(Just to warn you—this review is full of spoilers. If you haven’t seen the show, go do so. Immediately. I’m not alone in thinking that it’s probably the best television show ever made.)
True Detective begins in 1995 when two Louisiana detectives, Marty Hart (played by Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), are assigned to investigate the gruesome occult murder of a prostitute named Dora Lange. They find her trussed up, blindfolded and kneeling naked at the base of a tree, crowned in antlers. She’s been stabbed, and a strange spiral pattern has been carved at the base of her neck. The field around her has been burned, cleared to ash.
That’s the most obvious beginning, anyway. The first episode actually begins in darkness; this darkness lightens until it’s just blue enough for us to see the silhouette of a man trudging through brush, bearing an unrecognizable burden on his back. Suddenly, a strange construction of twigs in his hand blooms with fire—and that’s it. The screen cuts to a close-up of a video-camera’s lens whirring mechanically, zooming in and out to adjust its focus, until the perspective shifts. We find ourselves on the other end of the lens, watching Detective Marty Hart making himself comfortable in a police department’s interview room. A disembodied voice asks, “What’d you think, you paired up with him?”
Both our detectives see themselves as alone in a hostile and unknown land, struggling to uphold their ideals—to each, his idea of the good life is the only ‘true’ one—in the constant presence of death.
The multiplicity of scenes in the show’s first minute make sense once you’ve seen Dora Lange’s body. The man is the murderer, the shouldered bundle a corpse. But what I want to focus on is the significance of the camera, clicking away, which True Detective’s writer Nic Pizzolatto has literally turned on us. It makes its appearance right after the man struggling alone through the dark, and right before the sudden appearance of Dora Lange’s dead body, so full of questions. As such it is central to the show’s plot and resolution, and foreshadows Pizzolatto’s emphasis on the function of metanarratives. Both our detectives see themselves as alone in a hostile and unknown land, struggling to uphold their ideals—to each, his idea of the good life is the only ‘true’ one—in the constant presence of death.
For Marty, this means being ‘steady’: being a traditionally masculine Christian family man, dutifully shouldering the patriarchal authority that (he feels) is forced on him both at home and at work. “There can be a burden in authority, in vigilance, like a father’s burden,” he says, telling his interviewers that what makes a good detective is someone willing to carry that burden in the quest for truth. What he doesn’t tell his interviewers is that he justifies his mistress on the grounds that he has to ‘get in the right mindset’ before going home from work—thus his ‘father’s burden’ is adultery in the interest of the family. He drinks too much. His wife is endlessly frustrated by his lack of vulnerability, his unwillingness to treat her as a partner. He sees intimacy as a burden she wouldn’t want to bear (though she insists otherwise), and as a consequence feels alone. His metanarrative of duty and traditional masculinity, as well as his unwillingness to see things another’s way, trap him further in a self-contradictory faith which he views as existing (and demanding that he exist) outside the purview of reason.
But Rust, his partner, has barred faith from reason altogether, to the point of being illogical. He trusts completely in his ability to reason out the truth of a given situation (investigatory or existential), despite a tragic family history in which his daughter died young and his wife left him—after which he developed severe mental illness and began abusing drugs. The long-term consequences of this history were frequent hallucinations, compounded by his pre-existing condition of synesthesia. For all the materialist and existentialist philosophy he expounds, he fails to see that his own faculty of reason (which is, to his mind, neurologically based) may very well be affected by his biological predispositions. Take, for instance, an early conversation in which Rust first reveals to a shocked Marty that he’s not a ‘Christian.’
R: Look, I’d consider myself a realist, but in philosophical terms, I’m what’s called a pessimist.
M: Um, okay, what’s that mean?
R: Means I’m bad at parties.
M: Heh. Let me tell you—you ain’t that great outside of parties either.
R: I think human consciousness was 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, this accretion of sensory experience and feeling, 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 deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction. One last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.
M: So what’s the point of getting out of bed in the morning?
R: I tell myself I’m a witness. But the real answer is that it’s obviously my programming, and I lack the constitution for suicide.
Here, we get our first glimpse that Rust’s cold, hard reliance on logic is in fact illogical. His insistence that one should deny his materially determined ‘programming,’ suggests a reality external to such programming which enables that very denial. It is a loophole reliant on the immaterial, predicated on Rust’s belief that he is able to transcend his subjectivity to natural law long enough to critique it. Upholding the faculty of reason as submission to the order of nature makes Rust guilty of the same ‘storytelling’ fallacy of which he accuses Marty: adherence to a self-contradictory metanarrative which, in some perverse way, comforts the adherent.
The beauty of True Detective, as I see it, lies in the artful juxtaposition of reason and faith in such a way that the viewer is required to participate in the question of their incompatibility.
I’m venturing out of my own territory now; please comment if you feel my assessment of Rust’s philosophy is ill advised. (I should also mention that the metanarratives governing the way Marty and Rust see the world are specifically constructed by the show’s creators as self-contradictory—I don’t meant to suggest that all metanarratives are so.) However: the beauty of True Detective, as I see it, lies in the artful juxtaposition of reason and faith in such a way that the viewer is required to participate in the question of their incompatibility. This is where, again, the question of the camera proves its centrality (and where both writer Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga prove their genius).
Each episode contains scenes of 2012 recordings of Hart and Cohle, both now retired, giving accounts of their 1995 Dora Lange murder investigation. Apparently, all the files were damaged in a flood and a new victim of the same killer(s)—who, according to Rust and Marty, had been killed when they attempted to arrest him—has surfaced. The new detectives suspect that Rust was Dora Lange’s murderer all along and had framed the initial suspect. Other, subtler scenes point to the possibility that Marty was actually the serial killer. These shots where the viewer is frequently resituated behind the lens of the video camera, or is looking at Marty or Cohle from the perspective of the interrogators—well, we don’t know whether these detectives are part of a conspiracy between the serial killer and a Saturnalian cabal composed of prominent political and religious leaders, businessmen, and law enforcement. We don’t know if the viewer can necessarily trust anyone’s eyes in this show: even her own. Furthermore, these scenes from 2012 are spliced in between ‘recollected’ scenes which are meant to show what actually happened during the initial 1995 investigation—and which often bely the accounts Marty and Rust are giving the detectives in the present day. This supposedly reliable footage shows, on film, even Rust’s hallucinations.
In this way, the objective truth status our culture bestows on what’s captured on film is called into question alongside the reliability of first-hand witness accounts, the word and reputation of authority figures, and even alongside the motivations of someone in search of truth (the ‘true detective’). All our ways of knowing what to believe are suspect. The viewer, along with every actor and actress in the show, must ask along with Marty,
“You—you got a chapter in one of those books on jumping to conclusions? You attach an assumption to a piece of evidence, you start to bend the narrative to support it, prejudice yourself.”
This is why, too, the bewilderment of critics and fans in the wake of the season finale is shocking. The wave of finger-pointing and disbelief surrounding True Detective’s final episode has been equaled only by other critics’ rapturous praise and midrashic interpretations. These and other articles explaining the significance of Rust Cohle’s slow philosophical soliloquies in the face of Marty Hart’s misogynist immaturity (with polemics against these last two leveled particularly well by the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum) have forced me to attempt, in this review, to explain what I think they’re all missing.
This show wasn’t about detective work or even murder. It wasn’t about philosophy (to an extent), and certainly made no attempt to pass the Bechdel test. Did Rust Cohle ‘get religion’? Maybe, and maybe Marty Hart became a cynic. The grand cosmic ‘truth’ Hart and Cohle had sought in their hunt for Errol Childress, the ‘Yellow King’ of Carcosa—the horrifying, vast figure with the scarred face, who torments and kills women and children with his ring of Louisiana’s elite—comes with realizing that the occult significance and mysterious nature of the killer’s motivations actually don’t matter. All of these things rank as insignificant next to learning how to see.
The viewer finally learns to see when, in the finale’s first few minutes, we watch Marty and Rust brace a policeman who’d been promoted for allowing his police chief to sweep a missing child report under the rug. Rust had found a video of the ritual in which the little girl, Marie Fontenot, was killed (we, as viewers, are not shown the murder), and he forces the policeman to watch it, saying “Don’t look at me. Look at the TV.” The viewer is enjoined along with the policeman, is enjoined by the cinematography itself.
Rust finally learns how to see when he realizes that the killer is still alive, and tells Marty, “I won’t avert my eyes.” He listens to the Yellow King shouting at him, “Take off your mask, little priest!” He is nearly killed, and ventures into a warm darkness where he is reunited with his dead daughter and father. “There’s nothing but love there,” he claims—he, who’d previously thought that all emotions were biologically determined and only to there to be resisted.
Marty finally learns to see when he agrees to help Rust resume the case on the sly. He sees that his real duty wasn’t patriarchal. In fact, he finally thanks his wife—who’d discovered his affair with another woman and had divorced him years before—for raising their daughters so well alone. He finally sees that a man doesn’t need a family to be a man: he becomes one when, hospitalized after killing Errol Childress, his ex-wife and daughters visit him and he admits that he’s not fine. He’s not fine, but despite it genuinely grins, “It’s so good to see you.”
What True Detective does well, it does nearly perfectly. And what it does poorly? We should remember that it isn’t trying to do everything we ever wanted from television—it’s just attempting the one thing: true vision.
Anna Attaway is an editor at Cosmologics. She researches interactions between Christian mystical writing, sacramental theology, and scientific understandings of the human body in the medieval and early modern periods, and is proud to be from Washington State.
Image from Flickr via finchlake2000