Some Major Cognitive Dissonance

True Detective, June 1952

Well, here we are again as the conclusion of another season of True Detective looms nigh.

Judging from conversations and the scores registered at Rotten Tomatoes, my sentiments for this season dovetail with those of other viewers. It is neither as rich and compelling as season one nor as Byzantine as season two (and I say that as someone who liked season two). The sense of setting, so pervasive before, feels more any-town here, and the lyrical dialogue of the characters has been toned down. For me the biggest disappointment has been the drastically curtailed soundtrack, with the deep cuts of the last half century replaced by instrumental scores and Moog bass so low it shakes our television. Seriously — the site I check after every episode for the track list is crickets and tumbleweeds.

And yet the central mystery of this season is probably the strongest of the three. When you smooth out the flashbacks and flashforwards of the original McConaughey and Harrelson adventure and lay it linearly, the story is fairly straightforward. The plot of season two was completely lost among the sprawling cast of characters, which is OK because I understood writer Nic Pizzolatto was going for a Raymond Chandler type of noir and Chandler emphasized characters and language over plot. This season, with its return to S1’s rural roads and tripartite time frames, seems to be playing with our expectations of similarity, and yet after seven episodes we still don’t know the motives for the crimes committed. The trailers and opening credits inspired us to anticipate things that have yet to materialize; we thought we were buying another backwoods conspiracy involving child predators, when instead what we may be watching is a clandestine custody battle complicated by an accidental murder.

Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff are nothing short of mesmerizing but for me S3’s real standout has been Carmen Ejogo’s character Amelia. The unsure wannabe writer of the earliest frame, scribbling notes with some vague notion of collating them into a book, is replaced in the 1990s frame by a confident author receiving galleys and doing bookstore readings, inversely mirroring the decline of Ali’s character Wayne Hays as she matures and ascends to the role of superior detective. A complaint about journalism in general and true-crime writing specifically is that it preys upon the misfortunes of others, and it’s particularly galling for Amelia to be a target of that spite from her own jealous husband.

No one questions the police officer’s inquisitiveness, but writers and reporters, for all the vitriol aimed at them — especially these days — are just another kind of investigator, complete with flaws, mistakes, and fuck-ups. True-crime writers are especially relentless detectives; just ask Michelle McNamara’s widower husband. If the officer isn’t begrudged a promotion at the close of a successful case, why do we begrudge the writer her book or the reporter his news story? The answer, to paraphrase Vince Vaughn’s character from S2, is because writers often refuse to parrot back the lies we tell ourselves. When somebody else tells a narrative of events that differs from our own, it angers us.

The joy of watching True Detective is constantly readjusting, episode after episode, my ever-unfolding theories about the mystery. Sunday night I’ll probably be right about some stuff and wrong about other stuff, and because I can’t tell which will be which, I’ll also be surprised.

My Twin Peaks Summer


For someone who alleges he doesn’t watch a lot of television, I sure do post about it often. Such is life with a degree of OCD; the same logistical deftness and attention to detail is also the curse by which I cannot simply watch a TV show — I can only be obsessed by it. Thus much like the winter of 2013–2014 when True Detective‘s first season kept me sane while purchasing and renovating our current home, the revival of Twin Peaks has been a welcome distraction during what has been without a doubt the most fucked-up summer of my life.

I will answer your first and most pressing question immediately: Why has this summer been fucked up, Jackson? Well, my father died of cancer in late April, and as my mother predeceased him in 2009, it has been left to my brother and me to sell his multiple properties and close his estate. This task, however, has been impeded by the facts that (a) because of a deep denial regarding his condition my father refused to put his estate in order before he died and in some instances actually went out of his way to make our jobs more difficult; and (b) my father also had mental illness, the extent of which was unknown to me in his lifetime and only became more evident the deeper we dug his grave.

I knew my father had some eccentricities and obsessions, but in short order emptying out his house — it took four dumpsters and a shredding truck just to reach normal — melted into a never-ending stumble through the canyons of his diseased brain folds. Add to this a few lucid dreams and a handful of experiences that bordered on the supernatural and you can perhaps understand why during these past summer months David Lynch spoke to my soul.

I spent all summer shoveling my way out.

The original Twin Peaks ran in 1990–1991 when I was an underclassman in college. As I initially went to school as a film major, naturally a production by one of the gods of cinema meant I watched every episode — often more than once — allowing its mysteries and intrigues, surely and steadily, to bewitch me.

It was certainly a show of disappointments. I remember being disappointed by the revelation that Laura Palmer’s killer was a spirit named Bob, which I felt absolved the human agent of his evil — her father Leland — and blunted the crime’s seriousness. I was disappointed by how the series ended with Cooper trapped in the Black Lodge, which seemed like a massive Fuck You to the fans’ loyalty. I recall being disappointed by the redundancy of Fire Walk With Me, which failed to resolve Cooper’s story or even enlarge upon it,.

And yet I loved Twin Peaks. I loved its quirky characters and dialogue and especially its deepening mythology, a particularly American mythology which Lynch and Frost cranked up a thousand-fold in the latest series. Of course the other-world dimensions of Twin Peaks resemble gas stations and run-down motels and art-deco theaters — what else would American Hells and Heavens resemble? Of course there are numerous shots of headlights beaming down black roads, almost as if you were night driving to New Jersey to plunge once again into a ghost’s sickness. Of course there are monsters in the desert wastes of the southwest or the forests north of them; of course a road accident along a lonely stretch will be haunted by shadows and spirits. What else is out there in America except monsters? Of course evil travels through electricity and phone calls and radio waves.

As an aside, consider just a single facet of the show. Throughout the series, Evil Cooper utilized an inexplicable witchcraft with numbers, using them to confuse tracking devices or short-circuit prison alarm systems. Philip Jeffries spouted them from his teapot. Numbers affixed to telephone poles begged the viewer to ask if they were relevant.

Numbers in Twin Peaks are a kind of sorcery, just as they are in our world. Take, for example, two-factor authentication. I want to log-in to a website. I enter my password. The website sends a number to my phone number. I then enter this number into the website — which is just an IP address composed of more numbers. If I’ve performed the spell correctly, I can pass through the gate to conduct some new magic within. The machine and I parrot numbers back and forth, teapot to tulpa, to work mischief.

“You think this shit is weird, look at that guy. I know, right?”

Girded by this history of disappointment, I was prepared for last night’s finale and although like many others I did not receive the conclusion I wanted, neither do I feel much of the frustration of 1991. A doubt that nagged me all summer was whether the Good Cooper could ever return to his rightful identity; after all, over the past quarter century the Evil Cooper had committed so many murders and rapes and other crimes that it would be impossible for Good Cooper to publicly assume the persona of Dale Cooper ever again.

Lynch seems to have asked the same question. After deciding to reset the timeline so that Laura is never murdered — which Cooper obliquely announces after Bob is finally defeated — Cooper’s face overlays the screen, implying that everything from that point onward occurs only in Cooper’s head. This makes a sort of sense. By altering the past, current events will have never happened, suggesting that only the meddler himself will remember them. The experiences of the other characters will effectively become a dream — they exist solely inside the mind of he who stepped upon the butterfly.

Cooper goes ahead and changes the past, though he loses Laura in the process. Later, upon exiting the Waiting Room (or does he?), Cooper meets Diane, who perhaps due to her long hiatus outside our world is also able to remember the train of events we’ve just watched. The pair decides to start a new life together by driving into — what? A new timeline? Yet another dimension? — via Cooper’s newfound ability to move between worlds. But as he says to Diane, things might be different after they cross over. He’s right. In the new world Diane no longer feels any connection to Cooper. She leaves him and perhaps even forgets their past lives entirely to inhabit her new identity as Linda. Meanwhile Cooper — or maybe now Richard — continues his search for the Laura he lost in the woods. He too seems different after the crossing, displaying a combination of his good and evil selves. Gone is the old special agent ecstatic over a cup of coffee. This Cooper is laconic and humorless, helping waitresses in distress by shooting assholes in their feet.

Cooper finds Laura only to discover she too has a new identity, then takes her to Twin Peaks, where everything looks the same but is different. Is this the story of the little girl down the lane? Doesn’t seem to be. Rather Cooper has jumped narratives into some fresh story involving a woman named Carrie Page who may or may not have killed a guy. Diane is now Linda, Laura is now Carrie. The faces are the same but the names have been changed, the actors reassigned.

None of this bothers me. Cooper is no longer trapped; he is still out there, somewhere, driven by his goodness to right wrongs. My interpretation is that he (and maybe Diane too) has become one of the Lodge spirits we’ve seen over the years, performing actions inscrutable to observers while moving through infinity. He seems to know where the doorways between worlds lie; upon exiting the Waiting Room, his hand waving causes the red curtains to shake, allowing him egress — a trick he didn’t know 25 years ago. Cooper simply may not yet realize his new status, his new transcendence. He’s become like Philip Jeffries and Mrs. Chalfont and Mike, beings who were once people but have now become something more. Maybe this season, in the end, was an explanation of where the Lodge spirits come from.

Did I mention my mom made and collected owl artwork?

Twin Peaks fans will never receive the explanations they want just as I will never receive the explanations I want about my dad. We are left only with our interpretations of events and how we act upon them. I don’t feel like the same person I was over a year ago, before my dad’s diagnosis. Like some Biblical patriarch I’ve returned from the desert transformed, my flesh mortified, aware of a greater cosmos, of layers previously unknown. I turn around to see T-shirts discarded on the bedroom floor, I look ahead to note others, clean and unworn, still in the dresser drawer. Like Cooper I am some alloy of multiple histories.

There’s still much to do regarding my dad’s estate but I can see the end now, something that was obscured back in June and July. A major goal was to have his house — the house I grew up in — empty and listed by Labor Day, an achievement we unlocked on Saturday.

This weekend is a bookend, a closing door. The people in my life who’ve helped me through already know who they are — I’ve thanked them effusively and will continue to do so. But there’s pixels to spare for a few more. So thank you, David Lynch and Mark Frost. Thank you, Kyle MacLachlan and the hundreds of cast and crew members. Thank you Twin Peaks soundtrack. Thank you for giving me a frame of reference, for being both a book of crossword puzzles and a dictionary, for being an entertainment and an Oracle at Delphi. Thank you all for playing a part in this very strange episode of my life.

If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be New Colonia

The hubbub over Confederate has spurred Amazon to reveal that they’ve been developing a new alternate-history series of their own which likewise has its point of divergence in the 19th century:

In the back story of “Black America,” the Confederacy was defeated. But instead of enduring the painful eras of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, African-Americans received reparations. The former slaves and freedmen claimed Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, a nation known as New Colonia.

That nation has a “tumultuous and sometimes violent relationship” with the United States, which is described as both an ally and a foe.

Black utopianism? Now that’s what I’m talking about!

I have to wonder if Black America is a replacement for The Man in the High Castle, which is entering its third (and final?) season. Regardless, the possibility of independent nations occupying the geography of the real-life Lower 48 is an alt-hist concept I adore — I’ve used it more than once in my short fiction. Amazon, you had my curiosity but now you have my attention.

No Bad Ideas

Last week Variety reported that HBO is developing a replacement for Game of Thrones: a counterfactual drama wherein the Confederacy successfully seceded. Suddenly everybody has strong opinions about alternate history!

“Confederate” chronicles the events leading to the Third American Civil War. The series takes place in an alternate timeline, where the southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution. The story follows a broad swath of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone – freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.

My Twitter TL was awash in negative reactions, many of them authored by GoT fans. The sexy-time adventures of Dumblesticks the diddling dwarf? A-OK! But grays exiting the USA? NO WAY!

Wait a minute, you say. Isn’t there a popular what-if miniseries on Amazon Prime that posits an Axis victory over the US, based on an award-winning novel by Philip K. Dick that even has its own amazing album produced by Danger Mouse? Maybe HBO is trying to make a couple of Reichsmarks on the same sort of idea?

Nope! But don’t take my word for it — here’s TeenVogue, of all outlets, to piss on your Land O’Smiles:

To some, the existence of The Man in the High Castle effectively voids any initial criticisms people have regarding Confederate because they believe both shows are essentially the same. But to adopt that stance is to be woefully uneducated about the reality of how both events have been handled historically, in their nations and throughout the globe.

You see, the Germans are totally sorry for the Holocaust whereas Americans are like totally not sorry for slavery! That’s why a show such as Confederate is nicht gut! What are you, woefully uneducated? God!

To be fair, the reason why Man in the High Castle is well received and the mere suggestion of Confederate isn’t may be because the latter hits a little too close to home. After all, I’m unaware of any Nazis-win-the-war shows coming out of Germany. On the other hand, the fact that High Castle‘s point of divergence occurred more recently — there are still people alive who experienced the 1930s and 40s — suggests that familiarity isn’t the whole explanation either.

Now if you’ve just slid from the timeline where this blog is a one long string of poop emojis and you’ve never read my writing before, let me be glacially clear: the Civil War was initiated by bellicose and arrogant slave-owners for horrible, selfish, and stupid reasons. Outmanned and outindustrialized from the get-go, the Confederacy never had a chance of winning, and the fact the war lasted as long as it did is due less to any effort by the rebels than to confusion and Federal mismanagement early in the conflict.

That said, it’s certainly symptomatic of social-media’s outrage culture that the simple idea of a fictionalized southern secession drove folks to stuff the Internet’s complaint box.

Many of those instant-coffee Turtledoves seem unaware of the deep library of Civil War-based alt-hist literature already out there. How Few Remain alone spawned ten sequels. There’s Robert Conroy’s 1862. I can recommend Terry Bisson’s odd little novel, Fire on the Mountain. The most well-known is undoubtedly The Guns of the South. And most recently there’s Ben Winters’s 2016 novel Underground Airlines, nominated for several prizes. So many trees have been killed on the subject you need an entire page on Wikipedia to keep them straight, and I have to wonder if HBO, like Amazon, would be better off adapting and expanding an existing book rather than generating an IP whole cloth.

Among alt-hist writers, in fact, the what-if-the-South-seceded trope is so common it’s cliche. The first two alt-hist stories I ever wrote involved the Civil War. “Galveston” has Johnny Reb trying to enlist an independent Texas to the Lost Cause, while “Glorieta Pass” posits an underground abolitionist resistance in the post-secession territories. If those concepts sound familiar it’s because they are — I look back on those stories now and cringe at their banality. That recognition pushed me to write better stories.

But here’s the thing, a lesson that any true creative can tell you: It’s not the idea, it’s the execution. A monster terrorizing a group of people is the plot of countless schlocky horror movies but only one of those films is Jaws. For every million landscapes painted there’s The Starry Night. Every book or movie or artistic endeavor is, at it’s core, conceptually the same as something else, some other work.

Confederate hardly has a monopoly on iffiness. Hey! Wanna hear my pitch for a show about a bunch of inmates in a WW2 POW camp? It’s like The Great Escape only it’s a sitcom where the Nazis are a bunch of buffoons and the one guy goes, “I know nothing!” a lot! It’s funny because he’s fat and has a mustache! Ha ha!

And yet if you turn on TV Land or dig deep enough into your television’s channel guide, you can watch the execution of that concept right now, still in syndication years later.

The point is, it’s not so much the elevator pitch that matters, it’s how an individual work is rendered that distinguishes it. It wasn’t the ideas for my stories that stunk. It was my execution of them.

Personally I’m a hundred times more excited to watch Jordan Peele’s production of Lovecraft Country (which I reviewed here, BTW) than I am Confederate. Maybe Confederate will be terrible, in which case viewers will be sure to let HBO know. Maybe, like High Castle, it will be brilliant.

But it’s a little rich for dorks who nerd out over E.L. James-scribed Dungeon & Dragons fanfic to shut down an idea before it even steps across the drawbridge. It’s even more ignorant for some of those same people to be writers and artists. They ought to know better.

It’s All Papier-Mache

True Detective 62If 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.

In Existentialism and Human Emotions, Sartre wrote, “Man is condemned to be free,” by which he meant 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.”

True Detective 53Velcoro 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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