Rust: I tell you Marty I been up in that room looking out those windows every night here just thinking, it’s just one story. The oldest.
Marty: What’s that?
Rust: Light versus Dark.
So concludes True Detective, reminding us that these tales of good and evil have been around forever. But it’s funny that Rust and Marty’s story is so immersed in flashbacks to the 1990s, for just around the time Dora Lange was found deer-antlered and mutilated in Louisiana, the ice-faced corpse of Laura Palmer would be washing up on the rocky banks of Twin Peaks, Washington...
David Lynch’s Twin Peaks is the television granddaddy of all super-weird crime stories. The titular duality, embodied by the infamous White and Black Lodges, is carried out by embracing hard-boiled genre tropes, but injecting them with an abnormal and overwhelmingly profound spirituality. Sound familiar?
Rust Cohle and Marty Hart are arguably the 2014 equivalent of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper and his gruff buddy, Sheriff Harry S. Truman. The dreamer and the lawman, the weirdo and the straight guy—Lynch made this detective dichotomy a primetime staple over 20 years ago. And although Nic Pizzolatto is by no means a Lynchian storyteller, True Detective owes a lot to the short-lived '90s series. Themes of existentialism, pagan naturalism, and the futility of old-fashioned Americana (in the north or the south) pervade both shows, making Pizzolatto’s efforts largely indebted to the elusive David Lynch.
But there’s a cultural distinction embedded within the two shows. You can notice in their respective opening segments just how much the times have changed since the 1990s. Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks theme, a mopey love song spiced with sultriness, opens the show atop shots of lumber, buzz saws, and the WELCOME TO TWIN PEAKS sign—all warming reminders of frontier America’s forgotten values. But then, in typical Lynch fashion, the dial is turned just a bit, to show an awfully powerful waterfall, and then the passage of water down a river, as the theme song reminds us with murky bass tones that there is much more beneath the lumber mills of hometown USA than meets the eye.
True Detective dons a more outright spooky credit sequence. Pronounced in animated double exposures, Pizzolatto uses lyrics in his opening theme, played by The Handsome Family, in their grizzly soundscape of old Creole horrors, “Far From Any Road.” It’s like the history of all American atrocities is embodied in the characters of these double exposures, as we see jarring images of upside-down crosses, strippers in red, white, and blue bikinis, spiky naked buttocks—while Lynch hides the horrors of old America within the brown river of Twin Peaks, Pizzolatto exposes his, naked and shivering in burning corn fields.
We can see the shift in culture through the series’ characters too. Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle is the oxidized, existential remains of the idealistic Agent Cooper, played by Kyle MacLachlan. Whereas in the '90s, Lynch was keen on embracing the quirky artifice of soapy television melodrama, Pizzolatto today reminds us of the post-911, post-Katrina nihilism that’s become part of our culture. Agent Cooper wakes up every morning by standing on his head, appreciating a nice cup of coffee, and discussing the Maharishi; Rust starts his day with a gulp of whiskey and a long, harrowing deduction of his eyeball-sized mirror.
Both characters welcome visions and dreamscapes into their professional investigation, but Rust’s seem unwanted, like a bad habit, as he “mainlines the secret truth of the universe” with woe. Critics of the show have pointed out that True Detective collapses under its own weight when it takes itself too seriously, and this is exactly where Lynch shines—Twin Peaks’s joy in the frivolity of genre conventions creates for a wacky, yet mystifying experience, with the serious moments becoming all the more shocking in the face of such lightheartedness.
The series are certainly not the same animal. Lynch, a former painter, runs his show like a poet, and it’s no wonder that Pizzolatto is a novelist, for his writing is taught, rigid, like a bunch of well organized case files on a bookshelf. There’s no time for fluff or goofy sidestories in True Detective’s pristine eight episode arc, as Pizzolatto seduces us to obsess over every tiny detail. And, like a good Victorian-era novel, even the names seem to resonate: Rust is decay, the post-modern man, Tuttle and Childress are goofy or otherwise child-like names that work in contrast to their maleficent nature, and Marty Hart, superbly played by Woody Harrelson, is the failure of man manifest; he’s got a good heart, but his ignorance and weakness makes him flawed.
Empiricism and ambiguity, explicit and implicit meanings: this is the essential contrast between the two shows. By adhering strictly to the meticulous, Sherlock Holmes style, True Detective becomes an obsessive, cerebral crime novel, but brings along all of the cumbersome monsters and cliches of the genre. Twin Peaks remains gleefully strange, less interested in the exact color of its killer’s ears as it is with whispers of a midget in a nightmare—but this propensity toward the super-weird annoys the main case at hand, flooding the narrative with too many over-the-top sketches and otherwise unnecessary absurdities.
You can find the essence of a film or series by its eye-of-the-duck scene. Lynch coined this phrase, referring to the way a duck’s eye will always be in the right place, no matter how it moves its head. The death and farewell of Leland Palmer is Twin Peaks’s greatest sequence, it makes a landmark of Lynch’s series, it’s his eye-of-the-duck.
Here we see all of the genre tropes come colliding together: the melodrama soars, with Ray Wise overacting to his most garish; Cooper’s spiritual quirkiness becomes finally merited, as he puts his transcendental teachings to good use; and as the fire alarm sprinklers baptize this possessed man back into holiness, we see that Lynch has just been toying with us this entire time, waiting for this one moment of truth to pull the rug out. After this crucial scene, Twin Peaks becomes legendary, it becomes the work of a world-class auteur, someone with a world of darkness in him, but a caring, gentle touch, with the ability to bust our minds and break our hearts in the process.
Now that True Detective’s Rust and Hart arc has come full circle, we can look back and consider, what was it all about? Where was the eye-of-the-duck? Was it in the detectives’ bareknuckled brawl in the parking lot, as Rust allowed himself to be punished to bits? Or should it be the 7-minute one-take sprawl through the drug slums, an achievement of direction, cinematography, and suspense? For me, the eye-of-the-duck is the “monster at the end of the dream.”
Though not a series-ending explosion, Pizzolatto’s overtly dramatic tone becomes fully-realized here, as he shows the true horror of human existence: our futile dreams of having meaning. In sharp, yet romantic mumbles, Rust tells us that by seeing the dead eyes of those lost children, we may see the meaninglessness of our existence. He says that it all was just “a dream that you had inside a locked room. A dream about being a person.”
But, what makes this scene so spellbinding, what makes it the eye-of-the-duck, is the unexpected reveal of the villain. Pizzolatto utilizes the genre trope of the “monster reveal,” but does so in a self-admitting fashion, as Cohle remarks “and like most dreams, there was a monster at the end of it.” Reggie Ledoux, the ghastly villain, romps out of the weeds like a white banshee, he dons an insectoid gas mask and a white jockstrap, and we see what Rust has been trying to point out this entire time: mankind is silly, nonsensical, and sometimes downright disturbing. Storytelling itself becomes thematically relevant here, for as Rust tells us that human identity is just a story we’ve created for ourselves, we’re shown the images to prove it, with the machete-bearing wretch manifesting that nightmare that we’ve named “reality.” Pizzolatto challenges us with non-reliable narration, dreadful human sins, and grotesque man-made visions, as if to ask, is any of this really real?
True Detective sinks its razor-sharp teeth into crime genre, and it doesn’t laugh at it. Other shows try to reinvent the source, and though a lot of what’s wrong with the series lies in its refusal to self-reflect, this ballsy acceptance of convention is also what makes it so right, too. Pizzolatto knows the subject matter he’s working with, and instead of denying it, he demands we seep deep into it. The swinging gas mask proboscis of Reggie Ledoux’s tattered visage is not something we’ll soon forget.
Perhaps the spirits of Dora Lange and Laura Palmer are peaceful together, in the everlasting White Lodge known to the Louisiana cultists as Carcosa. Rust Cohle and Dale Cooper are creatures of the same ilk, they’re walking the same path, fighting the same fight that’s as old as time: light vs. dark. In the gruesome Twin Peaks finale, we may believe that the darkness is slowly overtaking that wooded town in Washington, that BOB and his demon friends are blotting out the light once and for all. But, as the backwards words of Laura Palmer tell us, “I’ll see you in 25 years”—the time is ripe for Agent Cooper to break out of that red-draped purgatory, and join alongside the now optimistic Rust Cohle in the fight for good. Who knows, perhaps we’ll get another glance at the quirky detective, as there’ve been rumors that Lynch and company are out shooting once again, with the Blu-Ray release looming above us…