If Twitter is any metric, viewers have been struggling with this season of HBO’s True Detective. I discovered the show halfway through its first season and was immediately ensorcelled by its reinvention of pulp luridness into a contemporary setting: writer Nic Pizzolatto had stripped the genre of its fedoras and ratatat James Cagney patter but retained the outré crimes, dysfunctional protagonists, and hardboiled dialogue — this last refashioned from purple Chandler metaphors into philosophical, albeit sometimes plagiarized, poesy. It seems much of the disappointment stems from wanting a repeat of season 1, wherein Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson prowled the landscape of a Southern Gothic, uncovering decadent families involved in ancient conspiracies. But rather than retread the tires of the old Dodge Charger, Pizzolatto has damned his S2 characters to the wasteland of the California noir, where the politicans are crooked, the dames dangerous, and the cast of characters byzantine. This in particular seems to confound the Tweeple, though so far all of the chauffeurs have been accounted for. Some people can’t handle the deep trip.
Upon landing, film noir so reverberated on Gallic shores that it was the French who christened the genre; and Albert Camus deliberately wrote the first half of The Stranger in what he called “the American style,” perhaps best exemplified by Hemingway’s “The Killers.” Noir reflected an existential awakening on two separate landmasses. We are taught in school that existentialism was a Continental movement of the 1940s and 50s, and so it’s strange to think of noir as an expression of an American variety. But as George Cotkin argues in his book Existential America, the official canon of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, et al. was selected by American academics smitten with postwar Europhilia who deliberately ignored a homegrown strain reaching at least as far back as Hawthorne and Melville. “Existence precedes essence,” quoth Sartre, by which he meant there is no such thing as destiny, that God has no plan for us; we are born and proceed to invent ourselves by the millions of choices we make during our lifetimes. But noir — both the cinematic and the literary kinds — had been saying a similar thing long before Sartre formalized it.
“Man is condemned to be free,” Sartre wrote in Existentialism and Human Emotions. We are brought into the world without our permission, free to do anything we want, unrestrained by determinism or “a fixed and given human nature.” This, our universe, is not so different from the amoral dimension of noir, where there is no afterlife to punish crimes or reward good deeds — the only law is what you get away with. One of these worlds might have more chiaroscuro than the other, but in both we are free to murder our husbands for the insurance money, just as in both we are free to become fraud investigators and bring murderers before juries. We decide.
In a very tense opening to a recent True Detective episode, detective Ray Velcoro (played by Colin Farrell) confronts gangster boss Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) over whether Semyon knew the name of a man he had given to Velcoro — a man Velcoro believed to have raped his wife and whom Velcoro subsequently killed in vengeance — was, in fact, not the name of the actual rapist. Velcoro accuses Semyon of manipulating him into the murder to gain leverage over a cop. Semyon replies:
I didn’t get you to do anything. I gave you a name and you made your choice. And that choice was in you before your wife or any of this other stuff. It was always there, waiting.
There was no coercion or con; Velcoro had already chosen to be the kind of man who prefers vigilantism over the justice system: his wife’s rape just gave him an outlet to express it. “And didn’t you use that man to be what you were always waiting to become?” Semyon asks. We don’t need to actually visit the African savannah to know whether we will shoot the endangered lion; we’ve already chosen beforehand to be big-game hunters or not to be big-game hunters. “The existentialist does not believe in the power of passion,” Sartre added. “He will never agree that a sweeping passion is a ravaging torrent which fatally leads a man to certain acts and is therefore an excuse.”
Velcoro later tells his partner-in-investigation Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) that he’s a bad man. This isn’t exactly true; though he has done bad things, it’s after his confrontation with Semyon that he begins living authentically — he realizes he is responsible for his choices, which can no longer be foisted onto Semyon or circumstances. He sacrifices his custodial rights to preserve his son’s well-being; he refuses to take advantage of a drugged Bezzerides. Velcoro chooses to do good. The same can’t be said of Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), whose terror at being outed as the closeted homosexual he is ends up getting him shot. “You’d just been honest about who you are, nobody’d be able to run you,” Woodrugh’s lover and blackmailer tells him. Inauthenticity can leave you dead on the pavement as the end credits roll.
I have no idea how it will fall out in Sunday night’s finale; I have two competing theories of whodunnit. Afterwards I will miss Pizzolatto’s wonderfully overwritten dialogue and my Monday mornings will be robbed of the mp3 shopping by which I recreate T Bone Burnett’s moody soundtrack. I will just have to sit back and wait for the flat circle of time to revolve to season 3.
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