The Long Bright Dark: Allusions in True Detective

During the last episode of season four of True Detective, some cheered and others groaned when Raymond Clark said “time is a flat circle,” repeating Reggie Ledoux and Rustin Cohle’s line from season one. OG creator and showrunner Nic Pizzolato himself did not appreciate the homage to the original. Allusions as such can go either way.

At their best, allusions add layers of meaning to our stories, connecting them to the larger context of a series, genre, or literature at large. At worst, they’re lazy storytelling or fumbling fan service. It feels good to recognize an obscure allusion and feel like a participant in the story. It feels cheap to recognize one and feel manipulated by the writer. They are contrivances after all: legacy characters, echoed dialog, recurring locations or props—all of these can work either way, to cohere or alienate, to enrich the meaning or pull you right out of the story.

[WARNING: Spoilers abound below for all seasons of HBO’s True Detective.]

The spiral as seen in season four of True Detective: a motif smuggled out of the mythology of season one.

Our experience with a story is always informed by our past experience—lived or mediated—but when that experience is directly referenced with an allusion, we feel closer to the story. Allusions are where we share notes with other fans, and they form associative paths, connecting them to other artifacts. So, if you recognized Ledoux or Cohle’s words coming out of Clark’s mouth, or if you recognized all of them as Friedrich Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, you probably felt a closer tie to the story. As he wrote in The Gay Science (1882), “Do you want this again and innumerable times again?” For Nietzsche, this is all there was, and to embrace this recurrence was to embrace human life just as it is: the same thing over and over.

Rust Cohle and Marty Hart in season three.

Moreover, in season four we got the ghost of Rust Cohle’s father, Travis Cohle, a connection to the vast empire of the Tuttle family, and the goofy gag of recurring spirals. Season three had its passing connections to season one as well, as seen in the newspaper article in the image above. Given the pervasive references to it, season one may have been the show’s peak, but my favorite is still the beleaguered second season, the only one so far that stands free of allusions to the other seasons of the anthology. Perhaps it is the most hated season of the series because of its refusal to connect to and coexist with the others, yet—riding the word-of-mouth wave from season one—it’s also the most watched.

It should be noted that in addition to its lack of allusions to season one and any semblance of interiority, season two also lacks any sense of the spiritual. There is only the world you see and feel in front of you, no inner world, no adjacent beyond, no Carcosa. As Raymond Velcoro says grimly, “My strong suspicion is we get the world we deserve.”

Bezzerides and Velcoro share a moment of quiet contemplation.

Season two continues the gloom of the first season, moving it from the swamps of Louisiana to the sprawl of Los Angeles. Like its suburban setting, season two stretches out in good and bad ways, leaving us by turns enlightened and lost. Though, as Ian Bogost points out, where Cohle got lost in his own head, the characters in season two—Ani Bezzerides, Paul Woodrugh, Frank Semyon, and Velcoro—get lost in their world. The physician and psychoanalyst Dr. John C. Lilly distinguished between what he called insanity and outsanity. Insanity is “your life inside yourself”; outsanity is the chaos of the world, the cruelty of other people. Sometimes we get lost in our heads. Sometimes we get lost in the world.

Rust Cohle in his storage shed in season one.

To be fair, season one isn’t without its references to existing texts. Much of the material in Cohle’s monologues is straight out of Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (Hippocampus Press, 2010), where he quotes the Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe (even using the word “thresher” to describe the pain of human existence), and the dark-hearted philosophy of Nietzsche, of course. The writings of Ambrose Bierce (“An Inhabitant of Carcosa”), H.P. Lovecraft (Cthulhu Mythos), and Robert W. Chambers (“The Yellow King”) also make appearances. Daniel Fitzpatrick writes in his essay in the book True Detection (Schism, 2014), “Through these references, engaged viewers are offered a means to unlock the show’s secrets, granting a more active involvement, and while these references are often essential and enrich our experience of the show, in its weaker moments they can make it seem like a grab-bag of half thought-through allusions.”

“One of the things that I loved most about that first season of True Detective was the cosmic horror angle of it,” says season four writer, director, and showrunner Issa López. “It had a Carcosa, and it had a Yellow King, which are references to the Cthulhu Mythos with Lovecraft and the idea of ancient gods that live beyond human perception.” The hints of something beyond this world, “the war going on behind things,” as Reverend Billy Lee Tuttle put it, pulled us all in. “That sense of something sinister playing behind the scenes, and watching from the shadows,” she continues, “is something that I very much loved.”

In his book on suicide, The Savage God (1970), Al Álvarez writes, “For the great rationalists, a sense of absurdity—the absurdity of superstition, self-importance, and unreason—was as natural and illuminating as sunlight.” By the end of season one, Rustin Cohle seems to embrace the eternal recurrence of his life, the spiral of light and the dark—including his own daughter’s death. At the end of Night Country, Evangeline Navarro seems to do the same, walking blindly into extinction, one last midnight, a lone sister, fragile and numinous, opting out of a raw deal, lost both in her head and in the world.


Further Reading:

David Benatar, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Ambrose Bierce, Ghost and Horror Stories of Ambrose Bierce, New York: Dover, 1964.
Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow, Knoxville, TN: Wordsworth Editions, 2010.
Roy Christopher, Escape Philosophy: Journeys Beyond the Human Body, Brooklyn, NY: punctum books, 2021.
Edia Connole, Paul J. Ennis, & Nicola Masciandaro (eds.), 
True Detection, Schism, 2014.
Jacob Graham & Tom Sparrow (eds.), True Detective and Philosophy: A Deeper Kind of Darkness, Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2018.
Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, New York: Hippocampus Press, 2010.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, New York: Dover, 1882.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, New York: Macmillan. 1896.
Nic Pizzolatto, Between Here and the Yellow Sea, Ann Arbor, MI: Dzanc Books, 2015.
Eugene Thacker, In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy, Vol. 1, London: Zer0 Books, 2011.
Eugene Thacker, Infinite Resignation, London: Repeater Books, 2018.

Answering Machines

“Welcome to the world of Pinecone Computers,” Miles Harding (played by Lenny Von Dohlen) reads from a computer manual in Electric Dreams (1984). “This model will learn with you, so type your name and press Enter key to begin.”[1] Since the big-screen tales of the 1980s PC-era, the idea of machines merging with humans has been a tenacious trope in popular culture. In Tron (1982) Kevin Flynn (played by Jeff Bridges) was sucked through a laser into the digital realm. Wired to the testosterone, the hormone-driven juvenile geniuses of Weird Science (1985) set to work making the woman of their dreams. WarGames (1983) famously pit suburban whiz-kids against a machine hell-bent on launching global thermonuclear war. In Electric Dreams (1984), which is admittedly as much montage as it is movie, Miles (von Dohlen, who would go on to play the agoraphobic recluse Harold Smith in Twin Peaks, who kept obsessive journals of the towns-folks’ innermost thoughts and dreams) attempts to navigate a bizarre love triangle between him, his comely neighbor, and his new computer.

Theodore Twombly meets Samantha in Spike Jonze’s Her.

From the jealous machine to falling in love with the machine, the theme remains pervasive. As artificial-intelligence researcher Ray Kurzweil writes of Spike Jonze’s 2013 movie Her, “Jonze introduces another idea that I have written about […] namely, AIs creating an avatar of a deceased person based on their writings, other artifacts and people’s memories of that person.”[2] In the near future of Her, Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) writes letters for a living, letters between fathers and daughters, long-distance lovers, husbands, wives, and others. In doing so, he is especially susceptible to the power of narrative himself since his job involves the constant creation of believable, vicarious stories. His ability to immerse himself in the stories of others makes it that much easier for him to get lost in the love of his operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), as she constructs narratives to create her personality, and thereby, their relationship.

Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter calls our imbuing machines with more intelligence than they have—even when we know better—“The ELIZA Effect,” after Joseph Weizenbaum’s text-based psychoanalytic computer program, ELIZA. Hofstadter writes, “the most superficial of syntactic tricks convinced some people who interacted with ELIZA that the program actually understood everything that they were saying, sympathized with them, even empathized with them.”[3] ELIZA was written at MIT by Weizenbaum in the mid-1960s, but its effects linger on. “Like a tenacious virus that constantly mutates,” Hofstadter continues, “the Eliza effect seems to crop up over and over again in AI in ever-fresh disguises, and in subtler and subtler forms.”[4] In the first chapter of Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, she extends the idea to our amenability to new technologies, including artificial intelligence, embodied or otherwise: “and true to the ELIZA effect, this is not so much because the robots are ready but because we are.”[5]

Virtual Girlfriend: “Knowledge Acquiring and Response Intelligence,” Kari 5.0.

More germane to Jonze’s Her is a program called KARI, which stands for “Knowledge Acquiring and Response Intelligence.” According to Dominic Pettman’s first and only conversation with KARI, as described in his book, Look at the Bunny, there’s a long way to go before any of us are falling in love with our computers. After interacting with a similar bot online, Jonze agrees. “For the first, maybe, twenty seconds of it,” he says, “I had this real buzz—I’d say ‘Hey, hello,’ and it would say ‘Hey, how are you?,’ and it was like whoa… this is trippy. After twenty seconds, it quickly fell apart and you realized how it actually works, and it wasn’t that impressive. But it was still, for twenty seconds, really exciting. The more people that talked to it, the smarter it got.” The author James Gleick comes to the conceit from the other side, writing, “I’d say Her is a movie about (the education of) an interesting woman who falls in love with a man who, though sweet, is mired in biology.” At one point in the movie, Samantha imagines the same fate for herself: “I could feel the weight of my body, and I was even fantasizing that I had an itch on my back—(she laughs) and I imagined that you scratched it for me—this is so embarrassing.” The dual feelings of being duped by technology and mired in biology sit on the cusp of the corporeal conundrum of what it means to be human, to have not only consciousness but also to have a body, as well as what having a body means.[6]

Mechanical Matrimony

Where some see the whole mess of bodies and machines as one, big system. Others picture the airwaves themselves as extensions. “Telepresence,” as envisioned by Pat Gunkel, Marvin Minsky, and others, sets out to achieve a sense of being there, transferring an embodied experience across space via telephone lines, satellites, and sensory feedback loops.[7] It sounds quaint in world where working from home is normal for many and at least an option for others, but Marshall McLuhan was writing about it in the 1960s, and Minsky and his lot were working on it in the 1970s.

Still others imagine a much more deliberate merging of the biological and the mechanical, postulating an uploading of human consciousness into the machines themselves. Known in robotic and artificial intelligence circles as “The Moravec Transfer,” its namesake, the roboticist Hans Moravec, describes a human brain being uploaded, neuron by neuron, until it exists unperturbed inside a machine.[8] But Moravec wasn’t the first to imagine such a transition. The cyberpunk novelist and mathematician Rudy Rucker outlined the process in his 1982 novel, Software. “It took me nearly a year to really figure out the idea,” he writes, “simple as it now seems. I was studying the philosophy of computation at the University of Heidelberg, reading and pondering the essays of Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel.”[9] Turing was an early inventor of computing systems and AI, best known for the Turing test, whereby an AI is considered to be truly thinking like a human if it can fool a human into thinking so. Gödel was a logician and mathematician, best known for his incompleteness theorem. Both were heavily influential on the core concepts of computing and artificial intelligence. “It’s some serious shit,” Rucker writes of the process. “But I chose to present it in cyberpunk format. So, no po-faced serious, analytic-type, high literary mandarins are ever gonna take my work seriously.”[10] In Rucker’s story, a robot saves its creator by uploading his consciousness into a robot.

NASA’s own Robert Jastrow wrote in 1984 that uploading our minds into machines is the be-all of evolution and would make us immortal. He wrote,

at last the human brain, ensconced in a computer, has been liberated from the weakness of the mortal flesh. […] The machine is its body; it is the machine’s mind. […] It seems to me that this must be the mature form of intelligent life in the Universe. Housed in indestructible lattices of silicon, and no longer constrained in the span of its years by the life and death cycle of a biological organism, such a kind of life could live forever.[11]

In the 2014 movie Transcendence, Dr. Will Caster (played by Johnny Depp) and his wife Evelyn (played by Rebecca Hall) do just that. Caster is terminally ill and on the verge of offloading his mortal shell. Once his mind is uploaded into a quantum computer connected to the internet, Caster becomes something less than himself and something more simultaneously. It’s the chronic consciousness question: What is it about you that makes you you? Is it still there once all of your bits are transferred into a new vessel? The Casters’ love was strong enough for them to try and find out.

Escape Philosophy

The essay above is an excerpt from Chapter 3, “MACHINE: Mechanical Reproduction,” of my book Escape Philosophy: Journeys Beyond the Human Body, which is available as an open-access .pdf and beautiful paperback from punctum books. It’s really quite good, but don’t take my word for it…

“An interesting read indeed!” — Aaron Weaver, Wolves in the Throne Room


1 Steve Barron, dir., Electric Dreams, written by Rusty Lemorande (Los Angeles: Virgin Films, 1984).

2 Ray Kurzweil, “A Review of ‘Her’ by Ray Kurzweil,”, February 10, 2014.

3 Douglas Hofstadter, Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 158.

4 Ibid.
5 Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 24–25.

6 As Hayles notes, “when information loses its body, equating humans and computers is especially easy.” N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 2.

7 See Marvin Minsky, “Telepresence,” OMNI Magazine, June 1980, 45–52.

8 See Hans Moravec, Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988). For another early example, see G. Harry Stine, “The Bionic Brain,” OMNI Magazine, July 1979, 84–86, 121–22.

9 Rudy Rucker, “Outer Banks & New York #1,” Rudy’s Blog, August 2, 2015.

10 Ibid.

11 Robert Jastrow, The Enchanted Loom: Mind in the Universe (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), 166–67.