The latest season of the anthology program True Detective has hit a sort of climax so let’s look at the deeper elements of this series. Last season gave us a cop show taking on the buddy format as the two cops seemed to argue the question of whether man deserves life in the first place.
Though not as out-front as the dialogues were in the previous season this new incarnation again finds itself asking questions deeply rooted within philosophy. The show, a modern noire set in California, mostly revolves around the different elements that make up the seedier side of life as 3 cops try to find out what happened to a city manager. Once again this story is much more about the internal life of the investigators.
We travel the road with these characters, begin to see the world through their eyes, and eventually the crime is something else entirely. This works in part because noire is more about the process than the destination.
So what I’ve alluded to in the title is Nietzche. The name, the very word, is like a heaviness that overpowers everything else. While I want to say it’s OK, that he won’t bite, that’s not entirely true. While I might describe him as assertive, or possibly even overbearing, he was without a doubt an outspoken critic and thinker in that he was both prolific and thought provoking. A man at the right place in the right time.
What’s important is his work on values. Basically a very important concept we look at when thinking about Nietzsche is “Master-Slave Morality.” He would say that Christianity was a slave morality-accepting a lot in life rather than taking one. This gives us the idea of a master morality where one takes the things they want, believe in. Goodness, to Nietzsche, was a sort of traditional idea where people called things good because they were told they were good—this is in direct opposition to Nietzsche belief that goodness comes from results. While I might not kill a psycho, thus observing the good of not killing, it might get me killed, therefore the rule of not killing should be questioned.
This would lead to his concept of the transavaluation of values. Living in 19th century Europe he found Christian values to be promoting a slave morality that left people not only living in oppressive and weak ways but promoting these very values. The transvaluation of values was to see one’s wants as not sinful, and accepting the slave morality as being weak.
This leads to his concept of “will to power.” While possibly the most elusive concept of his to tie down we’ll use it here to define the goal to enforce one’s will on the world, on others, and it’s primacy in our behavior and psychology. Control. Not that domination of others was the goal in and of itself but that one should make their own choices and strive to live how they want.
The big claim we see from Nietzsche is that “God is dead.” What this means is a desire in man for a new morality that worked in modern times. Involved in this process is what he called the Ubermensch. Man, humanity as a whole, should work towards making a new system of values that in Nietzsche’s mind were life affirming.
Nietzsche is often connected with the philosophy of Existentialism (what’s existentialism?) due to his belief that people should make their decisions outside of factors like religion and laws.
He’s Kind of Weak...He Just Wanted to Watch
So the story this season follows the case to find the killer of Vinci city director Ben Caspere whose disappearance set many events into drift. Ostensibly we’re given a view from Vince Vaughn’s character Frank Semyon that Caspere was the go between connecting Semyon to a land deal that would lead to everyone getting rich off of a highway. Caspere died without handing off Semyon’s money. Now totally broke Vaughn’s character has to go back to using force to make a living.
Though Semyon has an officer in his grip played by Colin Farrell. After a favor-for-a-favor many years past Farrell’s Detective Velcoro is now in Semyon’s pocket. As we see through flashback this “transaction” has had a devastating effect on Velcoro who had effectively traded his legitimacy to Semyon. Now Semyon looks much the part of a legitimate, though somewhat off, businessman with Velcoro a sort of lumbering mess of a man whose flaws flow through his pores emanating a smell of advanced fucked-upitude.
As Velcoro starts the “missing person” investigation we find that Caspere was a man who seemed to be walking living-breathing libido. His apartment can only be described as psycho-sexual expressivism. Their investigation more or less goes nowhere, though Semyon impresses his concerns on Velcoro to find what happened to Caspere so he can have some chance of getting his millions back.
Eventually the body is found and we get 2 more people added to this investiagion. McAddams’ Ani Bezzerides is the daughter of a New Age type who grew up in a commune. Her familial connection to this movement is important. Though her childhood apparently left her with scars that explode like solar flares from her tough demeanor.
Lastly we have Taylor Kitsch’s Paul Woodrugh as former military. After military he went for some mercenary outfit similar to Blackwater and now rides a bike for the California Highway Patrol. He’s gay, he’s closeted, and he very much has a hard time dealing with his life stateside. He really just wants to be normal.
What kind of parties?
So there are two worlds that exist in the dark end of this world: the seedy street level criminal world that Semyon used to exist in, replete with tough guys and that “might makes right” philosophy running prostitutes and drugs, and the world of the big time where some of those drugs and prostitutes end up.
Semyon is a character who seems to want to transcend at the beginning of the series. It seems like we’re going to see the tale of the “gangster about to go legit” subverted, but something even more interesting happens. He’s placed in this position and goes about trying to get his head above water, financially, only to begin to really like this feeling. His journey to this new paradigm is what really redefines the other characters stories.
When Nietzsche was complaining about slave morality it was a response to an intellectual thought that had been steamrolling it’s way through European history for centuries. It’s easy to look at the past through this mindset but the modern world can sometimes lose that focus. After the rise of yuppie culture it’s hard to really tell who has the slave mentality and who has the master’s.
Somewhere in the middle of the Twentieth Century this profound change started to take place in America. Intellectually, sexually, religiously the balance of power started to change. People seemed to start aggressively digesting the line of thought Nietzsche placed in culture and it permeated the American ideaology. The self is what matters, advancement of a kind.
Eventually this lead to the New Age movement and the communes. The hippies and the yuppies. The communes lead to the cults. The yuppies gave us neocons.
Sometimes Your Worst Self is Your Best Self
If the first season of True Detective felt cloaked in a supernatural fantasy sheen, like cosmic horror might unearth itself at any moment, the current season feels like Twin Peaks might break out at any moment. In many ways it answers the situation of being a post-The Wire cop show by tapping into a different energy.
Ani and Paul offset the psychedelic morality play of Semyon and Velcoro actively tapped for a state investigation into the corrupt city of Vinci. Modeled on a real place Vinci is more a city state than a city, ruled by a single family apparently since ancient times. While the land deal was set to make many people rich the whole show has been hinting at something deeper. Stranger.
These two separate cases help establish this world. Everyone has the chance to play off everyone else and nobody really knows what the score is. Nietzsche’s sense of taking on the values that help you succeed really illuminate this dark place the police encompass. Like Lebowski said there are “a lot of ins and outs.”
So one of the questions we get when looking at the show this season is “what are you rebelling against?” Ani seems to be rebelling against her unconventional upbringing, Semyon against the idea that he’s soft, Velcoro against Semyon. Ani’s goal of becoming a detective to offset her father’s ideas has lead to her now being used by the state and her new question of what does she actually want to do with this investigation.
Essentially the world of Nietzsche is the idea that you have to make up your own rules. One of his ideas was the “Last Man.” Paul is that last man...insomuch as he’s afraid of letting himself be different. He’s gay but he doesn’t want to put the effort in to go after a relationship that might be seen as more “true” versus one that lets him live a pacified existence. If there’s really one takeaway from Nietzsche’s work it would be the idea that going after one’s happiness is what matters. Paul might not feel comfortable with his sexuality at the moment but it’s better to live following his true desires. Paul is caught in this space where he clearly wants to live the life of slave mentality but he doesn’t fit in. He’s turning his desires not into something life affirming but sinful.
People Take Chances
In my estimation the current season isn’t just looking at the ideas of Nietzsche but also subverting and critiquing them. I don’t follow Nietzsche’s ideas, but I think it’s honestly hard to not see their affect on the modern world. This season of the show it feels like the themes have landed a lot closer to ground level than last season, but I don’t know if most viewers see it. Essentially it’s a story about these people trying to find their true selves, the problem is the true self can be elusive. And for police, who essentially live and work this utilitarian life, the fluidity of humanness doesn’t translate. Funnily Ani, who has craved this establishment experience, seems to be the one most hurt by this due to internal police politics growing out of the case. For Velcoro, who has been living this compromised life, he seems to be coming out of something.
The important takeaway though might be Nietzsche’s basic goal of people breaking away from the herd. While it might sound like something very cool True Detective is showing this as a dark process. The world is not a “true” place, so one’s own truth is inherently dangerous.