In the opening monologue of “Night Finds You,” we learn that Frank, like Cohle, realizes his world is artificial. “It’s like everything’s papier-mache,” he whispers, echoing Cohle’s description (in 1×5) of an outside vantage point from which his world would appear two-dimensional. According to Nic Pizzolatto, Cohle is referring to the point-of-view of the spectator. “Aren’t we the creatures of that higher dimension? After all, we get to see all eight episodes of his life. On a flat screen” (Romano). With the exception of a few hallucinations, everything in this world looks real, but Cohle believes he’s “nothing more than a biological puppet” who dreams about being a person (1×3). Frank also suspects that his life is fiction. “Something’s telling me to wake up, like uh– like I’m not real. Like I’m only dreaming” (2×2).
There’s no fantasy in True Detective. Everything that seems supernatural is merely the result of madness. Like Cohle, who “believes in ghosts” (1×1), Frank is clearly losing his mind, and the voice he hears is inside his head. “True Detective was never concerned with the supernatural,” explains Pizzolatto, “but it was concerned with supernatural thought” (Stepinwall). These men and women are going insane, so they experience visions that make their life feel like a dream. And because the show takes place inside their heads, this warped reality is the only world we know. In the theme song “Nevermind,” Leonard Cohen reminds us, “The story’s told, with facts and lies,” and it’s impossible for us to separate the truth from the fiction.
Secret sprawl of the jungle
“How’d that water stain get there?” asks Frank. “It rained maybe twice last year.” Suggesting a sudden spread of decay, the mysterious appearance of the water stain recalls the instantaneous overgrowth we find throughout the first season.
Figure A. 1×5 “The Secret Fate of All Life”
When Cohle returns to the Dora Lang crime scene (upper screenshot), the field has been flattened, but less than a minute later (lower shot), the crops have grown over the path he had entered. Pizzolatto explains that “the landscape is literally the third lead of the show” (Arkham), haunting the detectives by manipulating their environment. The true story isn’t just a search for a human killer; “It’s more of a manhunt for a creature out in the tall grass that you can’t see” (Pizzolatto, qtd. in “Making True Detective”). We can only find the uncanny signs of its insidious presence.
“I blocked the scenes in places where there’d be enough depth to create these multiple layers of the storytelling,” explains season 1 director Carey Fukunaga. “The lack of nature, or encroaching nature in the background somehow spoke to the conversation that was happening between the characters” (Hart). Before and after this flashback (shown above), Papania and Gilbough characterize Cohle as a killer who can’t remember his crimes. Thus, these contradicting memories inform Cohle’s predatory nature (by surrounding him with crops) and convey his broken mind’s inability to recall the truth (by creating discontinuity in the landscape).
Figure B. 1×8 “Form and Void”
Before Cohle restarts the tape of Marie Fontenot’s murder, several shots (like the middle and upper screenshot) establish the lack of trees behind the anchored boat. Then, when Cohle forces Steve to watch the ritual, a vast forest rises from the bayou (lower shot, which occurs immediately after the middle shot) as if to witness Steve’s anguish. Personified with malice and trickery, the carnivorous jungle surrounds its prey when they’re not looking. “And that is the terrible and secret fate of all life– you’re trapped” (Cohle, 1×5).
When asked about the role of the Louisianan wilderness, Mathew McConaughey’s remark suggests that these continuity errors were intentional. “I find it mysterious. It lurks. Mother Nature is the four-dimensional queen—she encroaches from every direction” (Cohen). His description recalls his character’s monologue on string theory: “Outside of our spacetime, from what would be a fourth-dimensional perspective, time wouldn’t exist” (1×5). In the void between the images—a space we can’t perceive—Mother Nature is not limited by time. When plants grow or disappear in between shots, it’s as if months or years have secretly flown by us.
Figure C. (from left to right) 1×1 “The Long Bright Dark,” 1×5 “The Secret Fate of All Life,” 1×8 “Form and Void”
In these three scenes, note the significant growth or removal of plants occurring in between shots. Also note how (in the lower row) the devil nests are replaced with bodies or other sculptures. The show’s structured discontinuity suggests that an unseen, godlike hand has been altering the landscape and rearranging the crime scenes in a dimension we can’t perceive: the interdimensional space of the cut, where time doesn’t exist (see my analysis on the occult artwork, which elaborates on the show’s patterned use of continuity errors).
“You know Carcosa?” whispers Mrs. Doris. “What is it?” asks Cohle. “Him. . . who eats time” (1×6). Throughout season 1, characters experience the feeling that “life has slipped through your fingers” (Marty, 1×5). Season 2’s cast also experience a type of temporal condensation. “You seem like you’re trying to make up for lost time,” Ani tells Ray (2×8). The memory of each lead character is littered with black holes, and the theme of lost time is conveyed whenever they suddenly find themselves in a strange environment (as in 2×6 when Ani is transported back into the woods from her childhood, and in 2×8, when Ray is transported from the LA freeway to the redwood forest from his dream; see my season 2 review).
Figure D. 2×5 “Other Lives”
The above and lower shot occur at the beginning and end of the minute-long scene.
When Ray is making collections, the courtyard’s activity grows at an exponential rate (2×5). After he threatens to evict a family, Ray turns back to the courtyard and gasps, “Jesus Christ,” while T Bone Burnett’s score chimes in with a haunting drone amidst the sound of factory machinery.
Throughout the series, overgrowth represents the entrenchment of poverty. Here, the sudden growth of plants represents the impossible rate of Vinci’s overpopulation. “This place [a city so small that other LA residents haven’t even heard of it] gets a day-to-day influx of 70,000 people,” notes Ani. “Where do they live?” (2×2) Ray doesn’t answer, because there’s no way to explain the physical laws of this nightmare.
The omniscient sentinels
In a dream, the environment is constantly changing. Typically, we don’t notice the strangeness of this phenomenon, but in rare moments, we become aware that we’re dreaming. During the show’s crime scenes, the continuity errors convey the instability of a dream. In “The Conqueror Worm,” Edgar Allen Poe’s hallmark of weird fiction, the poet writes of “Mere puppets they, who come and go/ At bidding of vast formless things/ That shift the scenery to and fro.” Disguising the same scene as a new mystery, over and over, these hidden monsters drive the characters and audience mad. True Detective is also haunted by a “phantom chased for-evermore/ by a crowd that sees it not,” and even if we don’t recognize its presence, the evidence of its manipulation (found in the discontinuity) plays an essential role in building the show’s haunting atmosphere.
Figure E. (top) 2×1 “The Western Book of the Dead,” (bottom) 2×2 “Night Finds You”
When Ray returns to Caspere’s mansion and inspects the foyer (lower shot), the skeleton statue from the basement (upper shot) has seemingly climbed to the first floor. There’s two possible explanations: Caspere could’ve owned a second skeleton, or the forensic team could’ve rearranged the crime scene. In either case, its unlikely return has a haunting affect on the viewer.
Figure F. photograph of Santa Muerte from Wikipedia
Caspere’s skeleton is a replica of “Santa Muerte” (Spanish for “Holy Death”), a folk saint who has become popular in Mexican subcultures (worshiped by the cartel in Breaking Bad). A maternal personification of death, Santa Muerte is typically depicted as an ornate skeleton. Before murdering his hostage and allowing his own execution, Amarillo screams, “¡La Madre de la Muerta me encuentra!” (translation: “The Mother of Death finds me;” 2×4), just as the Mother of Death finds Ray when he visits Caspere’s mansion.
True Detective’s otherworldly portents never confirm but rather suggest the supernatural. Occult images of fate are often personified with the ability to predict the detective’s course (like the sculptures in season 1; note how the tripod marks the spot of Reggie’s execution in figure C). When Ray pauses in front of Santa Muerte for the second time, it almost seems like the skeleton has been waiting for him to return.
Figure F. 2×2 “Night Finds You”
The raven portrait in Dr. Pitlor’s office will undoubtedly spark endless speculation as to the connection between Pitlor and Birdman. Many of the show’s fan theories have been pointless, because they attempt to reconcile an illogical plot and ignore the mathematical visual language. Don’t try to fill plot holes and find answers that aren’t there. We need to focus on the thematic connections and observe how the image appears—how the camera frames the anthropoid raven looming over Ray’s shoulder from a position that he can’t see, foreshadowing the angle of the killer’s approach.
Figure G 2×1 “The Western Book of the Dead”
In the season 1 script, production designer Alex DiGerlando explains “The devil nests are described as sort of watching over that first crime scene” (Martin). The second season also portrays statues as voyeurs. Elliot characterizes their role when explaining, “These totems watch over departed spirits.” Imbuing the simulacrum with a mysterious consciousness, True Detective explores how people often sense a supernatural presence watching them from within a religious piece of art.
A window into everything
Throughout both seasons, characters describe a metaphysical search for the secrets of their universe. “My ascension brings me above the disc and the loop,” whispers Errol. “Some mornings, I can see the infernal plain” (1×8). During his work with the “Good People” cult, Dr. Pitlor had discovered “all kinds of secrets in the world—all kinds of truth” (2×2). Looking back on his experimentation with drugs, the mayor explains, “It was all about consciousness expansion—tracing the unseen web” (2×2). And during hallucinations, Cohle feels as if he’s “mainlining the secret truth of the universe” (1×2). So far, season 2 has continued the first season’s metaphysical investigation. After all, “it’s just one story—the oldest: light versus dark” (Cohle, 1×8)—knowledge versus ignorance. In “The Locked Room,” Minister Theriot’s sermon exemplifies this struggle to understand our place in the universe.
I’m here today to talk to you about– reality. I’m here to tell you about what you already know: that this—all this—is not real. It is merely the limitations of our senses, which are meager devices. (1×3)
“True Detective is portraying a world where the weak (physically or economically) are lost, ground under by perfidious wheels that lie somewhere behind the visible” (Pizzolatto, qtd. in Aurthur). Most of the puppets are blind to the mechanisms powering their reality, but occasionally, a perceptive character is able to recognize his world as a machine.
Figure H 2×2 “Night Finds You”
“Caspere’s death is a window into everything,” explains Davis (2×2). In the plot, this metaphor is simple: solving Caspere’s murder is the key to uncovering the city’s widespread corruption. The image has much more significance in the metanarrative, where Caspere’s corpse serves as a literal window connecting two different settings (as in Figure I)—the morgue and Frank’s bedroom—carrying us from one scene to another in the same way that the image of the water stain carries Frank from his bed to his father’s basement (invoking his suspicion, “What if I’m still in that basement?”).
In the “secondary language of the script, the notion of cosmic horror becomes a very real part of the environment” (Pizzolatto, qtd. in Jensen). When Frank stares up into the water stain (upper shot), he feels the presence of something watching him. These corrosive eyes also offer him an extrasensory perspective of his universe. “That’s what that reminds me of—that water stain. Somthing’s trying to tell me that uh– it’s all papier-mache. Something’s telling me to wake up.”
Figure I 2×4 “Down Will Come”
The lower frame occurs immediately after the upper frame.
The corrosive eyes return during a graphic match linking the map of Catalyst’s poisoned land (upper shot) with a table in the Ventura club (shot from Frank’s perspective). The water rings (that also have an unknown origin, considering how he’s using a saucer) clearly remind Frank of the water stain (a connection reinforced by the same electronic gasp that plays during figure H and figure I), so he covers them up with his plate to ignore the “something” that keeps reminding him of his perpetual nightmare.
In “Night Finds You,” Frank’s expression of cosmic horror recalls the vision described by Eliot in “The Western Book of the Dead:” “When you see only with God’s eyes, you see only the truth, and you recognize a meaningless universe.” True Detective conveys this nihilistic notion whenever the noir detectives become aware of their programming. Eventually, they realize all their efforts to defend the weak have been pointless; no matter how noble their intentions, they’ll always do more harm than good, cursed to forever play the role of bad men.
Figure I 2×2 “Night Finds You,” 1×8 “Form and Void”
Every crime scene in True Detective is an exhibition of occult artwork. When he inspects the art, the detective participates in its visual story.
In the season 1 finale, Cohle and Marty “experience the chase inside Errol’s art rather than merely running past it” (DiGerlando, qtd. in Martin). “You’re going into the mind of the killer,” explains cinematographer Adam Arkapaw. “You have poetic license to do something heightened” (Patches). Once we’re inside the insane labyrinth of Carcosa, the facade of realism crumbles away, and the nightmare takes over.
The final chapter of “Night Finds You” returns us to the mind of a murderous lunatic. In a sense, Caspere’s snuff film studio represents a small-scale version of the Marsh cult fortress. In both sequences, the detectives navigate a maze of arches while the killer watches them from a hidden vantage.
Outside of Caspere’s house, a strange lantern lights up the threshold of the unreal. Note the distortion of color. Though its stained glass is painted red and green, the lantern casts distinct shades of orange, yellow, and blue on the wall and ceiling. Signifying the magic of film, this optical illusion lures Ray into the realm of dreams.
Errol and Birdman are motivated by some enigmatic purpose that involves putting on a show for an unknown, bloodthirsty audience. Each major crime scene has been shaped into a spiraling maze (DiGerlando explains in his interview with Martin), and the killer allows the detective to complete the circuit before he ends the ritual.
The hidden chamber, masks, and fake execution convey the atmosphere of a haunted house ride. Once Ray passes under the lantern, another mysterious red light seems to guide him through the rest of the maze. He finds it emanating from the window in the corner (upper half of figure K), then once he crosses the room, he turns to the adjacent corner and fixates on its reflection in the one-way mirror (lower half).
How does Ray know to check behind the mirror? Evidently, he can see through it. Note how his faint contours appear behind the translucent glass (much more pronounced when viewed in motion). This effect demonstrates Ray’s ability to see beyond the optical illusions constructing his cinematic reality. It also signifies a passage into a different dimension.
In my season 1 analysis, I posited that the finale’s image of “the void” (DiGerlando names Cohle’s vision of the universe; see Martin) analogized the lens of the camera or projector. The void shares a striking resemblance to the close-up of Papania’s camera (sharing the same palette, conical shape, concentric rings, arcs, and dots of light), and the formation of its spiraling body immitates the projection of film. Cohle’s mind, like a projector, forms images by creating light.
Cohle’s experience is not unlike the spectator’s. Film gives us a window into another universe—the sphere between reality and dreams. Clearly, he’s witnessing something beyond his spacetime. In a sense, this vision represents a breach of the fourth wall. When he discovers the machine that writes his story, it’s no wonder Cohle is willing to relinquish control.
“Night Finds You” reinforces this metacinematic interpretation with its film-within-the-film. Everything about Ray’s murder scene feels staged. “I know what happens next!” Reggie brags moments before his execution (1×5), and Birdman also seems to know what the detective will do, timing his camera to adjust its lens and start recording (lower shot) after Ray opens the door.
When Birdman enters the stage (top shot) and shoots Ray, the camera frames his perspective. True Detective frequently offers us the POV of a hidden killer and thereby suggests our culpability. We are the ones who demand the killing, after all. Pizzolatto encourages us to ask, “Is Cohle angry with his creator or with the audience that compels his creator to make him suffer for their entertainment?” (1×5 commentary)
During each crime scene, the detectives are haunted by an audience of monstrous faces. Sculptures, statues, skulls, corpses, stick figures, dolls, and masks leer at the detectives from the perimeter of the stage. These beings don’t appear alive in any individual scene, but numerous contradicting memories suggest they’re able to walk around or change shape in between shots (like the formless monolith beneath the oak tree; see my season 1 analysis). These spectral voyeurs represent the show’s viewers (the nameless “them” whose higher vantage Cohle describes in 1×5), as we also exist in a temporal dimension that the characters can’t perceive.
Figure O. 2×4 “Down Will Come”
The sentinels are associated with memory. They invoke the idea of reliving (or replaying) past lives (or roles), often reminding the characters of their dead family members. For instance, when he stands beneath the totems (in figure G), he claims, “I’ve always felt your mother among them” (2×1).
“Everybody is nobody” (1×1), so in a sense, the audience is part of this “other family” (described by Cohle and Marty throughout the first season). On the noir detective’s voyeuristic and manipulative nature, Pizzolatto explains that the filmmakers “are telling the story that this genre demands” by “looking at where these instincts begin, both in the type of men that Hart and Cohle represent—and in ourselves as an audience” (Romano).
While the camera frames her mother’s grotesque sculptures, Any personifies the sentinels as puppeteers who rewrite the detectives’ story and force them to relive the same scenes over and over. “Those moments, they stare back at you,” Ani explains while inspecting her mother’s grotesque statues. “You don’t remember them; they remember you. Turn around, there they are– staring” (2×4).
In this universe, the manhunter is hunted by something hidden in the background. Feeding off the detectives’ suffering from a higher dimension, the viewer shares the perspective of this entity. “The alligators are swimming around us, and we don’t even know that they’re there. You know why? It’s cuz we don’t see them” (Cohle, 1×6).
The carnivorous reality of the mind.
“In True Detective, the world is the crime” (Pizzolatto, qtd. in Bradigan), because in a nightmare, every element of the environment is controlled by a ruthless, unknowable demiurge. The puppet master of True Detective can never be caught; it isn’t a singular entity. “Where is he?” snarls Marty. “All around us,” intones the puppet. “Before you were born, and after you die!” (1×8)
Leonard Cohen’s theme song “Nevermind” serves as a voice for the show’s omnipresent, anonymous monster.
Figure Q 2×3 “Maybe Tomorrow”
In his opening close-up from the next episode, Ray stares directly into the camera—an unnerving spectatorial address suggesting that Ray, like Cohle, might realize who the true killers are: the viewers who demand his endless suffering.
Exploiting a panoply of stage lights, recording devices, props, and costumes, Ray and Birdman’s duel is a stylized, Tarantino-esque celebration of murder in movies. The show’s operatic crime scenes can feel out of place, as so many other scenes (particularly the quiet arguments) eschew aesthetics. It’s a jarring change in tone, but the displacement we feel is part of the story. Whenever the artifice becomes visible, the show deliberately reminds us that what we’re watching is fiction, thereby allowing us to empathize with the detectives’ suspicion that they’re not real. There’s a continuous rhythm transporting us from mundane scenes of social realism to nightmarish scenarios of fantasy enactment. In the latter, the detectives are hypnotized by the illusions, fixating on the theatrical tools like a spectator fixates on the screen.
Filmmaking practices are often part of the script (as when Cohle storyboards the case in a locked room). The climax of “Night Finds You” and “Form and Void” is the recording of a performance—a fact that Frank and Cohle slowly realize. They’re tired of being bad men, and when they realize there’s no other role they can play, they lower their gun and allow their own crucifixion.
Episode score: 10/10