FATHERS, SONS, AND DEALS WITH THE DEVIL in TRUE DETECTIVE
By John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
The Lera Lynn song A Church In Ruins, which gives this episode of True Detective its name, begins with these words, “You were alone and you were alive…” Throughout this season, we’ve watched the key characters in the story search for life in the midst of dark loneliness. This week, they seem to have found a clue in their search, and it has everything to do with fatherhood. While we finally become privy to the betrayal that defined Ani – abuse from a father figure who promised a unicorn in the woods – it’s the men in the show that grapple with the complex concept of pseudo-fatherhood. True Detective continues to explore the disappearance of ritual processes for initiating boys to manhood, especially those processes that might be initiated by their father.
We see Ray making every effort to be a father to a boy who is likely not his biological son. We see the boy unable to process the complex nature of their interactions, likely leaving him to feel as though he is failing as a son. We see Frank, who’s been unable to father his own children, standing in as a father for his fallen soldier Stan’s son. “You got him in you. His fight is in you,” Franks tells the boy, echoing the sort of thing we imagine Frank always wanted to hear spoken to him. These are two men desperately trying to be fathers to boys who aren’t theirs, trying to guide them through initiation rites that will make them men. Why are these characters willing to go to such lengths to be fathers to these boys? What does it tell us about who they are? Land scandals be damned, THESE are the most intriguing questions True Detective asks.
In the opening standoff of the episode, Ray says to Frank, “I sold my soul for nothing.” He is referring to the murder he committed to avenge his wife’s rape, which likely produced the boy he calls his son. We get the impression that the “deal” he made to sell his soul is larger than the murder. Claiming the boy as his own, making sure the boy never found out, and giving up all contact with the boy to ensure this seem to all be part of the “deal.” Selling one’s soul and making deals with the devil have a long history in literature. The German classic Faust by Goethe is widely considered the first and most popular “deal with the devil” story. It begins as a spin off of the Biblical account of Job, where God and the Devil discuss one of God’s favorite people, which leads to a wager of sorts. Faust eventually makes a pact with the Devil to obtain all knowledge in the story. What Faust gains is too much for any human to bear, of course. The story reinforces the idea that deals of these sorts are never worth the price one pays for them.
Throughout history, there remains evidence of people actually drafting deals with the Devil. However, the myths and legends surrounding the deals are much more interesting. Robert Johnson’s “deal with the devil” made him the greatest living bluesman while he was alive – or so the legend goes. His life ended at the age of 27 – the price he paid for the deal he made some say. The myth of the curse has played out time and again in the music business with artists ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Janis Joplin to Jim Morrison to Kurt Cobain, all who died at the age of 27. But back to Ray Velcoro and the deal he made…
Ray’s deal to avenge his wife’s rape and later to disappear from her life forever all revolve around fatherhood – even if that fatherhood is not authentic. It seems to be the only thing Ray truly desires or cares about. For the answer to why, we must look at Eddie Velcoro, Ray’s father. We know little of Eddie. We know he suffers from alcoholism and insomnia. More importantly, we know he is a former LAPD Police Sergeant. We know Ray followed in his father’s footsteps and chose a career in law enforcement. We know Ray’s hobby of building WWII model airplanes likely originated with his father. The airplanes which hang in Ray’s apartment serve as monuments to the man he wanted to be like – Eddie. Ray’s entire journey greatly revolves around gaining approval from his father. If True Detective gives us any insight into the things that Nic Pizzolatto cares about, we can deduce this. Men need their fathers. Boy must be initiated into manhood by older men who care about them. When this system fails, the results lead to long dark nights that leave men looking for life.