WARNING: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
True Detective is an example of television at it’s best, an incredible crime-drama that goes far above and beyond the genre. Not only does True Detective offer a thrilling mystery that leaves you guessing (one that takes place over the course of seventeen years) but explores a plethora of themes- not limited to the questions of human existence. Rust Cohle and Marty Hart are two detectives assigned to investigate satanic ritual murders across Louisiana. The narrative is told through flashback, as the present day Marty and Rust are interviewed separately by investigators- the case is not fully closed and they want to know more about the detectives who were assigned to it in the 90s. This framing also creates another parallel mystery- you wonder what happened to these characters that caused a falling out in 2002 that they so often refer to? After their interviews in present day with the investigators ends, Rust and Marty meet up for the first time after their fallout. Together they go out to finally solve this near decades long mystery once and for all.
The show is richly written by Nic Pizzolatto (you should also read his novel Galveston, it’s great) and exquisitely directed by Cary Fukunaga. Together, the writing and visuals are top-notch. There’s an incredible one take sequence during a police raid that will blow you away. Nic Pizzolatto has created an amazing story, a tense thriller with two finely crafted characters. And for as dramatic as the show can be, there are also hilariously sharp one-liners. Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson are at the top of their game as Marty Hart and Rust Cohle. Two detectives where one who goes through life avoiding the truth and the other can’t help but pursue it relentlessly.
Though both characters are fascinating and well-written, Rust Cohle is iconic. In the flashbacks, Rust is a tortured loner, but the present day scenes show an almost unrecognizable man, one who is completely embittered with the intense world. McConaughey is wonderfully able to show this transformation. Throughout the show he spouts this complex rhetoric that is his creed. (Those not well acquainted with philosophy will be left with a lot of head scratching. It’s not easy to wrap your head around. It’s easy to see why Marty gets so frustrated! But this is a testament to Nic Pizzolatto’s great writing.)
Rust’s past is fascinating, we learn that he had a young daughter that he deeply loved but died. He spent years undercover in the drug scene, leading him to become somewhat addicted to them himself.
Rust is a pessimist who hates humanity and views the world more as an outside, and an almost other-worldly figure. Cohle appears to have a sixth-sense – bordering on extra-sensory perception (ESP) – that manifests itself throughout the investigation. He has visions, he “reads” people in a few seconds, and he can even “taste” colors. Here’s some of his personal beliefs,
“I’d consider myself a realist, alright? But in philosophical terms I’m what’s called a pessimist… I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself – we are creatures that should not exist by natural law… We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, that accretion of sensory experience and feelings, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody’s nobody… I think the honorable thing for our species to do is to deny our programming. Stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction – one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal. “
Marty, on the other hand, is what appears from the outside to be a family man. He has two beautiful daughters and a loving wife. The only thing is he has quite the penchant for adultery. He puts up a façade that he is a morally upstanding devoted husband and father.
True Detective has extensive themes, symbols, influences, and hidden meanings that can be carefully explored with multiple viewings. One of the most prominent ones being Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, a collection of short stories that influenced writers such as H.P. Lovecraft, Neil Gaiman, and none other than series writer Nic Pizzolatto.
(Pictured above, the ritual revealed at the end on videotape reveals itself in several shots throughout the show)
One of the main themes of the show is summed up in the show’s tagline “Man is the cruelest animal” True Detective deals with humanity’s falls from grace. The camera looms over the swamps, fields, and desolate roads of the Louisiana landscape, evoking the eviction from the Garden of Eden. There is a sickness that has destroyed something beautiful. Rust Cohle even remarks on this, “I get a bad taste in my mouth out here… aluminum… ash… like you can smell a psychosphere. This place is like somebody’s memory of a town, and the memory is fading. It’s like there was never anything here but jungle.” Sin has entered the garden in the forms of society’s monsters, who can be anyone from the psychopathic murderers, the politicians that covers it all up, or the family man cheating on his wife.
The story deals with society and man’s ethical quandaries and moral dilemmas, political and religious. The former Eden is filled with sin, and this is what humanity does with it. It is a dark vs. light, a good vs. evil story. As the show’s slogan says, “Touch darkness and darkness touches you back.” All of the characters find themselves enraptured in the darkness of humanity; the only problem is how to get back to the light, if there is one.
Though this is a good vs. evil story, it does not mean that good will necessarily always triumph. As Rust Cohle remarks on one of his philosophical tangents, “Time is a flat circle. Everything we’ve ever done or will do we’re gonna do over and over again.” Rust forgets this when he remarks to Marty after solving the mystery and catching the main culprit, “We didn’t get ‘em all.” (All the suspects involved in the rituals) Marty replies, “Yeah, and we ain’t gonna get ‘em all. That ain’t what kind of world it is. But we got ours.” They may have gotten one of the bad guys, but good does not always prevail and they won’t be able to get all of them. And there will always be more just like them. The flat circle will continue on and on throughout history.
The light vs. dark theme is not only essential to the story at hand- the detectives’ light prevailing when they solve the darkest of crimes- it also is essential to Rust’s character arc, one that is beautifully moving at the ending.
Rust is vehemently anti-religion, he feels it’s a fairy tale made up purely for the comfort of man to feel better about dying. “The ontological fallacy of expecting a light at the end of the tunnel, well, that’s what the preacher sells, same as a shrink. See, the preacher, he encourages your capacity for illusion. Then he tells you it’s a fucking virtue. Always a buck to be had doing that, and it’s such a desperate sense of entitlement, isn’t it?”
In one of the final scenes, when Rust is near stabbed and beaten by the villain, he has a vision, all we see is a swirling cloud. In the final scene of the season, we learn what it is.
This is Rust’s version of the light of the tunnel. It’s not salvation through religion, but his own salvation, the capacity to feel pure love again A feeling so long gone after his daughter’s death. It’s not necessarily a newfound belief in the afterlife, but that the world is capable of letting us have everlasting connections with the ones we love and lose.
In the beginning of the series, we had Rust saying, “I don’t think man can love, at least not the way that he means. Inadequacies of reality always set it.” But at the end we hear that in his vision, “I could feel my daughter. I could feel a piece of my pop, too. It was like I was a part of everything that I ever loved. And I disappeared. But I could still feel her love there, even more than before. Nothing…nothing but that love.” It’s a moving scene, and beautifully performed by McConaughey.
Though time may be a flat circle and the world is not a good vs. evil story where good always wins, the last quotes of the show that Rust is feeling the complete opposite of what he once was filled with, hope. Rust tells Marty how he’s been looking out the hospital window, as he had as a boy growing up in Alaska, looking out at the stars. It got him thinking, “It’s just one story. The oldest.” None other than “light versus dark.” Marty replies, “Well, I know we ain’t in Alaska, but it appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory.” Rust tells Marty that he’s looking at it wrong, “Well once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.” It’s probably the only optimistic thing he’s said throughout the series and the seventeen years they’ve known each other. And it’s a beautiful way to end both of the men’s arcs, though they were overwhelmed with the darkness of the world there is still hope for it.
So much of True Detective is what could’ve been cliché, but it takes you in places unexpected (I expected a dying reconciliation between the two detectives, or one of the detectives on the squad being behind the murders) True Detective ends up feeling like an eight-hour movie, and a great one at that. The ending is a great example at the ultimate denouement- Nic Pizzolatto is incredible at building concrete beginning and middles that lead to a fantastic conclusion. If you’re late to the party, (like I was) True Detective is definitely worth checking out. Or watching again to find all the little symbols and thematic elements that you missed out on the first time. Or just trying to understand what the heck Rust’s monologues mean.
Caroline was raised out of steel in the swamps of Jersey, a 23-year-old film junkie and feminist. She loves anything from the feel-good Hollywood classics to slasher films, from the magical Studio Ghibli to Vietnam War movies. Her favorite director is Martin Scorsese, especially when he’s directing Robert De Niro. It’s nearly impossible to pick her favorite movies without listing tons of them, but a few of them are Amadeus, King Kong, When Harry Met Sally, Raging Bull, The Godfather, Jaws, and An American Werewolf in London. Her absolute favorite will always be The Lord of the Rings. Her tumblr is cinematicvisons , she blogs about film at cinematicvisions (same name, different place) and her twitter is crolinss.