the limits of puzzlebox fiction

This post contains spoilers for the first season of True Detective.

The moderate, qualified disappointment being expressed about the ending of the first season of HBO’s True Detective, and with it the end of that storyline and characters, seemed highly predictable to me from the earliest stages of the show’s ecstatic critical reaction. You could argue that this is merely a consequence of that very ecstasy. The serial format of current middlebrow television, and the enormous attention devoted to these shows by professionals and amateurs alike, are uniquely suited to producing disappointment. But I actually think the problem lies in the limits of True Detective‘s real genre, which is puzzlebox fiction.

Early in Lost‘s run, when it was attracted reviews as rapturous as the first episodes of True Detective, I argued that the show would inevitably disappoint its fans. Early on, both Lost‘s creators and its many supporters argued endlessly that the show would not turn into Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s brilliant, notoriously maddening mystery series. But as I argued at the time, Lost‘s real analog was not Twin Peaks, but rather The X-Files, and I suspected it would suffer the same fate. Each were based on the development of complex mythologies, and each rewarded viewers with small nuggets of revelation that provided limited answers to existing mysteries. The problem for X-Files, and for Lost, is that this dramatic architecture is essentially a pyramid scheme: you can never pay off as many answers as you’ve built mysteries, because once you run out of mysteries, there’s no more show. So X-Files would constantly entice viewers with incredibly! important! episodes! that revealed the truths! But in order to keep the show going, they also had to create brand new mysteries as they solved old ones. I remember sitting in the theater, feeling cheated by the first X-Files movie. Some old mysteries were paid off, but on net I didn’t feel any closer to the truth that Fox Mulder and Dana Scully had been chasing.

A similar dynamic afflicted Lost, and resulted in its ending, which is generally but not universally considered a disappointment. As I said at the time, this was an inevitable result of all the vast number of plot threads and mysteries and characters and developments that the show had spooled out for years. No ending could adequately address all of them, certainly not in a satisfying way. So the show’s creators decided simply to let them loose in an abstract, spiritual finale. The years of speculative theories (they’re in Purgatory, it’s a military experiment, they were abducted by aliens, they crashed on the Garden of Eden) presumed that there was a coherent, literal explanation to the mysteries, but instead the mysteries were ultimately of a more symbolic nature. Some people hated that and some enjoyed it. (I never liked the show, personally.)

I would argue that True Detective, despite its pedigree, its status as a limited-run series of 8 episodes, and its resolute dedication to realism, had the same problem as Lost. After all, the enormous public engagement and commentary on the show was largely dedicated to crackpot theories, the great fun of trying to piece together convoluted explanations of plot points both large and minute. That’s the fun of puzzlebox fiction, and why it has such obvious commercial appeal: the participatory nature of solving the puzzle fits perfectly in with the current way many people engage with fiction, which is by analyzing it in a way once reserved for critics and academics. The problem is that as you generate more and more outlandish theories, the expectations about the real conclusion become impossible to meet. Reality will always be a disappointment in relation to imagination. (I remember watching the original Hangover movie and realizing that the story was becoming less and less interesting as it went along; there was no explanation that could be nearly as funny as the possibility of the imagined explanation.) Lost and The X-Files at least had the advantage of taking place in explicitly fantasy universes; for a show as stuffed with realist self-importance as True Detective, any attempt to pay off all of the clues would have been too ridiculous. Thus the disappointment among some.

In the post-Shyamalan Hollywood, there’s a great market for intricate, twisty fiction that features improbable reversals and showy reveals. But there’s a supply problem: these stories are hard, really hard to pull off, and so most twist movies are usually bad. (Like, say, most of Shyamalan’s movies.) We are spoiled by once-in-a-generation genius like Chinatown into mistaking how difficult it is to stitch together these complex narratives without ending up with a totally implausible story. At its worst, you end up with Ocean’s Twelve, maybe the most insulting movie I’ve ever seen, where nobody particularly expects anything to make sense and plot twists and reversals are inserted with such breezy disdain for the audience that the movie seems to scold you for ever taking its plot seriously in the first place.

There’s been a movement afoot, recently, to dismiss complaints about plot holes and oversights as missing the point. (See, for example, this piece by Film Crit Hulk.) While I sympathize, and think that theme and character development are ultimately more important than strict adherence to plot logic, there are problems with this attitude. First, it’s particularly ill-suited as a defense when it comes to puzzlebox fiction, which is appealing in large measure precisely because of the intricacy and care of its plot points. You can’t hop from one foot to another. Second, it’s problematic in a world where the conventional wisdom is that character must always be revealed through plot– the ubiquitous “show, don’t tell” dictum that is still given out like wisdom from the mountain. If writers are obliged to only reveal character through plot, then plot has to matter. Indeed, the most frustrating aspect of lots of puzzlebox fiction is the way in which character motivations become nonsensical after one-too-many twists.

My own disappointment, ultimately, is more thematic than narrative: I find the notion that “the light is winning” to be entirely unearned and not supportable from the plot, and if it’s intended as a clearly false summation, that is not sold nearly well enough. But the plot problems are real problems. Chris Orr has a very effective consideration of what’s missing from the finale, most importantly and glaringly the total failure to really explain the extent of the show’s central conspiracy, and how exactly a clearly mentally-damaged landscaper who lives in squalor in the woods could have coexisted easily with the power players we are to believe were a part of the conspiracy. I do want to say, though, that Orr is setting himself up for future disappointment when he speaks about the finale’s failings as a specific problem with this show or this episode. It is no coincidence that the first few episodes were the best; they always are. It’s the inevitable outcome in puzzlebox fiction.

What’s ultimately to blame for all of this is neither the massive amounts of attention that we now devote to pop culture, or the failings of the show’s creators. It’s our persistent, forgivable belief in the omnipotence of the Great Artist, the frequently-unrewarded conviction that we have among us creators of such genius that they can square the circle and connect all of these many plot lines into a realistic, satisfying, and surprising conclusion. Every once in awhile, we get lucky in that regard. But generally, I think it’d be better if writers are a bit more careful about the narrative checks they write, and audiences a bit more self-defensively skeptical about the ones they expect to cash.

Update: If you’d like to read a great mystery that comments on the nature of mystery stories and chance in the way many people hoped True Detective would, I can’t recommend Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose highly enough. (Even if you don’t care about True Detective at all… I still highly recommend that book.)


  1. My rule of thumb for television is that any mystery that isn’t half resolved within a season of introduction will not have a satisfying resolution. I introduced that one after Battlestar Gallactica and I feel that bit of self-defensive skepticism has served me well.

  2. “My own disappointment, ultimately, is more thematic than narrative: I find the notion that “the light is winning” to be entirely unearned and not supportable from the plot, and if it’s intended as a clearly false summation, that is not sold nearly well enough.”

    After reading Henry at Crooked Timber, I arrived at the above also. I felt extremely betrayed by the 20 minute ending, not least of all because it seemed like this dramatic turn was unearned AND completely uninteresting even if it had been. The idea of this cliché being just another one of the stories Rust takes on to justify the world as it is works, but only if the context in which its delivered helps undermine it for the audience. Developing as it did out of some unusually sentimental bro-tastic moments made it feel like the show was tacitly endorsing it, and thus completely selling out on the all permeating sense of dread which seemed to draw so many people to an otherwise conventional mystery crime thriller to begin with.

    This, even after ignoring the absolute clumsiness of having Rust head-butt his way to safety which is only more glaring because of how much the show tries to eschew this kind of silliness the rest of the time.

    I’m satisfied with all of the puzzle stuff because it seemed pretty clear that all of it was more a stylistic motif than meaningful elements of the plot. It’s enough that a perverted psycho from the swamp took on an occult folk myth to justify his despicable existence, and that any number of institutions depicted in the show (“chain of command!”) are prone to ignoring this kind of social degradation in so far as it would seriously burden them, and individuals on the take would have to resign themselves to an existence tethered to their peers.

  3. Dunno about Lost, man. I think you’re understating how the semi-mythical spiritual dimension of the show could bear the weight of unresolved plot points better than either X-Files or a cop show.

  4. Thank you for giving us something about fiction without a single appearance of the “films are short stories and TV shows are novels” tripe.

    Also, I saw a TED Talk by JJ Abrams on TV (the Science Channel?). I want to make clear I didn’t seek it out. It was just on. He talked about the magic box and how the idea of it influenced his work. It was hucksterism in its most crystalline form.

  5. Freddie –
    The creators had specifically said they don’t like Shyamalan endings. A large amount of the puzzlebox nature was foisted upon the narrative. It’s puzzle was to be no more than standard police procedural. If you go looking for puzzles in every story you’re bound to be disappointed.

    Scott, I think you’re seriously overestimating Lost.

    1. Maybe, maybe not. I just felt with that show openly dealt with a lot of themes (what is life, reality, meaning, purpose, etc.) that obviously don’t resolve themselves (or can’t be) into a set of Plot Points 1 through 632. If nothing else, I felt it stimulated thought on those things, which I got more out of than worrying too much getting THE EXPLANATION OF THE SMOKE MONSTER. Tastes differ, though.

      1. I thought that was the point of True Detective, though–that human beings try to tell themselves stories in order to find certainty where none resides. Ultimately, Rust gazes into the stars and tells one last story; he at last embraces a narrative of optimism. Marty, in contrast, has stopped telling himself that he’s in control and that he has all the answers. They sort of meet in the middle. Maybe it’s pretentious, but I think the murder case itself served as a metaphor for the darkness of humanity and our inability to find satisfying answers for the problem of evil. Every character lies to himself or herself in some way in order to cope with the darkness around them. The audience sees Rust as the one clear-eyed character in the story until it is revealed that he didn’t really believe his own BS either. That’s my take, anyway.

    2. Acting and cinematography in True Detective are well above Lost, which is why it can get away with not being reduced to the sum of its plot points, where as Lost succeeds or fails based on how elegant you find its proof to be.

    3. Yeah, but even on the status of a police procedural, it failed. The whole “green eared spaghetti-faced man” turning out to be someone who inexplicably got paint on his ears while painting a house, and had really minimal facial scarring, was kind of insulting. They just went through that whole rigmarole with the boat, including the silly “secret sniper” thing, which ended up telling them nothing. Then a chance intuitive leap by Marty leads them to a house where they just find the killer hanging out. Poor detective fiction.

  6. Speaking of The Name of the Rose, any plans to revive and finish The Rose In Winter? I reread the novel every few years and the discussion there was fascinating.

    1. I would love to. Unfortunately, like a dope, I didn’t back up the content before the domain name expired and I’m not sure if it’s recoverable.

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