Congratulations! If you’re anything like me, you heard about how great this True Detective show was halfway through its 8-episode run. Like any rational person, you then marathoned a bunch of episodes to get caught up. You’re now ready for the season finale on Sunday.
Or are you?
Before we all gather ’round to watch what fate befalls Rust and Marty, let’s take a stroll down the weird mythos underpinning the series — Carcosa and the King in Yellow. Since I have some expertise on the source material, I figured it was the perfect time to put that knowledge to work. (While other folks were getting marketable degrees, I was comparing the meta-narrative structures of Robert W. Chambers and Luigi Pirandello. I’m not exaggerating; that was a project for my graduate Modernist Theatre class.)
Here are five things you’ll want to have rattling around the back of your brain when the chords of “Far From Any Road” kick up Sunday night for the last time this season (minor spoilers, naturally). And we’re going to start with the big one:
We may not discover “who” the Yellow King is
A lot of the speculation about the show is focused on who might be the Yellow King. To wit: a spoof “we figured it out” video went viral this week, where the videos creator superimposed a dude into a bunch of scenes from True Detective – a dude painted all yellow and wearing a crown. I’d link to it, but my eyes rolled so hard I damn near went blind. I’d rather just rickroll you and save us both some sanity.
I’m willing to bet we won’t discover “who” the Yellow King is. In fact, depending on how this show handles the Carcosa mythos, the Yellow King likely won’t be a “who.” Not in the living, breathing, dude-in-a-yellow-robe kind of way. To explain what I mean, we need to look at the literature behind Carcosa and the King, and a god/being/concept known as Hastur.
The mythos behind these names & places started with Ambrose Bierce and Robert W. Chambers, was filtered through H.P. Lovecraft and his circle, and has gone off in a million different directions since that time. But if I had to give a definition of the core concept behind Hastur, Carcosa, and the King in Yellow, it would be this one:
Hastur is the force of entropy: it is the cosmic principle which destroys order. … It breaks things down not from without, but from within. Its force is sublimely subtle. In practice, Hastur’s primary area of operation is the human mind: the manifold subtleties of thoughts and chemicals that comprise our personalities are the fields in which Hastur is at play. — “The Hastur Mythos,” by John Tynes, from Delta Green: Countdown
The Yellow King and Carcosa represent social entropy, things falling apart, boundaries collapsing, and the inability to sort out reality from fantasy. It’s a bit philosophical and right up Rust Cohle’s alley (more on that in a second), so here’s a comparison:
The Christian faith plays a big role in True Detective. At the top of the Christian faith is God, an unknowable and omnipresent being. He is beyond human comprehension; holy men do try and provide some definition, including the simple statement from the apostle John: “God is love.” We do not interact with God directly, but through His only son, Jesus Christ. In this way, we know about God and Heaven through His earthly representative, Jesus. Once upon a time, Jesus was a mortal man, a human of flesh and blood, but has since transcended death to become more than human. Followers of these faiths preach the word of a book (the Bible), and have symbols that are focal points of their faith, such as the cross or the fish.
Now try this:
The Hastur (King in Yellow) mythos also plays a big role in True Detective. Hastur is an unknowable and omnipresent concept. He is beyond human comprehension, but is understood as the representation of social entropy. We do not interact with Hastur directly, but through his avatar, the King in Yellow. In this way, we know about Hastur and Carcosa through his earthly representative, the Yellow King. Once upon a time, the King may have a mortal man, a human of flesh and blood, but has since transcended death to become more than human. Followers of this mythos infect others with the words of a book (“The King in Yellow,” a play), and have symbols that are focal points of their belief, such as the spiral or the devil’s nets.
It’s not a coincidence that the influence of the Yellow King has permeated Louisiana behind a veneer of Christianity – cults (or new religions, or new sects) don’t flourish by introducing you to gibberish. They take your existing understanding and simply twist it into a new direction. They break order down from within, not without.
Just as stories around Christian faith don’t always have a cameo by Jesus, True Detective may not have a cameo by the Yellow King. Despite the absence, though, both are highly influential to the men and women in the series’ narrative. And the Yellow King might have more influence over Rust than we know. In fact…
Rust is primed for Carcosa
Rust Cohle is one of the heroes of True Detective, even though his worldview seems far more nihilistic than we might expect from a hero. Indeed, his words tend to paint him as someone who sounds a lot like killers and cultists lurking in the bayou. The interrogating detectives from 2012 reinforce this tendency with their belief that Rust is a person of interest. Also recall that Ledoux seems to ‘recognize’ Rust, and Ledoux’s associate (Dewall) looks at Rust and flatly states, “There’s a shadow on you, son.”
For his own part, Rust has sacrificed health, career, and well-being in an attempt to piece together disassociated bits of information that nobody else assembled – a hallmark of the Lovecraftian protagonist. He also told Marty that he spent years struggling with what things were real or imagined in this case – a hallmark of protagonists in stories about the King in Yellow.
Events usually do not end well for protagonists in these stories, and I wouldn’t be surprised to sem them go ill for our heroes. Rust might find himself in the same asylum as Carcosa’s other victim, screaming about a face (or lack thereof). Or we might find out that Rust already succumbed to Carcosa while in Alaska, and he’s trying to tie off the Yellow King’s vector of influence before Carcosa claims him for good. Even if Rust survives, I don’t see it coming without sacrifice or loss.
I also think that a throwaway line from the third episode might come back – where Rust tells his date that he has synesthesia. This neurological phenomena occurs when the borders between at least two of a person’s senses break down and blur. Noises are seen; colors have taste, or numbers exist spatially.
While this is an small yet intriguing insight into Rust’s personality (and methodology), it might also be a hint of something playing in the “thoughts and chemicals that comprise our personalities.” Carcosa, in the original literature, is the kind of place that seems akin to surreal and synesthetic experiences. The narrator in “The Repairer of Reputations,” for example, describes it as a city “where the shadows of men’s thoughts lengthen in the afternoon.”
This idea of blurring lines and experience hearkens back to a recurring theme in Yellow King literature…
Meta-narrative is the narrative; the story is about the story
Many critics, reviewers, fans, and theorists have already commented upon the idea that True Detective seems to be a story about detective stories. It’s not a straightforward style of TV show; it mixes and matches expected tropes and archetypes. It doesn’t tell a linear tale — we spent most episodes weaving between 1995, 2002, and 2012. It’s extremely self-aware, and utilizes repetition as a means of building a feeling of inevitable breakdown and a lurking horror.
These are all hallmarks of Chambers and his literary descendants. “More Light” by James Blish is a story about trying to read a story (a play). “Scene: A Room” by Craig Anthony is a conflation of script and prose that tells a story about a man who fails to heed his girlfriend’s warning, and ends up falling out of reality. Other stories play with the fourth wall, or second-person point-of-view, or with unreliable narrators.
Carcosa itself originated in short story, Ambrose Bierce’s “An Inhabitant of Carcosa.” Perception plays a key role in this tale; by limiting ourselves to following the narrator’s viewpoint, we stumble along with the protagonist in unfamiliar terrain until the terrible revelation at the end. Compare this to the juxtaposition of — and distance between — the stories that Rust, Marty, and Maggie tell, and the stories we witness from their point of view.
Certain truths are being revealed, and other “truths” turn out to be masks to conceal something else.
Everyone wears masks, except the Yellow King
Yes, there are the literal masks of the cultists, and of the Mardi Gras revelers. There’s even an instance where a beard seems to function as a mask (if you’ve seen Episode 7, you know what I mean). But it’s the figurative masks that conceal far more than what people wear upon their faces.
Rust has demonstrated that he’s very familiar with such abstract ‘masks’ (another point for him being primed for Carcosa). He once wore the mask of a drug-runner named Crash as part of his job. He uses the ‘mask’ of a Christian man in the interrogation room, utilizing the techniques of the revivalist preacher he earlier decried. His performance while being interrogated in 2012 is a mask to conceal his true intentions — to learn anything the detectives might know that he does not.
He’s not the only one with masks. When Marty’s facade slips in the face of his mistress’s date, we see the face of someone who’s “not a psychopath.” As politicians, Tuttle and the sheriffs have a practiced ease with public faces. At this point, we still don’t know the full extent of whose true intentions are masked, and whose face is exposed. Expect the finale to have a moment similar to a scene from “The King in Yellow”:
CAMILLA: You, sir, should unmask.
CASSILDA: Indeed it’s time. We have all laid aside disguise but you.
STRANGER: I wear no mask.
CAMILLA: (Terrified, aside to CASSILDA.) No mask? No mask!
Remember that idea, and how Ledoux’s surviving victim responded to Rust’s questions about the tall man’s face. She could only shriek, repeatedly, “HIS FACE! HIS FACE! …”
We won’t know the shape of the story until it has concluded
At it’s core, True Detective less about the mystery, and far more about the storytelling. It wears its supernatural horror influences plainly, but we won’t know whether that’s a mask until the final reveal. We can try to ‘guess’ the mystery, but that tends to miss the point of the series. For all we know, the creators may disappoint us with the season finale.
Whatever happens, though, you now go into that final chapter prepared. Such preparation is of little help in dim Carcosa, where flap the tatters of the King… but at least it should make for a good story.
(Those who want to dig further should check out this yellow-tinged post from Stu Horvath over at Unwinnable, which includes a good bibliography.)