The Beard, The Shield, and The Mask: The use of Ritual on True Detective

By John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Every known society has left evidence of their rituals. There is something innately human in performing activities involving particular words, sequences of actions and objects at deliberate times and places. Rituals are occasionally confused with habits or routines, the difference being that rituals have meaning and symbolism. Habits and routines may be motivated out of convenience or simply used as a way to neutralize anxiety.

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Life moments ranging from holiday gifts to religious ceremonies to simple hand shakes reinforce the idea that ritual is most powerful when practiced in a group. As with most activities, we’re fascinated with the ends of the spectrum. When a ritual is most common or most secret, we tend to take note. The advance of technology, especially after the Industrial revolution, has eliminated a great deal of the ritual that has been practiced for centuries. Some would argue that technology has eliminated the need for many of our most beloved rituals. It’s also important to examine what we may have lost in the elimination of so many rituals. Ritual was a key part of True Detective’s first season. While the second season has only hinted that there are several rituals that will later be revealed, we’ve seen several moments in the show that deserve greater examination.

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In the episode Down Will Come, Ray Velcoro gives his son the badge that belonged to his father. Police badges are shaped like and often referred to as “shields.” The passing of a shield from one man to another has a long history in mythology and rituals. It was symbolic for passing on protection to someone else. This moment foreshadows the fact that Ray will be abandoning his position as his son’s avenger. He’s acknowledging that his son will still need protection but that his methods of doing so can’t be continued. In the following episode, Other Lives, Ray has shaved his beard – another ritual with a long history. Facial hair served for many centuries as a sign of man’s animalistic nature. Throughout the episode, we see Ray slowly returning to his more archaic ways, and as he does, his beard slowly returns as well.

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From bus route protests to animal masks, the show continues to hint at the fact that there are rituals that bring people together and others that put the angels of our worse nature on display. The test of True Detective will be if Nic Pizzolatto can shine light on the meaning behind all these rituals rather than only demonstrating that they have power.

TRUE DETECTIVE airs Sunday nights at 9 PM on HBO or anytime on HBOGO and HBONOW.

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