Showrunner Nic Pizzolatto explains that in True Detective, “characters exist against the backdrop of a malignant universe, and yet that universe, that world is a reflection of those characters, and they are a reflection of it. And at the end of the day, you don’t beat the world” (Bradigan).
In the first season, the Louisianan wilderness is “the third lead” (Pizzolatto names it in the 1×5 DVD commentary), and Vinci plays an equally prominent role in the second season. The show frequently cuts to aerial shots that frame different intersections of the same freeway. “There’s a certain menace they [the aerials] can impose,” explains cinematographer Nigel Bluck, and Vulture’s Adam Sternbergh notes “the menace comes from the landscape itself — the endless roadways that seem to promise progress but deliver its opposite” (“Nature of the Aerial Shot”).
Vinci’s transportation system is designed to prevent people from finding a way out. “Right now there’s so many things for me to go about the wrong way I’m losing my fucking vision,” explains Frank (2×4), and the labyrinthine aerial shots underscore his misdirection. Emphasizing the scale, complexity, and interconnectivity of the Southern California freeway, the landscape represents the state-wide web of lies the detectives will never be able to unravel—or escape from.
“For a place you hate you never really got that far away,” Athena tells her sister (1×5). Throughout the season, superimpositions convey the detectives’ imprisonment within Vinci’s web by imprinting their faces on the landscape.
Conventional aerial shots show characters driving to a new setting. But from this height, we can’t pinpoint the detectives’ car, so it’s impossible for us to ascertain the direction they’re traveling—or whether they’re even in the shot.
Instead of progressing the plot, the aerials inform character. After Paul confesses, “I just don’t know how to be. . . out in the world,” a chaotic image of entangled bridges (left column, 4th shot down) articulates his struggle to choose a direction for his life (2×4).
In the landscape portraits, crossroads are associated with trauma. Diverging roads are superimposed over Ani’s stabbing post and her mother’s figurine, and the X-ray of Ray’s fractured ribcage—which resembles an interchange—is superimposed over a construction project. These double-exposures (images of Ani’s rape, her mother’s suicide, and Ray’s mock execution) portray the fracturing effect of trauma. “Sometimes a thing happens—splits your life,” explains Frank. “There’s a before and after. I’ve got like five of ’em at this point” (2×6), because when we experience something truly horrifying, we’re forced to start a new life in order to forget.
After the Vinci Massacre subsides, a crane shot frames the intersection to signify the new path each character will be forced to take in the next episode. “The Western Book of the Dead” ends with a similar shot, pulling back to frame a hidden road along the coast and reveal that Caspere’s corpse has been placed at the diverging paths of a fork-in-the-road. In the climax of “Night Finds You,” a “Y” shaped reflection of a mysterious, prismatic light marks the spot where Frank will be (supposedly) murdered (at the point of intersection). And in the final shot of “Church in Ruins,” a whip pan follows the detectives along the new path they must choose after attending the blood-soaked orgy.
Building the world we deserve
Bluck shoots most of the aerials from 1,000 feet rather than from a typical altitude of 200-500 feet. Most films use the aerial shot to clarify space, but True Detective uses them to discombobulate the audience, carrying us to a vertiginous height that “amplifies the abstract nature of the landscape” (Sternbergh, qtd. in “Nature”).
When the network of factories, apartments, and highways is flattened onto a grid, the landscape portrait resembles a map or a schematic for a construction project.
Superimposing models over actual buildings, these two images of the simulacrum convey the idea that this world isn’t real. The creator stresses that True Detective is “fictional truth versus documentarian filmmaking” (1×4 commentary). From the beginning, the show has explored the many ways real life can feel stranger than fiction.
Season 1 explores “the hallucinatory Louisiana of the mind” (Pizzolatto, qtd. in 1×4 commentary), and season 2 navigates the dreamscape of Southern California. “What the fuck is Vinci?” asks Elvis “A city—supposedly,” answers Ray (2×1). The script often seems aware of the fact that this city is fictional.
“While there’s nothing occult in this season,” notes Pizzolatto, “I think there’s a disconcerting psychology to this world, and its characters have other kinds of uncanny reality with which to contend” (Q&A). Though the series never goes full-blown supernatural, the mystical ambiance of the aerial shots creates the sensation of floating through a dream—especially at night, when the stylized lighting makes us question the realness of what we’re seeing.
Throughout True Detective, characters build a false reality for themselves, as when Paul tells Emily he loves her, predicating their marriage on a lie (1×4). “I don’t want to live this fantasy about Chad with you anymore,” Gena tells Ray. “This fake story where we made a family has to end” (1×5).
In the visual language, the theme of questionable narratives is imprinted in the landscape. Several aerials use a conspicuously artificial palette, coloring every city light with one of two shades (white and orange, gold and turquoise, gold and blue, etc.). Invoking the aesthetics of scifi and fantasy, the show’s theatrical lighting portrays a familiar yet strangely foreign world.
The atmosphere of uncertainty is accentuated by the puddles of blackness that spread over every surface outside the range of the tiny lights. With chiaroscurro, the absence of light creates a void, so when cars pass behind a black mountain (middle column, upper two shots), it’s as if they’ve been swallowed by a formless shadow. And when there isn’t any light touching a roof, the building doesn’t appear to have an interior. Thus, many buildings (particularly in the bottom-right shot) resemble incomplete models or empty cardboard boxes. In some shots (particularly in the middle column, third shot down), the street lights only light part of the overpass, so much of the road appears unfinished. We know there’s stone and concrete below us, but it feels like we’re staring into an abyss.
The idea that these characters are building their own reality is reinforced by the rhythmic percussion. During the aerials, T Bone Burnett’s mechanized score uses found-sounds from construction sites and plastic fabrication plants (O’Donnell). Season 2 features a plot about a construction project, so the audiovisual poetry suggests a world under construction. Frank believes his life is a dream, and when the gossamer imagery hypnotizes the audience, we can empathize with his mystical perception of reality.
Journey to the stars
In spite of the pervasive dread, there’s a vague hope lingering over the story. It’s a hope for discovery—a yearning to understand human nature. Consciousness can be a horrible thing. Human beings suffer from emotions that no other creature can experience. However, as Frank tells Micky, this awareness of death can also be a gift: “If you use it right—the bad thing—you use it right and. . . it makes you– better, stronger. Gives you something most people don’t have.” And that “something” is vision. “That’s what pain does. It shows you what was on the inside. And inside of you– is pure gold” (2×6).
Like Cohle’s “light versus dark” monologue at the end of season 1, Frank’s “pure, solid gold” monologue can seem uncharacteristically sentimental (at least for several critics). However, these images are much more meaningful when we consider how they inform the mise-en-scene.
We often see an ethereal golden light igniting a factory. Vinci is “the worst air polluter in the state,” Davis informs Ani (2×2). Those towers below us are processing poisonous chemicals, but from our vantage, it’s hard not to admire the beauty of this industrial wasteland. When we float over the city at night, the colorless factories are transformed into castles made of gold and diamonds. These paradoxically serene images convey both the toxicity and beauty of the human mind.
“When you’re a child,” recalls Pizzolatto, “you’re very porous and the demarcation between your ego and the outside world is much thinner, so it tends to get inside and stay with you for the rest of your life” (Deket). True Detective explores the consequences of childhood trauma by removing this demarcation. The opening titles suggest that the scarred landscape shapes the thoughts of these vulnerable minds, and whenever a double-exposure overlaps a character’s close-up with a vista, the corporeal juxtaposition suggests that this setting exists in his or her head.
When Frank describes “something most people don’t have” that “shows you what was on the inside” (2×6), he seems to be describing the same internal voice he hears in the opening of “Night Finds You.” “Something’s tellin’ me to wake up. Like uh. . . like I’m not real. Like I’m only dreamin’.” Several other characters mention types of extrasensory vision, like Eliot—“When you see with God’s eyes, you recognize the truth of a meaningless universe” (2×1)—Mayor Chessani—“In my day it was all about consciousness expansion—tracing the unseen web” (2×2)—and Dr. Pitlor—“All kinds of secrets in the world. All kinds of truth” (2×2). All these ideas of transcendence describe a vision of reality that others cannot see—not unlike our privileged, god’s-eye view during the aerial shots.
Hence, the landscape portraits can be interpreted as visions. These images are imbued with a sense of discovery, as when director Justin Lin superimposes a distant freeway over Ani’s searching eye (2×2) and a factory over Paul’s face during his staring contest with the sky (2×1).
When Paul rides madly into the night (2×1), he’s clearly searching for something. We don’t know what it is (at least not yet); we only know it’s something in the stars. Like Cohle, Paul is obsessed with the night sky. Recalling his childhood in Alaska, Cohle explains, “I never watched a TV til I was 17, so there wasn’t much to fuckin’ do around there besides walk around, explore, and look up at the stars and make up stories” (1×8). Similarly, Paul turns down his mother’s offer to “watch a Clint movie,” opting to sit in his room and stare out the window (2×2).
As the camera pulls us closer to the night, the stars grow sharply focused. The effect recalls the final shot of “Form and Void,” where the camera follows Cohle and Marty’s gaze and points us to the sky.
If you watch closely, you’ll notice several stars coming into view. According to Pizzolatto, Cohle believes “the nature of the universe is your consciousness” (Romano), so when the universe appears to expand, the image signifies the expansion of Cohle’s mind.
The Marsh cult’s artwork portrays stars as the building blocks of matter. In the church mural (which retells the creation story from Genesis), note how the stars abruptly sprout into trees. Similarly, the charcoal drawings of the cane fields on the classroom wall and Errol’s shed depict crops made of black stars.
During Cohle’s visions, solid matter (of the highway and cavern walls) dissolves and blends into gyrating waves of light and black stars, and at the end of the Season 2 opening, glowing particles and light waves fly into a sphere. Note how the parabolic solar flare (on the right side of the bottom-right shot) resembles an interchange of several lanes converging on the same point (imitating the effect of headlights when viewed in motion). Perhaps the world of the second season is also made of stars.
When considering Cohle’s penchant for storytelling—and when considering how the world of film is made of light (see my 2×2 review and season 1 analysis for an explanation of the metanarative)—these ethereal images invoke the power of human imagination. The human mind has the capacity to create worlds; we do it every time we sleep. And if your mind has been scarred by trauma and substance abuse, you often build an abstract reality for your waking life.
These fractured detectives have a warped perception of reality, but Pizzolatto calls their condition “deranged enlightenment” (Jensen), as they’re able to envision the vast interconnectivity of the universe.
When Paul switches off his headlight, we get two POV shots separated by a reaction shot. After his eyes adjust to the darkness (in the lower shot), we’re able to see twice as many stars. The sequence suggests Paul’s enlightenment, ending with his discovery of Caspere’s body—a life-changing event that sets him on a path to discovering the sprawl of Vinci’s corruption.
Though Paul is facing the opposite direction, his POV parallels our vantage during the nighttime aerials. From the 1,000 foot altitude, every light source below us looks like a star floating in the vault of the black sky. So in a sense, Paul has gained the same air supremacy of the god’s-eye camera.