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The (f)Anthropology of True Detective

Like seemingly everyone else watching True Detective, I had my theories about who the Yellow King was. But for me, that was of tertiary importance compared to learning the answer to another question: Why the Yellow King?

(Spoilers ahead, for True Detective and Twin Peaks.)

Much has been made about the finale, with reactions ranging from disappointment to adulation. For me, it was a perfectly fine outing, but it left major questions un-answered. All of those questions are why questions, because the series was pretty good about clarifying the what, when, who and how. So we know who the Yellow King is, and who he killed, and when it happened, and how it all went down. Here’s what we don’t know:

  • Why does he kill both little girls and adult women?
  • Why does he dress them in ritual garments?
  • Why does he place them in public locations to be found?
  • Why are they placed in such a specific, ornamental manner?
  • Why does he film certain crimes (the rape of little girls) but not others (the murder of adult women)?
  • Why the Yellow King (and not, say, Randall Flagg, or Cthulhu, or Springheel Jack)?

In short, what we’re never told is the killer’s motive. Which is kind of a big deal, when you think about it. Most people who commit murder have a motive. Even serial killers, who feel a compulsion to kill, still have a reason to continue indulging the compulsion despite how risky it is. David Berkowitz’s claims of demonic possession became claims of Satantic cults assisting his murders, but both he and the Zodiac Killer thrived on interaction with police and from terrorizing the public at large via mass media. Ted Bundy was a necrophile who liked to preserve his victims’ remains in some way. So did Gary Ridgway and Jeffrey Dahmer. Ridgway buried over 45 women in the backwoods of Washington State over a span of decades; he visited their bodies multiple times as they decomposed. Dahmer once said that his compulsion was “an incessant and never-ending desire to be with someone at whatever cost,” which led him to eat their flesh and keep their bones. Randy Kraft shared a similar compulsion: he photographed his victims as he seduced and drugged them, then again after their rapes and murders. He kept all the photographs, and developed a scorecard system that kept immaculate record of who, where, and when he had killed.

All of these are highly ritualized behaviours with deep personal meaning. They have a beginning, middle, and end, and they help the killer meet an emotional need. They involve a fleeting relationship with the same victim over and over, though his or her face might change: the same age, the same gender, usually the same race, of the same socioeconomic background. It’s madness. But it’s not indiscriminate madness. It’s a curated experience.

Even Charles Manson believed he was accomplishing something. So, what was Errol Childress trying to accomplish? That’s all I want to know.

No, really. How do you answer this question? Childress wanted to rape. Childress wanted to murder. Sure. But most rapists and murderers don’t need white dresses and antlers and twig sculptures and grass masks to meet their needs. There’s a whole material culture at play in Childress’ killings that goes un-examined. Despite having a storage unit full of evidence, we never see Rust visit a librarian or an anthropologist to discuss the significance of the antlers, the spiral, or the sculptures. We never see him Google the words “Yellow King.” We never see him read a copy of Chambers’ book. It’s kind of shitty detective work, when you think about it. For a guy who’s so well-read, it’s a little weird that Rust wouldn’t phone up some of the Jesuits at Loyola — or, given his atheism, some of the profs at Tulane — and say: “Do the words yellow king mean anything to you?” The forensic pathologist tells him outright that he should speak to an anthropologist about the sculptures. Does he? Nope. Not once, in twenty-two years.

For a long time, I had hoped that the supernatural threads of True Detective were being woven into something cohesive. And to my way of thinking, they still could be. We have no idea if Rust’s hallucinations were genuine. If he truly did comprehend another dimension for one brief moment, his deathbed embrace of the form in the void would make more sense. But even the presence of supernatural phenomena doesn’t explain the rules of the game. Did the Yellow King ask Childress to kill? We don’t know. Does the Yellow King’s church require ritual sacrifice? We don’t know. For a series that begins with committed atheism and ends with the reluctant acceptance of the possibility of the divine, it doesn’t offer any details about the god its villain worships.

Ultimately, that’s a failure of worldbuilding. In refusing to commit fully to multiple genres, True Detective missed out on some basic points of storytelling about serial killers and ritual killings despite engaging primarily with that sub-genre of drama. Your average episode of Criminal Minds or Millennium spends more time dwelling on the belief systems of its villains, and explaining their motives. I know more about BOB and the Black Lodge than I do about the Yellow King, and I learned it from characters who talk backwards.

So the next time someone tells you “Well, it’s more about the characters,” remind them that villains are characters, too.

And for the record, here is how I watch True Detective. My fanthropology, if you will. How I filled the gaps in the story. Much of it is borrowed from Twin Peaks, which despite being as opaque as a stream of pine pitch, still has a basic mythos at work.

  • True Detective takes place in a world where Chambers’ book does not exist.
  • In this world, people take drugs to access other planes of reality, and commune with the Yellow King. This is the drug found in the bodies of Childress’ victims.
  • Worshippers of the Yellow King strive to maintain the ways of living that they and their families have enjoyed for generations. This includes an isolation within the bayou, and inattention from authority figures. Like Brigadoon or Avalon, Carcosa is an idyllic utopia for some that must be hidden from the outside world by its residents. At the same time, Carcosa is also a state of being believers can enter when in communion with the Yellow King. (“You in Carcosa, now…”)
  • In order to keep Carcosa hidden, worshippers must draw on the Yellow King’s powers. He is appeased through ritual rape and murder. The rituals may be the second act of the play The King in Yellow, which exists in our world as a work of meta-fiction.
  • Rust’s extremely unusual experience working undercover in Vice make him uniquely qualified to deal with this situation. Not only does he have multiple drugs in his body’s tissues that cause “flashback” type hallucinations — which are actually glimpses of something genuine — but he is also accustomed to metaphorically crossing between worlds and wearing different identities. (“Take off your mask…” “No mask! No mask!”)
  • For this reason, Childress engages with Rust by leaving clues for him to find. While Errol’s father took the role of high priest and marked his son for the work by scarring his face, Errol Childress has no children of his own to pass the role onto. He chooses Rust, based on Rust’s investigations of the Tuttles and their school system — which provided children for sacrifice. This is why he addresses Rust as either “prince” or “priest” in their final confrontation.
  • However, Rust was not the first choice for this position. That was Marty. The body of Dora Lange was left for Marty to find, not Rust — Marty was Louisiana CID long before Rust, and Marty’s eldest daughter Audrey appears to have been being groomed for the cult based on her drawings and play-acting, which reflect elements of the ritual rapes. It isn’t until Rust investigates the Tuttles at their HQ that the focus changes direction. (As a sidenote, “Audrey” is the name of another sexually-precocious character in Twin Peaks, who almost becomes the victim of a serial killer.)

Rejoice. Death is not the end. Rejoice, Carcosa.

One ResponseLeave one →

  1. spacechampion

     /  April 7, 2014

    I think Rust’s unique ability to look into madness and remain sane was demonstrated 3 times in the show. First in the widely praised 6-minute single-take action shot in the Projects with Ginger, despite being on drugs. Second, responding to what evil he sees at Reggie Ledoux’s and what Marty does there. Third, in Carcosa with seeing a hallucination of cosmic insanity. At that moment I think was born his hope. Then he’s stabbed, and has his hopeful vision of his daughter and father waiting for him in death, and dissolving his old definitions. Lots of atheists like me got annoyed thinking it was a preachy change of heart with Rust now believing in an afterlife, but I disagree. He realizes it was a hallucination but a comforting one, so even in the face of insanity he remains sane, acknowledging it was a hallucination yet comforting at the same time.

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  • Madeline Ashby…

    ...is a science fiction writer, strategic foresight consultant, anime fan, and immigrant. She is represented by Anne McDermid & Associates, and IAM Sports & Entertainment. She has been a guest on TVO's The Agenda multiple times. Her novels are published by Angry Robot Books. Her fiction has appeared in Nature, FLURB, Tesseracts, Imaginarium, and Escape Pod. Her essays and criticism have appeared at BoingBoing, io9, WorldChanging, Creators Project, Arcfinity, and Tor.com.
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