A Look Back On True Detective Season One, And Why We Loved It

Now that season two is in full swing, episode three hit HBO last Sunday, lets take a back at why we love it’s predecessor.

From the outside True Detective may seem like another “who done it,” albeit via HBO’s iconic filter of high production and restriction-free content. But despite the showcase of murdered female prostitutes, abductions of little boys and girls, and a Mardi Gras inspired devil worshiping, rape-cult, True Detective delves into questions of human existence rarely, if ever, portrayed on television–or even film.

There have been numerous positive reviews of True Detective, not least of which came from Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen, who praised it for a justified, uplifting, yet bleak, end, in which the protagonists are left with nothing but, “Shredded illusions [and] painful self awareness.” But True Detective has also had its own bad press. Emily Nussbaum–the television critic for The New Yorker–was so sickened by this show, she wrote not one, but two, scathing reviews of it, arguing that in an attempt to demonize, “men who treat women as lurid props, the show [itself] treated women as lurid props.” While both of these critics felt justified in their own summation of this epic piece of work (8 episodes of one hour each, a 450 page script), neither of them understood fully, the true value of True Detective.

Meet Rustin Cohle and Marty Hart, (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson) the two protagonists of True Detective. We pick up their story in a flashback sequence while each of them are being questioned separately in front of small video cameras. A cunning construct as it informs viewers of two things–their days as homicide detectives are over, and they are estranged from each other, though it is made clear they had been partners during a grisly case in ‘95. The case itself dealt with the murder of a young prostitute in a fetishistic ritual, complete with a blindfolded victim crowned with a large rack of deer antlers. While the murder and corresponding conspiracy they uncover throughout this 8 hour season is, perhaps, shocking enough to garner and hold the attention of viewers, it is not the most intriguing part of the show. Instead the truth is hidden within the relationships of the two protagonists, not only to each other, but to the larger world they live in. Set in Louisiana, much of it in the bayou, Cohle and Hart have drastically different world views and watching them discover each other and question the other’s beliefs, cunningly raises existential questions to the audience.

In the very first episode the tone is set by Cohle when Hart tries to make sense of the centerpiece murder the show revolves around. When asked about his beliefs Cohle responds with these insights, “. . . in philosophical terms I’m what’s called a pessimist. . . We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self. . . programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody. When, in fact, everybody is 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.”

These ideas aren’t new in philosophical circles, but they are, perhaps, new to mainstream television. The irony of Cohle’s philosophy is that the audience McConaughey is performing for is waiting for some realization and closure by episode eight. But early on, he prepares viewers for an  ambiguous conclusion.

“Fulfillment, closure, whatever the fuck those two—empty jars to hold this shitstorm. Nothing’s ever fulfilled, until the very end. And closure? No. No. No. Nothing is ever over.”

This brings us to the duality of Marty Hart. While most viewers I know have been pulled, sometimes unwillingly, toward the intrigue that is Rustin Cohle, Marty Hart is a far more complex character in many ways. While Cohle has constructed a vast network of philosophical ideas to cement himself as a character (an irony in itself, considering the man’s beliefs), Hart has no words to describe himself at all. The only time he is asked what kind of person he is, he uses the question to make a ridiculous joke. “I was just a regular type dude, with a big ass dick.”

This asinine response to a question that should garner some authentic self reflection is the first sign viewers get that Hart isn’t the intellectual Cohle is. In fact, Hart shies away from any conversation that analyzes his motives or characteristics.

“You’re obsessive,” says Hart.

“You’re obsessive too, just not about the job,” Cohle responds.

“Not me, brother. I keep things even. Separate. Like the way I can have one beer without needing twenty.”

“People incapable of guilt usually do have a good time,” says Cohle.

“I try not to be too hard on myself,” Marty reasons.

And he has to reason this, has to justify it, because he is an unfaithful family man. Even when in front of the interrogation cameras, ten years in the future, Hart justifies his unfaithfulness saying that it’s, “. . . for the good of the family.”

“You know the difference between you and me?” asks Hart to Cohle.

“Yeah. Denial.”

“The difference is that I know the difference between an idea and a fact. You are incapable of admitting doubt.”

This, in psychology, is a classic case of projection by Marty Hart. Since he is unable to justify his own actions, as he acts upon his emotions so readily, Hart lashes out at his partner. It is rare to see a show tackle such complex self loathing and doubt with such nuance and accuracy. And at the center of this small exchange, as well as in many of the soliloquies McConaughey presents over the course of the season, is the question of why people do the things they do. Why all of us, myself included, have a proclivity for certain actions we then justify with defensiveness, as Hart does, or deny completely, but rarely internalize and reflect on?

True Detective tackles many philosophical issues: religion as a disease of the mind; the whole of human existence being a “tragic misstep” in evolution; the idea that nature created something of itself that defies itself–these conversations between Cohle and Hart are the most enjoyable, and most meaningful parts of this master piece. These two men are the platform, writer, Nic Pizzolatto uses to introduce his audience to complex philosophical concepts.  In fact there is one author, indeed, one book Pizzolatto has credited with impacting the writing of Rustin Cohle’s character: Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror. However, while Pizzolatto admits this work of dark, antinatalism and nihilism played a role in the creation of Cohle, “I wouldn’t want any viewers to assume we had some nihilistic agenda, or reduce Cohle to an antinatalist or nihilist,” Pizzolatto said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. No, instead Pizzolatto wrote two very different characters in Hart and Cohle, both with contradictions and hypocrisies, put them together and watched the drama unfold. Only by having an intimate understanding of both characters would he be able to expand upon such existential issues in such an articulate and accessible manner.

While Nussbaum of The New Yorker focused on the cliches of a rapist-murderer as an antagonist, conventional nudity to attract viewership, and simple characters other than the two protagonists, she sadly misses out on the true value within the show; everyone, even protagonists find the act of existence sometimes tiresome. Her comparison of True Detective to The Fall is solely based on her discomfort with two male protagonists and very little airtime for female characters–but in this she neglects to point out that there aren’t any other male characters within the show who have significant airtime either. The reason for this is because the story lies with these two men (Hart and Cohle), the other men within the story are fringe characters, plot devices, just as the women in the story are as well. She also sites the antagonist in The Fall who, like Cohle goes on philosophical rants. This is an injustice, however, as this falls into the common trope of antagonists being the only characters to struggle with their own existence. Cohle breaks that mold completely, giving the audience someone to admire, but the show also tries to impress upon viewers that good people oftentimes have dark sides. It isn’t only murdering rapists who are existential.

And then there is Jeff Jensen of Entertainment Weekly raving about the twisted mastermind responsible for the sprawl of murders that goes back more than two decades. For Jensen, the satisfying bit of this body of work was a conclusion. And, for one reason or another, he felt as though he got that. “The organizing principle of True Detective was restoring law to a lawless land.” But just as Nussbaum has done, Jensen overlooks the most profound story in the show: the fact that it exists at all. And that it is being consumed by mainstream viewers.

While the murder mystery is an intriguing one, I, like Nussbaum, find it strangely lacking in originality. This isn’t a problem however, as Pizzolatto was smart enough to know the only way to raise his and Ligotti’s philosophical questions to a mainstream audience was to set it with a backdrop of murder and nudity, without which the piece would have no commercial or consumeristic merit. It is sad to say, but that is what consumerism does to art such as this–dilutes it with sensationalism.  Most people would not accept these ideas without the horrible backdrop of rape and murder. These ideas are, sadly, things that scare people more thoroughly because they tell us too much about ourselves–and so can’t stand alone without a clear defined evil. Luckily, Pizzolatto was smart enough to understand this. While watching True Detective all I could think was, “Oh fuck, somebody in Hollywood gets this shit,” but not only gets it, loves it, has thought about it, and is smart enough to worm it into a piece of visual and performance art that is sensational enough to sell–and I’m sure I’m not the only person out there with this reaction.

In the end, True Detective is a triumph of philosophical dissemination. Whether those who watch True Detective take pause to examine their own lives, their own thoughts and wants and action, is a matter for the individual, but for those who haven’t delved deeply into the meaning of human existence, this is a gateway, albeit a dark one, to walk through.