The "True Detective" Creator Debunks Your Craziest Theories

As Sunday’s finale looms, Nic Pizzolatto discusses the first season’s arc, crazy fan theories, misogyny, female nudity on the show, and Season 2.

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. HBO/Lacey Terrell

HBO’s True Detective was always going to be a big deal because of the Matthew McConaughey/Woody Harrelson of it all — but it’s safe to say that viewers’ obsessive behavior around the show has come in at the high end of expectations. Each week, creator Nic Pizzolatto’s grim, literary time-jumping crime story — in which McConaughey plays the haunted, philosophizing Rust Cohle, and Harrelson plays the gone-to-seed good ol’ boy Marty Hart (who is smarter than he looks, to his chagrin) — is picked through and expanded upon by a vigilant audience of 11 million. And yes, it’s also possible to enjoy True Detective even if you have no idea who the Yellow King is, or whether time is indeed a flat circle. (Or not enjoy it: One gift True Detective has given us is vibrant, fun conversations around the show’s excellence; but its provocations have also birthed intelligent dissent.)

The eighth of Season 1’s eight episodes airs Sunday, and the story of Rust, Marty, and the serial murder case that has framed a 17-year period of their lives will conclude. And so will McConaughey’s and Harrelson’s tenures on the show; next season will reboot with another arc and another cast created by Pizzolatto. (Though True Detective hasn’t been officially renewed, as you will see below, it will be.)

This interview was conducted over email — Pizzolatto’s choice — and we discussed the season so far, as well as where Episode 7 left us (so stop reading now if you’re not caught up). We also talked about charges of misogyny against the show; pay-cable’s “clear mandate” (his words) to include nudity; satanic ritual abuse; whether the show will continue to have one director for all of the episodes, as it did this season with Cary Fukunaga; and where Season 2 might go.

Very might: Pizzolatto can get vague with the best of them. Except when he’s telling you that — for sure — neither Rust nor Marty will turn out to be the killer on Sunday night. So stop it with that.

Let’s begin with the ending of Episode 7, when we see Errol, who is, or had better be, the Spaghetti Monster. How did you build to that moment, and why did you decide to end the episode on that note?

Nic Pizzolatto: Going into the final episode, I wanted to end any audience theorizing that Cohle or Hart was the killer, and also provide a concrete face to the abstract evil they’re chasing. So, wild speculations aside, we showed the killer’s face in Episode 1. Though we know that as this “third man,” whose face was scarred by his father, Errol is himself a revenant of great historical evil. There’s enough fragmentary history in Episode 7 that, like Hemingway’s iceberg, what is obscured can be discerned by what is visible. We have further context and dimension to explore with the killer, but the true questions now are whether Cohle and Hart succeed, what they will find, and whether they’ll make it out alive.

Rust and Marty seem to have found focus in their messy lives by deciding that solving this case is the thing they need to do to find both professional and personal resolution. Did you always know that the show was going to come to that?

NP: The story was entirely planned around them reuniting to try and resolve this serial murderer case. I don’t really think either man sees it as a personal resolution, because neither one believes in resolution. I believe they recognize it as their duty, and as perhaps the only thing they’re good for. In this I think they are commendable, as they each could’ve walked away from the whole thing several times in the course of the series. That said, I think it’s clear that neither man is living much of a life, and I find it touching when Cohle asks about Marty’s life — that’s something ‘95 Cohle would never do. ‘95 Cohle says, “It’s none of my business [your life].” But 2012 Cohle, there’s the sense that Marty’s his last buoy, the closest thing he has to someone who knows him. This is largely true for Hart as well. And Cohle makes clear to Marty that he wants to die and views this case as something he has to solve first, though it’s valid to interpret that perhaps a part of Cohle does not want to die, and latching onto this case again is a way for him to keep living. It’s relevant that “Angel of the Morning” is playing when they reunite.

Now I’m curious about “Angel of the Morning.” You chose it because of the song’s spirit of wistful resignation, or a particular lyric?

NP: Well, it’s a love song about unrequited devotion with a female singer, as though vocalizing the anima they’ve mutually repressed.

Would it be correct in assuming that they’re willing to die? Marty in particular seemed to be saying goodbye to Maggie in Episode 7.

NP: I think given the amorphous nature of the evil they’re pursuing, its historical roots in culture and government, they would have to be willing to die to fully pursue their absolute justice. And they each understand this.

HBO/Lacey Terrell

Did you imagine that there would be so much audience speculation that Rust or Marty was the murderer, or was that a frustrating surprise as the show has unfolded?

NP: It was a little surprising, but not frustrating at all, just part of the experience of having people connect to the show. The possibility is built into the story, as it has to be credible that the 2012 PD suspect Cohle. I just thought that such a revelation would be terrible, obvious writing. For me, the worst writing generally just “flips” things: this person’s really a traitor; it was all a dream; etc. Nothing is so ruinous as a forced “twist,” I think.

Let’s discuss satanic ritual abuse, which is the backdrop of the ‘95 sections (and is certainly mentioned a few times — the task force that looms over them, putting pressure on them to get the case solved). That was an intense, strange phenomenon of the ’80s and ’90s, and was largely debunked. But the show seems to be coming down on the side of satanic ritual abuse really existing!

NP: The case of Hosanna Church in Tangipahoa Parish certainly seems real enough. I was there through the satanism panic that started in the mid-’80s and then resurged in the ’90s. So even as rural myth, it’s a part of the time and place. But this is a coastal Louisiana of-the-mind, as I knew it, a place which is no stranger to superstition and esoteric belief, where mysticism mingles with mainstream religion, where Voudon and Santeria are practiced along the bayous and a primitivism still maintains in many places. I grew up with adults who believed the Virgin Mary was appearing in Medjugorje, Yugoslavia. They held prayer meetings where they closed their eyes and claimed to see visions, and we were prepped for the end of the world throughout grade school. So the wild extremes of belief were always visible, and then to me it’s a short jump to a horror story. The ritual abuse in our show is the darkest side of belief, in a show where belief has been a steady underlying topic.

Did you grow up religious?

NP: I was raised in a heavily Catholic family. Early and consistent encounters with mysticism.

Have you read Remembering Satan by Lawrence Wright — which explored a problematic case of “recovered memories” and satanic rituals — and did it inform anything in True Detective?

NP: Never read it; the focus on mysticism and child abuse are both governing concerns of mine, and fit the place very well, based on my life experience.

Twin Peaks strikes me as the other vivid popular expression of ritualistic child sexual abuse — but in Twin Peaks, there was a supernatural element that put a veil over plain-old child rape and incest. I’m curious both about whether you watched Twin Peaks and thought about it at all here. And also what you’ve thought about all the internet chatter wanting True Detective to turn out to be a supernatural story despite showing no evidence through seven of eight episodes that it’s that at all.

NP: I watched and loved Twin Peaks when it was on, at least in that rich first arc, before Josie turned into a dresser drawer and everything went bonkers, though I wasn’t thinking about it at all. I don’t read internet chatter, but all I can offer is that to date there hasn’t been a single thing in our show that’s supernatural, so why would that suddenly manifest in the last episode? The show has a quality of mysticism, for sure, but nothing supernatural so far. I think there’s a lot of self-projection going on in certain cases; like the show has become a Rorschach test for a specific contingent of the audience in which they read their own obsessions into it. This is what it means to resonate with people, so I don’t mind it. The danger is that it’s myopic and unfairly reductive, like a literary theorist who only sees Marxism or Freudianism rather the totality of a work.

There are also those who will not be satisfied with any finale unless Rust Cohle steps out of their TVs, into their living room, and shoots them in the foot as some kind of meta-statement on magick and mass entertainment. And, you know, the technology just isn’t there. That said, I wouldn’t totally rule out the appearance of special effects…

Michelle Monaghan as Maggie Hart. HBO/Michele K. Short

I saw you tweeted Willa Paskin’s Slate piece that praised the show and its portrayal of misogyny; Emily Nussbaum’s New Yorker review also looked at the show and its women, but was critical. You’ve said that True Detective’s view of women has been a result of focusing on two point-of-view characters who are men. Have you been listening to that thread of criticism? What do you think of it?

NP: Well, the show is plainly showing a vein of misogyny running through not just these men but their culture. To the idea that this is not on purpose, or that the females are one-dimensional, I’d say we’ll agree to disagree. If someone sees Maggie as merely some kind of fuming shrew, then that viewer is revealing their own prejudices, not the show’s. Given that neither of our leads has a healthy relationship with a woman, and given that we only see things in their POVs, that women are not given a full representation is correct for the story being told here.

This is a close, two-person point-of-view show, and the story is bound to those perspectives, with a few loose variations. In the structure of this telling, the other characters exist in relation to Cohle and Hart. However, if someone comes on screen for one exchange in the entire show, I believe they have dimensionality — the fact that their presence in the show exists only in relation to Cohle and Hart does not diminish their spark. Of the women Hart has affairs with, I wouldn’t expect them to be the most mature and stable of people, given his character and the difference in their ages. The gender criticism was expected, but it seems very knee-jerk in the total context of what we did here and what the show is supposed to be. It’s easy to use such a political concern as a blunt, reductive instrument to rob the material and performances of their nuances. But there was no way to tell this story, in this structure, without that being an easy mark for someone looking for something to criticize.

There’s also the issue of nudity, which has been very boob-y (and HBO-y). How did you decide what the sex scenes would look like?

NP: The staging was more or less there in the scripts, and then Cary and I worked together on the execution. But there is a clear mandate in pay-cable for a certain level of nudity. Now, you’re not going to get our two lead movie stars to go full-frontal, but we at least got Matthew’s butt in there. There’s not a great deal of nudity in the series at all, though, compared to other shows on pay-cable. I’d be happy with none. Seems to me if people want to see naked people doing it, there’s this thing called “the internet.”

The show sets up a world in which evil men conspire to do terrible things to women and children, and that less bad men are in charge of trying to stop them. (Or, as Rust would put it, the “world needs bad men — we keep the other bad men from the door.”) Seems accurate to me. Is that your worldview, or is that just the show and the characters?

NP: Well, that’s certainly the view of Cohle, but nothing in him represents my views on anything. I think True Detective is portraying a world where the weak (physically or economically) are lost, ground under by perfidious wheels that lie somewhere behind the visible, wheels powered by greed, perversity, and irrational belief systems, and these lost souls dwell on an exhausted frontier, a fractured coastline beleaguered by industrial pollution and detritus, slowly sinking into the Gulf of Mexico. There’s a sense here that the apocalypse already happened. And in places like this, where there’s little economy and inadequate education, women and children are the first to suffer, by and large. There’s a line in a Sherlock Holmes story where Holmes explains to Watson that the evils of the city pale in comparison to the horrors of the isolated countryside, where who knows what terrors exist in the lonely farmhouse, cut off from civilization and beholden to no oversight? I always sensed that.

Regarding bad men being necessary to stop the other bad men, that’s probably more true than I’d like it to be, but the point exists outside of gender: You need physically capable, courageous, and potentially violent people to deal with the violent, dangerous people.

You deleted a tweet in which you responded, obliquely, that Season 2 could be different in respect to women characters. What did you mean, why did you delete the tweet, and most of all, where do we stand on Season 2?

NP: I deleted the tweet because I didn’t want to be beholden to a promise and then change my mind. I’m writing Season 2 right now, but I don’t want to divulge any potentialities, because so much could change. I just never want to create from a place of critical placation — that’s a dead zone. So I don’t want, for instance, a gender-bias-critique to influence what I do.

Nic Pizzolatto. HBO/Michele K. Short

Let’s assume there’s a second season. Since you’ve said you don’t like serial killer stories, I wonder what other sort of crimes there are that can sustain an eight- or ten-episode anthology?

NP: Oh, all kinds of conspiracies suggest themselves. Especially if, like me, you’ve been reading about the last 40 years of Southern California government.

Forget it, Nic, it’s Chinatown! I assume you won’t say more than that, but please do feel free to, of course. How long did it take for this show to come together, and given its scale and that you’re the sole writer and the bar for casting is high, does it seem like something that could happen once a year?

NP: Man… I’m tempted to utter just one word, but I can’t. I gotta stay mum on the next season till it’s more concrete.

With this season, once I started writing in earnest, it took about three and a half months to get the scripts. Episode 1 was written in mid-2010, and 2 was written in mid-2011, but I rewrote them and all eight were done by early August 2012; then we moved into pre-production from September through most of January. Then shot a full six months. Then did post from July 2013 to January 2014.

It’s very possible to do it once a year; the main thing that slowed us down was having to wait to do all of post-production until after we’d wrapped. I’d like to get two or three scripts exactly where I want them, then start getting the gears rolling in earnest. Casting is its own issue. Who we cast and what their schedule is will likely determine at least some part of scheduling, and scheduling will determine at least some part of casting.

Do you imagine working with one director again, and plot aside, can you give us any hints about a changed aesthetic?

NP: We don’t have any plans to work with one director again. It would be impossible to do this yearly as we need to be able to do post while we’re still filming, like any other show. There’s some great guys I’ve consulted, and we’re all confident we can achieve the same consistency. Going forward, I want the show’s aesthetic to remain determinedly naturalistic, with room for silences and vastness, and an emphasis on landscape and culture. And I hope a story that presents new characters in a new place with authenticity and resonance and an authorial voice consistent with this season. Dominant colors will change. South Louisiana was green and burnished gold.

And finally what should viewers be thinking about going into Sunday’s finale?

NP: Anything they want. Binary systems, maybe.

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