This post contains frank discussion of the first two episodes of Season 3 of True Detective. Proceed with care.
Given how wildly its two seasons varied in both tone and public esteem, it’s hard to nail down what, exactly, the series True Detective is. Yes, it’s a mystery and, sure, it’s somewhat macho. But there’s also an overlay of mysticism, primordial evil, and a stab at literary profundity. These latter elements, so crucial to the success of Season 1, are back with a vengeance in Season 3. So, alongside all the grisly allusions to real-life rural crimes that rocked America over the past few decades, True Detective’s third season premiere is packed with enough literary allusions to satisfy your favorite English major.
We touched on a few of these nods in the latest episode of Vanity Fair’s *Still Watching: True Detective*podcast, but for a deeper dive, check out the article below.
Ready? Here we go.
What the Leng?: Eagle-eyed watchers and veterans of the True Detective guessing game will know that no book title shown in an episode should ever go unscrutinized. The titles are even more intriguing when they’re fictional. So, when Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) stumbles across an Authorized D&D manual in Will Purcell’s room titled THE FORESTS OF LENG, it’s time to sit up and pay attention because no such manual exists. The Forests of Leng will yield no hits on your Google search but the Plateau of Leng might. This is a fictional realm created by H.P. Lovecraft that has been alluded to again and again by titans in the fantasy realm like Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Stephen King and George R.R. Martin. In Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, for example, Leng is an isolated island inhabited, in part, by a culture that worships the “Old Ones,” who dwell underground in subterranean ruins and labyrinths. In short, Leng is mysterious, fog-shrouded place where old monsters live. It’s likely no coincidence that the instant Hays found the manual in the episode, True Detective director Jeremy Saulnier cut to to Arkansas cops searching a supernatural-looking, misty field.
As with some of the Yellow King/Carcosa stuff from True Detective Season 1, this Leng business might be all atmosphere, no actual pay-off. But if there is, indeed, a supernatural something afoot in Season 3 then, perhaps, Stephen King’s Leng is the best parallel to consider. In the interconnected King-verse, Leng is the place where the spellbook for his most evil character, Randall Flag, was written. King comes into play again because. . .
What’s In a Name? Wayne Hays is a fairly solid, ordinary name but what of his partner: Roland West (Stephen Dorff)? Roland Deschain is the name of Stephen King’s central hero in The Dark Tower series. (He’s the titular Gunslinger of the first novel but let’s not talk about the time Idris Elba played him.) King, in turn, nabbed the name Roland from history. Roland was the name of a real-life medieval military leader under Charlemagne who, more importantly, was the subject the oldest surviving major work of French literature: an epic poem titled The Song of Roland. Roland was a loyal and trusting knight who was told to bring up the rear guard and burst his own temples open while sounding a horn too vigorously. What a way to go. In 1855 Robert Browning made the warrior the subject of his poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” which leads us back to King. It’s a bit incongruous to think of Dorff’s Roland West—an uncouth man who refers to “Saigon trim” and is eager to start a fight—as carrying the legacy of this fabled warrior but True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto often favors these kinds of incongruities and we ignore a King allusion at our peril.
Robert Penn Warren: Carmen Ejogo’s Amelia Reardon is an English teacher (and, later, a renowned author) which gives True Detective the excuse to drop some lovely poetic voice-over to the first episode when she reads out two Robert Penn Warren poems. The first is titled “Tell Me a Story” and reads:
Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood
By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard
The great geese hoot northward.
I could not see them, there being no moon
And the stars sparse. I heard them.
I did not know what was happening in my heart.
It was the season before the elderberry blooms,
Therefore they were going north.
The sound was passing northward.
Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.
This poem with its mention of Time and starlight and distances is very Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) Season 1 and while teaching the poem to her class, Amelia has written a total Cohle-ism on her chalkboard: “What is the name of the world?” But, of course, the Warren lines that stick out the most in the context of this episode is: “In this century, and moment, of mania/Tell me a story.” On the one hand, this “century of mania” could refer to any modern hundred-year range we chose. So this HBO series itself is a story told in a century of mania. But if some of the implications of the post-murder turmoil that might over-take this town come true, then the case of the missing Purcell kids is, specifically, the story of a moment of mania known as “Satanic Panic” which swept the nation.
The second Warren poem Amelia reads to close out the episode is titled “IV. Love and Knowledge” from Audubon: A Vision:
Their footless dance
Is of the beautiful liability of their nature.
Their eyes are round, boldly convex, bright as a jewel,
And merciless. They do not know
Compassion, and if they did,
We should not be worthy of it. They fly
In air that glitters like fluent crystal
And is hard as perfectly transparent iron, they cleave it
With no effort. They cry
In a tongue multitudinous, often like music.
He slew them, at surprising distances, with his gun.
Over a body held in his hand, his head was bowed low,
But not in grief.
He put them where they are, and there we see them:
in our imagination.
What is love?
Our name for it is knowledge.
This poem is dedicated to the famous naturalist John James Audubon and describes that man’s real-life practice of killing the birds he famously drew. He would use “fine shot” so as not to mutilate them so he could deliver the best approximation of what they looked like in life. Warren doesn’t necessarily pass judgment on Audubon in this poem, but we might. All this cold, calculated murder in pursuit of “knowledge” a.k.a. Audubon’s well-read work and much-regarded art? Does it feel worth it?
When you take the Warren poem and then lay it over the actual prey in this story, the Purcell children, the verse grows even more chilling. Who killed Will and in pursuit of what knowledge and what does any of that have to do with love? Once again, like the Leng stuff, all this verse might be nothing more than atmosphere but if that’s the case, it’s working.
In Cold Blood: The show makes no secret that it’s drawing on Truman Capote’s 1966 ground-breaking work of true crime fiction to act as an inspiration for Amelia’s book on the Purcell case titled LIFE AND DEATH AND THE HARVEST MOON: Murder, a child abduction, and the community it destroyed. Amelia has her own real-world parallel in Arkansas investigator and writer Mara Leveritt who wrote best-selling books about several real-life Arkansas murders that have direct parallels to the fictional Purcell case.
In the 2015 section of the premiere when Wayne studies the back of Amelia’s book, we get the following recap of the case (slightly obscured by fingers):
November 7th, 1980 is a cold day in the small town of West Finger,
Arkansas, nestled in the shadow of the Ozark Mountains. Two young
children wave goodbye to their father and pedal their bicycles into
the sun. The, as simply as it begins [OBSCURED] ends—transformed into
a family’s nightmare. Will Purcell [OBSCURED] deep in the woods, and
his sister Julie never comes home.
Does that last part mean that the Julie Purcell who shows up in 1990 to throw a wrench in Wayne’s life is not the real Julie Purcell? We’ll have to tune in to find out.