Jun 252015

(photo courtesy of Vulture: http://www.vulture.com/2015/06/true-detectives-theme-song-leonard-cohen-nevermind.html)

“Nevermind” by Leonard Cohen (2014)

The war was lost,
The treaty signed,
I was not caught,
I crossed the line.

I was not caught,
Though many tried,
I live among you,
Well disguised.

I had to leave
My life behind.
I dug some graves
You’ll never find.

The story’s told
With facts and lies.
I had a name,
But never mind.

Never mind,
Never mind,
I had to leave
My life behind.

The story’s told
With facts and lies.
You own the world,
So never mind.

My woman’s here,
My children, too.
Their graves are safe
From ghosts like you.

In places deep,
With roots entwined,
I live the life I left behind.

The war was lost,
The treaty signed,
I was not caught,
I crossed the line.

I was not caught,
Though many tried,
I live among you,
Well disguised.


(photo courtesy of Vogue)

Names, war, death and layers of time. Pretty heavy song for a TV show? Not if it’s True Detective.

There’s a new sort of misery in the air this season on Nic Pizzolatto’s Emmy-nominated creation, with the Season 2 opener The Western Book of the Dead, and a lot of talk on the Internet about how it’s too weird, too dark and nothing really happened. Which reminds me a bit of naysayers’ reactions to Mad Men, may it rest in peace.

But much like Mad Men, there’s more than meets the eye here.

true-detective-posterLast season, Pizzolatto intrigued us with references to Cthulhu and the book The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers, sending viewers down all sorts of rabbit holes. But he wasn’t heavy-handed with it, at least not at first. He began with the dichotomy of the two main characters, Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle and Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart, two different sides of masculinity, the seemingly light and the seemingly dark, the provider and the warrior, the jock and the intellectual. He set up the bayou setting and introduced the world we were about to see gingerly. When he was ready to start throwing in references, we were already on the hunt with Rust, figuring things out along with him (well, maybe we were two steps behind, but still…).

This time, Pizzolatto’s being more generous. If you know what to look for, that is.

And so the hunt begins.


(photo courtesy of HBO)

The tagline for this season, as it appears on promo posters, is “We get the world we deserve.” So far, this season seems to center on death. A missing man, who has an ode to death (Santa Muerte) in his home along with other more sexual than religious paraphernalia, takes a long car drive and dies somewhere along the way (or starts out dead?). The main female protagonist’s mother committed suicide. A former soldier takes a death-defying motorcycle ride on the Pacific Coast Highway. We’re left guessing as to what happened to that meth addict who raped Detective Ray Velcoro’s ex-wife, but we do watch Ray come close to ending the lives of others.


(photo courtesy of HBO)

Even the title of the episode, The Western Book of the Dead, puts viewers on this path.

The original Book of the Dead (notice the subtitle in that link, “The Papyrus of Ani,” Rachel McAdams’s character’s nickname) “is the common name for ancient Egyptian funerary texts…the name was the invention of the German Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius, who published a selection of some texts in 1842. Religion guided every aspect of Egyptian life. [It] was based on polytheism, or the worship of many deities. The Egyptians had as many as 2,000 gods and goddesses each representing characteristics of a specific earthly force combined with a heavenly power. Often gods and goddesses were represented as part human and part animal. They considered animals such as the bull, the cat and the crocodile to be holy. Their two chief gods were Amon-Ra and Osiris. Amon-Ra was believed to be the sun god and the lord of the universe. Osiris was the god of the underworld and was the god that made a peaceful afterlife possible…because their religion stressed an afterlife, Egyptians devoted much time and energy into preparing for their journey to the ‘next world.’ The text was initially carved on the exterior of the deceased person’s sarcophagus, but was later written on papyrus now known as scrolls and buried inside the sarcophagus with the deceased, presumably so that it would be both portable and close at hand.”

These texts usually contained things like spells, numbers, formulas, passwords—codes for moving on into the next life, essentially. If you knew the correct formulas, you could find happiness there.

And let’s hope that is a major theme this season on the show, because God knows these characters are living the saddest versions of their lives possible.

Many have identified the creepy bird’s head riding in the car transporting Vinci City Manager Ben Caspere as a raven, symbolic of one of the Egyptian gods.

But, despite the episode’s title, I find it difficult to label that prop with such strong Egyptian themes. The Book of the Dead belonged to an ancient polytheistic society, but let’s talk about the lives of these tormented characters a little first. Leonard Cohen’s “Nevermind” focuses on the aftermath of sinful lives, of war and the names “both true and deep” (in the extended version of the song—it’s excerpted for the show’s opening credits).

Names like Athena, or Antigone.

With this first episode of the newest season of True Detective, Pizzolatto’s sneaking in symbolism from another polytheistic society: the ancient Greeks.


(photo courtesy of HBO)

We’ll likely learn more about how and why Caspere died next Sunday. A man drenched in symbolism and paraphernalia is definitely in deep with something eccentric, so his death should be no different. He’s left on the side of the PCH, looking at the ocean Weekend at Bernie’s style (I’d love to think I invented this reference, but others have been saying it, too). Behind those sunglasses, though, are two hollowed-out eye sockets. And under his preppy clothing oozes a severe stomach wound.



If his apparent adherence to Greek mythology holds true, we’re likely to learn that Ben Caspere had a vision of some sort, much like Tiresias the soothsayer, had an affinity for dressing like a woman (Tiresias lived as both genders) and was capable in some capacity of communicating with the dead (just look at his Goonies-esque skeleton roommate…and his surname is a reference to the most famous cartoon ghost ever, for cryin’ out loud).

Here’s what Encyclopedia-Brittanica has to say: 

“Tiresias played an active part in the tragic events involving Laius, the king of Thebes, and his son Oedipus. Later legend told that he lived for seven (or nine) generations, dying after the expedition of the Seven Against Thebes.

“Besides longevity, another of Tiresias’s features involves his having lived as a man, then as a woman, and then as a man again. Reportedly, he had been turned into a woman as the result of having struck and wounded mating snakes. When Tiresias returned to the site of the transformation seven years later to see if the ‘spell’ could be reversed, Tiresias did indeed see the same snakes coupling and was changed back into a man.


(photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

“That experience of life as both sexes may have inadvertently caused his blindness. One story holds that Hera and Zeus disagreed about which of the sexes experienced more pleasure during sex, with Hera arguing that the answer was men, by far. When they consulted Tiresias, he asserted that women had greater pleasure than men, and Hera thereupon struck him blind. Zeus, in thanks for his support, gave him the gifts of prophecy and longevity. Another version has it that Tiresias was blinded by Athena after he saw her bathing. Chariclo begged her to help him, so Athena, instead of restoring his ability to see the physical world, gave him the ability to see the future.

“Tiresias also had a role in Homer’s Odyssey. In that work, Tiresias retained his prophetic gifts even in the underworld, where the hero Odysseus was sent to consult him.”


(photo courtesy of HBO)

Tiresias was blinded when he saw Athena bathing. Caspere possessed an image of a tiny woman bathing in milk. I have no doubt this guy might have argued for women’s experiencing more sexual pleasure than men, based on his porno-rich art curation. His home is essentially a Greek bacchanal.

Oh, and the stomach wound? Look at the eagle in the front seat. That’s code for the legend of Prometheus.


(photo courtesy Ancient History Encyclopedia:http://www.ancient.eu/Prometheus/)


(photo courtesy of HBO)

According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, “In Greek mythology, the Titan Prometheus had a reputation as being something of a clever trickster and he famously gave the human race the gift of fire and the skill of metalwork, an action for which he was punished by Zeus, who ensured everyday that an eagle ate the liver of the Titan as he was helplessly chained to a rock. 

“Prometheus (Forethought) was one of the ringleaders of the battle between the Titans and the Olympian gods led by Zeus to gain control of the heavens, a struggle which was said to have lasted ten years. Prometheus did, however, switch sides and support the victorious Olympians when the Titans would not follow his advice to use trickery in the battle.”

He switched sides. Caspere was a city manager who appeared to be in cahoots with former conman Frank Semyon, played by Vince Vaughn (incidentally, kinda weird that a man whose last name means “semen” in Russian can’t seem to get his wife pregnant, right?).

More from the Encyclopedia: “Feeling sorry for man’s weak and naked state, Prometheus stole fire, and gave the valuable gift to man which would help him in life’s struggle. The Titan also taught man how to use their gift and so the skill of metalwork began; he also came to be associated with science and culture.

“Zeus was outraged by Prometheus’s theft of fire and so punished the Titan by having him taken far to the east, perhaps the Caucasus. Here Prometheus was chained to a rock (or pillar) and Zeus sent an eagle to eat the Titan’s liver. Even worse, the liver re-grew every night and the eagle returned each day to perpetually torment Prometheus. Fortunately for man’s benefactor, but only after many years, the hero Hercules, when passing one day during his celebrated labors, killed the eagle with one of his arrows.”


(photo courtesy of melty.com)

In this tale, Caspere/Prometheus has no such luck. He dies before his Hercules passes by…but his Hercules does pass by, quite by accident, and not necessarily “during his celebrated labors.”

What we know so far about California Highway Patrolman Paul Woodrugh: he refuses to break the law in exchange for sexual favors from Hollywood starlets; he’s a veteran, and has probably seen some horrific things that continue to torment him, an interesting parallel with the butterflies strewn about in his girlfriend’s apartment (butterflies also often symbolize the souls of the dead); he has some impotency and commitment issues; he has some mysterious scars.


(photo courtesy of the Daily Mail)

In one tale of Hercules, his second wife, Deianira, gives him a welcome-home present when he returns from an adventure: “This was a cloak which she had woven herself. Deianira had a magic balm that a centaur had given her. The centaur told Deianira that anyone who put on the balm would love her forever. But actually the balm contained a caustic poison. This balm she now smeared into the cloak. When Hercules received the cloak and tried it on, his body immediately began to burn with excruciating pain.”


(photo courtesy of Reddit)

Another theory for Woodrugh’s scars, which he says occurred “before the war”: When Velcoro goes to confront his son’s bully, Aspen, a very strange photo appears in the house’s front foyer. The camera keeps this in frame for quite a long time, which means it will inevitably have some significance later on.

The picture is of what’s called “the face,” the front entrance to Sydney, Australia’s Luna Park amusement center. If Woodrugh is in his late 30s (he seems a bit younger, though), and happened to be in Sydney in 1979, he could have experienced what became known as the Luna Park Ghost Train Fire, explaining his burn scars.

From an article on xploresydney.comMost people identify Luna Park as a fun-filled, family-friendly amusement park overlooking the iconic Sydney Harbour. Unmistakable, the park’s famous giant smiling face greets visitors as they enter the park, which was modeled on New York’s own Coney Island. Built in 1935, Luna Park was an immediate and ongoing success, its thrilling rides, bright lights and exuberant atmosphere attracting families and thrill-seekers looking for a fun time out. However joyous cries were cut short upon one catastrophic event in 1979.

“At around 10:15 p.m. on June 9, clouds of thick black smoke began to billow out the doors of the hugely popular Ghost Train, evoking panic among the 35 passengers aboard the ride. Devastating fire soon swept through the tunnel, engulfing the entire building in flames and tragically taking the lives of six children and one adult. While it took only an hour to get the flames under control, poor staff management and low water pressure is said to have led the ride to its eventual crumble to the ground. There is speculation that those who perished left their seats looking for an exit leading some to theorize that they’d have survived had they stayed in their seats, though there are accounts of seats returning on fire.

“Word of the tragedy spread quicker than the fire itself, leaving the owners no choice but to close Luna Park’s gates immediately, leaving behind a playground rife with a ghostly shadow of loss and despair. The event is known today as one of Sydney’s most peculiar urban legends as no conclusive evidence has solved the mystery of how and why the fire initially broke out.

“Inevitably rumors soon began to circulate, the most significant surrounding charismatic crime figure Abe Saffron–a figure of Sydney’s underworld and suspect of seven other blazes–who allegedly instigated the fire as means to take over Luna Park’s lease. In 2007, Saffron’s daughter admitted her father’s involvement in the fire, noting that the notorious criminal had a keen eye on buying Luna Park, yet of course did not intend on killing anyone. However prosecutions were never settled, as there was very little evidence to prove the speculations, and a certain suspected corrupt police official continued to lead investigations towards the ‘electrical fault’ assumption.

“One story surrounds a woman named Jennifer Poidevin, whose husband and two sons tragically perished in the fire. Deciding last minute not to ride the Ghost Train, Poidevin opted randomly for ice cream instead before turning around to find her family had already hopped on board.


(photo courtesy of xploresydney.com)

“In a sinister twist of events, earlier that day Poidevin took a photo of her eldest son with a strange man adorning a horned bull headdress. Unassuming of his bizarre attire during the entertainment-filled day, the family thought nothing of the figure, who disappeared back into the crowd shortly after. It was later discovered that no one could identify the man in costume, with skeptics drawing creepy aesthetical links to a mythological villain associated with lighting fires and child sacrifice.”

Sounds a bit too much like True Detective, season one, for my taste. But it’s an interesting connection, nonetheless, and Pizzolatto focused on that photo for a reason. Pretty weird snapshot to have in your front hallway, right?


(photo courtesy of tumblr)

Speaking of which. When Ray Velcoro threatens Aspen, he makes a rather specific reference—he tells him he’ll “buttfuck his father with his mother’s headless corpse” if he doesn’t stop bullying kids. Who can we think of from Greek mythology who might have had a headless corpse?

That’s right. Medusa.

CuentosMitos04PerseoAnd conveniently, Aspen’s mother stays in the house the entire time this conflict is transpiring. So Velcoro/Perseus never has to look her in the eye.

And what of the shoes he bought for his son, the destruction of which led to this overly harsh punishment? They are much like the winged sandals of the childlike Hermes, the god of lost and stolen items. Hermes was also the messenger god, and would have been very fond of the idea of relaying messages back and forth via tape recorder (as Velcoro and his son do on the show) with his father. He was also a trickster, and I have to guess that may come into play later on.


(photo courtesy of HBO)

As for Velcoro, he reminds me a bit more of Ares, the god of war, than Perseus. Ares was notoriously short-tempered and excessively violent when provoked, but usually believed he was fighting for honor. And as a member of the Bronze Age, he probably would have enjoyed using brass knuckles. Coincidentally, the actor who plays Velcoro, Colin Farrell, is an Aries by birth sign—and not necessarily famous for his lack of impulsiveness.



(painting by Emily Balivet)

Female characters in Greek legends were being raped, like Velcoro’s ex, left and right, mostly by the gods. And then of course, there were tons of illegitimate children. Themes of impotence, sodomy, harems—all present numerous times in myth. The Nereids in particular, 50 of them in all, lived in a cavern with their father under the sea, and frequently tempted sailors while lying naked on rocks and drying their sea-green hair. Which reminds me a little of this:


(gif courtesy of https://www.tumblr.com/search/celeb:%20leven%20rambin)

Athena has yet to live up to her name, but Antigone is well on her way.

In her essay on the Theban play Antigone, Kaitlyn Margaret Randol writes:  Antigone tells the tragic story of the rulers of Thebes with Antigone vindicated as a true heroine. [She] proves her heroism through her ability to look beyond the mortal realm and act selflessly in reverence to the gods and a higher justice alone. She is willing to sacrifice everything to do what is right…but she lacks force to back her power.

“In Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone proves that she is level-headed and is acting in the best interests of the people of Thebes and of the gods. For example, her persistent attempts to reconcile her brother and father starting at line 1181 is all for the hope of a prosperous and peaceful Thebes. ‘Abundant words, which give delight or show distress or stir up pity in some way, sometimes impart a voice to those whose voice was mute (line 1281-83),’ is Antigone’s way of trying to help her brother be more persuasive with their father. She clearly has a hand in creating the parameters of their discussion, or lack there of. And later, when this proves futile, she turns her attention towards her brother pleading, ‘I supplicate you, Polyneices, be persuaded (line 1414).’”

All of which is similar to the attempts of True Detective’s Antigone to convince her spiritual guru dad that her sister is in a terrible place. She also tries to persuade Athena that what she’s doing is immoral, but her pleas fall on deaf ears, and, just like the original Antigone, she “lacks the force to back her power.”

In the Theban play, Antigone eventually fails to prevent what she alone is able to foresee. Her brother has weapons and an army, and she can’t convince him to relent. She meets her death as a martyr, still sure of her convictions and the wrongdoing of men.


(photo courtesy of mashable.com)

In True Detective, this version of Antigone studies martial arts and has a wooden dummy in her apartment for knife-throwing. She’s not going down without a fight, even if that dummy looks a whole lot like a Greek Cyclops.


(photo courtesy of HBO)

I’m not even going to get into the whole “Antigone’s dad [who seems to run the New Age retreat Panticapaeum (named after the ancient Greek city) where the maid goes missing] is Oedipus” theory that’s running rampant. Yes, his wife committed suicide, and yes, his daughter is Antigone. But that doesn’t make his wife Jocasta (Oedipus’s mother, who in Greek mythology ended her life once she realized she’d married and had children with her own son). A lot still remains to be seen in the symbolism there.

But Lord is that family rife with Greek symbolism.

Ray Velcoro tells a lawyer in this episode, “I welcome judgment.” Another strange, not-so-throwaway line. He seems not to like it all that much, though, as he intoxicates himself repeatedly throughout the episode to get through his corrupt and violent behavior. But like the Egyptians, the ancient Greeks strongly believed in judgment in the afterlife. According to Wikipedia, “upon death, an individual would enter the realm of Hades, the Greek underworld, and be judged. Depending on one’s actions in life, an individual would be sent to one of three different planes: Elysium, the Asphodel Fields or Tartarus. Elysium is for those who were righteous in life and is reserved for good people and legendary heroes…the Ashpodel Fields is the land of neutrality, where those who were either neutral, or whose good and bad deeds are about equal, reside. It is a bland place. The final realm, Tartarus, is the realm of the wicked. It is the deepest realm of Hades, and those who have performed wicked deeds are punished here for eternity. Punishment here reflects the wicked deeds committed in one’s life.”

So what we might be seeing on True Detective this season, though it looks like present-day Los Angeles, could be a representation of Hades. And the characters shall each get what they deserve, making it their least-favorite life, indeed.

Some remaining thoughts to revisit next time: Who is the waitress with the disfigured face, and why does she know Ray so well (despite his obvious drinking habit)? She may be connected with a Lamia, a Greek monster whose face was disfigured. And the missing maid whose family is searching for her (and mysteriously can afford a wide-screen TV though their home is under foreclosure)—could she be a modern-day Persephone (who was kidnapped from her family and forced to marry the lord of the underworld)? Any opinions?

And for those of you mourning for Mad Men, you can still find my Fashion and Grammar Gripes Good Housekeeping posts.


(photo courtesy of HBO)

“My Least Favorite Life” by Lera Lynn (2015; this is the song performed in the bar when Ray meets Frank)

This is my least favorite life,
The one where you fly and I don’t.
The kiss holds a million deceits,
And a lifetime goes up in smoke.

This is my least favorite you,
Who floats far above earth and stone.
The nights that I twist on the rack
Is the time that I feel most at home.

We wandering in the shade
And the rustle of falling leaves
A bird on the edge of a blade
Lost now forever, my love, in a sweet memory.

The station rolls away from the train,
The blue pulls away from the sky,
The whisper of two broken wings
Maybe they’re yours, maybe they’re mine.

This is my least favorite life,
The one where I am out of my mind.
The one where you are just out of reach.
The one where I stay and you fly.

I am wandering in the shade
And the rustle of falling leaves
A bird on the edge of the blade
Lost now forever, my love, in a sweet memory.


  14 Responses to “True Detective’s Season Two Opener Is All About the Greek Underworld, Not the Egyptian One”

  1. It’s really interesting how many underlying themes and elements there are to this season that might not be overt in the first episode. Like last year’s installment, I’m sure they’ll either become more prominent as the weeks pass, or they’ll prove to be red herrings that have sent the internet into a frenzy. But I love this assessment of what we’ve seen so far—whether we realized it or not. It really gives viewers a lot to look forward to.

    I don’t know how or if the Luna Park connections will play out, but I find the dark history of that place really fascinating. I can’t imagine the prominence of that photo was a coincidence. Maybe the tie-in is the train—and a fire. Or the mysterious photo of the boy and the creepy guy in the animal hide. Nic PIzzolatto hinted early on that this season would look at “the secret occult history of the U.S. transportation system,” after all. Or, maybe it’s one of those red herrings . . .

  2. Well, I for one loved this first episode…I had to watch it twice mind you, because I had too many Mad Men cocktails while watching it the first time…but so far I think it is great, ignore the bad reviews, this show rocks! The female detective is totally bad ass!

  3. I agree, Suz! I think it’s going to be incredible. And Steven, I think you may be right about the transit system connections.

  4. I’m loving the show so far! Also, this Greek mythology theory is so interesting to me, I can’t wait to see how it all plays out!

  5. That’s a lot to chew on. I didn’t follow the online speculation surrounding the first season. To me, the main mystery was the relationship between the two men. The flashback structure made the big question “What happened between them?” And the two characters and performances were so interesting that the murder mystery and all surrounding it seemed secondary.

    This season is starting out as what I expected from the first season: a hardboiled Southern California murder mystery in the long tradition stretching back to Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, up through Ross Macdonald, James Ellroy, Chinatown, etc. etc. etc. All the ingredients are there: the big money deal rooted in politics and corruption, the morally-compromised detective (three detectives, in this case) with the trainwreck of a personal life, the casual sleaze of pornography, the con job of phony religion. (I love David Morse, one of my favorite actors, as the leftover hippie leader). I can’t get enough of this kind of stuff, so any complaints that it’s overdone are lost on me.

    I like all the actors, except for Taylor Kitsch as the highway patrolman (another one of those interchangeable male ingénues I don’t get). But Farrell, McAdams, and Vaughn are doing great so far.

    Favorite line this week: “Never do anything out of hunger, not even eating.”

  6. Very good article. One little problem though, according to both Wikipedia and the IMDb site, Colin Farrell was born on May 31.

  7. Interesting. Sources say both dates (with mostly London sources giving his birth date as March 31: http://www.talktalk.co.uk/entertainment/film/biography/artist/colin-farrell/biography/22, http://www.sofeminine.co.uk/astro/album912385/celebrities-and-their-star-signs-22688775.html). I almost never get these things wrong, so good catch. I’m sure he has some Aries in his chart somewhere, but I won’t bore you by looking into it.

  8. […] Last week I talked a lot about Greek mythology. Frank’s memory becomes more significant when you consider how the ancient Greeks viewed death—as the equivalent of being locked in a basement in the dark. […]

  9. Wonderful post. My head is spinning.

  10. Good insights!

    I’d look into the similarities between the Antigone story and the Egyptian myth of Horus/Osiris/Isis/Seth. There are a lot of elements of that mythos that find expression in This season, and there are a lot of themes that overlap with Antigone’s story (honoring the dead, for one).

    I’m still trying to figure out the motorcyle cop character, but I love the idea that he’s Hercules!

    Farrell’s visit to the doctor was interesting. He ends that scene staring at his chest x-ray. In Egyptian mythology, the dead must have their hearts “weighed” against a feather. If the scales don’t balance, you don’t get to move on to the next stage.

    Still wondering what all that “green/black”aura stuff was from this week’s episode.

  11. I’m starting to think Pizzolatto is throwing out all sorts of references to the afterlife in various religions deliberately. The aura stuff and a few other things are making me think of Hindu references this week. I’ll be writing about this in more detail tomorrow. But having a black aura is usually a terrible sign. I wrote more about Ray and his journey in last week’s post, which you might like: http://www.lippsisters.com/2015/07/10/the-rose-and-the-eye-that-sees-god-maybe-tomorrow-on-true-detective/

  12. […] look at this scene from the very first episode, replayed at the beginning of “Down Will Come” to help viewers catch […]

  13. […] this is a little bit different from the Biblical references, the Greek mythology, the Egyptian mythology, the Norse mythology, the Tarot references, the Pacific Northwest Indian totem poles, the animal […]

  14. […] the opening credits, each character repeatedly opens his or her eyes. Then, in episode one, we have Antigone’s one-eyed Cyclops-looking knife dummy. And when Eliot Bezzerides preaches […]

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