True Detective, S1E2, "Seeing Things"


"I closed my eyes and saw the King in Yellow moving through the forest."
                                          - from the diary of Dora Lange

In fact, there is much to see in this second episode, and plenty of yellow references to keep your juices flowing. Aside from the imagery that we’ll come to below, we get our first direct references to Carcosa and the King in Yellow, most notable in the discovery of Dora Lange’s diary. In the glimpse of the diary shown on screen, we see that Dora has handwritten excerpts of Cassilda’s Song. Readers of Chambers will recognize the verse that opens the book The King in Yellow:

            Along the shore the cloud waves break,
            The twin suns sink behind the lake,
            The shadows lengthen
                    In Carcosa.

            Strange is the night where black stars rise, 
            And strange moons circle through the skies
            But stranger still is
                    Lost Carcosa.

            Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
            Where flap the tatters of the King,
            Must die unheard in
                    Dim Carcosa.

            Song of my soul, my voice is dead;
            Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
            Shall dry and die in
                    Lost Carcosa.   

    Carcosa has a way of grabbing your imagination and fueling curiosity. It feels ancient, dreamlike, and frightening. With its black stars and drying unshed tears, it is a place of paradox, difficult to conceptualize: a place where cloud waves break and, impossible as it sounds, the towers rise behind the moons! Carcosa like, True Detective frequently backgrounds a jumble of towers along the horizon, this is seen prominently in the opening credits sequence, but there is a healthy dose within the episodes and the second episode is no exception. The imagery is eerie, in part, because the viewer can’t get their bearings, or distinguish and identify the industrial tangle of structures that loom and threaten—the geometry feels wrong.  

    It remains to be seen how best to understand the role that Carcosa plays in the series. In Ambrose Bierce’s story, “The Inhabitant of Carcosa,” the ancient city is closely associated with death, ruin, and madness. In it, a man discovers himself to be a ghost—a ghost of someone who died long ago, for he finds his weathered gravestone entwined in the roots of a large tree and the city of his birth in ruins. I argue in a previous murmur that to discover that you are immortal, and that the death of the body is not the end can be frightening and unwanted. We’ve seen that Rustin Cohle’s pessimism longs for the escape from suffering that death promises, but, if we survive the death of our bodies, then that relief will never come. 


Near the end of the episode, Rust and Marty drive through a desolate rural area trying to find the church mentioned on the yellow flyer found among the possessions of Dora Lange, and just like the protagonist of “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” they aren’t expecting to find abandoned ruins, but, past the bridge with the inverted crosses, that is precisely what they find. An owl, perched in the burned-out rafters of the church again recalls “Inhabitant…” In that story, the owl is used by the protagonist to conclude that things are not what they seem. Although the inhabitant from the story cannot see the darkness of night, from the owl's presence (along with a few other clues), he concludes that night has fallen.

    We’ve learned that (like Hildred Castaigne) Rust has spent time in a psychiatric ward and “… sometimes see[s] things.” He attributes these hallucinations to flashbacks and neural damage from his history of drug use. Two visions of note occur at this point in the episode on the discovery of the church.  The first vision is of the sky streaking yellow as they draw nearer the location, while the second vision occurs moments later as a flock of birds take flight in a highly coordinated wavelike motion that resolves into the spiral shape of the tattoo originally discovered on the back of the murdered Dora Lange. It isn’t clear what the significance of the spiral shape denotes, and we’ll have to keep it in mind as the series progresses.

    But upon entering the ruined shell of the church, Rust discovers the mural depicting the scene of Dora Lange’s staged body found in the field outside of Vermillion Parish. The episode ends with an image of the sun reflected in a retaining pond with smokestacks and industrial tower structures in the background. The reference here to Carcosa’s twin suns is striking. 


This episode packs a punch. Not only are we  introduced to Carcosa, but Rust’s pessimism is further developed in dark ways. In the interview room, he challenges the moral acceptability of ever having children. He summarizes the sin of reproduction as the hubris of yanking a soul out of non-existence to join in the suffering, pain, and isolation that life has to offer. In discussing his daughter’s childhood death, he tries to take comfort from the fact that she slipped into oblivion as a happy child. So, for a pessimist like Rust, immortality is a threat; to live forever would be awful. Existence is anathema, and if death is not an escape from it, then everything is worse than we thought. So what Carcosa represents may very well threaten any comfort we can take in knowing that someday we will die. If the pallid face is not just a mask, then death is not the end; it is just more of the same and lasts longer.


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