The Sacrificial Landscape of True Detective

We can't restore nature, but we can offer refuge.
True Detective

True Detective is a compelling show. People love the acting and are thrilled by the mystery. No arguments there. But two recent interviews with people who worked on it highlight another reason the show works: the petrochemical landscape of Louisiana. 

Here's the show's creator Nic Pizzolatto talking with Buzzfeed:

 I think True Detective is portraying a world where the weak (physically or economically) are lost, ground under by perfidious wheels that lie somewhere behind the visible, wheels powered by greed, perversity, and irrational belief systems, and these lost souls dwell on an exhausted frontier, a fractured coastline beleaguered by industrial pollution and detritus, slowly sinking into the Gulf of Mexico. There’s a sense here that the apocalypse already happened.

The apocalypse already happened here

​This is a sacrificial landscape: It must die so that Los Angeles and New York and Iowa City can live. Environmental historian Brian Black coined that term to describe the very first American oil fields in eastern Pennsylvania. Fossil fuel production and refinement does something to a place, usually something sinister. 

Consider how creative director Patrick Clair pitched the show's (jaw dropping) opening credit sequence. 

"I have great respect for the way the place and time of the events in the story echo and amplify the emotional lives of the characters that inhabit it. This link—the relationship between broken landscapes and broken people—has been central to all our thinking," he wrote. 

"This isn't the zombie plague. This isn't vampires and warlocks. The phrase that has been echoing in my head since our first discussions on the project is that we are witnessing a 'personal apocalypse.'"

Then he presented this slide:

Two thoughts occur to me staring at this slide. 

One, the internal division that Clair imagines for the human characters—that they are struggling to be good but failing—is equally true for the post-industrial ecosystems in the area. 

They, too, want to be good and at times—as the camera pans up to follow a car down a highway—they are good. The trees and waterways are gorgeous, woven together by the light, topped with puffy clouds.

But just as often, the presence of life is constricting and scary, as in the roadside brothel canopied by dark trees. The landscape won't let anyone leave.

But it is not a barren, dusty post-apocalypse like The Road. The fear here is pollution, and mutation, fates without the clean lines of death. Recall Cohle seeing the portentous murmuration of birds:

My second thought is that most sacrificial landscapes don't have the grandeur of the Louisiana refinery terrain.

The Superfund sites of Silicon Valley sit below home improvement stores and strip clubs and rock climbing walls, near stucco-walled restaurants, along classic highways dotted with palm trees in a dry heat that doesn't make anyone sweat. But they are there. 

A Whole Foods gleams in Brooklyn, atop a former warren of factories along a toxic canal. Valleys become lakes. Deserts become cities. Plains become waving fields of nitrogen-enriched corn plants taller than a man. A golf course becomes habitat. Turkeys run wild among the buildings of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

It can be easy to forget that, so far as the original plant and animal inhabitants are concerned, everywhere people live is a fallen place. And that no one escapes being shaped, however subtly, by where they spend their days. Cohle, Hart, you, me. What's seeping in from the plumes beneath us?

Our job, as I see it, is not to restore nature (whatever that might mean) to the places where we live, but to respect the sacrifice. We cannot make ecosystems whole, but we can offer refuge.

And if the thesis of True Detective is correct, that's good for people, too.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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