HBO’s True Detective was exactly just that: a dream. It is a truly remarkable and well thought out show that in my eyes deserves every bit of praise and admiration that it gets. It is a slow-burn neo noir that says so much in so little time that it had on our TV screens.
In 2012, Louisiana State Police Detectives Rust Cohle and Martin Hart are brought in to revisit a homicide case they worked in 1995. As the inquiry unfolds in present day through separate interrogations, the two former detectives narrate the story of their investigation, reopening unhealed wounds, and drawing into question their supposed solving of a bizarre ritualistic murder in 1995. The timelines braid and converge in 2012 as each man is pulled back into a world they believed they’d left behind. In learning about each other and their killer, it becomes clear that darkness lives on both sides of the law.
On the surface it would be a rational thought that this show is truly about a serial killer (The Yellow King) and two detectives:
Martin Hart, a seemingly normal family man with a loving wife and two daughters who is the typical shift clocker who goes home to have a beer whilst watching the game in his favorite chair.
Then we have Rust Cohle.
While True Detective is heralded for its slow-burn mystery masked in atmosphere as deep as the bayou, half the fun of an episode was waiting to see which metaphysical concept Rust would undertake in monotone soliloquy. Life, death, religion, love, the fourth dimension, man’s physical self as a channel for violent action — Rust has a line for every topic and, thankfully, is always willing to share.
What makes Rust Cohle such an addictive and engaging character is the honesty that comes out of his mouth. Rust has a willingness to speak openly about ideas common to us all, but ones we are usually expected to suppress.
There is a strain to offer pockets of hope, redemption, or escape in our own narratives, but True Detective seems intent on withholding that. However, grim television is not unknown, so I suspect what works here is just how nihilistic Rust’s pronouncements are; you simply don’t hear people arguing we should “walk hand-and-hand into extinction” on television very often; and if that we have very few people in our lives to which speak in such a way. I’ve always been of the opinion that when you get down to it, everyone agrees, in their very bones, with Rust. Or, put another way, he is not saying [anything some of us haven’t thought before]. This alone to me is what makes his character truly special and refreshing.
This world-view is often correlated with self-destructiveness and I would say Rust’s interest with murders, drugs, and the criminal lifestyle blossom naturally from it. Despite this, I did not expect him to be the killer throughout my viewing as some might have thought. It’s the fact that apparently normal people are killers that, I suspect, intrigued Rust, and since he knows what he is, the need to act out violently against others is likely lacking. He’s a bad man, but he knows the real bad men wear masks. Rust knew who he was as opposed to his partner Martin; he lived with integrity even though his past was murky. He understood that the world needed bad men to protect the rest from truly evil men.
However, as much as Rust denounces religion all through his ramblings, Rust’s religion becomes apparent near the end of the season. It’s the fantasy of a damaged man trying to bring meaning and form to his meaningless, shapeless life before checking out. His conspiracy theory is his religion. He needs all of it to be true. So deep is his void that he needs something this grandiose to fill it. It can’t be just a few unconnected lone wolves doing psychotic hobbies throughout Louisiana. (And to be clear, psycho stuff was done!) No, everything must be connected. There must be intelligent design to “the sprawl” of this madness; there must be an organizing principle for everything; there must be a greater power or monster at the end of the dream.
As for Marty, to me he is a classic moral hypocrite albeit precisely the type of person who keeps society from collapsing. In many ways, he is just the Everyman and he carries out his “duty” in an extremely predictable way — almost as if he got married just so he could move on to have affairs as the next step.
I don’t quite think it’s a philosophy so much as he has just soaked up ideas of how to be a man by societal standards and tries to live according to them (without reflecting on it all too much as he senses where that leads). Marty reads to me as a practical person who tries to navigate life by a series of codes of conduct. Not always good ones — men have codes for being mischievous. I don’t think it is designed to challenge or confirm Rust’s philosophical view so much as act as a blunt contrast to it; by having such a “normal” Everyman beside Rust, it intensifies his weirdness.
Time And It’s Importance
In episode five, Rust meditates on time being “a flat circle,” where events will continually repeat over and over again.
He seems to be discussing the idea in two distinct senses: one is M-theory derived from theoretical physics that he discusses explicitly with the detectives. The more subtle existential angle he is touching on is the “eternal recurrence of the same” that Nietzsche introduced. The greatest horror for us is not to die, but to live the same lives on repeat for all eternity. In Nietzsche, this notion is designed to shake us up out of our passive lives. The challenge being, to paraphrase, whether you would be willing to carry on as you do if you knew it would all happen again (eternally). It’s a thought experiment, but some people read it metaphysically.
For me, that particular scene seems designed to stress how easily he gets lost in his own head more than something that will relate very directly to the story line. However, it reconnects up to Rust’s commitment to the fact that life is but a dream/nightmare — not in some flowery sense, but that the far grimmer awareness that structurally consciousness has the character of an elaborate continuous, but determinate in duration, fantasy.
When we are finally introduced to the “Yellow King” Carcosa conspiracy —Errol Childress— everything seems to come full circle in the show’s sense of the concept. Time is a flat circle as Rust would say. It turns out that the conspiracy is all around them [Rust and Hart] and has been for a real long time, even before they were born. When he’s not involved in making neo-pagan snuff or smut, Errol mows. His properties include Reverend Tuttle’s shuttered Wellspring Foundation church schools, one of which, as recently as 2002, was being used by someone — Errol? — as a stash house for the devil nests linked to the Carcosa conspiracy.
At episode’s end, Errol was running his tractor around an above-ground cemetery, or “cities of the dead.” We’ve wondered: Where is this “Cacosa” the Yellow King creeps keep nattering on about? All around them. The corrupt, fallen world of Tuttle-scarred Louisiana is Carcosa.
However, is Errol really as sinister as the episode built him up to be? I’m not swayed. At the very least, perhaps here in the True Detective present of 2013, Errol, like Hart and Cohle, isn’t the man he used to be. I heard a sad tone in his line: “My family has been here a long, long time.” It was hard to tell if he was proud of the fact or felt anguished. I was struck by the circle shape that he had mowed into the graveyard green.
This, not long after Cohle’s confession: He desires to bring an end to generational cycles of cultural evil — and then check out of his own dispiriting spiral. “[My life has been] a circle of violence and degradation,” said Cohle. “I am ready to tie off.” (Guess he found that constitution for suicide — and social responsibility — during that Alaskan exile.) Rust living in circles, Errol driving in circles — we are meant to see them as kindred spirits? Rust wants out of life. Soul-warped Errol might feel the same way.
Except they were both trapped in this life until someone or something could finally relieve them of all the torment. We find out in the finale that since Rust had found his constitution for suicide — True Justice and good— Errol could finally leave this world and rid it of its evil. What about Rust though? He still has a debt to pay in his words and that death is still not ready for him since he has found a true reason to be on this earth. One of his remarks towards Marty was “Life is barley long enough to get good at one thing,” meaning why waste such a gift if it is a rare occurrence. And we have the choice to use that intelligence, those skills, for either good or evil.
The Monster at the End
And so the great question becomes: what was or is True detective about? To me it is more than a show portraying two seemingly different men trying to solve a serial murder and conspiracy. The monster at the end of the dream is our society. The true villain in True Detective is not a single man. It’s an entire culture. One steeped and stuck in a grotesque rut, a Romantic — or love-hate? — Fixation with crime and punishment, sex and violence, deception and denial.
It’s a show the reveals what the destruction of families does to a society. This is not a show about a twisted serial killer, those are the interesting bits that pull in a wider audience. Rather, this is a show about the destruction of the family unit – Hart’s and Cohle’s (oddly enough, family – or at least a man’s children – could easily be described as a man’s Heart and Soul). The show sublimates the battle of a man’s anchor in work against his anchor in his family/children. Hart lost one of his daughter’s due to his negligence as a father and this is what lead to the downfall of his marriage. Much like the loss of a daughter ruined Cohle’s marriage.
It is a show about navigating symbols, first and foremost — through the murder but also in the private lives of its characters. Marty is a mass of contradictions exactly because he wants women to inhabit these symbolic roles of wife and whore that he has imagined for them, while he is free to move between the various codes at liberty.
Even the slightest violation of the symbolic order by somebody else and he responds with brutal violence —- case in point the episode when he beat up the teenage boys who slept with his daughter. He feels the symbols intensely while escaping their content almost completely.
Time is a flat circle for us looking at our TV screens, I phones and devices – another detective, another daughter lost, another marriage ended. A veritable comment on how our society has lost what is truly important life.