The Final Truth of True Detective


tfLots of spoilers here.

Given the nearly ecstatic reactions that greeted HBO’s True Detective in some quarters, it seems almost surly of me to say that I found it a good, generally entertaining show but not a great one.  That, however, was my final reaction. The list of pros and cons that I began with in my first blog held pretty much valid throughout. The style, structure and especially acting were all superb, giving the show the feeling of something great. But the plotting was unoriginal and finally rather bland and the showy philosophizing ultimately delivered less than met the eye (more on that below).

On top of this, while the final chase sequence had a wonderfully cool setting, I — and several people I asked — found it strangely lacking in any sort of suspense or emotion. At the end of the first season of Dexter, I remember actually standing up from the couch I was so tense and involved. Here, I mostly felt impatient to get on with it. I’m not sure why this should’ve been so. Maybe the heroes had become representative philosophical tropes rather than human beings, or maybe it was simply that they were both such isolated depressives that it didn’t really matter even to them whether they lived or died. Certainly the villain added nothing to the piece and the portentously referential conspiracy never really paid off. Carcosa, my eye.

In any case, to the very end, I kept wanting to love this series but only liked it. But then liking a show is no small thing. Indeed, while I suspect a lot of the over-the-top enthusiasm for the series was event-generated rather than content-generated, there’s nothing particularly wrong with that. The fact that the show was interesting enough to blog about and discuss and disagree over was a source of pleasure. I don’t want to seem negative about it at all. Watching was a fun experience.

As to the final dispensation of Matthew McConaughey’s nihilist detective Rust Cohle: my response was somewhat divided.

At the end of the story, Cohle has a redeeming mystical experience. Near death, or possibly beyond the border, he finds that his identity contains an irreducible and presumably eternal aspect that is bound together with everyone that he has ever loved. The only truly mystical experience of my own life was very similar (sans the whole stabbed-by-a-serial-killer business) so while the revelation struck me as a bit sudden and unearned, I certainly could identify with it.

But if you were paying attention to Cohle’s various philosophical speeches throughout the series, you know that this mystic moment, if we take it seriously, negates every single word he’s previously spoken. In the light of Cohle’s experience, it can no longer reasonably be held true that identity is an illusion gratefully surrendered at death, or that humanity is a tragic misstep in evolution, or even that time is a flat circle. Since it turns out we are, in fact, engaged in an eternal struggle between light and dark, Cohle has basically been talking complete crap this entire time.

This certainly explains the character’s central inconsistency: that, while a nihilist, he is obsessed with doing good and finding justice. It also explains why he drinks so much, since booze alleviates the tension of maintaining a philosophy that deep down we know to be untrue. Cohle’s revelation also makes us, the audience, feel that we have been engaged with an authorial voice that is bigger than its central character. This always broadens and deepens a work of art because it frees us from the oppressive sense that we are being lectured by an author who thinks he possesses the Absolute Truth — which we, of course, know he cannot.

So I not only personally approved of this plot turn, I also appreciated it.

And yet, on another level, I couldn’t help feeling that the religion Cohle was discovering here was the religion of elitism, what we might call Snobianity:  the belief that only a vague mystic spirituality amenable to the analytic maundering of intellectuals can possibly be held valid. (Atheist Sam Harris seems to me one of the high priests of this cult.) Why else did every simple Christian in the show turn out to be a loser or a child-molesting murderer? After all, it seems possible that even someone as stupid as a Christian might be just as linked to eternal love in the afterlife as an intellectual. The only difference is:  the stupid Christian knows it’s true beforehand, while the intellectual is likely to be taken by surprise.

It was almost as if writer Nic Pizzolatto wanted Cohle to have his hip, urbane, cynical persona and his mystic revelation too.  But of course the latter trumps the former entirely and renders hipness, urbanity and cynicism morally worthless.

Just saying.

Anyway, my final review: great acting and great style in a generally enjoyable show.

Previous Blogs on the Series:

Part I: The Real Mystery of HBO’s ‘True Detective’.

Part II: Who Is The True Detective?

Part III: The Babes of True Detective.

  • pneville

    …and some nice skin shots.

  • monticalvo

    why not another road to God, a chic lane. can’t be too many

  • donna

    totally offensive and you have delineated why. the truly disgusting stereotypes of white southern manhood and the philosophical wiseacreing of rust epitomize hollywood at its worst. Agreed good production quality and acting. It is no surprise that matthew has declined a second season. We will not explore inferences of character and mind of Christians. At 64 and an “eastern establishment type” i have never met an individual who speaks or thinks like rust except in drawing rooms on the UES and UWS of manhattan. what pretense.

    • tickletik

      Actually, I have met people like Rust. Think Rust only in the opposite direction. With all the same pain, but wholly good and openly believing and trusting in God.

      And this may be something you are not going to be able to understand, but as a man, I can tell you that the character of Rust is a good man. The reason he is so messed up is because he really does believe so much.

  • cacslewisfan

    Ah ha! They went New Age! How do you keep from being totally predictable, yet still hate on Christians? Go New Age! Sorta like Buddhism, but with more heart.

  • MarilynA

    I fell for the advertising hype and tried to watch the first episode. Frankly, it sucked so bad I switched channels after about 15 minutes. If I want to be depressed I have enough problems to solve that need my attention. Being sucked down into someone else’s abyss is not my idea of entertainment. I am about to give up on television because it no longer entertains. It is just another propaganda media selling some mentally challenged misfit’s idea of social justice and change.

    • 20pizzapies

      Wanna get depressed , lol….just come on this blog and listen to people like you .

  • tickletik

    I loved the ending of this series. It is really painful seeing how nihilistic and negative people are. This wasn’t a “happy happy” ending. It was a cathartic ending, where people came to terms with their own lives.

    Yet people have this bizarre desire to see everything fall apart. I think that’s because people want to have a world view where it’s all against them, to justify their own perceived failures in their lives.

    Similarly, we have this pathetic need to elevate mentally broken murderers to the status of demons. The bad guy was a mentally broken individual, not a demon, not a god. As it was, he was far tougher than any normal man should have been.

    We want Hannibals and Vampires and super murderers, because then you see, it’s not our fault! It’s not my fault I didn’t have the guts to push my life forward, it’s because the whole thing is hopeless see?

    The ending was haunting and beautiful, it had all the rich depth of the rest of the series. And honestly, I thought this series had some real courage.

  • Crazycatkid

    And why does any Jew have to become a Christian so that they’re not obligated to be an urbane atheist….when that’s exactly what they are anyway…..just sayin’

  • libertywrites

    I think nihilism and mysticism are both wrong-headed. I didn’t see Cohle’s experience as mystical – more a sense that his love for his dead daughter did not die when she did and that his depth of feeling is an asset not a liability in life. We saw the reawakening of hope that he could allow himself to experience love again. What a relief it was to those of us watching this brilliantly aware but emotionally blocked character realize that life and love are still possible and desirable. I agree that all of his philosophical conclusions during the course of the show were baloney and that is why it is a relief to see him let go of the nihilism in the end. All in all, he was a fascinating character. Both Matthew and Woody gave amazing performances in this show and I enjoyed it in spite of the cliche of the religious, southern, crazy killer. I did not mind the fact that the entire conspiracy was not uncovered and Woody’s character put it well (paraphrasing) – “It’s not that kind of world. But, we got our guy.” One does what one can do.

  • 20pizzapies

    As I said before , but someone in Admin. felt necessary to delete , the key to Cohle’s character was one shot in Episode 3 where the camera catches a shot of Cohle’s bedroom ,and hanging on a bare wall was a crucifix , and then in the final words of the episode when leaving the hospital Marty says ” the dark seems to have more terriritory ” [than the light from the stars] and Cohle replies ” it would be darker without the light “. Cohle was not nihilistic through the story but rather cynical as most cops are from all the stuff they see . Good did win over evil , though the two heroes were imperfect , but they closed the case and the monster was dead , future victims were saved , the cabal destroyed .

  • steves5687

    I found the show unbearably boring. Tried several to watch but despite the cast the program was insipid.

  • dom

    u christian bro