The Awakening of a Mystery: True Detective, Revisited (Part 3)

The Awakening of a Mystery

Part 3: Dreams, Symbols, and Soul Retrieval

“Wherever the mythological mood prevails, tragedy is impossible. A quality rather of dream prevails. True being, meanwhile, is not in the shapes but in the dreamer.”  (Campbell, 1949/2008, p. 231).

Louisiana is Dreaming

Louisiana is the mythological matrix of True Detective. People have inhabited her land for thousands of years, long before she ever had a name. The characters grow out of her like the tendrils of a Spanish moss tree, perpetually curling around each other. The story is created as she dreams.

She is dreaming of Rustin and Marty, Maggie and Audrey, Errol and Betty, and even little Marie. She is dreaming of endless swamps, missing children, and blood-red sunsets. She dreams them all into existence, and when she dreams, her images are exquisitely vital and violently stark. The dreams of Louisiana invite mythic parallels, because they revolve around the ultimate opposites: good and evil, order and chaos, life and death.

A Land of Visceral Symbols

When I lived in Louisiana, I experienced it as a place where symbols still had power. I felt an emotional impact each time I saw a statue of a saint, a crucifix, or an old church. My analytic thoughts were halted by the feelings spreading through my body, and I often have the same experience while watching True Detective.

The symbols that reoccur throughout the series have a distinctly visceral impact: women with deer antlers, people wearing animal masks, spirals, and of course, the devil traps. There are also unseen symbols and metaphors that evoke an air of mystery: stories of the Yellow King, whispers of Carcosa, the flat circle of time, and Rustin’s “locked room.”

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Rustin sees a spiral of birds

Although the entire series is filled with symbolic images, there are two symbols that I think are the most profound of the series—one utterly horrifying, one absolutely transcendent.

The first image, which expresses the deepest evil of humanity, is the videotape.

The Tape

In True Detective, the videotape that Rustin discovers is a record of unspeakable evil that has been transferred onto a magnetic strip. Interestingly (and fortunately) we never see the tape in its entirety. The brutal rape and murder of Marie Fontenot are alluded to but the events recorded on the tape are never articulated in detail. Instead, we observe the responses of the adult men who have seen the tape—disgusted and disturbed, they cry and scream uncontrollably. Their responses indicate that evil of this magnitude cannot be psychologically digested or emotionally contained. The tape can only strike, like lightning, and its images cannot be recreated in its absence.

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Detectives Marty Hart and Rustin Cohle in 2012

The videotape is more like an entity than an object; it witnesses whoever is watching it. The energy of death was recorded onto the tape, so death looks back at the viewer. It would follow that anyone who is seen by the tape is psychologically destabilized and changed as a result—perhaps in the process of being seen, something inside of them dies. In the context of the narrative, the tape is what compelled Rust to continue searching for the killer and convinced Hart to work with Rust again. I think it’s worth noting that they only commit to solving the case after they witness the unimaginable horror on the videotape. As Rustin says, “I won’t avert my eyes. Not again.”

The Void of Blue Light

The most powerful image of the series is undisputedly the massive swirling form of cloud and blue light, which emerges like a tornado surrounded by a field of stars. If you look closely, you will notice tiny dark specks, like negative stars or drips of black paint. Rustin sees this vision as he enters the heart-chamber of Carcosa, right before he is almost stabbed to death by Errol.

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Rustin sees Form and Void

What makes this vision unique is that the void of blue light is not a symbolic object that can be recalled after it is witnessed. The void is transpersonal and multidimensional, emerging of its own accord. Like the videotape, the void is a transformer, but rather than death, it holds the energy of life. After seeing this vision and falling into a coma, Rustin is relieved of much of his psychological suffering. We later learn that during the moment he was closest to death, Rustin felt the presence of his daughter. It’s also worth noting that Rustin could have easily let himself die in Carcosa, but instead pulled the knife from his stomach with his bare hands and chose to live.

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Rustin and Hart looking up at the stars

Rustin’s Redemption 

After watching the violence, conflict, and trauma of True Detective, Rustin’s final monologue always moves me to tears. It is a kind of reciprocal vulnerability—I cannot fully open to my own emotional experience until I see Rustin do so. For me, this is part of what made this show so influential. I didn’t realize how much I cared for these characters until I was crying with relief that they were finally crying.

Rustin’s final monologue:

“I was a vague awareness in the dark, and I could, I could feel my definitions fading.

And beneath that darkness, there was another kind.

It was, it was deeper, warm, you know, like a substance. I could feel, man, and I knew, I knew my daughter waited for me there.

So clear. I could feel her. I could feel, I could feel a piece of my pop, too.

It was like I was part of everything that I ever loved, and we were all the three of us, just, just fading out.

And all I had to do was let go. And I did. I said, ‘Darkness, yeah.’ And I disappeared.

But I could, I could still feel her love there, even more than before.

Nothing. There was nothing but that love.

Then I woke up.”

At the edge of death, Rustin fully experiences the love of his family and retrieves his soul. Rustin’s daughter saves him by bringing him beyond the duality of good and evil, touching his heart, and allowing him to finally grieve. Her love—infinite, beyond form and void—brings him back to life.

Well, once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.” – Rustin Cohle

Louisiana is Waking 

As the dream nears its end, all dualistic barriers are obliterated. The intensity of the conclusion initiates a process of dissolution. Louisiana is starting to forget the story. Her brow furrows, and her eyes begin to open.

Waking from her dream, Louisiana sits up and stretches out her arms. She vaguely recalls something about a world of darkness and a little girl made of stars.

References

Campbell, J. (2008). The hero with a thousand faces. Novato, CA: New World Library (Original work published 1949).


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