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True Detective season 2: Is everything really just a dream?

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Lacey Terrell

So there might be an orgy on True Detective this week. Yayyyyy? The prospect gets a rise out of me (in a good way) and makes me groan (in a bad way). This season, a strange and sluggish affair about flagging fortune and flaccid heroism has had some performance issues, in more ways than one. I’ve been limping along with this dysfunctional saga, especially in recent weeks, so anything it can do to get my blood pumping would be welcome. Sensationalistic sex is a cheap and easy ploy, but hey: I’m easy. On the other hand, recent hot and heavy set pieces — the Vinci massacre; Paul Woodrugh’s fire-breathing rant against his mother (“You f—ing poisoned… [epic pause] … COOZE!”) — have been dry humps of empty, even laughable spectacle. An orgy? I hope for meaningful titillation. I’m bracing for something so ridiculous that it will generate a Sharknado-magnitude storm of Twitter snark. I got dibs on a “blue balls” pun! I’ll leave the handcuffs and girth jokes for you.

And yet! And yet, I must thank the Internets for spoiling (?) the news of this possible impending orgy, for it has pushed my buttons and has yielded some new thinking about True Detective. The reporting I’ve read has made comparisons to the 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut, famous for being director Stanley Kubrick’s last film, an omen of the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman uncoupling, and for a sequence depicting a hokey-pokey of ritualistic sex in which the raunchiest bits were digitally dashed to avoid an NC-17 rating. I can see why folks on the True Detective beat are making the link. In the film, Cruise’s character infiltrates an invitation-only bacchanal at a country mansion in which rich, powerful people wear masks and screw prostitutes or watch prostitutes screw each other. Last week on True Detective, the ongoing investigation into a murder mystery involving masked kink and upper crust decadence took us to the site of a high society sex party, a posh cabin in the woods. Det. Ani Bezzerides resolved to infiltrate the next meeting of this bawdy Bohemian Club by posing as an escort. HBO’s teasers, it appears she’ll execute that mission in the next episode.

But there was more to Eyes Wide Shut than a black mass booty call. It was a peculiar and flawed but totally watchable and intellectually fascinating film, not as bad everyone says, but far from Kubrick’s best, including Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and The Shining. (But totally better than Barry Lyndon!) It disappoints the way True Detective season 2 disappoints: It sucks for not being awesome. Indeed, the more you compare TDs2 to EWS the more we see the former more clearly. Kubrick’s dream space odyssey — an ambitiously sly meditation on intimacy, fidelity, the act of seeing, prostitution as a metaphor, and a million other things — is about a well-mannered, tightly-controlled successful doctor (Cruise) who learns his wife (Kidman, then married to Cruise) has a randy imagination that has nothing to do with him (You sleep with other men!? In your fantasies and dreams!? You effing poisoned… [epic pause] … hypothetical cheater!) and sets out on a strange anti-heroic quest to get even by committing actual adultery. You could call it — to paraphrase from that suspiciously gabby photographer in episode 3 of True Detective — a collapse of marriage revenge flick.

In Eyes Wide Shut, Cruise’s journey into darkness tempted his worse self and ultimately precipitated a moral awakening. He acquires eyes to hollowness and corruption behind the façade of refinement and goodness — in himself; in his rich and powerful friends; in his consumerist, faux religious culture — and finds the courage to confess, atone, and maybe change. He gets answers to mysteries but none of them are satisfying, and they may all be lies. But he doubles down on making better what he knows to be real: Himself, his marriage, his child. Physician, heal thyself!

In True Detective, Ani’s descent into the sexual underworld could be fraught with similar peril and opportunity for self-knowledge. If you’ve watched the watched the show, you know that an increasing number of coincidences have accumulated around her. Every suspect in the Benjamin Caspere murder case is linked to her father, a New Age guru who runs a retreat center, and to her painful past, a childhood spent in a counter culture commune, known as The Good People. Since the premiere, she’s been investigating another matter also linked to her father, the mystery of a missing maid, and last week, we learned that, yes, missing maid is also linked to the Caspere case. Making all of this even more absurd is that Ani has barely blinked at these personal connections; you might say she’s “eyes wide shut” to them. Detective, investigate thyself!

But I suspect she’s cruising toward some rude, maybe lewd enlightenment, provided she can survive the temptations and terrors to come. This moment of truth has been telegraphed for weeks. A key scene in episode 2 winked at Ani’s sexual demons, symbolically illustrated her willful ignorance toward her issues and her past, and even foreshadowed her forthcoming sex party masquerade. It was the moment when Ani’s partner, Elvis, called to tell her that he had tracked down the missing maid’s last known whereabouts: Guerneville — the same small California town where she was raised among The Good People. Ani didn’t acknowledge the coincidence. She hustled Elvis off the phone so she could get back to what she’d been doing: Drinking scotch and watching porn on her computer. (She linked to the video via an escort service website.) We exited the scene with a close-up on her voyeuristic eyes, the hardcore on her screen reflecting on her pupils. The whole not-so-subtle subtext of this scene: Wake up, Ani! You got issues!

Ani hasn’t been the only character suffering from Eyes Wide Shut-itus this season. All of our detectives are control freak intimacy dodgers living in conscious denial of truths that freak them out, that need to be felt, accepted, and internalized, for their sake and the sake of others. They prefer running away to confrontation, masks over bareness. Tightly wound Paul Woodrugh refuses to deal with his homosexuality and has jumped into a marriage with a pregnant girlfriend, a woman he doesn’t love, as a means of suppressing his authentic self further. Ray Velcoro relationship to fatherhood is analogous Paul’s relationship to heterosexual sexual identity: It’s a selfish, self-destructive redemption scheme that he executes poorly, for a chaotic life that shames him. His dadness might even be as bogus as Paul’s straightness: Ray lives in fear of taking a paternity test that might prove that a rapist sired Chad, not him. But even if he is Chad’s father, Ray needs what everyone needs on this show: A Pauline conversion.

Eyes Wide Shut is an instructive lens for examining True Detective’s storytelling and structure, too. Kubrick’s film was adapted from a 1926 novella by Arthur Schnitzler entitled Traumnovelle, or Rhapsody: A Dream Novel. There’s a knowingly dream-like quality to the movie that begs us to wonder if the story itself is a dream. The question doesn’t invalidate the drama, because it’s irrelevant to the Cruise character or what’s at stake in his marriage: What matters is that he is having an authentic though mysterious emotional experience that points to truths he must confront.

True Detective has traumnovelle written ironically all over it, beginning with a theme song, “Nevermind,” Leonard Cohen’s mesmeric grumble about the eyes wide shutty practice of paradoxically knowing yet denying hard, painful truths about cultural and personal history. (Maybe it’s just six weeks of staring at Ray’s bolo tie and all the other Western motifs in the show, but I keep waiting for True Detective to turn into a more explicit critique of How The West Was Really Won. Maybe we’ll learn that Vinci, a former Deadwood-type town, was built atop site of an Indian massacre. Or maybe that’s implied, like The Shining? All them Kubrick movies run together. Like a dream!) The mix of gritty and heightened reality — the broadly drawn characters, the symbolic and surreal touches, the ripe, sometimes ridiculous language, the masked nightmare creatures like The Birdman and The Noh Man, and all of Ani’s unchallenged meaningful coincidences, or what Jung would call synchronicities — give this narrative a dream story quality. The nightmarish opening credit sequence — a fluid montage of layered images, creating visual metaphors for people dense with secrets, vision impaired by peculiar worldviews — has become a contextual clue, and not just because the lyrics hint at a story “told with facts and lies.” It’s been changing on us every week, shuffling stanzas or swapping out sets of verses for others; a recurring yet protean dream.

Contributing to the season’s unreal vibe are the explicit and implicit meta-textual bits of business. Detective Ray Velcoro and his ex-detective dad watching Detective Story. Literary references like Carlos Castaneda’s A Separate Reality. The Hollywood film crew that’s shooting that “collapse of civilization revenge flick” in the wastelands of corrupt Vinci. They remind us we’re watching a show, a fiction, the same way we’re often aware that we’re dreaming while we’re dreaming.

NEXT: Another way True Detective gives us pop culture déjà vu [pagebreak]

There’s also the way in which True Detective gives us pop culture déjà vu: As I write these words, True Detective fans are buzzing about the specific and superficial similarities between this season and James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet novels, most specifically, The Big Nowhere. Given that we’re dealing with a story that has named a character after A.I. Bezzerides, famed film noir screenwriter (Kiss Me Deadly), we should consider this is intentional, that True Detective is some clever-clever, self-aware A.I., a pastiche of pulp influences.

Consider Ray Velcoro’s episode 3 dream sequence — which many felt was a deliberate nod to dream logic auteur David Lynch (Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive) — as an explanatory code key. The sequence had a Conway Twitty impersonator lip-synching “The Rose,” a song about the death and resurrection love, self, and, uh, a flower.  We came to realize Twitty’s song was playing on the radio in the room where Ray was laying unconscious. True Detective is.. an homage act lip-synching cover songs? A story with other stories stuck in its head? Is this intentional? Or does Nic Pizzolatto write with eyes wide shut? The Big Nowhere begins with a quote from Joseph Conrad’s A Heart of Darkness. “It was written that I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice.” Maybe True Detective is just really loyal to its favorite pop culture nightmares. At the very least, I think we can assume that True Detective likes messing with our heads.

I contend that True Detective was flagging us to its dream story nature in the first shot of the season’s first episode. That shot, if you recall, was a fleeting non sequitur: A field lined with white stakes topped with pink ribbons, a sign warning of contaminated land. The past two episodes finally got around to revisiting and revealing the significance of the image. We learned that Frank Semyon dumped chemical waste on tracts of land throughout California in order to drive down their value, part of grand conspiracy that would help him get super-rich, create legacy, and (ironically; in his mind) go legit. What does this have to do with dream theory? The name of Frank’s company: Archeron Waste Management. “Archeron” is so very close to “Acheron.” Acheron is the name of a river in Greece, and in Greek mythology, it is the name of a river in Hell.

Now, “river in hell” certainly befits a season in which a light rail project running the length of California — a high tech Mississippi — is crucial to the plot and a story that’s all wet with motifs of decay and rot. This Place Is Death! However, the Acheron River in Hades had special properties. It healed. Refreshed. Cleansed and purged sins. “Archeron waste management” = Frank’s arch, devilish scheme to redeem his dead-end don’t-call-him-a-gangster gangster life and manufacture a legacy project that gives him a sense of immortality, that assuages his I-see-rot-stains-everywhere mortality angst. But Acheron has another meaning, courtesy of Sigmund Freud. For him, Acheron = the subconscious. From this perspective, the opening shot of the season doesn’t just depict a poisoned field, and it doesn’t just represent Frank’s ironic field of dreams, and it doesn’t just sum up True Detective’s critique of the myth of the American west as a land of reinvention. That image was warning us of psychomythic narrative terrain, and possibly, a dream itself. Abandon hope of reliable narration, all ye viewers.

Another scene in the premiere makes more sense in light of dream logic theory. It was the climactic, incredible synchronicity in an episode full of them, although translated through the traumnovelle decoder, it reads as a descent into a nocturnal odyssey into irrational, surreal psycho-space. It began with Paul Woodrugh making like the Cruise character in Eyes Wide Shut and running away from a troubling, intimate encounter with his significant other, the capper to a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day that has pushed all his identity crisis triggers. Raging with despair and perhaps death wish desire, Paul hopped on his motorcycle and raced the treacherous curves of PCH in the dead of night. He killed the headlight, and for a few seconds, he was roaring blind in the dark. Full speed on the lost highway, eyes wide shut. He was barreling toward annihilation… and then he chickened out. He turned on the headlight and skidded into turnout. He shut his eyes — epic pause — and cursed himself. When he opened them up again, raised his head, and saw something, something lit up by that shining headlight, his metaphorical third eye: The corpse of Ben Caspere, sitting on a bench at a highway overlook, facing the ocean, wearing sunglasses (at night!), a ghoul just waiting on Charon to ferry him down the Acheron. Paul reached for those sunglasses and started to pulled them off, then put them right back on. Was he spooked by a glimpse of Caspere’s burned out, empty sockets? Or did he chicken out and deny himself the revelation, choosing to remain blinkered to what was hidden behind those blinders? (He’s Dying Astronaut Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey, opting not to touch the scary monolith. Coward! No Star Child transformation for you!) Anyway, behold Ben Caspere, a dark monument to Paul’s somnambulant, dead-inside condition. Wake up, Dead Man! (You, Paul. Not Caspere.) And with that, True Detective’s sleep of reason season began in earnest.

To be clear, I’m not saying that True Detective is well-executed pulp surrealism. This blah blah blah represents one more attempt to make sense of a season that has often eluded my cognitive grasp and left me grumpy. Just like a dream! I wouldn’t be surprised if True Detective gets more aggressive with the dream story stuff, especially if there’s a symmetrical design to this 8-episode season. Episode 5 mirrored episode 1, rebooting character arcs and repeating, with some variation, narrative movements in the first half of the season. Ani’s impending sex party infiltration in episode 6 would mirror Ray’s infiltration of Caspere’s Hollywood sex party house in episode 2, an ill-fated adventure that nearly cost him his life and sent him into a metaphorical limbo: The dream sequence of episode 3 — the catalyst for Ray’s subsequent upward spiraling improvement. Perhaps episode 7 will give us another purgatorial idle that launches them toward an endgame that resembles the mad, cynical, anti-heroic denouement of episode 4, or more likely, corrects it, even just a little bit. A qualified happy ending? A painful, uncertain but hopeful movement toward a new era of redemptive truth, justice, and self-awareness? Why not? It happened in Eyes Wide Shut. And after all, the whole point of a dream story is waking up.  

A batty theory about the murder of Benjamin Caspere

DC Comics

 

Check out those masks. Look familiar? They do to me. The white masks — contoured to effect avian features — resemble the Noh mask worn by the mystery man who led Ani and Ray on a deadly chase through Vinci wastelands. The hooded birdman in the middle evokes the gun-toting birdman that blasted Ray with buckshot. You are looking at The Council of Owls, a secret society that indwells the Vinci-esque sprawl of Gotham City, roost to one dark knight protectorate, The Batman. The white masks lead this cloistered cabal. Birdman — please, call him Talon — serves as their muscle. They lurk within rooms secreted throughout the architecture of Gotham. They’ve been running and ruining the joint for centuries. Once upon a time, Bruce Wayne wondered if they were responsible for murdering his parents, but he gave up the hunt. These Owls, he thought, were but mythical bogeymen. In the storyline that proved him wrong, The Council dragged Batman into the underneath and trapped him in a labyrinth and physically and psychically tortured to the point where he thought he was hallucinating or dead. Very Frank Semyon. The Council then killed Batman, and D.C Comics stopped publishing Batman comics, The End. Psych! Batman got his guano together and rose anew, settling scores and getting catharsis for old issues along the way, only to fight them again and again and again, because that’s the way they do it on Planet Batman. It never ends. Never. Ends. An eternal recurrence of meaningless nihilism, futile struggle, and franchise feeding. Kinda like living in Vinci. When oh when will someone break this flat, abysmal, billion-dollar-a-year circle? 

Anyway: I don’t think True Detective is really ripping off Batman comics, because as we all know, it’s actually ripping off The Big Nowhere. While the masks are conceptually similar, there are many important differences. A feathery, full-on bird head for Birdman; red markings on the white mask of that firebombing anarchist joker. And while True Detective does give us sinister cabals and secret societies, I don’t think this season’s league of shadows is in cahoots with the show’s baddies. On the contrary: I think they think they’re the good guys.

I’ve had many different theories about Caspere’s murder, from the nutty (Caspere’s corpse isn’t Caspere, but a doppelganger made to look like Caspere by Dr. Hugo Strange… er, Dr. Pitlor, aka Evil Rick Springfield) to reasonable. Back in my recap of episode 3, I speculated that Caspere was part of a crew of blackmailers, and he blackmailed the wrong guy/people, and said guy/people killed him and turned him into a grotesque warning to his accomplices. The latter conjecture — which fits with the narrative Dr. Pitlor spilled to Ray last week — addresses a bit of business that I think all armchair detectives trying to crack the case must account for. Somebody wanted Caspere’s body found. They even left his fully-loaded wallet on his lap. If they didn’t want Caspere discovered and I.D.’d, then that’s some seriously sloppy criminal waste disposal. Frank Semyon would not approve.

I keep coming back to a different possibility: That Caspere’s killers were hoping to set in motion an inquiry into his occult schemes, expose all the corrupt folks connected to him, and bring down Vinci. The conspiracy of masks trying to break that flat, abysmal, billion-dollar circle, by any means necessary. Even murder. I keep wondering if True Detective was giving us a clue in episode 2 when Paul’s creepy-flirty, don’t-call-me-mother mom invited the hunky motorcycle cop to stay the night and watch a “Clint mooooooovie” with her. Now, Clint Eastwood’s second Dirty Harry flick, Magnum Force, had him investigating murders that turned out to be perpetrated by a squad of renegade police officers, practicing their idea of modern day frontier justice. Chief among them: a motorcycle cop.

So I’m thinking our corps of true detectives is hunting a bunch of hard core vigilantes — buggy watchmen, hunting buggier watchmen than themselves. So who’s part of this Magnum Force? I say it includes Mayor Chessani’s daughter — ashamed of her “bad man” father; furious over her psychological destruction and ultimate suicide — and the suspiciously gabby set photographer working that “collapse of civilization revenge flick.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Chessani’s son, Tony, was part of this club. Dr. Pitlor told Ray last week that Tony was throwing sex parties for the rich and powerful so he could blackmail them into supporting his political ambitions. Maybe. Or maybe he’s collecting dirt on bad people to coerce them toward righteousness? And maybe killing Caspere was their way of telling people what would happen to them if they didn’t curb their wicked ways? It’s the children of Vinci taking on the sins of their fathers and trying to clean up the world they’ve fouled with their greedy evil.

Still, I don’t think these kids are smart enough to mastermind this mission. Which is why I think their true leader is the man who knows where all the bodies are buried, because he knows all the bad men in this story, because I think once upon a time, he was one of them, too: Ani’s father, enlightenment guru Elliot Bezzerides. He really is trying to bring a New Age to the fallen west, and with sick, cynical, masked magnum force. Consider their scheme… a collapse of Vinci revenge flick.

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