True Detective — Other Lives
What seemed to be a kind of boring procedural episode held a huge, bizarre clue that things might be weirder than they seem. Once again it’s all about surface and submersion.
I’ll admit, even as a self-proclaimed True Detective fanboy, this episode was a little hard to swallow. The first episode of the series was all about setting up the characters and why they’re on this case. The fifth episode was pretty much the same thing, but two months later. I suspect there’s a reason for it, a broader theme that won’t be clear until we get every episode. But it also kind of feels like Pizzolatto being too clever for his own good.
There are relationship issues, of course. Paul is a wreck, he’s crumbling piece by piece. Ani’s sexual harassment training is going as well as you might expect. Frank and Jordan are trying to patch things up. The interesting thing there is Jordan’s confession that she probably can’t have kids of her own. I’ll be honest, when she kept mentioning that she’d had “a surgery” I had no idea what she meant, even less so when she said she’d really had three surgeries. Someone on Twitter mentioned that’s a euphemism for abortion. Went totally over my head! Also, apparently it’s a myth that abortions harm a woman’s ability to get pregnant. Could be sloppy writing. Could be Jordan lying to Frank. I still feel like she’s manipulating him, that she wants to adopt a child for a very specific reason, but it’s a total mystery right now.
We got two huge pieces of information about the overall plot. First, Frank owned a trash company that intentionally polluted the “parks and farms” along the rail corridor to make the land cheap, creating a bonanza for the companies that came in and bought it up. Then the company was sold and the man who bought it died under strange circumstances. Graft and kickbacks are one thing, but that is one seriously evil scheme. It’s a pretty huge revelation. We also know that a lot of these rich assholes are worried about that hard drive, which probably has videos of them engaging in illicit activities.
The other stunner was Ray finding out the man he murdered, thinking it was his wife’s rapist, was not — it was just someone Frank wanted offed. The real rapist was caught, DNA evidence confirming it. So not only was that act the thing that wrecked Ray’s marriage, it wasn’t even the defensible (in his mind) act of vengeance he thought it was. He was just Frank’s dumb pawn. And Colin Farrel sure did nail the, “I’m hearing shocking, life-altering news and have to try not to show it right now” expression for that scene.
But that’s all surface. What’s underneath? Well, I don’t know. We don’t have all the pieces yet. A lot of my thoughts are just jumbled ideas about what might be, and there’s a chance I’m finding signs of weirdness in this season because I want it to be there so desperately. But there was a huge, crazy clue — the book Pitlor was reading when Ray showed up to beat the secrets out of him.
Thinking back to last season, some of the secrets were revealed rather obviously: the statewide conspiracy when the commission got involved in the case, the blatant proclamations about Carcosa. Some of them weren’t clear until much later, like the hints that Marty’s daughter had suffered sexual abuse and was likely a victim of the very conspiracy Marty was investigating all those years. This shot of the book, carefully positioned to be seen, with the shot lingering long enough so you’d notice, feels like someone yelling about Carcosa. It was intentional, and it means something.
So what’s the book? A Separate Reality by Carlos Castaneda. I recognized the name immediately (I used to read a lot about weird 60s and 70s psychic research and paranormal crap) — Castaneda claimed to have gone into Northern Mexico and talked to a shamanistic leader named Don Juan Matus, who taught him all kinds of mystical, metaphysical secrets. He earned his degrees based on the books he wrote in the late 60s about Matus, but later a lot of people claimed his books were bullshit. It’s a lot of loopy hippie, take some peyote and shrooms and expand your mind stuff.
Things got a little weird later in Castaneda’s life, though. He withdrew to a private ranch where he lived with three women who were sort of his followers, or maybe wives, who called themselves brujas, or witches. They occasionally appeared on talk shows of that era, and they seem like weird androgynous robots. They formed a company called Cleargreen to promote the ideas of something Castaneda called Tensegrity. Originally an architectural term, they used it to mean a series of yoga-like motions called magical passes that would make you healthy or unlock your mind’s potential or something. And that shit was seriously wacky. Here’s a promo video they made to teach people the Tensegrity motions.
After Castaneda died, the three women scattered. The skeletal remains of one was found in Death Valley some time later.
How can we tie all this to True Detective? Here are some possibilities. One thing I noticed is that Pitlor was taking notes as he was reading — he was taking the book very seriously. Another oddity — Ray mentioned twice that he’s been clean for 60 days, just booze, no drugs. So we know that during the period of the first four episodes, he was using drugs. What drugs? What effect where they having on him? One of Castaneda’s prime tenets was that psychotropic drugs were the key to reaching the next level or achieving magical enlightenment or whatever. And maybe the fact that the massacre perpetrators were Mexican is somehow connected? I don’t know, that one’s a reach.
Then there’s Ani’s dad, who leads a series of spiritual seminars and retreats and was very active in those circles in the 70s. It’s tempting to say he’s analogous to Castaneda himself. We already have this established idea of a New Age cult. And the missing woman Ani is investigating could very well be similar to one of the brujas — Castaneda, in the way of all cult leaders, made the women cut all ties to friends and family.
Lastly, there is the concept of nagual. Castaneda claimed that Matus gave him this title, which could mean leader, but could also mean a bridge between an unknown or unknowable realm and the realm or perceptions of man. In the second episode, we saw the African animal masks, also symbolic of a bridge between the spirit world and the world of man.
You want a theory? OK. Ray Velcaro is the nagual. If we follow the same meta-narrative as last season (of characters who are or become aware they are characters in a show), Ray becomes aware of this and acts as the bridge between the viewer and the world of the show. My only evidence for this is his hinted-at drug use and that scene from the doctor’s office where he stared directly into the camera (and maybe the fact that he was shot and “died”). I also don’t think it’s important to the overall plot — it’s just a strange undercurrent. But there it is.
I’m sticking with my weird hippie apocalypse cult idea, though. And I think maybe Jordan was in it, or is still in it. Wouldn’t it be badass if this season ended with some kind of actual apocalypse? Even some kind of crazy meta-apocalypse where elements of a TV drama break down, Too Many Cooks style, or that post-apocalyptic movie being filmed in Vinci sprawls into the real world. I don’t know, I just like my weirdness really weird.