Who Is The True Detective?

rust-cohleIn my first blog, I wondered: is the HBO series True Detective really any good — or does it just look like it’s good? Does it just have the feel of of a great crime show without actually being one?

Ultimately, the answers to these questions rest on the work of talented writer Nic Pizzolatto and more specifically on his central True Detective creation, Detective Rust Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey.

Cohle is an expert investigator, a ferocious rebel, a dedicated drunk and a long-winded philosopher. His aggressively articulate nihilism is part of what drives his partner Marty Hart (played by Woody Harrelson) crazy. Whenever Cohle begins to deconstruct the humanistic or religious conventions of the Louisiana society around him, Hart demands he “stop talking,” and keep his opinions to himself.

The quality of Cohle’s reflections varies widely, from high to low to ridiculous. Let’s take a look at an example of each.

The High:

In one scene, after recounting how he searched for clues in the records of various murder victims, Cohle goes off on a genuinely eloquent and disturbing rant about the relief of death in a meaningless world. In the end, says Cohle, each murder victim is glad and grateful to let go of her life because it means an end to the wearying effort of pretending to be a self, pretending there’s some logic or wholeness to the experience of human existence, some soul that constitutes a true identity. All this soul stuff is a sham, Cohle tells us, and there’s something relaxing about finally letting it go, even at the hands of a killer.

This is certainly one of several defensible reactions to the philosophical complexities of human life. Well and originally spoken as it is here, it cuts close to our fears and makes us shiver. Powerful stuff.

The Low:

In a scene at a tent revival, however, Cohle’s high philosophical nihilism descends into something more like typical elitist disdain for the beliefs of his social inferiors. Looking around at the worshippers, he bitterly questions their intelligence. He growls that only idiots like these would do good merely for fear of eternal punishment or in hope of eternal reward.

Now, of course, people do hold such opinions but in the mouth of a philosopher like Cohle, they come off as mere cocktail party guff, only just about half smart. Sure, some religious people are stupid but many are very intelligent indeed. Christianity’s appeal to a wide range of IQ’s is actually a feature of the religion not a bug — though it seems to irritate intellectuals that this should be so. And as for creating one’s ethical outlook based on a potential eternity of spiritual development…  well, one wonders what Cohle’s  own fierce sense of ethics is ultimately based on. In any case, a guy who goes to the gym as much as Cohle apparently does should be pretty comfortable with the idea of sacrificing some immediate pleasure toward a future good.

The Ridiculous:

And finally, there are painful scenes where Cohle descends into pseudo-deep self-serious self-parody. In the most obvious one, he pompously explains the Nietzschean concept of eternal recurrence to two interrogating detectives: “This is a world where nothing is solved. You know, someone once told me time is a flat circle. Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again.” I don’t know about you, but this is not the attitude I want in my law enforcement officials! Puckish comedian Daniel Tosh caught the right tone when he announced a new episode of his comedy show by tweeting, “Starting to feel like time is a flat circle, you guys,” and then hash-tagged that with a reference to Michelle Monaghan’s nude scene: “#Monaghansgreatass.”

Internet literary investigators have had a good time tracking down the sources of some of Cohle’s musings, most particularly in an interesting 19th century horror story anthology called The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. And that’s fun, like finding Easter eggs in a video game. But, of course, literary references are not particularly interesting in and of themselves. They’re only really worthwhile when they act as a short-hand method of giving meta-shape, scope and cohesion to a work. They help the author avoid overlong explanations and keep him from disturbing our suspension of disbelief. When Virgil appears in Dante’s Inferno, for instance, we are meant to understand, among other things, that Dante is making a Virgilian epic of Christian faith just as Virgil made a Homeric epic of Roman history. If Dante said this outright, he would not only seem prolix and pompous, he would wake us from his nightmare of hell.

So do these references add anything? Well, I’m not sure. The King in Yellow is an eerie and original work that prefigures the horror tales of H.P. Lovecraft. Its various stories circle around a play so powerful it drives men mad. I will have to wait for the conclusion of True Detective to see if this expands the show’s themes.

So far, for me, the trouble with Rust Cohle is that he is completely isolated as an observing intelligence within the story. There is no one to answer him or make him doubt himself. His partner’s occasional defenses of faith, family and self-discipline are not just inarticulate, they’re so transparently hypocritical and self-serving as to be absurd. It might’ve been nice if someone on the Bayou had read as much Dostoevsky as Cohle has read Nietzsche, but True Detective never strives for that sort of complexity. Which makes it predictable. When an alcoholic tent preacher tells Cohle he went looking for God but found only silence, who could be surprised? Since he’s essentially living in Cohle’s universe, what else could he have found?

For me, then,True Detective’s quality will ultimately depend on the question: Who is Cohle to Pizzolatto? Is he the authoritative mouthpiece for the writer’s own philosophy or is he instead part of the writer’s exploration of a larger world-view, a view in which Cohle merely plays a part. It’s the difference between a character in Shakespeare who speaks his philosophy out of his own experience and personality in the context of the greater world of the play, and a character in Paddy Chayefsky, say, who trumpets Chayefsky’s leftist political philosophy, declaring The Truth the playwright wants us to hear.

Which kind of character is Cohle? Is there something about him personally that has stripped him of his faith in God and the self and yet left his (philosophically incoherent) insistence on truth and compassion and ethics intact? Is that philosophical incoherence part of the story? The reason for his drunkenness maybe, or the problem he’s obsessively seeking to resolve? Or is he just Our Hero, flaws and all, telling it like Pizzolatto thinks it is? If that’s the case — since Cohle too often comes across as a pompous blow-hard — True Detective may turn out, for all its style, to be ankle-deep and paper-thin.

We’ll know more — and I’ll blog more — after the show’s next installment.

Previous Blogs on the Series:

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

  • alericKong

    The real villain turns out to be:

    school vouchers

    I’m betting Bob Schiffer or Brian Williams’ daughter is the real writer.

    • Ray Zacek

      Yeah, I noticed that too. It might as well have been underlined and in bold italics. I knew in the first episode when Jay O Sanders strode through as the oleaginous evangelist that the crimes would be traced back to him.

      • 20pizzapies

        Sorry Ray , I can’t reply to your comment made at 11:28 this morning in any intelligent way because they censored . Awaiting moderation is their word for censor .

    • 20pizzapies

      Yea but you watched it anyway . And will catch all the episodes .

      • alericKong

        That’s right. I don’t black out shows just because they are written by moronic leftists.

        I do note how it’s a complete let down and something which was suppose to be different just became the same old tirade.

  • MarilynA

    This series is just another example of a once great actor descending into abject desperation in his attempt to change the society to fit his degenerate idea of how things really are. I always thought McCoughney was too pretty to be straight. His descent into filth and perversion as characterized in his recent films, and now his anti Christian diatribes in this series , indicates he is more than likely just another gay debaucher trying to force society to accept his perversions as normal. I can’t stand to watch him in the roles he has now chosen to accept. You would never have seen a really great actors like John Wayne, Cary Grant, Alan Ladd, etc, stoop to this kind of debauchery and trash to change society to accept any and every kind of behavior. Shades of the Marquis De Sade.

    • bobbo

      Do you really believe McConaughey created his character and wrote the script? He is an actor. Period. He delivers lines, and quite well in this show. At any rate, I like Klavan’s review. The show is captivating. We will probably find out in the end that Cohle is as full of BS as he sounds.

    • 20pizzapies

      Yea , so lets all watch it so we can express our outrage and moral indignation .

    • 20pizzapies

      Woody Harrelson in ” Born to Kill ” was a much more debasing film than TD . And what gives you the idea that McCoughney is gay ? Change society? Really , and I thought it was to make money ? The director , now that may be a different story .

  • Chiron_Venizelos

    It doesn’t matter!
    If it’s on HBO, I’m not going to see it.
    If/when Bill Maher is waterboarded and kicked off HBO, I “might” consider subscribing to it. NOT UNTIL.

    • 20pizzapies

      You’ll watch it when it comes to another network .

  • 20pizzapies

    Let me be a spoiler , it all revolves around perverted Christians in the south , the chief of which is that Big shot religious guy whose organization opened schools for a “Christian” alternative to public education , but in reality those schools just served as a supply for young girls and boys to be screwed , tortured and killed by some real perverts in high places . It is an expose of the filmmakers twisted mind , with gratuitous and totally unneccessary explicit sexual scenes .[ why the scene where Marty's new girlfriend calls to tell him she wants it in the back door next time] ? C’mon , be real it’s just another form of pornography with a plot , like Bunny in the Big Lebowski and the nihilist playing the part of the cable guy . The show will be a hit because it appeals to the sexual appetites of it’s viewers . Now add Satanism , which in and of itself is just a charade for cult members banging all the members whenever they want , after all Satan is all for sex .BTW, has anyone noticed the crucifix in Cohle’s room ? It’s porn man , just dressed up with some sophisticated intellectual dressings in the plot . LOL……sex of all sorts gets promoted and Southern Christians get mocked and denigrated . Wake up! If you want porn just go to RedTube , it’s a lot easier and takes up a whole lot less time .

    • WW4

      Yeah, it seems like every new show is trying to “out-gritty” the next, these days. Rapes are de rigeur, parties are always bacchanals, people are warped in byzantine ways. Sounds like this show is trying to use the literary references as a substitute for substance. Shows are very good, now, at the trappings of “significance.” But actually having something to say is as rare as ever.

    • cjkcjk

      So that makes it all ok to persecute them. Thanks for showing who you are, but we already knew.

      • 20pizzapies

        Thank you for showing me how utterly deficient you are in reading comprehension , and how truly stupid you are ……but wait ! I already knew that !

        • cjkcjk

          Are you even 15?

          • 20pizzapies

            Well past it , but if I was , that would put me 15 years ahead of you chum .

  • cjkcjk

    Lemme guess ahead of time; all the criminals are white heterosexual males, all the terrorists are carrying Bibles, all the victims are minorities, Sodomites, or Mohammedans.
    See how predicable all these BS Potemkin Village ‘crime’ shows are.

    • 20pizzapies

      Yea , I’m sure it was explicitly aimed at Tea Party Conservatives ……the commies in Hollywood are victimizing you again . Riiiiiight .

      • cjkcjk

        No, it’s merely the truth liar.

        • 20pizzapies

          LOLOL….what a schmuck you are .

          • cjkcjk

            Coming from a leftie tool like you, that’s a compliment.

          • 20pizzapies

            Like I said , what a schmuck !

    • Rakk

      And let me comment further more: Christianity is “a delusional story” (= a lie) while a detective’s “search for the truth” is the real path humanity should follow in order to understand both man’s place in the Universe and life’s real meaning :)) Cohle’s deliberately and explicitely portrayed as a Christ-like figure (watch “the finale” and see the symbology for yourselves). The sadistic satanists who lurk behind the appaling murders are, of course, Christians. Although occult ritualistic killings and implicitly the worship of Satan are OPPOSED to Christ and Christianity, that brave old Hollywoodian community heroically tries once more to convince us that all the evil in the world hides under the nowadays so-blamed “Christian” tag. The authors of the series simply rely on the viewer’s theological illiteracy; the rest is done by the charismatic play of the leading actors and by the charm of a relatively complex crime story. And of course, such murders could never be depicted as (just for example!) the work of a Talmudic circle/community. Although movies are “art for art’s sake” there are certain ethical limits, my friends. Christ is the enemy, remember? …At least to the glorious Hollywood crowd.

  • cacslewisfan

    Is there anything about the show to indicate it is not a post modern passion play? Most likely the pilot is telling the audience Rusty is suicidal and has no faith in anything, and the character will grow from there with the usual ups and downs. My money is on the character tenaciously clinging to life and his duty for no other reason other than despite his nihilistic ramblings, he really wants to live. He’ll fabricate his “truth,” just like in every postmodern narrative, and it will be inconsistent and paper thin. Yawn. I’ve seen this one before.

  • 20pizzapies

    Sex sells , forget the plot . Although my fist post was ” disallowed ” for whatever reasons , I’ll play spoiler again , there’ll be plenty of gratuitous and graphic sex scenes , the anti-hero exposes a perverted sex torture& snuff cult disguised as “Christian alternative schools ” which are just “feeders ” for the deranged sexual appetites of people in high places . Cohle goes where the cops fear to tread .

  • 20pizzapies

    censorship is a good thing eh ?

    • Ray Zacek

      Who mentioned censorship? And you really have anything substantive to say or are you simply addicted to drive-by shooting style of posting on a thread? I think TD is very well made and fascinating to watch even though I share Klavan’s reservations and have some of my own.

  • 20pizzapies

    I guess I have to “tow the line ” to make a comment around here huh .