Sade in the Bayou

A Sadian dialectic in True Detective

As I was finishing up the Sade essay I was surprised to see an approximation of the Sadian reductive system in the final episode of the first season of HBO’s True Detective. While its scale is diminished in comparison with the inescapable mountain vastness Sade described, the essentials are there. In pursuit of the killer McConaughey walks into a decrepit fort, passing through tunnels of vegetation into tunnels of dead branches festooned with bizarre, privatized ritual symbols, bones and mummified bodies. The killer susurrantly invites the detective to become the next victim, to come die with him. At the end, he encounters a screaming blade-wielding figure intent on reducing him to pieces under a small hole open to the sky.

It is worth noting that in previous episodes the McConaughey character has carried out a preliminary destructive process. In the aftermath of the death of his daughter and his exposure to the horrors of police work he is resolutely and impressively articulate in asserting the painful absurdity of life. Perhaps the epitome of this attitude lies in his report that, as he was looking at police photos of murdered women, he imagined them, just before death, reaching a state of mind when they realized that they had been afforded an opportunity to just let go of an overall miserable existence. In this respect the killer offers him the same option. But the detective has been dutifully driven to find the killer and, in doing so, he comes (not shown in the clip) to reestablish contact with the memory of his daughter. That is to put it mildly. Indeed, he reengages his dead daugher within an internalized object relation evoked at death’s door, and he is revitalized.

This movement is mediated by the Harrelson character, with whom McConaughey has been at odds through most of the series. In the final episode Harrelson saves him from the killer, or rather they both save each other, and then Harrelson subsequently comforts him in hospital. It is through his acceptance of loving friendship from Harrelson that McConaughey is able to now go on living with the renewed memory of his daughter, instead of feeling as though he needs to die to be with her, his only “good object.”

The clip above shows how at the very end of the episode there is a pull to a religious interpretation of such a thoroughly human achievement. Seemingly, the mediated restoration of a relationship with those who have died, a recovery of what is left available through mourning, as well as a recovery of ruptured relationships with humanity, all must be ratified within a living community of institutionalized illusion. The first stage of the dialectic of Enlightenment, emancipation from fantasied powers, is threatened even as they experience a restoration of hope brought about by their cooperative struggle. As they gaze up to the sky their grasp on the real grounding of their accomplishment is jeopardized, as is ours.