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HBO

The seventh episode of True Detective (season 3), has lots of twists and turns. One of the turns concerns Tyson Hoyt Foods, a tentacular chicken corporation that apparently owns all of Arkansas. Every little fear, or worried whisper, or burst of panic, or deep secret, or mysterious death in the state of 3 million seems to lead all the way to the top, to the pharaonic owners of Hoyt. Here, we have total social power and nothing like what's theorized by the French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984), micro-power—a power that's distributed through every level of society and encourages participation. Everyone in Foucault's theory (which I do not agree with, but that's for another post) has a little power, and is free to exert it locally. And it is this diffusion of power, its circulation, its multiplicity that makes block leftist (in the sense of a block universe) critiques of society inadequate. In the third season of True Detective, the block leftist finds a society that speaks to him/her directly. Power is concentrated in the headquarters of the chicken corporation. And it only goes one way: down. The lives of those at the bottom of Arkansas have been broken to pieces by the force of this total social power. This is as much as one can gather from the events in episode seven, "The Final Country."

And now for the matter concerning the N-word.

The scene is this (SPOILER ALERT): The black detective, Wayne Hayes (Mahershala Ali), and the white detective, Roland West (Stephen Dorff), are burying the body of a white man who runs security at the chicken corporation. It is the black detective who determined, from phone call records, that the Chief Security Officer at Hoyt Foods had something to do with the death of the mother of the Purcell kids (one is missing, one was murdered). But their interrogation of the security chief spirals out of control, and the suspect ends up dead. As he is buried, the white detective's anger explodes. He blames the black detective for the mess, calling the black detective uppity and a... But he can't say the word. The black detective wants him to say it, but, despite his intense anger, the white detective cannot say it, and tells the black detective that the word will not leave his mouth, but is certainly in his head: nigger.

The relationship between Roland West and Wayne Hayes is, then, similar to that between Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) and Gillespie (Rod Steiger) in the 1967 Southern gothic race noir, In the Heat of the Night. In both works, there is a black detective who believes in the truth, but if he does his job too well, the truth he exposes begins to upset the social structure, which, of course, is built on lies. The issue then is not about competence but its appearance. You must do all of the work, follow all of the leads, interrogate any suspect, but the results of this empirical effort must, at the same time, be adjusted to the realities of a white world that says one thing and does another. It officially claims that all are equal under the law, but in fact there those who are below and above it. The stubborn black detective insists it not be this way, that the law must be universal. The descendant of black African slaves is condemned to this insistence: all humans are born equal. At this point, black professionalism is doomed to be "uppity."

In True Detective (season 3), as in In the Heat of the Night, a truth about the black professional is revealed. You are only not a nigger when you prove that you're competent and at the same time accept, and operate within the limits of, the fact that society is unfair. It's really about who has power and who does not. The white detective Roland West and the entire white legal system behind him understands this, and the black professional who does not is, no matter how well they do their job, that word that Roland West thought but could not say.