So there might be an orgy on True Detective this week. Yayyyyy? The prospect gets a rise out of me (in a good way) and makes me groan (in a bad way). This season, a strange and sluggish affair about flagging fortune and flaccid heroism has had some performance issues, in more ways than one. I’ve been limping along with this dysfunctional saga, especially in recent weeks, so anything it can do to get my blood pumping would be welcome. Sensationalistic sex is a cheap and easy ploy, but hey: I’m easy. On the other hand, recent hot and heavy set pieces — the Vinci massacre; Paul Woodrugh’s fire-breathing rant against his mother (“You f—ing poisoned… [epic pause] … COOZE!”) — have been dry humps of empty, even laughable spectacle. An orgy? I hope for meaningful titillation. I’m bracing for something so ridiculous that it will generate a Sharknado-magnitude storm of Twitter snark. I got dibs on a “blue balls” pun! I’ll leave the handcuffs and girth jokes for you.
And yet! And yet, I must thank the Internets for spoiling (?) the news of this possible impending orgy, for it has pushed my buttons and has yielded some new thinking about True Detective. The reporting I’ve read has made comparisons to the 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut, famous for being director Stanley Kubrick’s last film, an omen of the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman uncoupling, and for a sequence depicting a hokey-pokey of ritualistic sex in which the raunchiest bits were digitally dashed to avoid an NC-17 rating. I can see why folks on the True Detective beat are making the link. In the film, Cruise’s character infiltrates an invitation-only bacchanal at a country mansion in which rich, powerful people wear masks and screw prostitutes or watch prostitutes screw each other. Last week on True Detective, the ongoing investigation into a murder mystery involving masked kink and upper crust decadence took us to the site of a high society sex party, a posh cabin in the woods. Det. Ani Bezzerides resolved to infiltrate the next meeting of this bawdy Bohemian Club by posing as an escort. HBO’s teasers, it appears she’ll execute that mission in the next episode.
But there was more to Eyes Wide Shut than a black mass booty call. It was a peculiar and flawed but totally watchable and intellectually fascinating film, not as bad everyone says, but far from Kubrick’s best, including Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and The Shining. (But totally better than Barry Lyndon!) It disappoints the way True Detective season 2 disappoints: It sucks for not being awesome. Indeed, the more you compare TDs2 to EWS the more we see the former more clearly. Kubrick’s dream space odyssey — an ambitiously sly meditation on intimacy, fidelity, the act of seeing, prostitution as a metaphor, and a million other things — is about a well-mannered, tightly-controlled successful doctor (Cruise) who learns his wife (Kidman, then married to Cruise) has a randy imagination that has nothing to do with him (You sleep with other men!? In your fantasies and dreams!? You effing poisoned… [epic pause] … hypothetical cheater!) and sets out on a strange anti-heroic quest to get even by committing actual adultery. You could call it – to paraphrase from that suspiciously gabby photographer in episode 3 of True Detective — a collapse of marriage revenge flick.
In Eyes Wide Shut, Cruise’s journey into darkness tempted his worse self and ultimately precipitated a moral awakening. He acquires eyes to hollowness and corruption behind the façade of refinement and goodness — in himself; in his rich and powerful friends; in his consumerist, faux religious culture — and finds the courage to confess, atone, and maybe change. He gets answers to mysteries but none of them are satisfying, and they may all be lies. But he doubles down on making better what he knows to be real: Himself, his marriage, his child. Physician, heal thyself!
In True Detective, Ani’s descent into the sexual underworld could be fraught with similar peril and opportunity for self-knowledge. If you’ve watched the watched the show, you know that an increasing number of coincidences have accumulated around her. Every suspect in the Benjamin Caspere murder case is linked to her father, a New Age guru who runs a retreat center, and to her painful past, a childhood spent in a counter culture commune, known as The Good People. Since the premiere, she’s been investigating another matter also linked to her father, the mystery of a missing maid, and last week, we learned that, yes, missing maid is also linked to the Caspere case. Making all of this even more absurd is that Ani has barely blinked at these personal connections; you might say she’s “eyes wide shut” to them. Detective, investigate thyself!
But I suspect she’s cruising toward some rude, maybe lewd enlightenment, provided she can survive the temptations and terrors to come. This moment of truth has been telegraphed for weeks. A key scene in episode 2 winked at Ani’s sexual demons, symbolically illustrated her willful ignorance toward her issues and her past, and even foreshadowed her forthcoming sex party masquerade. It was the moment when Ani’s partner, Elvis, called to tell her that he had tracked down the missing maid’s last known whereabouts: Guerneville — the same small California town where she was raised among The Good People. Ani didn’t acknowledge the coincidence. She hustled Elvis off the phone so she could get back to what she’d been doing: Drinking scotch and watching porn on her computer. (She linked to the video via an escort service website.) We exited the scene with a close-up on her voyeuristic eyes, the hardcore on her screen reflecting on her pupils. The whole not-so-subtle subtext of this scene: Wake up, Ani! You got issues!
Ani hasn’t been the only character suffering from Eyes Wide Shut-itus this season. All of our detectives are control freak intimacy dodgers living in conscious denial of truths that freak them out, that need to be felt, accepted, and internalized, for their sake and the sake of others. They prefer running away to confrontation, masks over bareness. Tightly wound Paul Woodrugh refuses to deal with his homosexuality and has jumped into a marriage with a pregnant girlfriend, a woman he doesn’t love, as a means of suppressing his authentic self further. Ray Velcoro relationship to fatherhood is analogous Paul’s relationship to heterosexual sexual identity: It’s a selfish, self-destructive redemption scheme that he executes poorly, for a chaotic life that shames him. His dadness might even be as bogus as Paul’s straightness: Ray lives in fear of taking a paternity test that might prove that a rapist sired Chad, not him. But even if he is Chad’s father, Ray needs what everyone needs on this show: A Pauline conversion.
Eyes Wide Shut is an instructive lens for examining True Detective’s storytelling and structure, too. Kubrick’s film was adapted from a 1926 novella by Arthur Schnitzler entitled Traumnovelle, or Rhapsody: A Dream Novel. There’s a knowingly dream-like quality to the movie that begs us to wonder if the story itself is a dream. The question doesn’t invalidate the drama, because it’s irrelevant to the Cruise character or what’s at stake in his marriage: What matters is that he is having an authentic though mysterious emotional experience that points to truths he must confront.
True Detective has traumnovelle written ironically all over it, beginning with a theme song, “Nevermind,” Leonard Cohen’s mesmeric grumble about the eyes wide shutty practice of paradoxically knowing yet denying hard, painful truths about cultural and personal history. (Maybe it’s just six weeks of staring at Ray’s bolo tie and all the other Western motifs in the show, but I keep waiting for True Detective to turn into a more explicit critique of How The West Was Really Won. Maybe we’ll learn that Vinci, a former Deadwood-type town, was built atop site of an Indian massacre. Or maybe that’s implied, like The Shining? All them Kubrick movies run together. Like a dream!) The mix of gritty and heightened reality — the broadly drawn characters, the symbolic and surreal touches, the ripe, sometimes ridiculous language, the masked nightmare creatures like The Birdman and The Noh Man, and all of Ani’s unchallenged meaningful coincidences, or what Jung would call synchronicities — give this narrative a dream story quality. The nightmarish opening credit sequence — a fluid montage of layered images, creating visual metaphors for people dense with secrets, vision impaired by peculiar worldviews — has become a contextual clue, and not just because the lyrics hint at a story “told with facts and lies.” It’s been changing on us every week, shuffling stanzas or swapping out sets of verses for others; a recurring yet protean dream.
Contributing to the season’s unreal vibe are the explicit and implicit meta-textual bits of business. Detective Ray Velcoro and his ex-detective dad watching Detective Story. Literary references like Carlos Castaneda’s A Separate Reality. The Hollywood film crew that’s shooting that “collapse of civilization revenge flick” in the wastelands of corrupt Vinci. They remind us we’re watching a show, a fiction, the same way we’re often aware that we’re dreaming while we’re dreaming.
NEXT: Another way True Detective gives us pop culture déjà vu