In the first season of True Detective (2014), two white male representatives of Louisiana's Criminal Investigation Division are shown tracking down a potential serial killer. The killer, or killers, leaves behind the body of a murdered white woman wearing a crown made of deer antlers, a swirling circular pattern etched into the back of her neck, and rough-hewn wooden contraptions that suggest some kind of religious meaning. These signs, and the wooden contraptions in particular, appear again and again in different locations and contexts, which strongly evoke the dominance of the oil industry in this region. Visually, the show registers the nightmare of such a suggestive landscape, connecting the plight of individuals to the plight of the environment, especially as there are subtle hints throughout that what is on display is related to the destructiveness of climate change. At the same time, the action and plot work to foreclose such associations, moving instead to a Manicheanism that drowns out other considerations. So what happens if viewers were to focus on the former, and insist on paying attention to what the landscape itself has to communicate?

I want to say, a lot. Viewers might, for instance, become more aware that they are not separate from the landscape, but a part of it, inextricably entangled as things in mutual co-being; that race grants some of us more of an illusion of being separate, which is in turn getting more difficult to credit in the midst of environmental breakdowns; that male-centered genres, like the crime drama, no longer work all that well to shore up white masculinity's conflation with the human; that the experience of time has a way of collapsing on itself, scrambling teleological ideas of linear progression, as distinctions of race, gender, and the human are scrambled; and most of all that climate change figures in the background, resistant to plot but there nonetheless to the attentive.

The first season seems to make the landscape speak about these things in a way that the latter seasons don't. It may be because of the particularity of Louisiana, which more than California or Arkansas (the locations of the second and third seasons), has been so visibly ravaged by heavy extractive industries. Or it may be because of the way all of its episodes were directed, with an attention to sight and sound that encourages and rewards careful viewing. Reflecting on the present's increasing awareness of the many environmental problems exacerbating already existing social, political, and economic inequities, Leif Sorensen argues, "Apocalyptic writing that dwells within and calls attention to rifts between the probable and the radically uncertain, between human and nonhuman scales of time, and between individual narratives and collective modes of storytelling, is especially urgent now. For it reminds us that the world and our entanglements with it are open to unpredictable transformations."1 For whatever reason and despite its many faults, which I won't hesitate to foreground, the first season of True Detective exemplifies for me this very kind of storytelling, which is not only apocalyptic but also horror-filled.

The two detectives at the center of this show move between a past and a present, trying to solve a crime that, as in almost all crime dramas, leads to a larger crime the time-shifting perhaps anticipating the show's own rapid decline, like so much of television, into memory. Because of this temporal framing, the show calls attention to how climate change has affected the South Louisiana landscape, and how the often broken and suffering bodies of the characters the detectives interact with are the ones who experience the ravages of environmental damage most. African Americans and other people of color in particular, with their few speaking parts and spectral presences, are depicted as mere objects, while white women are often shown as occupying a transitional zone between human and object. Meanwhile, the white male detectives struggle to maintain their own claims to personhood, as the landscape grows harsher and more inhospitable.

As the show progresses, it engages directly with the possibility that humans delude themselves with the mirage of personhood, so that even whiteness, heterosexuality, and masculinity are no protection from the inhumanity the show vividly portrays. What viewers get a peek of, before it is withheld from view by a disappointing end, is a gothic depiction of contemporary life, where those living in a degraded present are left to contemplate different scales of time that threaten to make all human endeavors insignificant a shiver-inducing prospect that opens up consideration of the existential crises we face as our environments breakdown.

In the third episode, Rust Cohle and his partner Martin Hart find themselves traveling through low-lying terrain, a lone car cruising down a dirt road alongside water lapping onto a reedy and indeterminate shore. Trees are few and far between, and comprised of bare limbs. The trees seem dead in a land that is dying. As they travel down this road, Cohle says, "These pipelines carved up this coast like a jigsaw. Place is going to be underwater in thirty years." This moment captures how the geographical and social terrain traveled by the detectives has been shaped by oil culture.2

There are almost no other visible jobs, except for low-paying service positions, such as truck driving, and others that are illegal, such as prostitution and drug dealing. The town of Vermilion Parish itself lacks a center. People live in shacks or trailers or rooms in motel-style buildings, except for Hart who lives in a ranch house with his family. The environment is ravaged, destroyed by heavy industry and Hurricane Andrew, which is referenced twice in the third episode. Different Christian sects abound, suggesting how religion becomes an important refuge for people who are barely surviving in such a raggedy milieu. In numerous shots, the background contains looming oil refineries and other heavy industrial structures spewing smoke, often with people (including children) in the foreground going about their daily lives. The importance of this background is reinforced by the opening credits, which begins with the image of a refinery and allows more images of polluted industrial sites to linger in the montage that follows.

By giving dramatic form to the engines of climate change, the show conveys to viewers how a few wealthy fossil fuel barons subject everyone else to these horrifying forces. The tableau of the murdered white woman that opens the series recalls, then, the costs of such profit-taking. She is made into a mere thing, a dead body, that blends into the ruined landscape and can no longer exert any will other than what inanimate objects are capable of. She embodies what humans will become, even in life, if the extractive zone depicted in the show grows and proliferates.3 She is a symbol of what can no longer be recovered.

The first season of True Detective is most remembered for the outlandish observations made by Cohle. Many of these observations reinforce the ways in which persons lack autonomy, agency, or autopoeisis. Of a town he and his partner visit, he observes, "This place is like somebody's memory of a town, and the memory is fading." Of human life, he comments, "I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself." At the end of episode three, he says in a voiceover, "To realize that all your life, all your love, all your hate, all your memories, all your pain, it was all the same thing. It was all the same dream, a dream that you had inside a locked room, a dream about being a person." In episode four, Cohle observes that after having looked at so many pictures of the dead in his search for a second overlooked victim connected to his case, he notices how the look in every deceased body's face reveals a last-second relief in having to give up the idea of selfhood.4

Humans are, according to this view, a mistake of nature more animal-like than self-conscious persons, all on their way to becoming like the body of the murdered woman that starts the investigation or the photographs of the dead women Cohle spends so much time scrutinizing. Cohle is mistaken, however, in that he gives too much power to a biological force (and to a disappointing light-versus-dark dualism by the season's end) and not enough to the ways in which what makes the dream of personhood so elusive for so many of the characters in the show is the forces at work in the background a dependence on fossil fuels that destroys landscapes, robs people of their labor, and erodes the very institutions that give shape to their everyday lives.

It's noteworthy, then, that when Cohle talks about the thingness of persons, the persons that have been turned into things through death are all white women. Cohle's invocation of personhood, even when inveighing against its illusoriness, thus remains white, something brought to the viewer's attention further by the fact that the two officers investigating the older Cohle and Hart are African Americans. The latter stand out because there are so few non-white characters in the show: a low-ranking black female officer who works at the station, a few black residents, a black pastor, a black forensics specialist, a black woman who once worked as a maid for a suspect and her daughter, and a gang of black drug dealers some white supremacist bikers are intent on robbing. There's also a glimpse of Vietnamese Americans when the detectives stop for lunch at a roadside Banh Mi restaurant, in the third episode. These tertiary characters have few-to-no speaking parts. They blend into the background of the show, and as such are markers of the landscape as much as the raggedy coast and the hulking oil refineries that lurk at the edges of the frame.5

Cohle and Hart are at the center of the narrative, two white men who struggle to maintain their unique place as the heroes of the drama. Hart struggles just a little more than Cohle because his acts of self-assigned heroism are accompanied by acts of selfishness, self-righteousness, and physical violence. He fights not only to maintain his autonomy but also to remain at the center of attention. During his interview with the African American detectives in episode three, he says something about "coon hound." When asked to elaborate, Hart grows defensive. He says, "everyone is a drama queen these days." Meanwhile, in the fire fight between the white biker gang and the black drug dealers in an East Texas housing project that ends episode four, the dialogue makes ample use of the N-word, and while Cohle has no admiration for the racist bikers the show itself portrays the black residents of the housing project as anonymous, menacing, and prone to violence.

When they're inside a stash house they're about to rob, Cohle and the biker gang members he's infiltrated can see the black residents through frosted window panes, looming shadows reminiscent of zombies surrounding a farmhouse. While white women might lose their illusion of personhood in the moment of death, the paltry representations of African American characters in the show suggest they aren't seen as persons at all by the white male characters. Some figures in the show have lost their humanity while others have never been human. Despite Cohle's many protestations otherwise, he and Hart fight to preserve what remains of theirs, an idea of the human founded on ideas of self-sufficiency, autonomy from the environment, and mastery.

This is a powerful racial drama, and one that can blind viewers from what's also there on the screen: the causes of climate change, its consequences, and its slow-moving deadliness that seeps into every facet of the characters' lives. The season takes place over seventeen years, from when Cohle and Hart first catch the case to later when they realize they killed only two of the three main perpetrators. This means that there's a long lag between when Cohle observes that the coastline they are driving through in episode three will be underwater in thirty years and, the end of the season, when that number of years is more than halved. If his prediction is correct, the road they drove on in this early episode no longer exists by the season's conclusion. The waters of the Gulf have already claimed it.

This last fact makes the ending of the season more frustrating, since the show turns its focus toward uncovering a conventional serial killer and disinvites its viewers from making sense of how the different visual elements on such prominent display throughout the season dramatize how these characters are living the course of their lives through the effects of climate change. The writer Nic Pizzolatto, who wrote every episode of the season, and the director Cary Joji Fukunaga, who directed every episode, increasingly work against each other as the season progresses, the story funneling attention along one well-worn plot line and the visual field of the screen demanding a different kind of attentiveness.6 Because of this split, the effects of climate change the show registers in such striking ways in the visual field becomes disconnected from its narrative.

As Lili Loofbourow argues in a special forum on the show that appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, plot gains dominance by the end of True Detective's first season with disappointing results: "Errol Childress [the villain uncovered at the end of the season] has nothing to teach us, and neither does True Detective in its fond hope that these old manly genres can keep operating in the exhausted currency of mutilated women, or its insistence that evil somehow proclaims itself. The real terror is that evil doesn't proclaim itself."7 Likewise, the "evil" of climate change the show registers in such striking ways in the visual field, and refers to in its dialogue in a less overt way, is not connected to its narrative, so that viewers cannot make sense of how the ravaged landscape, the ravaged bodies of white women, and the ravaged lives of almost all of its characters are connected. This leads me to think that these effects could very well get more pronounced without people ever thinking about how such effects are a part of something larger, and in need of attention. If climate change is a frame through which phenomena are made to relate to each other and in this way to define reality, it is a frame that continues not to matter to how the everyday world, regardless of how awful it becomes, is understood across the cultural spectrum. It may prove, in this regard, even more difficult to see than race, which is itself so evasive. The horror True Detective might thus reveal to its viewers, then, is how we can't see what is plainly visible, and how this failure puts so many, especially the most vulnerable, in danger.

As the first season moves between a past and a present, allowing the older characters to pause over the actions of their younger selves and reassess what they thought they understood, I want to spend the end of this essay reassessing what I think I understand about the show. Examine the evidence one more time. What have I missed?

Delia Byrnes has helped me to pay more attention to the title sequence. This is, indeed, one of the most memorable features of the series. Polished and evocative, it reproduces iconic photographs of the Gulf Coast region taken by Richard Misrach for his book Petrochemical America.8 It's one of Misrach's photographs that appears first, manipulated to include motion: a wide dirt path running through a sugarcane field that leads to an oil refinery. "Even without the explicitness of its title (Sugar Cane and Refinery, Mississippi River Corridor, 1998)," Byrnes observes,

the image forges an uneasy connection between the ominous refinery...and the racial legacies of the Plantation South, of which sugarcane harvesting was the most notoriously brutal and back-breaking staple crop regime. Consequently, the viewer's entrance into the Louisiana of True Detective occurs through the fusion of the twin industries of exploitation that have historically laid claim to the Bayou State plantation slavery and oil.9

(The same photograph, it might be worth pointing out, graces the cover of Arlie Hochschild's bestseller Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.10)

The more often I see it, though, the more it seems to me that the title sequence lays its message on too thick when it starts to impose images of human bodies, mostly of actors from the series, on top of images like the Misrach photographs. The suggestion is that bodies and landscapes are intermingled, and are part of some combined ecology. This is a great point, but the title sequence keeps repeating it with every image. Viewed over the span of an eight-episode season, the sequence fades in impressiveness and it's easy when binge-watching to fast forward through it. The images in particular add less and less to the experience. What I remember most are not these images but the music. In particular, I find myself hearing echoes of the song "Far from Any Road" by The Handsome Family, a husband-and-wife duo (Rennie and Brett Sparks) who have been performing their mix of country and hymnal together for many years. In the album version, on top of a clacking of a wooden bell and a washtub trill that begins the song, which together, repeated over and over again, sounds a little like the trod of a horse, a simple guitar chord begins its own repetition. These two sounds make up the base rhythm of the song. When the lyrics begin to be sung, Rennie Sparks's voice is deep and monotone a little like Leonard Cohen's, except with a clearer pitch and less louche, or perhaps, if it's not too obvious, Johnny Cash and then, after a while, Brett Sparks's voice provides a higher octave, something more airy and sweet. The deep and the high voices trade lyrics for a short period, and then harmonize on the final words, before the sound ends with the replacement of the guitar chords by the disco beat of light drums. The last sounds are of the hoofs hitting ground again.

I don't think my description can match the eerie effect of the song's sounds the ways in which the voices of Rennie and Brett are timed to contrast deep and high, baritone and soprano, to the point where the former seems to speak of something found in the earth and the latter of something that floats above. The accompanying music adds to an elemental feeling, as if something or someone very old or even ancient is singing about a mystery that is beyond solving. The repetitious nature of the title sequence, which viewers will watch at the start of each sequence (unless of course they skip over them), has a way of funneling attention to this song, and over time the words themselves begin to hum in memory. It's difficult, I find, for me to remember exactly what the words are, even after having studied the lyrics in written form. They are dense with complex imagery, strange and chilling.

The sounds of this song are reinforced by the soundtrack, which draws from folk and alt country music by stars like Steve Earle, John Lee Hooker, and Leonard Cohen (all sampled in the second episode, "Seeing Things").11 It's the powerful effects of this music, not overdone but subtle so that the sounds remain at the edges of the viewers' awareness, that I missed in my first viewing of the show. Just as powerful are the background sounds that emphasize a rhythmic metallic beating, which echoes something industrial but in a way that is fading. These sounds dominate when something dramatic is about to happen, shaping the feel of heightened emotional scenes, and are a more pronounced part of the experience of the show than the specific songs. The show's sonic field thus contributes to the feeling that, as The Handsome Family's song puts it, "shadows danced."

The main reason to pay attention to the soundtrack is that it provides a rhythmic backbone for the series, a memorable series of beats that make it easier for the viewer to remember what happens in the narrative. Or if not what happens, then at least the beats make it easier for the viewer to remember the images and snatches of dialogue, and to retain the "memory of a town." They help fix the story in a present that exists long after the finale, and reminds us of what we should have been focusing on all along: the representation of people's lives that are worth living despite the terrible conditions they find themselves in, and the difficult and often flawed choices they often have to make.

When the detectives come to visit the white mother of the murdered white woman whose body triggers the plot, the mother is distracted, incapable of maintaining a logical train of thought, defensive about accusations that the detectives do not make, over-revealing about skeletons in the family closet. At one point, the mother bows her head in severe pain. Her hands begin to shake and ache, and she reveals that she's worked in dry cleaning for twenty years and the chemicals have taken their toll. The camera does a close-up of her hands, the fingertips showing severe damage as she struggles to control their trembling. The camera also pans around the room to reveal a bookcase full of empty bottles, a clustering of old brooms, and other clutter. The room, like most of the domestic spaces in the show, is full of stuff, much of it of little use, junk and discards that carry an obvious metaphoric significance for the people who live alongside them. These characters may not be capable of expressing themselves in a refined manner or even to act in their own best interest, but they persist as best they can under constraints that are becoming, in a world marred by inequality, poverty, racism, and toxic environments, all too familiar. They may, in the eyes of the detectives, be mere things, but the camera allows them moments of dignity.


  1. Leif Sorensen, "The Apocalypse is a Non-Human Story," ASAP Journal 3, no. 3 (September 2018), 541-2.[]
  2. According to Ross Barrett and Daniel Worden, oil culture refers to "a dynamic field of representation and symbolic practices that have infused, affirmed, and sustained the material armatures of the oil economy and helped to produce the particular modes of everyday life that have developed around oil use in North American and Europe since the nineteenth century (and that have since become global)." "Introduction," in Oil Culture, edited by Ross Barrett and Daniel Worden (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), xxiv. Also, see Stephanie LeMenager, Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).[]
  3. See Macarena Gómez-Barris, The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017). She writes, speaking about Latin America but also applicable to this case, "Extractivismo... indicates an economic system that engages in thefts, borrowings, and forced removals, violently reorganizing social life as well as the land by thieving resources from Indigenous and Afro-descendent territories" (xvii).[]
  4. Rust Cohle's monologues, as well as much of the plot of the season itself, owes an avowed debt to the horror writer Thomas Legotti, who wrote similar tales of existential dread. See Legotti, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimescribe (New York: Penguin, 2015), a reprint of his first two short story collections.[]
  5. This problem is not relieved in the third season of the show. Its focus on an African American detective (played brilliantly by Mahershala Ali) oddly bends attention to the missing white girl who has obsessed him from his mid-thirties all the way into his seventies. []
  6. If so, how important is it that the director responsible for establishing this visual field is biracialhis mother is Swedish American and his father a third-generation Japanese American born in a World War II Japanese American internment camp? Fukunaga has never directed anything that references his ethnic background, but his earlier work has made clear that he is driven by a strong concern about power, race, and most relevant here gender. His first film Sin Nombre (2009) is about two young people, a boy and a girl, in Mexico trying to make the perilous voyage across the border into the United States without the proper documents while his second is a powerful adaptation of Jane Eyre (2011) that foregrounds the protagonist's struggle with powerlessness. []
  7. Lili Loofbourow, "Marty the Monster," Los Angeles Review of Books (March 11, 2014). For a different interpretation of Childress, see Christopher Lirette, "Something True about Louisiana: HBO's True Detective and the Petrochemical America Aesthetic," Southern Spaces (August 13, 2014). []
  8. Richard Misrach and Kate Orff, Petrochemical America (New York: Aperture, 2012).[]
  9. Delia Byrnes, "'I Got a Bad Taste in My Mouth Out Here': Oil's Intimate Ecologies in HBO's True Detective," The Global South 9, no. 1 (Spring 2015), 94.[]
  10. Arlie Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New York: The New Press, 2018).[]
  11. According to Richard Peterson and Bruce Beal, alternative country music (or alt country) is "a congeries of music that fans find sounds well together and express much of the same sentiments...Acceptance among fans involves a commitment to reviving and melding earlier forms of music that are defined as spontaneous and home-made, rather than contrived and polished." See Peterson and Beal, "Alternative country: Origins, music, world-view, fans, and taste in genre formation," Popular Music and Society 25, no. 1-2 (2008), 238. Also, see Barbara Ching, "Going Back to the Old Mainstream: No Depression, Robbie Fulks, and Alt.Country's Muddied Waters," in A Boy Named Sue: Gender and Country Music, edited by Kristine McCusker and Diane Pecknold (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2004), 178-195. On folk music, see Benjamin Filene, Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 61. One limitation of this book is that it focuses on male artists and historic figures to the exclusion of women. Also, see Aaron Fox, Real Country: Music and Language in Working-Class Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004) and Josh Kun, Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).[]