SubRosa, Die Off, Wearing Thin
at the Cult Leader vinyl release show
The Shred Shed, Salt Lake City, UT
April 4 2014
Copyright Megan Kennedy
SubRosa, Die Off, Wearing Thin
at the Cult Leader vinyl release show
The Shred Shed, Salt Lake City, UT
April 4 2014
Copyright Megan Kennedy
Cult Leader vinyl release show
@ The Shred Shed, Salt Lake City, UT
April 4 2014
Copyright Megan Kennedy
Old Wounds house show
March 26, 2014 in Salt Lake City, UT
Copyright Megan Kennedy
This month’s SLUG Magazine marks the debut of my very first cover story, an interview with the inspiring and about-to-blow-up Cult Leader of Salt Lake City. I’m truly honored and excited for this milestone in my career.
Read the online version here: http://www.slugmag.com/articles/7450/Cult-Leader.html
Yesterday, I was riding home with a van full of all-female colleagues from an academic conference. Our driver told a story about how, on an interstate trip by herself, she’d been pulled over by a Highway Patrolman. The cop had reached in her window and rubbed the back of his hand up and down her arm, offering to ‘make this all go away’. She pretended not to understand and was given a warning. I was disgusted enough to drop an F-bomb, but the major reaction seemed to be a sort of… minor gross-out. Like how you’d see a group of proper little girls squirm away from an handful of earthworms. It is making me sadder and sadder, thinking about it. That women have been conditioned to expect this behavior so much, we can only laugh to ourselves and say “ew”, instead of being outraged at the heavy betrayal of power.
Today, I broke a connection with a casual friend on Facebook who posted a video extolling the shame and immorality of abortion, with the comment “If you disagree with this… disgusting”. We got in a conversation and it became abundantly clear that he believed firmly in his right as a Christian to condemn what he saw as “murder”, regardless of the unintended and institutionalized consequences of such a stance. Regardless of the shame he is offering every woman who is friends with him, even the ones who agree with him. He insisted he must stand his ground and that his choice to defend against murder was greater than my choice. I insisted I can’t be in such close contact with someone who does not respect me as a woman.
I just can’t unsee all this anymore. I see the system and how it’s been built against women and I won’t let it silently run me over. It may flatten me in the end, but I am taking out some gears on my way. Otherwise I won’t be able to live with myself long enough to be crushed.
This analysis contains significant spoilers. If you have not finished True Detective, I would not recommend reading this.
I’ve milled back and forth about whether it was worth it to add more tires on the burning, sky-high mound that is True Detective commentary. In the end, I say, fuck it. My gears are grinded, so here we go.
To preface with an admission: the last few years, my relationship with fiction of every medium has genuinely soured. I can’t seem to find books or shows or movies that excite me. At best, they mildly entertain for a minute. They are occasionally so poor that I can’t justify the time to finish them. This numbness has also bled into my own work, and I find myself equally bored with the ideas I generate. I’m sure it’s a cocktail rather than a single reason: after so many years smothered in storytelling, it’s harder to trick me into open my imagination; pursuing my degrees in history and religious studies has brought me to a fun place where reality is proving as, if not more, exciting than most people’s wildest imaginations; and just maybe the current climate for creative output fucking blows in general. Shitty books are getting published, lazy scripts are getting green-lit, every other film is the same Hero Quest we’ve all seen before. I don’t deny that it may just be me. My domestic partner-in-crime, Mr. Miles Letham, can attest that it is rare for me to dive into a narrative anymore, but two recent efforts hooked me like a starving, stupid trout: NBC’s Hannibal, and of course True Detective.
I had high hopes for the finale because the writer had up until that point maintained what I felt was a complex, layered narrative that seemed to be choosing its steps with utmost care, walking a path that was meaningful. Rust Cohle’s character was so refreshing, for nihilism and atheism and general attitudes of darkness are so often under or misrepresented in media. I loved his sparring with the oblivious, self-righteous Marty. Being an atheist myself, it was nice to see the reality of our culture displayed: the constant shushing, brushing us off as rabble-rousers, the trouble we face assimilating into areas that are high in religious activity. I appreciated Rust’s refusal to make everyone around him feel comfortable, and as the show went on, all the writing suggested that Rust’s abyss would swallow whole everyone he had touched, not by his own hand, but because that is the nature of the abyss, and only sometimes can certain people understand and see it before it arrives. Rust is the messenger everyone would love to be the one to shoot.
Writer Nic Pizzolato did a lot of work to appeal to literary nerds and fellow writers. The allusion to Chambers and Lovecraft were not accidents, nor was the subversion of the noir genre— all of which, by the way, do not have happy endings. The show felt like a giant Bat-signal calling out to writers that finally, someone on TV was doing something ballsy and different and not kowtowing to whatever it is that makes TV writing suck so badly most days. I don’t pretend to know what motivated the direction of the finale. But it was a failure, and betrayed foundational premises that the show had already established.
First and most blatantly, Pizzolato broke one of the cardinal rules of storytelling, especially with mysteries. Known as Chekhov’s Gun after Anton Chekhov, this basic principle maintains that a writer must not introduce an element into the story that isn’t relevant to the narrative: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if the gun isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” This principle is responsible for the Red Herring premise; the reader knows someone you have introduced is the killer, and so you can plant red flags in the behavior of the innocents and still have the power of the reveal (to varying success, of course, depending on how good the writer is). This is why you had so many insane fan theories about the Yellow King’s identity online, implicating everyone from Marty’s father-in-law to Marty himself: because audiences understand the implicit promise that revolves around Chekov’s Gun, and they were searching for it. Pizzolato honored it with regard to Errol and literally nothing else.
True Detective introduced many narrative and visual elements that were never satisfied. The largest of which, many critics have noted, is the stark implication made by the show that Marty Hart’s oldest daughter Audrey was the victim of sexual abuse outside her home. We see several scenes making this implication, which is never addressed or discussed after she is caught having sex as a teenager with two overage boys. Indeed, the whole purpose of introducing Marty’s family at all was, in the end, pointless. This particular plot point ties into a larger issue, that of the show’s overarching misogyny, which I had personally defended up until the finale because I expected the scenes of slimy, violent, patriarchal abuse to amount to something in the narrative. One of the great things about the juxtaposition of Rust and Marty’s characters is that Rust never pretends to be a righteous or good man, while Marty thinks of himself that way, even as we are all seeing, along with Rust and Maggie, that his behavior is anything but righteous. He sooths himself with the same justifications many men in positions of power make to have their cake and eat it too. His adultery is just “blowing off steam” so he can be a better family man. He finds it acceptable to hit his child and then assault the two young men she had sex with as punishment for— let’s face it— tainting what amounts to his property as patriarch, but he can’t bother to turn down the basketball game to talk to her as a 10-year-old who has just been disciplined for drawing disturbingly sexual drawings at school. And on the crazy train goes. But this is behavior is pretty par-for-the-course for men like Marty, who see women as décor or otherwise less than people. I’m sure there isn’t a woman alive who hasn’t met her own Marty at some point, and it seemed the whole reason to pair him up with Rust at all was to provide some sort of comeuppance, since that is exactly what Rust as an archetype is meant to provide for everyone in his world.
True Detective’s thematic elements suggested that Marty’s behavior was just a line on a gradient of misogynistic tendencies that are all intertwined, and that while Marty was not raping children and murdering women like the cult of Carcosa, his was only a less extreme version of the same worldview, where anyone who is not a white man is simply a tool for white men, whatever their ends. Marty’s sharing of this worldview makes the cult possible. The cult needs men like Marty, because men like Marty provide fresh victims, and will never catch the cult on their own. To do that, Marty would have to get inside the head of the cultists and see how they see, and he would find their viewpoint far too familiar for comfort. He would see too much of himself. And so he takes the numerous off-ramps that are offered to him by his fellow policemen, by the powerful men who are also helping hide the cultists, by the distractions provided by family and mistresses. His daughter’s potential abuse is never investigated; she and her mother and sister go on suffering under Marty’s hypocritical rule until he finally loses them for good, which marks Marty’s one and only punishment for his behavior, a veritable slap on the wrist compared to what the women in his life suffered.
Visually, there were many markers that suggested Audrey’s abuse was going to wind up important to the narrative: art on the wall of the Hart home matched both the dreaded spiral found on Dora Lange’s corpse, as well as the painting on the wall of the mental institution where Rust visits the catatonic girl; the tableau of Barbies built by Audrey and her sister, of five men hovered ominously over a naked woman, was replicated by Rust with his beer cans during the interview in 2012. Other scenes unrelated to Audrey also broke Chekov’s Gun, including the tweaker murderer who commits suicide in his cell after talking to Rust about the Yellow King and receiving a mysterious phone call; that kind of implied influence and power is not something a good writer should be using to spice up a scene and never address again. These are not small things in a mystery thriller. In the end, there was no point to these clues and so the principle was over and over betrayed. Pizzolato began this series as a mystery thriller with an implied depth and complexity; he ended it as a trite, buddy-cop character study.
Rust was betrayed, too. His messiah-like 180 in the finale was about the biggest slap in the face for a fan like myself. The entire show had been predicated on proving Rust’s nihilistic worldview, his unique ability to not suffer distraction in the face of evil, was legitimate. He was right about Dora Lange’s murder being a big deal; he was right about the cult, about the attempted cover-up by Billy Lee Tuttle; he was right about the importance of the Yellow King and Carcosa and seemingly crazy leads in their investigation. He refused to fold under pressure from his superiors to drop the case. Everything about Rust was vindicated, episode after episode, regardless of any other character’s opinion about him or his theories. Then, in the finale, we see Rust somehow break good. Suddenly his nihilism, his whole being, is revealed to be nothing but a mask of pain that is now lifted. His darkness, his suicidal thoughts, are gone. Now he can rest. Now he’s seen some higher importance of some kind that assures him life is good, basically negating the entire emotional atmosphere of the series, which was distinctly bent in a “life is far, far darker than you ever imagined” direction, the direction of Chambers and Lovecraft, the cosmic horror that cannot be beaten or bargained with, but only revealed to be slithering behind every shadow in existence.
This happy ending is even more stupid when you remember Marty and Rust have both proven that they will react emotionally and criminally, up to and including murder, when they are pushed to the edge by a case. They have both murdered suspects, and Marty quit the force over such a thing. And yet we are expected to believe that both men come out of Carcosa and its horrors somehow saner on the other side, feeling inexplicably hopeful about a world that, by all rights, proved it was more fucked up than either of them suspected. And that fancy speech about stars and darkness and light? Yeah, he may have even ripped that from Alan Moore, depending on how you choose to define “homage” and “plagiarism”. Even if it’s not plagerism, in my opinion, it is another example that Pizzolatto needs greater writers than himself to make his work resonate.
There didn’t need to be anything supernatural occurring to maintain this status quo, either, as I will prove momentarily. Instead, we see the writer backing off from Rust’s incredible, complex personality, and kicking every nihilistic, atheist fan in the balls for relating to him (though fans who related to him, but still wanted a happy ending to somehow appear, were probably satisfied). The show had up until then been more or less Rust’s show, because the emotional tone illustrated how valid this dark outlook was. Then at the last second, the writer decides that, nope, Marty’s right; Rust was a believer all along, but for his terrible pain that needed only to be cleared away for him to see the light. Things are righteous. White men who do terrible things get away with it most of the time, but fuck it, things are good enough. It suggests that Rust and people like him are only a product of reaction and not of intent or depth. Rust was only nihilistic because he was in pain, not because of his immense intelligence or ability to see through cultural illusions. He was just another Marty with dirt caked on his face.
In light of these failures, I offer up this alternative finale, built by myself and Miles Letham that, we believe, satisfies the emotional and structural issues I’ve presented:
Everything up to the reveal of Carcosa was passable, though I would absolutely fix the incredibly trite “hillbilly murder mansion” occupied by Errol and his sister-lover. Instead, he lives in a nice small house in a good neighborhood, with a trim yard and a community that found him stupid but harmless. Carcosa didn’t need to be in his backyard; we could have discovered it in a chase scene. Pushing Errol to the set of so many terrible slasher movies again broke the emotional world the show had been building, which was the reality that people who “look normal” are often doing or covering up for horrendous acts; we needed him to be far more normal than he was, which equates to far more terror. The mansion was lazy.
I loved the visual set-up of Carcosa. It was brilliant and I’m very glad the show did not shy away from making this a truly insane (and concretely real) place that rightly inspired such wide-spread mythology. It was satisfying. Speaking as a student of myth and culture, it’s exactly the kind of hodge-podge reality that inspires myths in the first place. I would not change a thing as far as this reveal and scene is concerned.
When they face Errol in the room of the Yellow King, Rust has his final hallucination of Carcosa, the eventuality of his “mainlining the truth of the universe”. He fights with Errol and is killed, maybe even falling on the altar itself in an overt but appropriate symbolism. Marty is too late to save him but does either kill or capture Errol, still suffering some grievous injury himself, and unconsciousness bleeds its way into his brain as he sees his partner’s dead body, the Yellow King, the stars in hole in the roof. In this way, both men experience the final view of hundreds of women and children who died in this room, joining them in solidarity. They see Carcosa and, in a way, join the roster of victims of the Yellow King; it’s a strange mix of success and failure.
Marty wakes up in the hospital to the news that Rust is dead. Further, Detectives Papania and Gilbough come in for a hard talk. They’ve been digging through both Carcosa and Errol’s residence for evidence, cataloging all the bones and pieces of clothing of hundreds of victims over the decades, every piece vindicating Rust as the show has been promising all along. But they come to Marty because they’ve found something personally dreadful. It’s already been established that members of this cult, in their hubris, keep trophies of their rituals: it is the tape in Billy Lee Tuttle’s safe that convinces Marty to help Rust restart the investigation, after all. Among the evidence at Errol’s, a trove of photographs and tapes were found, and among them was a photo of Audrey Hart as a small girl, a ritual victim, one who, like the New Orleans prostitute, was not murdered but who suffered the group abuse she detailed in her Barbie playtime and explicit drawings. The detectives turn the photo over to Marty, who explodes in an impotent rage, confined to his bed and, with Rust gone, is truly alone.
This is the moment when Marty and the audience see the penance for his misogynist behavior, when everyone sees that Marty, and every other misogynist male we’ve met in the show, is a weaker reflection of the cultists. In that instant, he sees his failures as a father, a husband, and a detective. He sees a deep truth of the reality of patriarchy: despite their power, men are not immune to harm from such a flawed system. He is now flooded with darkness, with the realities he faced in Carcosa, the depth of human depravity and insanity, the knowledge of how many hundreds of children—including his own—suffered at the hands of this cult. The detective’s curse he mentioned in early episodes of “missing what is right under his nose”, the talk of alligators lurking in the dark waters all around everything, it all comes home. He sees his own powerlessness in knowing that members of the extensive cult could get to his own daughter even as he was unknowingly investigating them all those years ago. Not only did he not protect her, he refused to see the proof of it at all, refused to face the dark reality she had to face. Every woman he has mistreated in his life is somewhat vindicated in this moment, in that he finally sees the reality of who he is, and what he has done.
The weight of this emotional and mental stress breaks Marty. The true darkness of the cult is not in a dirty hoarder mansion or makeshift nightmare labyrinth or even in rituals of abuse and murder, but in its ability to hide among good people, or people who think they are good.
Time is a flat circle. Rust lives on in spirit through Marty, because Marty is now Rust, one who has lifted the veil of reality and peeked through to the other side, and there is no coming back from that. There is no redemption for those who ascend from the abyss, which is why Rust’s redemption in the actual finale felt so false, so fake and forced. In my version, there is no redemption. His family does not come to his bedside to coo over their fallen hero and forgive him his trespasses. He faces a new, darker world alone, and in brutal irony, now understands Rust better than he ever did before, at the moment when Rust is no longer there to return the favor.
They may have stopped Errol and closed this current version of Carcosa, but Marty has to live with knowing it will never end, knowing the Tuttles and all other big, powerful men who have participated in, covered for, and denied the existence of the cult will go free. Carcosa will be rebuilt; the Yellow King is immortal. Thus the cosmic horror alluded to the entire show is satisfied, without having to jump the shark by offering up Cthulhu or a Great Old One as the ultimate bad guy. Cosmic horror is less about the particular creatures that lurk in the dark and more about the reveal that the dark will never, ever be conquered by any man or mythos. It’s about suffocation of human reality. Marty will feel this suffocation because his whole world has been revealed to be a creation of the darkness. His whole personality and worldview was built to maintain the superiority of the darkness. He is, in his own way, a cultist. Every missing child or woman, every murder he hears about from now on, he will see the cult behind it. He will see their long-extending machinations, just as Rust did, knowing now that he cannot stop it. He lives the rest of his life in agonizing, powerless solitude.
I’m not sure how gung-ho I will be once season two arrives. For all the flaws of the finale, I still loved the series up until that moment. The acting was incredible, the visuals unparalleled. But I don’t trust Pizzolato as a writer. He (or whoever was most responsible for the whitewashed finale) has shown he wants the benefits of comparison to literary greats before him without accepting the actual work of being a literary great, which requires sacrifice and acknowledging that when you build a dark world, it has to stay dark. You have to leave your characters in terrible places, and give your audience nightmares. Not every writer has the stomach for it. Pizzolato admitting this to himself may produce more cohesive material in the future.
In the meantime, if you agree with my assessment here and find yourself wanting another dismal world, Hannibal is waiting to give you one that is just as beautifully acted and visualized as True Detective, without all the narrative problems.