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Why “The Yellow King Theory” Is Great “True Detective” Criticism

Why "The Yellow King Theory" Is Great "True Detective" Criticism

If you’ve been on the internet today, you may have seen have undoubtedly been pointed multiple times in the direction of a YouTube video called “The Yellow King Theory,” which purports to have discovered the identity of the occult-influenced serial killer on “True Detective.” Here it is, again, in case you have a good 4G signal under your rock.

Inevitably, a few people who were hoping the video would provide a legitimate and compelling theory were not amused, and a subset of those were aggrieved by what they are apparently preconditioned to perceive as further benighted mockery of The Greatest Television Show That God’s Earthly Representatives Have Ever Given Us. But I actually think it’s quite brilliant in a deliberately stupid way (aka the best way), and a sophisticated piece of criticism in its own right — if not of “True Detective” per se, then of the culture that’s grown up with kudzu-like speed around it.
There are two kinds of “True Detective” fans: those who split “True Detective” fandom into two kinds, and those who do not. And within the former subgroup, there are two more: those who see it as a provocative exploration into the nature of evil, and those who really, really, really, really, really want to know who the Yellow King is. There has been endless speculation in articles and on Reddit, some drawing on the show itself, some on its literary antecedents, some on the words of creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto, involving blurry screenshots and Instagrammed set photos and bootleg audition tapes. 
It’s possible Sunday’s finale, titled “Form and Void,” will prove me wrong, but I’m all but certain there is no Yellow King — at least, I really hope there isn’t. It would undermine everything “True Detective” has said and implied about the nature of evil, how “nothing is ever solved” and events simply repeat themselves through history, if the Yellow King turns out to be Some Guy. No matter who that guy might be — whether it’s Tuttle or Rust or Marty or the lawnmower man — it can’t help but be a letdown. In part, that’s because it’s much easier to create a tantalizing mystery than it is to come up with a satisfying solution: see “Lost,” “Heroes,” “Alias,” or virtually any contemporary TV show that’s built around incremental progress towards an unknown. “Twin Peaks” pulled it off when it revealed the answer to “Who killed Laura Palmer?” but as creators David Lynch and Mark Frost knew, resolving their central mystery would leave them nowhere to go, which is more or less where the rest of the show’s second season went. (The owls, it turned out, pretty much were what they seemed.)
“The Yellow King Theory” — written by comedian Rachel Wenitsky and the Onion News Network’s JJ Shebesta and David Sidorov, and directed by Sidorov — perfectly sends up the perpetual Easter Egg hunt that movies and TV have trained us to substitute for emotional or intellectual involvement, drafting us all into the ranks of what the Dissolve’s Matt Singer calls “The Cinema Scene Investigators.” Sometimes, as with the theories about the “real” identity of Andy’s Mom in the “Toy Story” movies, the preoccupation with apparently incidental details can yield interesting results, even the evidence is put to unconvincing use. But at its worst, as in Rodney Ascher’s brilliant “Room 237,” it’s a form of shallow mania, not only missing the forest for the trees but razing it to get a better look. (I’m adding Ascher’s short, “The S From Hell” to the end of this post, partly because it’s loosely germane, but mostly because I really like it.)
“The Yellow King Theory”‘s narrator, “Kyle,” takes smug pride in his investigative abilities, crowing “I’m someone who watches TV with a careful eye for detail,” but he’s fixated on incidental (and hilariously invented) elements while almost totally neglecting the elements of plot, character and visual style, just as “Room 237“‘s obsessives fixate on the placement of cans in the Overlook Hotel’s pantry without considering that their positioning almost certainly had more to do with Stanley Kubrick’s fondness for the bright red of their labels than his feelings about the genocide of North America’s native peoples.
“The Yellow King Theory” takes this approach to its (il)logical conclusion, beginning with a deliciously deadpan reiteration of some of the more prevalent theories before dovetailing into its own, patently absurd one. Its only flaw is the profane button at the very end, since “Kyle”‘s contempt for anyone who doesn’t see the screamingly obvious truth as he’s defined it is already plenty clear. 
There’s no question that “True Detective” has, on- and offscreen, stoked the fires of this kind of tinfoil-hat speculation, and has reaped enormous benefits in ratings and media presence as a result. But I also think the show has suffered (albeit all the way to the bank) from being subjected to such fannish scrutiny, which has tended to both overwhelm and create an environment hostile to other kinds of appreciation and analysis. (Shut up with your whining about gender representation: We got us a puzzle to solve.) One reason I really look forward to Sunday’s finale is that it may be only with the mystery truly behind us that we can really start talking about what “True Detective” means.

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