The Genius, Internet-Friendly Mysteries-in-the-Mystery of ‘True Detective’

True Detective, three episodes from the end, has just started to generate the kind of buzz I think HBO always hoped for it. It’s not just that people like the show. (Though they do like the show.) It’s that it’s become the kind of show whose layered meanings people obsess over.

Witness this post over at io9, which picks up on references the show makes to “The Yellow King,” a sobriquet for True Detective’s ultimate villain. Michael M. Hughes, the post’s author, explains that the nom de guerre is plainly a direct reference to Robert W. Chambers’ 1895 story collection The King in Yellow:

The King in Yellow is a fictional play within a collection of short stories—a metafictional dramatic work that brings despair, depravity, and insanity to anyone who reads it or sees it performed. Chambers inserts only a few selected scenes from the play into his story collection, and all of them are from the first act.

Hughes points out that lines from The King in Yellow play-within-a-story actually appear in the diary of one of the victims whose murder Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) are seeking to solve. Hughes claims that this is a signal to the sophisticated horror fan that the show is about to descend into the supernatural. I think it is something more like about keeping the audience in a place where they can’t decide if the evil at the heart of a story is worldly or otherworldly. (I’ll grant that Cohle himself certainly seems to want to believe the latter, given his propensity for long, meandering speeches about how the world is a flat circle and such.) I doubt that reading up on Chambers and King will enable you to solve the mystery in the show before we get to the final reveal, if there is one. But it’s certainly fun to do so anyway, and think about it in the meantime.

It’s also the kind of marketing genius straight-up PR can’t buy. It’s a brilliant maneuver, this sop to the internet obsessives who chronicle television these days (yours truly included). This show now not only has a mystery at its heart that needs solving; it has a side-show going in mysteries the internet can obsess about “solving” in the interim between each episode. This was what made Lost so engrossing when it was going on, even if it turned out there was no ultimate rhyme or reason to the allusions. Bravo to the acclaimed writer Nick Pizzolato, who scripts the episode.

Speaking of that devil: a writer over at Criticwire got excited that he’d found another mystery-within-a-mystery over the weekend and published a post entitled, “Why Does ‘True Detective’ Repeatedly Overlap With the Work of a Self-Published Poet?” I guess the writer had been googling around and found a poem by someone named Denis McHale which closely echoed a line in this last Sunday’s episode of the show. Here’s the line:

This is a world where nothing is solved. You know, someone once told me time is a flat circle. Everything we’ve every done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again.

And here’s the poem:

This is a world where nothing is solved —

where time is a flat circle

and everything we ever do, or have ever done,

we do over and over and over again.

One certainly agrees there’s a substantial similarity, there. So substantial that it has to be a copy at some end. The Criticwire writer either forgot or didn’t bother to look into whether the poem — which was published on the poet’s blog in December — could have been inspired by the show. A Slate editor pointed out that actually the lines had appeared in promos that were online from at least October onwards, which means McHale could have just been publishing something he heard.

But since that Slate editor said that, a comment appeared on the Criticwire post from one Michael W. Phillips, who claims to have read a similar poem from McHale way back in 2004, well before any True Detective script could be said to be kicking around:

My name is Michael Phillips. In 2004, I had the pleasure of editing a manuscript for an emerging poet, Dennis McHale. While the book was ultimately passed upon for publication, I strongly recall the poem, “This World.” The title of the manuscript submitted was “Echoes Across Time” and “This World” was one of several gems that convinced our editorial board to give Mr. McHale’s book its initial review.

I don’t know what the answer is. Perhaps this Phillips guy is a crank causing trouble. Perhaps McHale just copied the lines from the promo. Occam’s razor suggests these first two are the most likely explanation. But there are others, too: Perhaps McHale and Pizzolato are simply friends and this is a joke between them. Perhaps this is some reference to another text people just haven’t found yet. Perhaps all of it is the work of some seriously stealth viral marketers. Point being: you can see how all of this gets engrossing. You can see how it would keep people up with Google k-holes, tweets and discussions. And you can see why all of that might drive someone who doesn’t otherwise watching the show to think: okay, guess I’d better take a look at what everyone’s talking about. And then start going down the google hole themselves.