For the highly anticipated third season of True Detective, That Shelf and our friends at Everything is Scary are teaming up to examine the scarier elements in what we agree to be a landmark of horror television. Welcome to the True Detective Horror Diary finale.
The Hoyts did it. It wasn’t a conspiracy of menacing Cthulhu cultists or a branch of the Crooked Spiral pedophile ring from season one. It was Isabel Hoyt, the lonely heiress to a chicken fortune, struggling with depression and not receiving the treatment she needed. She dunnit. Hoyt had little Julie Purcell kidnapped and kept in a pink room underground, feeding her daily doses of lithium. That’s the answer to a thirty-five year old cold case, falsely closed twice, and covered in the bodies of the innocent.
“I have to say I’m disappointed,” says Elisa Montgomery (Sarah Gadon), an episode before the big reveal. The true crime docuseries investigator hoped Wayne Hays would corroborate her theory that the Purcell case was connected to all the Yellow King business of season one, and she’s not happy with the ambiguity. And I imagine she represents a sizeable portion of the audience in that regard. We want things, especially horrific things, to make sense because order is comfort. That’s part of why the true crime genre that Montgomery works in has become so popular in today’s self-care culture – we want to know that if we look into a night sky of violence and abuse long enough, we’ll be able to form constellations from the stars so we can navigate around the pain and suffering that claimed less fortunate souls. But True Detective is not true crime, nor is it mystery, or even an extended riff on the law enforcement procedural. It’s horror.
If there are constellations in horror’s night sky, they aren’t for us to chart. The philosophy of the genre is pessimistic and anti-human, especially where knowledge is concerned. H.P. Lovecraft, whose work is regularly alluded to in True Detective (and directly informs the themes of this season), famously wrote:
That’s the first paragraph of Call of Cthulhu, and it stands as the mission statement for cosmic horror. In terms of literary endings, it becomes manifest in many of Lovecraft’s own stories with his protagonists accepting their experiences not as an episode in their personal story, but rather something bigger, unfinished, and unconcerned with humanity. Lovecraftian investigators regularly go mad, experience bouts of amnesia, and commit suicide, in an almost natural reaction to glimpsing an indifferent world beyond their comprehension. Cthulhu ends with the narrator brooding over the fact that the titular monster lives, and will come forth from the waves ending the reign of humanity. The final line is a call for ignorance: “Let me pray that, if I do not survive this manuscript, my executors may put caution before audacity and see that it meets no other eye.”
While True Detective flirts with the paranormal, it’s really a secular riff on cosmic horror. It’s about that Lovecraftian condition of being unable to put the pieces together. Presented with two possible outcomes to the Purcell case in the season three finale, we are denied a star in our constellation of order. Our final picture of events comes out obscured thanks to Hays’ bout with memory loss (or his submission to failure, if you want to read the ending with more agency on his part). It’s a subversion of our desires as an audience wanting the comfort of knowing horrendous crimes get solved on TV. Sometimes bad things happen and we don’t know why. Sometimes justice isn’t served – the kids aren’t saved or even avenged. Sometimes the one-eyed kidnappers beg for punishment and are left unscathed. Sometimes we can’t make sense of the night sky.
That the series can regularly present a byzantine mystery to its badass procedural archetypes and have them ultimately fail, forced to accept their frailty under the strange stars of an indifferent cosmos, is a massive success for True Detective in terms of televised genre storytelling. Nic Pizzolatto and his team constantly show us failure that’s absent from TV, a world where the good guys lose, the bad guys lose, and time ticks on regardless of narrative expectation. Bad things happen, swallow up entire lives like invisible monsters, and quite often we are powerless to do anything about it. We just have to try, because we are compelled to know that which is hidden. And when that occulted information doesn’t fit into our expectations we just have to take Hays’ advice from his penultimate episode, “Do your best; learn to live with ambiguity.”
Or not. In the words of old Roland West as he gestures to the long guns adorning the one-eyed Junius Watts’ wall, “You don’t wanna live with it? Fuckin’ don’t.”