Who Is The True Detective?

The quality of HBO’s crime series rests with detective Rust Cohle.

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’.

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