Honours students at the Griffith Law School have the opportunity to complete a designated Cultural Legal Studies elective that introduces students to the theories and methods of law and humanities scholarship. As part of the course, students engage in an intertextual analysis of law and a text of their choosing, including novels, poems, films, television shows, music videos, and graphic novels, asking how popular culture engages with and ‘renders strange’1 our notions of law, power, authority and justice. This blog series provides a snapshot of some of their work.
This article is merely a summary of a significantly more in-depth discussion of True Detective which is nearing completion. Bearing in mind the truncated nature of this piece the author welcomes constructive feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org
Nothing in HBO’s True Detective (season 1) is as it seems. We begin with dark imagery of a field and curious arrangements of branches but are whisked away, pausing only for a moment to look back on a crime scene that is now so distant that we can make out none of its detail. Whilst working with the tropes of a familiar genre, the detective story, Director Nic Pizzolato sets us adrift on a sea of time, places, beliefs and realities. Instead of beginning at a crime scene, we begin at what appears to be the story’s end. This immediate upheaval of the standard crime narrative demands our full attention as viewers. We are watching an investigation of the investigation itself. What unfolds throughout season 1 is a series of conversations that cycle forward and backward through time, and on into the present day. The speakers change, the setting changes, but two constants remain: the murder of Dora Lange (played by Amanda Rose Batze) and the activity of conversation.
When Detective Hart (played by Woody Harrelson) refers to one of the perpetrators as ‘Nietzsche’, we are reminded of a conversation that has happened many times before. We see the desolation of the poor and devout juxtaposed with Nihilism in its extreme form. We see the eternal return of the same and the hopelessness of the law – there is always crime to solve. We watch the interplay between religion, the law, and state power and are reminded that none of these can be properly separated. We see the importance of the slow and methodical evaluation and the violence of the law in use, misuse and action. At the same time we are confronted by the many ways the law of the law seems to render it ineffective.
When Detective Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey) is asked to ‘take off [his] mask’ (in episode 8) we too are invited to look behind the mask of these institutions we take for granted. We are asked to re-evaluate the distribution of violence and power within our society, and are offered no answers. Instead, through the art of conversation, we are left to explore it on our own.
The story unfolds in a desolate town filled with people on the fringe of a society where faith and religion have offered nothing more than a moral-optical illusion of hope to the otherwise condemned.2. They are valueless, both included in and yet abandoned by the law, existing in a dystopic aftermath of an event no one seems to remember, and which only Cohle can see.
In the figure of Cohle, Pizzolato forces us to confront our misunderstanding of nihilism as a kind of helplessness. If indeed nihilism is paralysing to action, then why does Cohle keep on going? We realize that Nietzsche’s nihilism is merely a new perspective and an invitation to challenge our social order. Like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, like Cohle, the viewers are drawn into asking ‘why?’ from a new vantage point: ‘6,000 feet above men.’3 The character’s references to ‘M-brane theory’ and ‘eternal recurrence’ help us understand what spurs Cohle forward, when even Zarathustra himself at first felt helpless.4 From here, Cohle’s persistence makes sense – if we are condemned to live this life again and again, then we should own it and do it right. We are not helpless, but free.
Here is where the violence of the law takes centre-stage and the imbrication of religion and the state becomes manifest: the church and bureaucracy not only hamper but direct investigations. This affects and even effects the law’s violent interpretation and implementation5 Just as the spectre of Lange’s murder hangs over our detectives, so too does the law haunt every aspect of the lives reflected on our screens.6 There is a ‘violence’ in the way the detective’s abandon all professional restraints and become the law, and violence in the law’s blindness to the many deaths previously dismissed without investigation. In the world of True Detective, the law and religion rely on each other for survival.7 Religious accord confirms the authority of the state – the law tolerates and legitimates a chosen religion in order to keep peace.
When the Yellow King (played by Glenn Fleischer) of Pizzolatto’s drama draw attention to our mask, we reveal a startling and yet rewarding truth. These conversations take us with Cohle through the entire length of nihilism to emerge as Nietzsche’s perfect nihilist who can now leave it behind and find hope.8 What is revealed along our journey is up to each viewer to decide, but what is hidden within this story is rich, deep and confronting – should one wish to truly join the conversation and face the questions buried at its core.
- Tim Peters, ‘Reading the Law Made Strange: Cultural Legal Studies, Theology and Speculative Fiction’ (2016) in Cultural Legal Studies: Law’s Popular Cultures and the Metamorphosis of Law (pp. 252–273)
- Marianne Constable, ‘Genealogy And Jurisprudence: Nietzsche, Nihilism, And The Social Scientification Of Law’ (1994) 19 Law & Social Inquiry 551, 557.
- Thus Spake Zarathustra, Kindle edition p 4.
- Karl Lowith, “Nietzsche’s Doctrine Of Eternal Recurrence” (1945) 6 Journal of the History of Ideas 273
- Robert M. Cover, “Violence And The Word” (1986) 95 The Yale Law Journal 1601.
- Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority” (1990) 11 Cardozo Law Revue 920, 1017.
- Adam Gearey, ‘We Fearless Ones: Nietzsche and Critical Legal Studies’ (2000) 11 Law and Critique 167.
- David Rowe, “The Eternal Return of the Same: Nietzsche’s ‘Value-Free’ Revaluation of All Values” (2012) 13 Parrhesia 71.