rosary Cemetery and Dow Chemical Corporation (Union Carbide Complex), Taft, Louisiana, 1998 from Petrochemical America, photographs by Richard Misrach, Ecological Atlas by Kate Orff (Aperture, 2012). © Richard Misrach, courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York; Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco; and Marc Selwyn Gallery, Los Angeles.|
|Abandoned church from True Detective episode two, "Seeing Things," 2014. © HBO.|
The influence of Petrochemical America does not stay within the title sequence, but seeps into the story, creating a heterogeneous geography, a palimpsest Louisiana with varied, distinct meanings and genealogies. This is the surface Louisiana: pipelines munching up communities, burning canefields, government corruption, the ecstasy of truck stops full of uppers and flesh, big tent revivals in the plains of Acadiana, women who are either whores or wives, fisherman roughing it out in raised camps, serial murdering pederasts with Satanic attitudes. Typical of the way Louisiana is coded in the national imaginary: flooded by hurricanes and oil, fanatically Christian, hiding deep, dark secrets about sex. That would be the Louisiana of True Blood and Swamp People and Easy Rider. But True Detective also shows the Louisiana that is aging single men living off TV dinners and football somewhere in Metairie without loved ones, housing projects that are subject to as much banal precarity as they are to bright flashes of cruelty and sullen violence, an education system where rural children are subject to the inadequacy of state-sponsored schooling or the caprice of church- and charter-funded schools. The victims of the murder cult are largely poor children culled from far-away Christian schools and women pried from hidden brothels. If the show has a message, it is that there is systemic oppression running rampant in Louisiana, from feckless keepers of the peace to corrosive poverty, from serial killers nostalgic for the good ole days of spectacular violence to broken, paternalistic would-be heroes. This Louisiana is also different from the Louisiana of Beasts of the Southern Wild, even if both works find their foundation in the discarded and polluted. As Patricia Yaeger observes, "Beasts is a movie where debris and light vie for screen time."24 The trash in True Detective is not luminous, and the whimsy is full of terror. Light, here, is anticlimactic—as in the final battle between Marty and Rust and a killer who is less scary than the systems that make him possible. Or the light is too harsh, radiant as in radiation, threatening to scour with its illumination. Instead of exploring a fantasy of Louisiana, True Detective charts an uncanny geography. This Louisiana-of-the-shadows uneasily combines with the one mapped by Orff and Misrach, extending the cartography of Petrochemical America, mutating it into a place where pipes and roots and crosses and truck stops and abandoned schools and caves and the good life and the sad withering of imagination and bigger, national and global things are so enmeshed they flatten out into landscape, one with horizon at center, and vegetation at the fore, and ghosts and industrial equipment sewn into the sky.
About the Author
Christopher Lirette, originally from Chauvin, Louisiana, lives in Atlanta where he is in an interdisciplinary PhD program studying anthropology, cultural studies, and spatial theory. His poetry appears in Drunken Boat, The Journal, Penumbra, PANK, and The Southern Review. His prose appears in In Media Res, Art Papers, Southern Spaces, HTMLGiant, and on his website, climagiste.com.
- 1. Location information culled from various sources, including the True Detective subreddit—especially the work of aaronwanders, who made an exhaustive interactive map—and the author's geographical familiarity with Louisiana.
- 2. Duck Dynasty, a reality show about a family in the duck call industry, is not only a voyeuristic show about poor country living in Louisiana, but one whose subjects are actually wealthy, performing poverty and capitalizing on nostalgia for old-fashioned living.
- 3. Richard Misrach and Kate Orff, Petrochemical America (New York: Aperture Foundation, 2012), Plate 20, page 50. Patrick Clair, the director of the title sequence, pitched the aesthetic of Petrochemical America explicitly to HBO when presenting his vision for True Detective's opener. See Patrick Clair and Jennifer Sofio Hall, "True Detective: Opening Title Sequence Concept," (Proposal presented at the Original pitch proposal produced by Elastic.tv and Antibody for the title sequence from True Detective, March 9, 2014), http://www.scribd.com/doc/211405775/Original-Pitch-for-Title-Sequence-from-True-Detective.
- 4. Each Louisiana-based HBO depiction offers smart and problematic depictions. Treme, particularly, lovingly (and perhaps cruelly) recreates the immediate years after Katrina, from drooping ceiling fans in flooded homes to the talismanic power of normal work and local music to get through the grief. What stands out in True Detective is its uncanny evocation of southern Louisiana: a place simultaneously real and unreal.
- 5. Michelle Lanz, "'True Detective': How the opening titles came together, what they mean,'" Take Two, Southern California Public Radio (March 9, 2014), http://www.scpr.org/programs/take-two/2014/03/09/36373/hollywood-jobs-crafting-the-opening-titles-for-tru/.
- 6. Ottinger writes, "The authors are unable to present a more coherent account of what change might look like, I believe, because of an important omission from the main substance of the book: people." Gwen Ottinger, Ellen Griffith Spears, Kate Orff, and Christopher Lirette, "Petrochemical America, Petrochemical Addiction," Southern Spaces (November 26, 2013), http://southernspaces.org/2013/petrochemical-america-petrochemical-addiction.
- 7. This is one of the few photographs not part of Cancer Alley.
- 8. Misrach and Orff, Petrochemical America, Plate 17.
- 9. The media firm commissioned for the True Detective sequence, Elastic—in coproduction with Antibody—is the same one that put together the decidedly cartographic opener for HBO's Game of Thrones, a pseudo-medieval fantasy that spans a massive and intricately mapped world based on George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series.
- 10. Cary Joji Fukunaga, "The Long Bright Dark," True Detective (HBO, January 12, 2014), Episode 1.
- 11. Cary Joji Fukunaga, "Who Goes There," True Detective (HBO, January 12, 2014), Episode 4.
- 12. The projects, which diegetically seem to be in Beaumont or Houston, are actual government subsidized housing in Westwego, a suburb of New Orleans.
- 13. Cary Joji Fukunaga, "The Locked Room," True Detective (HBO, January 12, 2014), Episode 3.
- 14. Fukunaga, "The Long Bright Dark."
- 15. Ibid.
- 16. Fukunaga, "The Locked Room."
- 17. See Emily Nussbaum's scathing critique of the gender politics of True Detective: "Cool Story, Bro: The Shallow Deep Talk of 'True Detective,'" the New Yorker, March 3, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/television/2014/03/03/140303crte_television_nussbaum.
- 18. Fukunaga, "The Locked Room."
- 19. Carcosa, the lair, was shot at Fort Macomb, which was raised in 1822 and abandoned in 1871. See Ella Morton, "The Real Location of True Detective's Carcosa," Atlas Obscura, Slate, March 11, 2014, http://www.slate.com/blogs/atlas_obscura/2014/03/11/here_s_the_real_location_of_true_detective_s_carcosa.html.
- 20. Cary Joji Fukunaga, "Form and Void," True Detective (HBO, March 9, 2014), Episode 8.
- 21. Louisiana Motion Picture Tax Incentive Act, LA Revised Statutes, 47:1121; 47:1125; 47:1125.1, 1990, 2002. The attractive tax credits can be found in sections 1125 and 1125.1, which were first enacted in 2002.
- 22. Marisela Burgos, "Behind the Scenes of the New TV Show 'Salem,'" Fox59, March 14, 2014, http://fox59.com/2014/04/14/behind-the-scenes-of-the-new-tv-show-salem/.
- 23. Director Cary Fukanaga, on the other hand, is from California's Bay Area, and is known for two major films that are polar opposites in genre and tone: Jane Eyre, a film adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's 1847 bildungsroman/romance novel; and Sin Nombre, a movie about two young people trying to escape gang violence in Honduras. His upcoming projects include Beasts of No Nation about revolution in a western African country and an adaptation of Stephen King's It. Apparently he prepared for True Detective by spending time with a Louisiana homicide detective and his outlaw cousin: "True Director," Interview, June 2014, http://www.interviewmagazine.com/culture/cary-fukunaga-true-detective/.
- 24. Patricia Yaeger, "Beasts of the Southern Wild and Dirty Ecology," Southern Spaces, February 13, 2013, http://southernspaces.org/2013/beasts-southern-wild-and-dirty-ecology.