True Detective is noir. It’s the absence of morality or traditional heroes, it’s flawed idealists struggling to make sense of the world. It’s the place in time when the hero is returned to reality, after battles were fought and won but the war rages on. When the good guys have come and gone and still the demons run amok. This is one of my favorite genres, from Brick, to LA Confidential, and even Sin City, it’s interpreted in different ways but has one common theme running throughout. A flawed protagonist is doing the right thing out of some reflex, some compulsion to right the wrongs of the world if only in one small corner of it, in spite of the inherent futility they all are too aware of, having stared too deeply for too long into the eyes of one devil or another.
Marty: Past a certain age a man without a family… can be a bad thing.
There is a feeling you get when you encounter true art, a sensation that envelopes your mind and quiets the voices that are trying to make sense of the world. It’s what beauty is, it’s order interacting with chaos, it’s a viewpoint into a world that is only accessible in fleeting glimpses. It’s the establishing shots in True Detective, it’s the writing, the directing, the cinematography, the performances. It’s the perfect storm of gifted people giving birth to a vision of nihilism and noir, vanity and viciousness, played out in anthology format; an amalgamation of the bitterness and depravity the world visits on the innocent and the men that unravel trying to make sense of it all.
Hart: You wonder ever if you’re a bad man?
Cohle: No, I don’t wonder, Marty. The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.
The truth is Marty Hart and Rust Cohle are not as bad as the men they hunt, but in some ways they are worse, demonstrating time after time a kind of vicious hypocrisy. Where Marty is a self-described victim of the Detective’s Curse, the inability to see the answers when they are in plain view, Rust is a horrifying emotionally detached executor of his own brand of objectivity, a force of nature obsessed with unraveling what he believes is the illusion of the human soul. In this way he is a gifted detective and an interrogator without peer because he ultimately does not see a human being, only pathos and impetus, weakness and fear. It’s these emotions that he draws out with sympathetic, hypnotic platitudes, like infected blood from a guilty heart. Afterwards he is remorseless, unmoved and emotionless again, smoking cigarette after cigarette with the kind of focused intense drags exclusive to smokers who are more interested in the poison than the satisfaction. Marty requires a less complex assessment: he’s a son-of-bitch, a cheater, a classic chauvinist taking his beautiful family for granted and then exploding with insecurity and misogyny when things inevitably fall apart.
Hart: You know the good years when you’re in them, or you just wait for them until you get ass cancer and realize that the good years came and went? Because there’s a feeling – you might notice it sometimes – this feeling like life has slipped through your fingers. Like the future is behind you, …like it’s always been behind you.
There is some criticism of the machismo on display in True Detective and the lack of strong female characters, most of whom are victims in one respect or another. It’s true the show does not pass the Bechdel Test in any way that I have noticed but if this is an indictment of the show as a whole, it’s misplaced. It thoroughly and mercilessly dismantles the main character’s masculinity every step of the way, demonstrating how warped and archaic this way of thinking can be. It’s as celebratory of testosterone and male virility as Fight Club, shining a stark light on the realities of emotionally maladjusted cowboys desperate to protect every unknown woman and child they can find while at the same time being completely incapable of maintaining a stable, healthy relationship with the ones in their own lives. And when their families and homes fail them they turn with fanatical resolve to the only thing that they can: the job, the case, the victim. Rather than evolve, they cling harder to thing they still feel control over with bitter, self destructive determination.
Cohle: I can’t say the job made me this way. More like me being this way made me right for the job. I used to think about it more, but you reach a certain age, you know who you are.
I’m committing to this final piece on True Detective before the last episode because I realized I have developed a bad habit of analyzing every episode along with the internet and it was eviscerating the pure joy of discovery, the personal experience the listener is supposed to be having with the storyteller. I don’t fault the blogosphere with breaking down every clue and detail episode by episode but it takes some of the fun out of just experiencing the story as a whole. No true raconteur wants to be interrupted and critiqued verse by verse, some things are intended to have meaning, some are meant to meter out a rhythm, a cadence that only the author knows perfectly in the life of the mind. It’s a lesson I learned from Breaking Bad, from the surprisingly subtle closing scenes, that the death pools and fan theories only detracted from what was really going on in the plot, from the real beauty of a patiently constructed denouement.
Cohle: The newspapers are gonna be tough on you and prison is very…very hard on people who hurt kids. If you get the opportunity you should kill yourself.
Television culture has been trending towards the anti-hero recently, towards Don Draper, Walter White, and Frank Underwood. These are brilliant and engrossing characters worthy of the critical adulation but I can’t help but wonder where all the good men have gone or why we are so obsessed with the darkness of late. Maybe it’s always been that way and time is just like that crushed Lone Star can that Rust has been on and on about, that flat circle. What he’s describing, flourish and eloquence aside, is Hell: a place where our actions are repeated ad infinitum, without meaning or purpose. Which is where these characters belong but I also believe it’s where they choose to be. Morality may or may not be objective and although differing opinions of what its true definition is have been the source of all kinds of trial and misery throughout history, maybe it really comes down to choice, if there truly is such a thing. Choice and, ultimately, if there is still time to change the road you’re on.
Cohle: In eternity, where there is no time, nothing can grow. Nothing can become. Nothing changes. So Death created time to grow the things that it would kill…and you are reborn… but into the same life that you’ve always been born into. I mean, how many times have we had this conversation, detectives?
Dedicated to my buddy, Tim.