“A Church in Ruins,” by Lera Lynn (2015; played in the Black Rose bar in “Night Finds You”)
You were alone,
And you were alive,
Among the woken dead.
He was a liar,
But not a tone,
Still he went to your head.
“I love you, baby,
Like a miner loves gold.
And this will never grow old.”
Lost in the ether,
Down in the blind,
And not a word was said.
But he was neither
Vicious or kind
As he lay there and bled.
His hands were on you
And it felt just the same
As when he didn’t know your name.
“I love you, baby,
Like a miner loves gold.
And this will never grow old.”
Darkness for cover,
Church in ruin.
There’s nothing left to feel.
This is your doing.
A heart against the wheel.
Last year, showrunner Nic Pizzolatto promised a weirder, more occult take this season on True Detective. Then he said in more recent interviews that he abandoned that notion mid-course for closer character development.
I’d say so far we’re getting both.
This time last season, all we had for “weird” was a skinny, morose Matthew McConaughey, a naked dead girl with antlers and some random figures made of twigs.
In “Night Finds You,” the second episode of the new season, we received a hearty helping of birds, birds and more birds. And I’m not talking this kind:
Well…maybe I am (God, that scene still makes my heart drop into my stomach).
The birds Pizzolatto’s using are the same as Alfred Hitchcock’s: crows.
But more on that later.
In the start of “Night Finds You,” Frank Semyon lies awake in bed, contemplating how to cope financially with Caspere’s absence. He sees two sinister water stains on his ceiling, the shape of two empty eye sockets gazing down on him.
They remind him of an incident in his childhood, of course (all the characters on this show had miserably neglected childhoods). “It’s like everything’s papier-maché,” Semyon thinks out loud.
Everything in Semyon’s world now seems flimsy and fake, with Caspere mysteriously gone along with the money he gave him. He’s in shock over the development—after all, he’d been trying to go legit after a presumable life of crime. Why is he being punished now?
In his recollection, he is six years old, locked in the basement by his alcoholic dad who’s sitting in jail after a bender. He’s stuck down there for five days—in which time, he runs out of food and then light, and then attacks a rat in self-defense. A tear streams down his face as he says to his wife, “What if I’m still in that basement in the dark? What if I died in there? That’s what that reminds me of, that water stain. Something’s trying to tell me that it’s all papier-maché. Something’s telling me to wake up. Like…like I’m not real. Like I’m only dreaming.”
Semyon expresses something other characters are experiencing this season, too—that he’s not sure if he might be dead or whether he’s in some middle ground, where he’s not quite living, but not quite cognizant of what’s truly happening either.
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.
The stains on Semyon’s ceiling seamlessly transition into the eye sockets of Ben Caspere’s corpse on the cold coroner’s table. It wasn’t a stomach wound Caspere had suffered, but a shotgun blast to the genitals. The dark cavity in Caspere’s crotch—which I won’t show here, as it makes even Detectives Bezzerides and Velcoro flinch—makes a second appearance later on in the episode, when Ani and Ray visit Dr. Pitlor, Caspere’s shrink:
“He was sexually obsessed,” Pitlor says, “but not aggressive. More…passive.” Ani stares at the vaginal purple geode on Pitlor’s desk after he says this (possibly also reflecting on her own passive sexual tendencies). It looks a bit like this:
A cavity—a lack. I’m positive this will come up again later.
Unlike Caspere, Pitlor still has eyeballs to hide, and he wears his sunglasses for the entire grilling (much like Caspere did for his entire car ride to doom). When he removes them, he stands and addresses Ani, recognizing her surname. And the painting behind him comes into view, one that resembles Winslow Homer’s Two Men in a Canoe. But it also resembles a work by another Homer, or at least a part of that work.
In The Odyssey, Charon, the decrepit ferryman of the dead, allows Odysseus entrance into the underworld to visit the seer Tiresias. In Greek mythology, Charon usually charged a boat fare of his dead passengers—a coin placed in the corpse’s mouth at the time of the funeral (those who approached him without this coin were left to haunt the banks of the river Styx for eternity). In Greek, Charon’s name means “of keen gaze,” a reference to his fierce, flashing eyes. Here is how the poet Virgil described him: “There Chairon stands, who rules the dreary coast/ A sordid god: down from his hairy chin/ A length of beard descends, uncombed, unclean;/ His eyes, like hollow furnaces on fire;/ A girdle, foul with grease, binds his obscene attire.”
In the Wild West, mourners employed a similar tactic—but instead of placing a coin in the dead body’s mouth, they placed two silver dollars on its eyes, a practice meant to hide the disfigurement that occurs when the eyes naturally dry up in death (something Ben Caspere wouldn’t have to worry about). These coins weren’t fare of admittance, however; in fact, the family of the deceased often took them back before the body descended to its grave (money was tight then…).
A friend of mine pointed out to me the other day that there’s something about that concept, of bringing money into the afterlife, or placing it over the eyes, that’s a bit like buying a ticket to an amusement park. Which ties in with the amusement park we saw in the first episode of this season, “The Western Book of the Dead.”
Let’s look closely at that photo of Luna Park in Aspen Conroy’s front foyer one more time.
“The face,” as it was called, was modeled after a face on the entrance to another famous mechanical playground, Steeplechase Park on Coney Island (Coney had its own version of Luna Park, which also burned to the ground at one point, by the way—30 years before Sydney’s did).
What was referred to as the Steeplechase Park Funny Face was just as demented and insidious looking. An article in the Brooklyn Paper a year ago described it thusly: “[Coney Island History Project Director] Charlie Denson said the slyly beaming mug, which debuted with the sprawling amusement park in 1897, was symbolic of Steeplechase in more ways than one. Park founder George C. Tilyou’s creation reflected both his era’s dominant aesthetics and its repressed sexuality. Steeplechase featured neo-Classical architecture and manicured gardens—but also hidden fans beneath the Boardwalk entrance that blew girls’ skirts up over their waists, as well as a clown-faced dwarf that chased visitors around and spanked them with an electric paddle. ‘Steeplechase was at once innocent and very kinky. There were things that couldn’t exist today in a P.C. world,’ said Denson, adding that it was no accident that the original design of the Funny Face logo winked and leered. ‘The face is like a Victorian relic. It’s the repressed id, and the id being released.'”
I guess I’m a bit darker than my friend who thought of the amusement park fare, though, because whenever I see pictures of “the face,” the entrance to Luna Park, what I think of is this:
This is the Tarot de Paris version of the Tower card, present in all Tarot decks. It’s pretty chaotic. Look carefully at the large mouth and red teeth on the right side. The mouth represents the Greek underworld, attempting to consume the bodies of the dead. In this scene in particular, the figures trying to escape the monster are Orpheus and Eurydice.
In Greek mythology, Orpheus goes down into the underworld to try to retrieve his dead wife; he’s instructed that she can return with him as long as he does not look back as they journey home. Orpheus doubts Hades’s honesty at the last minute and turns around to be sure his love is still there; sure enough, when he does this, Eurydice is sucked back down underground.
This would be less significant in the world of True Detective if Ben Caspere didn’t own a painting titled Eurydice, in which the ancient Greek character lies almost upside down twisted up in red sheets.
Speaking of being tied up. All I could think of when the coroner described Caspere’s position at the time of death (“bound upside down—or close to it”) was this:
Another card in the Tarot de Paris deck depicts the Hanged Man, with both feet trussed up. The coroner believes Caspere had both his wrists and ankles tied. In this version of the card, the man is being tortured, his punishment for being a traitor. Caspere has so many financial ties to so many people—surely somewhere along the way he’s pissed someone off. His death and torture seem akin to “getting the world he deserves”—the eyes he used to watch others engage in sexual acts were removed; the genitalia he self-employed while watching is also gone. Perhaps the prostitutes he tied up just for fun decided to turn the tables on him. And there’s no doubt he DID tie up women just for fun—just look at the book sitting in his soundproof living room:
According to its website, Araki is a Japanese photographer who “talks about life through photographs. His powerful œuvre, decades’ worth of images, has been pared down to about 1,000 photographs which tell the story of Araki and comprise the ultimate retrospective collection of his work. Known best for his intimate, snapshot-style images of women often tied up with ropes (kinbaku, Japanese rope-tying art) and of colorful, sensual flowers, Araki is an artist who reacts strongly to his emotions and uses photography to experience them more fully. Obsessed with women, Araki seeks to come closer to them through photography, using ropes like an embrace and the click of the shutter like a kiss. His work is at once shocking and mysteriously tender; a deeply personal artist, Araki is not afraid of his emotions nor of showing them to the world.”
This certainly seems aligned with most of Caspere’s artwork, in which women’s heads are missing and body parts are tied up by sheets intertwined.
Maybe it wasn’t a vengeful killing, though. The more well-known version of the Hanged Man card, in the Rider-Waite deck, depicts someone who has submitted to his torture voluntarily.
Here’s how biddytarot.com describes the meaning of this position: “The Hanged Man shows a man suspended, upside down, from the living World Tree, rooted in the underworld and supporting the heavens. Given the serene expression on his face, it is believed he is hanging on the tree of his own will. His right foot is bound to the tree but his left foot remains free, bent at the knee and tucked in behind his right leg. His arms are bent, with hands held behind his back, forming an inverted triangle. Around the Hanged Man’s head is a bright yellow halo showing spiritual attainment, with the grey background suggesting invisibility (a good reminder to not flaunt your spirituality). This is the card of ultimate surrender, of being suspended in time and of martyrdom and sacrifice to the greater good. This is the archetype to meditate on to help break old patterns of behavior and bad habits that restrict you.”
Could Caspere have put himself through this voluntarily (perhaps at Dr. Pitlor’s advice), but then something went horribly wrong? Most symbols of the underworld on this show revolve around Caspere, his home and his paraphernalia. He was killed in his own home, strung up by his own sex swing. Velcoro discovers the pool of blood beneath it. Could he have been trying to experience some kind of enlightenment, some kind of transition?
Another version of this card shows the Norse god Odin, hanging in a similar position. Except Odin took the whole enlightenment thing one step further.
The story of his sacrifice, according to rabbitmoontarot.wordpress.com: “In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil—the world tree—is the home of the universe. The Aesir Gods live in the top, with elves, humans and ice giants populating the tree as you descend, until you reach the roots, where the Norns live. The Norns are the Norse fates—three sisters who control the destiny of all the creatures in all the worlds. They carve runes—symbols of magic and knowledge—into the bark of Yggdrasil, so that their power is carried through all the branches, affecting all the people.
“Now, the Aesir Gods are a curious pantheon, in that they know of a prophecy that foretells their death. Odin, King of the Gods, traded one of his eyes to acquire the prophecy and ever since had been searching for ways to undo their doom. From the top of the world tree, Odin looked down and saw the sisters with their runes and felt the power of the symbols. Perhaps here he might find the answer that would save him and his people.
“Down Odin descended. He asked the sisters to teach him the runes, but sadly they shook their heads. The runes could not be given, but must be earned. A sacrifice was required. So with strong ropes and cunning knots, the Norns hung Odin from a branch of Yggdrasil, and the Eddar Poem reads: ‘Each symbol had its own power—there were runes for protection and runes to curse, runes to inspire love and runes to acquire wealth. Runes to heal, and runes to wound. All these runes Odin was now the master of, and he hoped that it would be enough to arm him and his kin against Ragnarok: the end of the world.'”
Remember what Eliot Bezzerides was going on about at Panticapaeum: “I was told something a long time ago. Let me share it with you. When you see only with God’s eyes, you see only the truth. And you recognize a meaningless universe. Ginsberg said this to me once. And it was a gift. So today’s exercise is to recognize the world as meaningless and to understand that God did not create a meaningless world. Hold both thoughts as irrefutable and equal, because this is how we must live now in the final age of man.”
“The final age of man.” This will come up again. More on this later.
In Norse mythology, Odin was often described as a “raven god” because of the two he kept as pets. Their names, Hugin and Munin, mean “thought” and “memory,” respectively. Odin taught them to speak, and then the ravens told Odin everything they saw and heard, which made him more powerful (though he often feared they might not return from their flights). It’s an early example of shamanism.
The painting that looks like Charon’s boat crossing the river Styx isn’t the only intriguing piece of art in Dr. Pitlor’s office:
That bird, in the painting behind sleepy, apathetic Ray. That’s a raven.
And you know what else is? This:
Its beak and wings have been clipped, perhaps by a storm or just due to age (many of these Northwest Coast totem poles were created in the late 1800s to early 1900s). What did Eliot Bezzerides say about them? “These totems, they watch over departed spirits. I’ve always felt your mother among them.”
According to Alia Hoyt’s article, “How Totem Poles Work,” the poles “portray an array of animal and human carvings… These American Indian symbols come from one of three kingdoms: sky, earth or underwater. Popular belief holds that many animals could transform into other beings—or even into humans. American Indians sometimes used these animals to represent an ancestor that they believed possessed this transformative ability.”
Ravens are so common on totem poles that there are about 90 different stories about them. But despite the differing stories, their symbolism is almost always the same. From the “corvid” (fancy name for crow) entry in the Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in World Art:
“Corvids are said to be among the most intelligent birds…like humans, corvids cooperate to deal effectively with predators, driving off much larger birds such as eagles and owls. Corvid intelligence, adaptability, ability to take advantage of diverse situations and to exploit human activity all contribute to a feeling of kinship…. The generally negative symbolic significance of crows and ravens is…a fairly recent European phenomenon…. The unfavorable associations stem from an accretion of local traditions linking the bird to dreams of ill omen and to the scavenging of the corpses strewn across 19th-century battlefields….
“[But]…in most cases, corvid symbolism appears to be ambiguous and ambivalent. This contradictory nature is apparent from the birds’ earliest appearance as one of several symbols of the Great Goddess. Like other potent, but ambiguous symbolic animals such as the vulture and the dog, crows and ravens are linked with the Great Goddess in her destructive, death-dealing aspect. By contrast, the dove embodies the virginal, procreative and renewing aspect of the Great Goddess. Taken together, corvid and dove symbolize the totality of the life force and the cycles of nature, eternally alternating between death and life…. Crows and ravens often serve as messengers and intermediaries between human beings and gods, not only because of their intelligence, but also due to their uncanny ability to mimic human speech. The Roman Suetonis interpreted the raven’s caw as a symbol of hope and the future—cras, cras, ‘tomorrow, tomorrow.’ Biedermann suggests that the Early Christians interpreted the latin words differently—for them, the bird became a symbol of those who risked their immortal souls by putting off salvation until tomorrow.
“In many cultures, crows and ravens are solar symbols, because their plumage seems to shine like the sun, or perhaps because the shining black color suggests the ability to survive close to the sun. In Greece, the raven was the bird of Apollo, who is said to have blackened the bird’s white feathers as punishment for revealing secrets….. And, on the Northwest Coast, many Native American myths link the deity Raven with the theft of the sun and its gift to human beings.”
Followers of shamanism believe that the crow/raven/rook symbolizes the “guardian of the place before existence; the ability to move in space and time; honoring ancestors; ethics and ethical behavior; the carrier of souls from darkness into light; working without fear in darkness; guidance while working in shadow; the ability to move freely in the void, to be a shapeshifter.”
The carrier of souls from darkness to light.
Considering its blatant connections to death and the underworld, it seems odd that a place like Panticapaeum would celebrate such a creature, that Eliot Bezzerides would look upon it on the totem pole with reverence. It represents the “destructive feminine,” not a high and lofty, purely spiritual ideal.
But then maybe the “Good People” of Guerneville, California, where Eliot raised his children—according to what Antigone tells Dr. Pitlor—weren’t so good after all.
In the world of True Detective, the Good People lived on a hippie commune—or as Ani puts it, “It was a fucked-up place. Five kids living there when I was growing up. Two are in jail now, two committed suicide. How’s that for social theory?”
Chances are good Pizzolatto’s Good People concept was based on a cult started in the 1960s (and Eliot’s mention of the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg makes this all the more likely), first called the Children of God and later referred to as the Family International. Says Encyclopedia-Brittanica, they were a “Christian communal group that grew out of the ministry of David Berg (1919–94) to the hippies who had gathered in Huntington Beach, California, in the late 1960s. It teaches a message of Christian love based on scripture and Berg’s prophecies. The focus of the first anticult organization—the Parents’ Committee to Free Our Children from the Children of God (FREECOG)—it attracted attention for alleged child abuse and for its use of sex in missionary work. The group abandoned some of its more extreme sexual practices and has remained a moderately successful movement with an international presence.
“In 1969 the group, then known as Teens for Christ, left California because of Berg’s prediction of a future earthquake. It reorganized as the Children of God (COG), and Berg became known as Moses David. Initially seen as part of the Jesus People revival then sweeping through hippie communities, the Children of God were distinguished by their belief that Berg was God’s ‘endtime’ messenger. In the early 1970s, inspired by his apocalypticism, members of the sect dressed in sackcloth and conducted demonstrations denouncing America’s abandonment of God.”
Hold on a second—that said “‘endtime’ messenger,” right? Akin to Eliot Bezzerides’s message to his students—”this is how we must live now, in the final age of man”?
“By 1974, in accordance with Berg’s goal of creating an organization composed entirely of full-time missionaries, most COG members had scattered throughout the world to live communally and to spread Berg’s message…. In 1978 he initiated a major reorganization that led the Children of God to disband and reconstitute as The Family. During this same period Berg led his followers to free themselves from sexual inhibitions and taboos. For example, in a practice called ‘flirty fishing,’ he encouraged female members to use their feminine charms while witnessing God’s love to lonely men, a tactic that often led to sexual activity. He also encouraged sexual ‘sharing’ among the adults in The Family.
“This sexual activity led to problems in the early 1980s. Most significantly, herpes spread among Family members, and pedophiles within the group preyed upon the children. In 1983 and over the next several years, the group began to curtail this sexual activity. Child protection rules were instituted, and in 1987 flirty fishing was discontinued. The sharing of adult partners within the group continues and remains The Family’s most distinctive and controversial practice.
“In the early 1990s the homes of Family members in several countries were raided by government agencies concerned about child welfare. However, extensive investigations discovered no cases of abuse; The Family had seemingly rid itself of this objectionable activity.
“Berg died in 1994 and was succeeded by his wife, Maria. The following year she introduced the Love Charter, a constitution spelling out rights and responsibilities for Family members. In 2004 the organization adopted its present name. At the start of the 21st century, The Family International had about 10,000 members in more than 90 countries, making it the most successful communal group to emerge from the 1960s counterculture era.”
Let’s be clear for a minute. This cult, though under a different name, still exists. This religious commune encouraged a form of prostitution and polyamory, and didn’t split hairs over the age of consenting sexual partners. It was accused of molestation.
And it still exists.
And something tells me the Good People on True Detective haven’t gone away either. Based on the location that Vera, the missing maid from Panticapaeum, had on her cell phone bill when Bezzerides’s partner Elvis checked it—Guerneville—something tells me the group is alive and well, connected to Eliot Bezzerides…and still, not so “good.”
Also, there’s little doubt that Antigone was molested at some point, as well as her sister. In fact, all of the main characters were likely abused in childhood: Antigone in the hippie commune, Paul Woodrugh by his creepy mom or perhaps his missing dad (where did the scars come from, and why does he seem so tortured sexually?), Frank Semyon by his alcoholic father who essentially let him starve in solitary confinement for five days.
Each of these characters embraced authority as a defense mechanism, in order to cope and feel strong, but each still seems blind to his or her true nature. They’re even blinded in HBO’s promo posters. Each is cut off at the eyes:
Frank Semyon’s not the only one who needs to wake up.
And just as crows come together to fight off larger predators, my hope for this season is that we will gradually watch these characters do the same.
After all, remember what a flock of crows is called? A murder.
While we still don’t know the symbolism behind the animal heads in Caspere’s secret Hollywood lair, they do seem to represent the strengths of each primary protagonist.
The one in the middle appears to be a black jaguar, which in shamanism represents the gatekeeper to the unknowable and the hidden sun and stars. Paul is highly repressed and carries many seemingly unknowable secrets. He gazes longingly at the stars. His mother tells him he has “hound’s blood,” though, not “cat’s.” Either is good, in this case, since a bloodhound, with its strong sense of smell, is one of the strongest detectives in the animal kingdom. Paul also identifies with being a biker (“The highway suits me”), and a tribute to bikers is shown in the early part of the first episode, when Antigone busts the webcam porn house. In the living room is a shrine of sorts to a skeleton on a motorcycle. Skeletons in the biker world often symbolize mortality beyond death, or the ability to cheat death. I imagine we’ll catch Paul in more than one death-defying situation (we’ve already seen him almost drive off a cliff).
Antigone would be the the mountain lion mask, second from the left, an animal who “uses leadership power wisely and without ego; balances power, intention and strength; gains self-confidence and freedom from guilt; and displays cunning.” According to animalspirits.com, “for the Zunis of Turtle Island (Southwest United States), the mountain lion or cougar was the Master Hunter, known for its high intelligence, its knowledge of other animal and life forms, its physical prowess, its strength of will and its intuitive ability. The mountain lion sees the maintenance of its territory as essential for its survival.”
As a cop, Ani works hard to maintain the stability of her territory, a need she seems to have after having grown up in chaos. I think by season’s end we’ll watch her find more balance in her life, more control over or acceptance of her compulsions and self-confidence about her abilities (maybe even sans knives).
The one on the far right seems to be an ass, which in this case would be Frank Semyon. The ass is intelligent and takes on large burdens (one thing’s for sure…he’s no rat). The ass is stubborn, able to make independent decisions, refuses to move when he knows something’s not copacetic, can say no to others and ignores others’ opinions.
And finally, the animal head on the far left appears to be a bear, which in shamanism represents transformation and rebirth. These traits might serve Detective Ray Velcoro well if he hopes to survive two potential bullet wounds (let’s hope he had on that bulletproof vest we saw him in earlier). And in a more metaphorical sense, my hope is that we’ll see him reborn as a “good person,” who’s once again “decent at being good,” as his ex-wife recalls.
But this entire season may call into question what it really means to “be good.”
Just before he enters Caspere’s Hollywood apartment, Ray tells Lucia, the scar-faced waitress at the Black Rose bar, that the only way he’ll ever go on a vacation is if he croaks. The vacation locale she suggests is the Mexican town she grew up in, San Miguel de Allende. This place is the town of Vinci’s polar opposite—it’s famous for its lack of emphasis on industry and its dedication to preserving the arts. It’s been utilized and colonized by many famous artists and writers, Diego Rivera among them.
Rivera’s paintings often depicted industry, as does the one that appears in Mayor Austin Chessani’s office this episode, behind his desk. That’s no surprise for a town that holds only 95 residents and is contaminating all that surrounds it. But there’s another work of art in that room that I find even more interesting: the bird straddling the globe behind Chessani’s desk.
Anyone know whether this might be a raven? Regardless, it likely indicates his involvement in Caspere’s death, in Vera’s going missing and in whatever else Dr. Pitlor and the Good People might be up to.
Chessani references doing drugs earlier in life—he calls it “consciousness-raising,” “tracing the unseen web.” Could he have engaged in that in a hippie commune in Guerneville? His wife couldn’t handle the acid trips, he says; she went crazy and killed herself (like Antigone’s mother?), and he fears his son is soon to do the same. He tells Frank that he’s giving his son Tony a club in Oakland, so he can go be a “boy prince” elsewhere. A “boy prince”—something tells me that’s going to be important down the line. What do you think?
Until next time, as Frank Semyon might say, “How’s that for detecting?”
“What a Way to Go” by John Paul White (2015)
What a wonderful day
To lose it all,
Lose it all.
What a wonderful way
To choose to fall,
Choose to fall.