True Detective and knowing when enough’s enough

Just my luck that immediately following my publication of that Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes editorial last week, my wife finally talked me into watching True Detective with her. (“Talked me into”: Not for lack of interest, just lack of time.) I really enjoyed the show, but it was frustrating – the timing, I mean. Specifically, True Detective features a key plot point that would have made a perfect counter-example for the troubling material in Ground Zeroes had I known about it a day before.

Again, the issue I have with Ground Zeroes isn’t that it takes a dark turn or contains unsettling material; that kind of content, difficult as it may be, can have merit in the right context. It’s just that Ground Zeroes – and Metal Gear in general – handles that material so poorly, so inelegantly, with such artless vulgarity that it undermines both the material and the game around it.

Meanwhile, over in True Detective we have an example of a remarkably similar plot thread done well. Spoilers ahead, OK?


The entirety of True Detective‘s first narrative arc concerns two men’s search for the people responsible for a string of ritualistic murders in rural Louisiana, often with women as the victims but frequently involving children of either gender as well. There’s a sexual undercurrent to the killings, along with elements of mutilation.

Eventually, a key piece of evidence comes to light: A tape recording of one of the murders. It’s a video tape rather than audio, but the idea is the same as the tape cassettes in Ground Zeroes. The VHS tape contains a ritual killing in its entirety, all the way to the gruesome end. The thing is, though, the audience never sees the full extent of the tape’s contents – nor do we need to. We see just enough (the killers in their bizarre animal masks, glimpses of a young woman in a nightgown, quick hints of the wooden fetish constructs that always appear at the ritual sites) to confirm that, yes, this is all tied to the murders that drive the plot. And then we see nothing more, only glimpses of the characters as they watch the silent cassette.

That doesn’t lessen its impact, though. Everything else we need to know about the tape is told through characters’ reactions. Hart, visibly rattled, leaps up and switches off the TV before it ends. Cohle, ever unflappable and insensitive, turns his back to the video as it plays, later admitting with a weary tone that he sat through the entire thing once already just in case anyone removed their mask and revealed their identity. And the corrupt sheriff the detectives force to watch the video screams in horror at what the tape contains.

The audience doesn’t need to see an atrocity committed to know that it’s happened, or even to understand the enormity of the act. In the making-of piece for that episode of the show, the show runner says (pardon my slight paraphrasing here), “Despite the darkness of what True Detective covers, we’ve taken care not to be gross about it, or to hit the viewer over the head with it.” And he’s right on the money. The show doesn’t need to go all the way to shock the viewer. The narrative holds up perfectly well through omission of gratuitous information; in fact, it arguably becomes more effective, because it forces the audience to contemplate what the nature of the material might ultimately be. It draws the viewer into the story as a participant, inviting them to fill in the unsavory blanks.

Ground Zeroes‘ content, on the other hand, doesn’t know where to draw the line. In presenting so many of the awful details of Chico and Paz’s prison abuses, it forsakes both good grace and good sense. Even if the Metal Gear franchise had dealt with this sort of material so unflinchingly in the past – which it most assuredly has never done – this would still be a misstep if only for its artlessness.

What makes it worse is that despite existing as in-game pick-ups, the audio logs clearly aren’t meant to be treated as diegetic. Unlike the True Detective tape, which informs the characters’ actions and helps strengthen their case, Ground Zeroes‘ audio logs don’t make sense as diegetic material. They exist for the audience’s information, not the characters’; if the characters had heard the logs, they’d have known about both of Paz’s bombs, for example. That being the case, there’s even less reason for the audio tapes to exist in the form they do – unlike Metal Gear characters, we’re not obtuse dimwits and don’t need to have information drilled into our heads.

God knows True Detective isn’t perfect, despite being smartly written, but its writing and direction are light years ahead of this supposed banner franchise for video games. I can’t think of another back-to-back experience in my life that has better demonstrated the difference between creators respecting an audience and knowing when to leave details ambiguous and… not doing those things.

Anyway, enough griping about Ground Zeroes. Sooner or later I’ll have a chance to write about all the stuff it does right, which is considerable! Honest. It’s just that story, sadly, isn’t one of those things.

4 thoughts on “True Detective and knowing when enough’s enough

  1. Jeremy, I just want to say your analysis here is spot-on. Really have been enjoying your writing on Mad Men so far. Hope you have a similar look at the flawed (but excellent) True Detective.


  2. 1) Reading this just made the Wyatt Family in WWE a whole lot creepier for me.

    2) I’m reminded of when the people making Batman: The Animated Series recalled having to do the scene with the death of Dick Grayson’s parents. They couldn’t show it, so much like in the episode described above, they give us the audience’s reaction to it, and admitted that in NOT showing it, the impact was that much stronger.

  3. When Fincher shot Fight Club, he tested the scene where Ed Norton beats Jared Leto unrecognizable two different ways: The first with just the beating, and the second with the reaction of the onlookers intercut between swings. The audience found the latter revolting, and that’s why he kept it in the movie. Ever since I heard that story, I look for good reaction shots of characters as opposed just what’s happening because they really are more affecting. Those scenes in True Detective absolutely prove it.

    I haven’t played Ground Zeroes yet, but from what you’ve been saying about it, I’m not sure I want to for mishandling something like this. I actually squirmed a little bit when I read your USG article

  4. @JohnLearned: I’m always in favor of people taking principled stances, but if you are actually interest in playing GZ (which I think plays sublimely) know that all of the rape material is in purely optional side content (which makes it rather more problematic, as it’s functionally a reward). It’s quite easy to avoid.

    I didn’t even understand where the second bomb was supposed to be until I read about it online. But maybe I’m just not very bright.

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