THE TRUTH INSIDE DEAD BOOKS: Looking at TRUE DETECTIVE
“Behold what was once a man,” Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) utters in the second season premiere of HBO’s True Detective. The quote is taken from Rev. Walter Mitchell’s obscure 1868 work titled Bryan Maurice or The Seeker. The context of the words refer to the character Maurice, in a moment of self-examination and doubt, throwing his nerves, bones, and muscles onto a table to create something new – a Frankenstein of new belief and philosophy. In so many ways, this is exactly what creator Nic Pizzolatto is doing with this season of the show. Gone are Rusty and Marty, but a new trinity has arisen. Three cops, all dealing with loss and on the edge of despair, are brought together through death – the ultimate unifier.
This new story brings us a man named Casper that has literally went “ghost,” a cop with burns on his body who has been burned by injustice, and an underworld boss with a last name pronounced “simian.” It’s safe to say, there are a few metaphors at play. Perhaps, the most complex mystery unraveling thus far is the relationship between Ani or Antigone (Rachel McAdams), her sister Athena (Leven Rambin), and their father played by David Morse. Ani arrives at the Panticapaeum (named after the ancient Greecian city) Pain Institute to find her father lecturing and recalling anecdotes from Allen Ginsburg, chiefly, “God did not create a meaningless world but the world is meaningless. We must hold both things. This is how we must live in the final age of man.” Ani is concerned about her father’s willful ignorance regarding her sister’s lifestyle, which has deviated into becoming a cam sex worker. Morse is unmoved and somewhat coldly points out the totems near them, who watch over the departed spirits. In other words, it’s not his job.
There’s a Theban play that centers on Antigone where she displays her heroism when she looks beyond the mortal world and acts without any regard for herself, honoring God and His higher justice. She is driven by her own ethics and a voracious appetite to do what is right. Interestingly, her deepest desire is to be like Athena. Her very name gives us further insight into who this character may become. Antigone can be translated a number of ways in Greek. Αντι means “against.” Γονη means “birth.” However, γονη in Indo-European cultures was used to mean “judgment” – giving Ani a name that could mean “against judgment.” This is especially interesting given that Ray (Collin Ferrell) informs us early on in the episode that he welcomes judgment. Further giving credence to Antigone being defined as “against judgment” is the fact that the character by the same name in the story of Oedipus, King of the Thebes, cares for her father without judgment after he kills his own father, marries his mother, and blinds himself. It shouldn’t be lost on us that when Casper is located at the end of the episode, his eyes have been burned out – certainly a nod to Oedipus.
Seemingly a play on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the episode’s title, The Western Book of the Dead, is a reference to an actual book. Published as a complete work by InterVarsity Press in 1970, the book began as a series of articles published by an underground newspaper in the 1960s. Writer John Y. Crighton, crafted an unusual framework to explore the Western world’s “deteriorating understanding of its identity, significance, and future.” The book states that in the beginning there was nothing but that matter came out of nothing and matter was chaos. However, strangely and for no reason, inanimate matter begat organic matter, bringing complexity and order to the chaos. The story continues to document the rise and fall of humanity, ending with only tragedy and misery, and man ceasing to be man. But in a postscript, old rumors arise that man and his love might still exist somewhere, perhaps in another world. However, the rumors are suppressed whenever they are found. The Western Book of the Dead is a critique of humanity and western philosophy. It’s a warning shot. However, despite the bleakness in its pages, the book concludes with the faintest glimmer of illumination — much like the episode ends along California’s Highway 1, with a few red and blue lights, encircling death, piercing a sea of darkness.
True Detective can be seen on HBO, Sunday nights at 9 p.m. or on HBO GO and HBO NOW anytime. Follow John Bucher on Twitter @johnkbucher for more insights on this show and other pop culture events.