Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy states that the answer to life, the universe, everything is 42. No additional context or explanation is given. 42. It’s the answer no one expects and no one can quite explain, although there is plenty of debate about it online with lots of mathematicians jumping about. It doesn’t make sense, but that is exactly the point. Most of Adams’ works suggest that the universe has a sense of humour, if only because it’s so chaotic and beyond us that it just appears to be funny. 42 is a hilarious answer, perhaps the greatest answer for such a broad and monumental question. It’s a seemingly random number, which poses more questions than it answers. It’s confusing, but there is something important about that confusion.
Adams’ work suggests that there are patterns in chaos, often in the little things around us. Making a cup a tea deserves the same attention as a black hole in Adams’ novels, and the events are strangely interconnected. These patterns are convoluted and easy to dismiss, much like the number 42, which seems to offer zero explanation. Imagine the universe is like a white board, filled with bits of dirty string and coffee-stained paper just ‘randomly’ tethered. You can’t tell where it starts or stops, or even why things are grouped together, let alone what the white board is for, or why also includes things like staples and a dry piece of toast. There is probably a reason, but you can’t make it out, even if someone were to tell you it’s to figure out why a leaf fell off a fake tree, only to walk away and reveal a room filled with even more white boards, all tethered with long bits of licorice. Or better yet, think of it as a mislabeled recycling bin that no one wants to sort or take out. It’s all littered pieces which are easy to ignore, at least, most of the time until it begins to stink. Adams’ writing often fixates on these little castoffs, and his novels on Dirk Gently are perhaps the strongest example of this. I am mainly interested in the short-lived Netflix/BBC Dirk Gently show based on this character, as it does an excellent job expanding this confusing yet hilarious system.
Both the Dirk Gently show and novels argue that everything is connected and that nothing is also connected. Technically, everything happens for a reason, and I don’t mean that in a religious sense. Everything literally happens because of something that has already happened, and one choice leads to unfathomable consequences which stretch across centuries. What seems like a coincidence isn’t actually, it’s just that we can’t see the bizarre pattern which caused that event to happen. Dirk can, which is where the hilarity ensues.
“I don’t know anything…ever. It’s really quite relaxing”
Dirk Gently argues that most people cannot see the patterns which surround them, mainly because they are so intrenched in them. It’s impossible to get an outside perspective when you are stuck in the middle of things. Maybe that is slightly comforting, it means that we operate through some cosmic logic which somehow makes sense, just not to us. Or, more likely, it’s absolutely terrifying and suggests that we are driven and molded by choices and events we cannot see. The Dirk Gently show is a murder mystery, but unlike most murder mysteries, it isn’t interested in limiting its scope. If you have ever watched a Midsomer Murder or the like, you will know that most mystery shows take place in one town, focus on one family, and stick to a few decades. Focusing on anything more would be too confusing, as most mysteries want viewers to play along at home. Dirk Gently takes the opposite approach as it tries to broaden its scope at every opportunity. It might focus on a few specific characters, but you never know where their investigation will lead them, or how.
“I Always end up exactly where I need to be despite the fact it’s rarely where I intend to go”
The first season is about murder, time travel, soul swapping, coincidences, and confusion. It’s impossible to figure out what is happening until the very last episode, and even then, there are still so many unanswered questions. But what is special is that the characters are just as clueless as the audience, and are mostly just trying to survive one death trap at a time. This chaotic environment means that characters are forced to live in the moment, because everything else, past and present, is completely unpredictable. But at the same time, the show implies that these events and patterns are predictable, as things and people often mirror one another without ever knowing. They can’t see the patterns, but Dirk can, and eventually so can the viewer, at least the patterns around one detail. This confusion and broad scale help Dirk solve the case, as everything is connected to his case, regardless of what he is doing. He might ignore the crime scene, evidence, and suspects, but he finds them in his own way, often completely by accident. He is the opposite of passive, he is extraordinarily receptive and always where he needs to be.
We are introduced to Dirk as a holistic detective who has been hired by a reclusive billionaire to investigate his own murder before it happens. The murder is bizarre (think shark teeth marks on the ceiling) and causes a string of chaotic events across the city. But things get even stranger once Dirk, and his assistant Todd, are on the case. Dirk isn’t a traditional detective, as he describes himself as a “leaf on the stream of creation”, just floating along knowing that the stream leads somewhere. He doesn’t look for clues or suspects, because he knows that wherever he goes, suspects and clues will just arrive and announce themselves. Dirk is attuned with the universe and has some abilities that allow him to see how it operates in a broader sense. He is not a psychic, he is just aware of things. This means that whatever Dirk does or says is part of the investigation and is exactly what he was supposed to do. He is never in the wrong place or doing the wrong thing, as each of his impulses lead him towards information. These impulses often seem random or childish, but they ultimately tie back to the murder investigation in some fashion. Everything you see in the show connects to the mystery, and that includes random guests at the hotel, a dog walking down the street, and a broken microwave. Everything is connected, even if it looks like nothing.
“I Saw You Kill Someone By Waving at them”
The frustrating part about Dirk’s job is that he has no control over anything, even though he can see these patterns. When Dirk involves Todd in the mystery, Todd has no choice but to help Dirk. The mystery won’t let Todd return to his normal life, as he gets caught up in Dirk’s work at every turn. The show suggests that Dirk is in a similarly difficult and unwilling position, as the cases follow him around and are always connected to him. He is in constant danger because the patterns will never go away, and he will always be forced to notice things.
Dirk isn’t the only figure who operates through these patterns. Bart, who is one of my favourite characters of all time, is a holistic assassin. If Dirk is the great fixer and solver of the universe, Bart is the one who serves justice. Whoever she kills was the person she was meant to kill. She doesn’t have targets in a traditional sense, she just impulsively knows who is supposed to die and the universe guides her to these people. For example, when Bart’s car suddenly breaks down in the middle of a forest, rather than trying to fix it, she sits on top and waits for her victim to arrive. When a biker stops to help, Bart announces that the universe wants her to kill this man. Although her travel companion, Ken, stops her, because this biker seems perfectly innocent and helpful, it’s eventually revealed that the biker is a serial killer who has been robbing and shooting helpless drivers. But when he tries to kill Bart, his bullets shoot past her. When she is close enough that her forehead is on the weapon, the gun seizes up and stops working. These kinds of events happen throughout the series, as although both Dirk and Bart are placed in dangerous situations, the universe will not hurt them. One time, a bullet meant for Dirk and Todd suddenly bounces off a microwave and hits the attacker, killing him instantly. This invulnerability has some troubling consequences, as it means that by actively protecting Bart and Dirk, the universe is biased. Therefore, the universe has agency and a sense of justice, one which no person can understand or chart completely. Bart and Dirk are just pieces that the universe consciously manipulates, versus passively as it does with regular people. Not even they, however, understand where the universe is leading them and why.
“Did I make mistakes? Yes. Did I only make mistakes? Yes. But did it all work out? Kind of”
Dirk often repeats the line, “Everything is connected. Nothing is also connected”. This implies that the big things in life are connected to patterns, but so are the seemingly small things. For instance, graduating college is a big thing, but in this context, so is getting out of bed and putting on the kettle. No matter what you do, you are operating towards something. Maybe this COVID era is making me appreciate that more, as I spend most of my time stuck at home doing what feels like nothing. And I think that is one of the marvelous things about this show. Nothing is insignificant as it comes from this collage of choices made before any of us were around. It also means that things come to us in a specific pattern, and that things which stand out do so for a reason. Maybe it’s a tiny reason, like we blinked and the first thing we saw on a page was a seemingly random word, but we see it for a reason.
The show suggests that we are as purposeful and noteworthy as anything else, and that like Dirk and his friends occasionally find, things might just come together in a way which we like. It also implies that even as you are standing still in life, you are not a random component, and you are as noteworthy as any monumental event. This idea connects back to the general confusion of the show, as both characters and viewers are confused about the same things. That shared experience is important for the show as it sets up this equal footing. We are like Todd, drawn into the mystery, and while confused and alarmed, we are in for the ride. It’s not a religious sentiment, or even a complicated philosophy. Dirk Gently simply illustrates that everything is chaos, but that you are an important component of that chaos. You are still responsible for the things you do, yet you can break away from certain destructive patterns and change for the better. So good luck, cosmically speaking.