I met the South in the back of my parents’ minivan when I was thirteen. The South hits you—in all its prayer-in-schools and porn-on-billboards glory. The billboards really got us. The only billboard I remember in Massachusetts was an anti-gun ad tallying how many people had been killed so far that year by gun violence. This, however, was a whole new world. Signs advertising the “Lion’s Den,” “Girls, Girls, Girls” and “$tripper$” graced the four-lane highways, side-by-side with “Jesus Saves,” “REPENT” and “I Saw That. -God.”
I’m the one Flannery O’Connor’s talking about in the essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” when she writes, “Of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader.” I surprised myself as much as anyone when I moved to the very tip of the Deep South to go to college. “They readin’ down there yet?” my Uncle Billy asked. Even more surprising, I discovered Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, and Toni Morrison. They grabbed me like the $stripper$ highway sign.
When I heard about Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The opening credits on the first episode grabbed me—like the Jesus billboards and Morrison’s Milkman. It was fascinating and distorted and crazy good.
As I met True Detective’s main characters, Cole (played by a chilling Matthew McConaughey) and Hart (Woody Harrelson), I was re-introduced to the Deep South through wide and long landscape shots, regional accents and Southern color. In an interview with HBO, Pizzolatto confirms this intentional introduction to Vermilion Parish, Louisiana.
“In the same way we’re establishing Cole and Hart with as much nuance as possible as dimensional human beings, we want to establish this landscape as realistically as we can, not only on its own, but as a background for our main characters as something they live in that effects them and surrounds them.”
The place has a hold on the characters in True Detective, and the show continues to weave the stories of Hart and Cole alongside striking images of Louisiana. As Alex Miller explains in his essay run in Curator earlier this month, Cole and Hart are detectives attempting to solve a heinous crime we’re introduced to in the first episode. A girl named Dora Kelly Lange is murdered and left in front of a sprawling tree in an occult and ritualistic display. She’s wearing a crown of deer antlers, there’s a spiral drawn on her back and her body is positioned in prayer—a gruesome scene. The show follows the detectives on their nearly twenty-year search for the freak who murdered Dora Kelly Lange and, as we discover throughout the show, many others.
O’Connor’s “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” probes the shocking elements of Southern literature and, in turn, has something to say to this Southern literary screenplay. O’Connor reflects on why Southern writers seem to have a fixation on freaks. Her response: They are still uniquely able to spot a freak when they see one. O’Connor credits this keen Southern sense to the “Christ-haunted” nature of life in the South. She writes,
“The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God.”
Religion has a heavy role to play in True Detective. From our first glance at the murdered woman on her knees in prayer, there is a strong current of religion running through the eight-episode story. When asked about the religious overtones and undertones in True Detective, Pizzolatto often reminds interviewers that he grew up in the South. The show is set in Louisiana. This is a story of the South, and it’s hard to imagine a Southern story without religion.
At the very end of O’Connor’s essay she gives one final pat-on-the-back to Southern writers, but concludes with a fear and a warning that one day writers in the South might do away with grotesque and uncomfortable mysteries. She writes,
“I hate to think that in twenty years Southern writers too may be writing about men in gray-flannel suits and may have lost their ability to see that these gentlemen are even greater freaks than what we are writing about now.”
While we watch True Detective unfold and see breaks in the case, multiple suspects, and interrogations, we also get a glimpse at the hidden lives of Hart and Cole. We see their “suits,” their social lives, and meet Hart’s family. But we also see behind the curtain. “The world needs bad men,” Cole tells Hart. “We keep the other bad men from the door.” Cole recognizes his own inner turmoil, anxiety and inconsistencies. Hart, in his suit, with his beautiful family, has a harder time. He’s blind to his exploits with young women, his anger and his fooling around. He blames marital problems on his wife. He can’t see the freak he is. Cole, in his realism and honesty has an inverse blind spot. He can’t seem to entertain the idea that there is more to life than the stories we tell ourselves in our heads.
The finale brings both men face-to-face with a gruesome freak—the serial killer they’ve been looking for. And in the face of the grotesque, in the death of a serial killer, the pair seems to hobble their way toward hope. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Pizzolatto explains his idea for what became a controversial ending to True Detective:
“To me, the challenge was to not only let these guys live, but show true character change through this journey. That passing through the eye of the needle in the heart of darkness has actually done something to them. . . . We don’t know what kind of life they’ll have. But I think we can be sure that each man is more willing to acknowledge the presence of grace. That was one of the ways that they both failed the same: Neither man would accommodate the idea of grace for their own reasons. Where I wanted them to go in their journeys wasn’t a point of redemption or conversion or even closure but a point of deliverance.”
This is the kind of fiction O’Connor writes about in “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” Southern writers who truly understand the grotesque are the ones who write with an eye toward mystery—they want to push the limits of the everyday, because that’s where the real story is. O’Connor writes,
“Such a writer will be interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do. . . [h]e will be interested in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves–whether they know very clearly what it is they act upon or not.”
True Detective ends with Hart and Cole in the parking lot of a hospital. They’ve defeated the “freak” serial killer, and they’re recovering together. They look up at the sky and Cole launches into another metaphysical rant he’s become known for. They talk about the oldest story—the battle between light and dark. Hart, who has previously berated Cole for his nihilism, says, “It appears to me the dark has a lot more territory.” The two talk for a minute longer and begin to walk away when Cole turns to Hart,
“You’re looking at it wrong—the sky thing.”
“Well, once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.”
This story—the story of Hart and Cole—along with the stories of O’Connor and Faulkner and Morrison, is a Southern story. It’s haunted by religion and pushes toward mystery. It brings the grotesque to the HBO screen and its characters meet evil and grace face to face.
I think O’Connor would’ve been proud.