Although True Detective hasn't shown more of Rachel McAdams' character Antigone (Ani) Bezzerides' family since the premiere episode of Season 2, her father's involvement in the religious retreat of Panticapaeum Institute has had a huge influence on her life. So is where Ani's dad works on True Detective a real place? Considering that out of the five children Ani's father raised at the Panticapaeum Institute, two are in jail, two committed suicide, and one is a police detective with some serious attachment issues and an unhealthy love of knives, I hope that Panticapaeum is not a real place. And luckily, that is the case. Although it was probably influenced by other religious institutes and communes, the Panticapaeum Institute does not actually exist.
The name of the institute comes from a real ancient Greek city that existed during the Roman Empire and was devastated by the Huns in the year 375. It was an important seaport commercial city that also suffered from earthquakes. I'm hoping these little nuggets of information will eventually play out and explain more about Ani's past — and the institute. Plus, I can't imagine that True Detective won't show actor David Morse as Eliot Bezzerides again in his mountaintop retreat. And since he named two of his children Antigone and Athena, Eliot clearly has a strange devotion to Greek history.
As Mad Men displayed in its series finale, the type of spiritual retreat that the Panticapaeum Institute represents has existed in California for years. And there is one real place that Vulture pointed out might have inspired both Mad Men and True Detective — and that's the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California.
On the Esalen Institute's website, it is described as:
Esalen is more than a retreat center or an educational institute. Anchored by the inspiring beauty of Big Sur and an unparalleled intellectual history, Esalen is a world-wide network of seekers who look beyond dogma to explore deeper spiritual possibilities; forge new understandings of self and society; and pioneer new paths for change.
Considering the location, spirit, and activities of the Panticapaeum Institute, it's not a stretch to say that True Detective creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto was possibly inspired by Esalen, at least in the concept of a spiritual community on the California coast based on meditation and self-reflection.
Yet, Pizzolatto takes that idea much further to make a statement (even if the exact nature of that statement is unclear at this point) about what it means to go against social norms and live in religious retreats, since Eliot's family is dysfunctional. While the people participating in yoga and meditation at the fictional Panticapaeum Institute may appear to be finding fulfillment, there is something darker at play here. And Ani wants nothing to do with it.
The premiere episode of Season 2 of True Detective was entitled "The Western Book of the Dead," which is the name of a philosophical writing about how humans search for a higher purpose from their lives. Every person who goes to the Panticapaeum Institute is probably searching for clarity on the meaning of his or her life — but True Detective isn't really known for its happy endings and like last season with Matthew McConaughey's Rust Cohle, nihilists may end up being the heroes of the show. So take that, hippies of Panticapaeum.