On first blush, I admit I wasn't too interested in the central concept of True Detective. It sounded like just another too-morose-for-its-own-good cop show in a sea of cop shows. Then, a couple weeks before it debuted, I read an off-hand comment about "all the Lovecraft" stuff in it, and my interest was piqued. Upon further investigation, I found that the show's creator/writer, Nic Pizzolatto, was a former professor of literature. Long have shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, and to a lesser extent Breaking Bad both prospered from and fallen victim to the more literary aspects of dramatic television. Finally, I could see that potentiality seen to its logical extension. A show written and controlled by a novelist. It was both exactly and not at all what I expected.
Sure enough, upon seeing the pilot, I read several comments comparing the show's gothic southern atmosphere to the warped, corrupted South of William Faulkner, and several others compared the show's premise to that of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Sure enough, in a recently published interview with Alan Sepinwall, Pizzolatto highlights Faulkner and Conrad as ideal companion authors for his show, in lieu of the oft mentioned (and rarely understood) The King in Yellow, a collection of short stories from the late 19th century by Robert W. Chambers that famously influenced Howard Phillips Lovecraft, he of Cthulhu fame, who in turn heavily influence such wildly disparate modern authors as Steven King and George R. R. Martin.
Pizzolatto's angst at the endless comparisons to Chambers' stories is understandable, for in all honestly, The King in Yellow isn't all that good. It's interesting, but also something of trash fiction. First off, only the first four stories in the book make any reference to the Yellow King, and only two of those, "The Repairer of Reputations," and "The Yellow Sign," hold any real similarity to the abstract, cosmic horror that Lovecraft would eventually make famous. They are, on the whole, pulp. Good pulp, to be sure, but pulp nonetheless. This is not to disparage The King in Yellow or anyone who likes it (of which, I am one), but merely to illustrate that the fate of True Detective is perhaps fitting given its inspirations. Similarly to its central characters, Rust Cohle and Marty Hart (two of the great neo-noir detective names in existence, to be sure), it seems the show's fanbase got a little too carried away in the specifics of the crime, of who, in fact, the Yellow King was, and how far his influence spread. I won't go as far as to say that they missed the point, but, well, even if Nic Pizzolatto didn't want to, he stayed faithful to the core of Chambers' story more than he did anything by Joseph Conrad or William Faulkner.
Something interesting brought about by True Detective's finale is the concept that, similarly to its literary inspirations, it ended with something of an anti-climax. Rust and Marty both survive and are ostensibly victorious, but nothing really changes. They find their man, and they kill him, but they uncovered only the tip of the Cthulhu. The rest of the conspiracy, whatever it was, remains unknown, buried by time and corruption. The climax of the show is a conversation under the stars, where Rust lets go of some of his guilt and his anger and shows, for the first time, some sense of optimism. As far as literary endings go, its a lot happier than Marlow lying to the horrible specter of Kurtz's fiance in "Heart of Darkness," Darl Bundren laughing maniacally en route to a mental facility in "As I Lay Dying," or any of the King in Yellow stories. It's even a damn sight more positive than The Sopranos' cut to black or the Wire's solemn acknowledgement that nothing ever really changes and that the Marlo Stanfields of the world will continue no matter what we do.
Where True Detective stays in line with the Chambers stories is simple: the eponymous Yellow King never makes an actual appearance. You could argue, in both stories, he does so by proxy (I was under the impression that the killer's father was the actual King, and he was simply following along in his footsteps for lack of purpose). The King's identity, purpose, and motive is not important. It is his actions that define him. In Chambers' work, the King in Yellow's main influence over the story is through a play named in his honor. The play's which is never fully reproduced in the text, is the one common theme linking the characters in the four King in Yellow stories together; upon reading the play's second act, they all go insane, and various calamities befall them. In this way, the actions of the Carcosa cult could be seen as the play, and the video tape Rust shows Marty and Sherrif Garaci are the second act: the contents remain unseen by the audience: the horrified screams of the character doing the viewing are the only evidence we receive. Both Reggie Ledoux and Errol Childress tell Rust that he is "in Carcosa" with them. The knowledge of the tape drives men insane, and Rust has long since passed the point of sanity. There is nothing they can do to hurt him in his madness and his single-minded pursuit. And yet, while he tracks his quarry through the horrifying labyrinth near the finale's conclusion, Rust is visibly afraid. Then, when Errol surprises him with a knife to the abdomen, he tells Rust that it's time to "take off his mask," echoing one of the excerpts we get in Chambers' stories.
Before getting to ahead of myself and turning this into fan-fiction, I'll conclude by saying that the primary allure of things like these is not in the answers we receive, but in the possibilities. Rust and Marty chase their demons, both personal and professional through a series of darkened shadows, and the fear that hounds the edges of their vision comes not from what they see, but what they don't. The negative spaces in the darkness in which anything could exist. The fifth episode of True Detective ended with Rust inquisitively holding up the devil's traps he found in an abandoned school. After we'd just finally had the potential of Rust being the killer laid out for us, it was meant to be a terrifying image, our favorite nihilist avenger seen in a new light, through the black stars of Carcosa and the dark, endless void of humanity's potential for evil.
"Man is the cruelest animal," posters for True Detective claimed, and where the weird, Lovecraftian horrors suggested by Yellow Kings, lost cities, and dead gods become their most frightening is not in the idea that they might exist, but in the idea of what men might do to one another in service to them. It is in perhaps this concept alone that True Detective rises past its pulpy, exposition-laden origins and stares firmly into the eyes of something beyond itself, an abyss that Kurtz recoils from in horror on his deathbed, where Darl Bundren laughs forever and tall, scarred men do unspeakable things to children in the dark, unmapped recesses of an America we thought we knew, an America that never existed and never went away.
Television is a flat circle.