Disclaimer: spoilers are in full effect for this review!
Like so many other HBO shows in the last fifteen years, True Detective is awash in flesh, drugs, violence, and the various other vulgarities that simultaneously repulse us from the labyrinths of sin and yet draw us deeper inside. Like the rest of them it is set on exploring the dark under-belly of humanity, and like the rest of them it rivals the massive production values of the average Hollywood film. Unlike the typical HBO series, however, True Detective is decidedly unique in that it is essentially a story of 'Good Versus Evil'. Now, is it a traditional one, no, it cannot be; the increasingly tired use of the 'anti-hero' in contemporary storytelling prevents that from being true, with the two TD protagonists being as 'anti-heroic' as you might find anywhere in television today. And yet there is a definite warmth in them that develops in a way that comes across as more authentic than in the usual 'mysterious' bad man who is supposed to appeal to the viewer for his negative qualities instead of his 'good' ones, which commonly consist merely in being rather less negative than those of the antagonist. The generic anti-hero is simply an evil character whose particular form of evil resonates with the audience. Rust Cohle and Martin Hart, being atypical anti-heroes, fight evil not because they are merely less evil, but because they are fundamentally good men afflicted by evil; in a word, the detectives fight evil because they are human, party to devils and angels alike.
Before traversing the more crucial and frankly more interesting subject of the two main characters, it would behoove us to discuss the environment in which they act, and the atmosphere which they oftentimes strive against. It is the first test of a cinematic artwork to convey a setting as though it were alive, with its own identity, its own heartbeat; as though it were a real place, a new, foreign world waiting to be opened, its stories waiting to be told. Unlike the novel, where the writer is allowed by the nature of his art a certain liberty in the expression of his work, leaving the reader a measure of interpretation of events, people, places, the director of a film (or TV show) is in nowise so free; what he creates on the screen, what is captured on video, that is what everyone who watches the screen sees. There is no room for interpretation in that way, so he must invent room in other ways - this is what is known as 'cinematography' in the more specific sense, or the art of creating a mood or a vision by showing something happen in a particular light, in one way and not another. The choice of what is shown, the construction of sets, the addition of a soundtrack, and so on, all contribute to this one principal aim - the creation of a universally understood atmosphere that serves a purpose in the overall production.
In the case of True Detective, that atmosphere is most of all of a dark, dangerous beauty. In the portrayal of the long, absent landscapes and natural spectacles, for example, the atmosphere is something that is indeed beautiful in its Edenic, wild allure, but also one that the viewer wonders is not also conducive to the wickedness of man. Did not the serpent, after all, quietly emerge from the tangled trees of Paradise? Certainly the evil elements in this show seem to be the most at home in the undergrowth of the terrain, far removed from civilization; the invocation of the American literary mythology of 'Carcosa', too, and the distinctly pagan, superstitious charms ('devil-nests', the antlers affixed to the dead, etc.) used to present it to us, is unquestionably of something primeval, of something terrifyingly natural.
While the truly evil powers retreat to the wilderness to practise their madness, the atmosphere that issues from the scenes set in 'civilized' locales possesses a darkness of its own. From whores exiting trucks as they finish sessions to grizzled, impenetrable biker bars to a short but intensely fascinating war in the Negro neighborhood, it is clear that human development carries with it its own peculiar malice; in this there is a different but even more threatening sense of evil because it strikes nearer to the normal human, guilty as he is of wants and perversions even if he is not prone to the murder and rape of children like the serial killers are. It is moreover in the churches set up by a 'Christian' organization, ostensibly a force of civilization, that spawned these enemies of civilization, and possibly allowed them a greater freedom in their activities.
In a more neutral sense, however, the atmosphere succeeds wonderfully in enlivening the locations that this story is immersed in. Like Breaking Bad introducing the arid, toxic dimensions of New Mexico in a way that enriched the show's content, making the environment an integrated element in the story's development, True Detective likewise establishes a lush, sincere atmosphere that invites the viewer to engage with it. The lively, green stretches of sparsely populated land imbue their own sense of hostility that matches the savages to whom it plays host; yet we cannot help but delight in this profoundly natural aura, where life and death are weighed so precariously, almost arbitrarily. The music, from the mood-setting theme song that captures the sinister, bucolic tone of the show to the minimalistic motifs that invariably afford a stoic bleakness to any which scene, is invaluable in this unforgiving presentation of unforgiving Louisiana, providing as it does that singularly pensive, melancholic attitude that really defines this show. The human element, too, in the interviews with the various residents and related characters, is faintly reminiscent of As I Lay Dying; the rustic honesty and graceful, familial issues that persist through generations are present in TD, even if Faulkner's depth is deeper. The Gothic motifs of Lovecraft and Poe are likewise invoked through the aforementioned references to something occult and otherworldly, and add colour and substance to an already mythical setting.
It is worth noting as a solitary complaint that, purely in terms of pacing and quality of narrative, the first five
episodes far exceed the final three. The tension and the excitement of the pursuit of the original suspect, Reggie Ledoux, are extremely high: we experience the rising action in the first few leads as the struggle consists not only against the criminals but also those who try to cover their identities; we experience the most insightful dialogues between Rust and Marty as their two characters are excellently juxtaposed over the backdrop of a confusing, seemingly vicious reality; we experience Rust at his most comfortable, sinking to the bleary lowliness of human corruption in defiance of his own mental health (or lack thereof); and we experience a terrific line of action that runs from infiltrating a seedy biker gang to stirring up trouble in the Projects to hunting the Ledoux cousins in their own property. This more or less perfect pacing is then interrupted by a lacklustre aftermath; the 'intermission', as it were, trips up the gallop, and the level of excitement is never again reached in the same way, even as the hunt for 'Lawnmower Man' reaches its conclusion. The eccentricity of Cohle's crusade to catch the one they missed does not garner enough interest; what the two Black detectives have to reveal about the case does not keep the viewer watching, desperately awaiting the answers, eagerly turning the next episode on as he did during the first five.
That the story does go on, that it indeed needs to go on, is due to the personal resolutions of the detectives' storylines. The characters demand closure. Rust Cohle, for starters, has been established to be an intensely disillusioned person, tormented by the death of his daughter and the dissolution of his marriage. He has crafted a frightening pessimism from his heightened reason, uncaring introversion, and past experiences, and which pushes most people away from him. His weakness is naturally that of liquor, which allows him to retreat from the pounding in his head, the unenviable answers to life's most pertinent problems, the existential crisis of an intellect mutated into hatred and futility. For all of his intelligence, however, the best that he can come up with for Marty's precise question of 'why get out of bed in the morning' is either (non-verbatim), 'I lack the constitution required for suicide' or 'I am not strong enough to overcome my programming'. This is not good enough. This tells us that he lacks the full balance of such a broken worldview, that there is something else that commands him to go on. He caustically questions the institutions of religion and state and family, turning his hatred for life and consciousness into a deadly cynicism for anything that emerges from life and consciousness; and yet his criticisms are shallow, hollow, trite, and we become aware that these are not his essential positions, that they are more the result of bitterness than of genuine contemplation.
Whereas Cohle represents a figure of lonely pessimism, a conscientious objector, an eminently individual player, Martin Hart roughly corresponds to his opposite, a defender of community and the every-day, healthy values that the community espouses but which Cohle claims to see through. Marty says himself, 'I'm just a normal guy... with a big-ass dick', which contrasts wildly but usefully with how Cohle describes himself, which takes place through his dark musings about the nature of reality. The high school stereotypes of the jock and the nerd come immediately to mind. We may learn about Cohle through his thoughts first, but we learn about Marty through his actions, whose own weakness is women. While his strength should come from the women of his family, instead he loses himself in two mistresses at two different points during the course of the series. He defends these lapses as the need to nourish the family's health, to prevent them from receiving all the pent-up negatives of his work: 'You gotta take your release where you can find it... for the good of the family'. These rationalizations come across as equally hollow as those of Rust, and amount to the same thing, namely a failure to realize one's most inner needs in the chaos of ordinary life. Marty at heart loves his wife, his family, and he knows at heart that he fails them in these adulterous excursions; but he only truly realizes this when he comes face to face with their consequences.
This search reveals itself in Cohle through his oddly brilliant but nevertheless self-defeating monologues. With Marty in their car or the two detectives interrogating him, Cohle discusses everything from how it is 'hubristic' to create a child, to raise a soul from the depths of nothingness to the 'meat' of humanity, to the idea of eternal recurrence, of time perpetuating itself in a circle so that nothing we do matters because it will all happen again and again. That latter point was made in a particular period in the show which was supposed to be a moment of victory, right after the justice meted out to the evil Ledoux cousins. This was the nadir of the series in an existential sense; right when we are supposed to be rejoicing in triumph, we sink lower into the mire of Cohle's impossible nihilism, and it was sincerely, completely depressing. We realize at this point just how hostile he is to the potentials of joy and reconciliation; he is almost Calvinistic in this crazed detachment from the world, in this gnostic sort of disbelief in any goodness that is here. By the end of the series we can indeed recognize this as a 'false victory', because there were others out there whom they had not caught. This argument is falsified, however, when we witness the finale, in which a genuine sense of victory is enjoyed despite the fact that there were still a host of men like the Ledoux cousins and Errol Childress, even in relation to the Louisiana serial murders. The truth is that Cohle had not yet experienced his inner crisis of faith, his revelation at death's door, that lifelong obstacle which halted him from the opportunity of living life with love. This prevents him from being at peace with life's terrors, with the reality that there will always be evil. You cannot fight evil purely for the sake of destroying evil; you have to fight evil for the sake of love.
Cohle's heartfelt antithesis to the possibility of love is again made clear in one of his conversations with Marty, in which he bluntly says, 'I don't think that man can love, at least not the way that he means. Inadequacies of reality always set in'. So the irresolvable divide between an ideal and a fact prevents that ideal from being true; it prevents a man from being able to love. We say that it is a 'heartfelt' antithesis because what drives Cohle as a character is his innate love for his deceased daughter, even if he does not recognize it consciously. His relentless pursuit of the evil men, who have punished numerous little girls themselves, when everyone else are all too inclined to give up, suggests an affinity between Cohle and the murdered girls; that the show repeatedly pictures him driving past that billboard which reads, 'Do you know who killed me?' is significant in that it is both a reminder to him to discern the truth and a clue to his own state of mind, that his vindication possibly resides in tracking the killer down, in knowing who killed her. This is exemplary of what connects him to his daughter, the death of whom he places at the hands of God or simply a cruel, inchoate reality. However much he might deny it through his vague, heart-rending suppositions about the total lack of meaning in the universe, Cohle is driven by the death of his daughter, who represents a part of himself that he is struggling violently to reintegrate into his psyche. That explains the passion of his hunt for the killers, and the lives saved thereby, and that is what throws his entire life-negating philosophy into open contradiction. He unconsciously feels a latent love, but his experiences and his own genius steer him clear of recognizing it in favour of a warped cynicism that redirects that love into a disingenuous, bewildered hatred.
This contradiction reveals itself in other ways, namely in Rust's attempts to help Marty with his infidelity. In Episode Three, for example, knowing that Marty is having an affair, Rust visits his wife and cuts their grass. In doing this, Marty's position as patriarch is undermined, and he can catch a glimpse of what he has to lose. Rust wittingly shows Marty what he has taken for granted in the hope that he sees the faulty choices he has made. Marty is angered by this, of course, and yet does not realize the deeper meaning of what Rust is trying to say. This subtle piece of compassion for his partner is surprising, but it would not make any sense at all if Rust were not inwardly motivated by something more than what he lets us on to, something more than his esoteric, despondent, drawling nihilism allows for.
Now, to return to our original thesis, what makes True Detective special is that, to an extent, its characters actually find what they are looking for. In other, lesser shows writers are often content to leave the 'heroes' as they were, still struggling with inner conflict, claiming in their defense (not without reason, mind) that the human condition is something naturally conflicted, that it is more honest to leave characters in a state of crisis or some mild form of self-appeasement. In True Detective, on the other hand, that search to be at peace with the world and with oneself is actually satisfied. There is a genuine resolution that not only flies in the face of current trends in the medium of film, but in the context of the series itself; the heavy, oppressive atmosphere, the persistence of moral weakness in the protagonists, the terrible scale of evil manifest in the antagonists, and the truly disheartening weltanschauung expressed by Rust Cohle all prepare the viewer for an inevitable victory for the darkness. Was there anyone watching who expected both Rust and Marty to survive the final skirmish with Childress in 'Carcosa'? The fact that they did serves the purpose of the show far more than if they did not - death might offer a dramatic denouement and a heightened confession of pathos that profoundly touches the audience, but in this case it would be a convenience, an escape for the writers in that they would not have to resolve these two elaborate, sympathetic, and patently real characters that they have been patiently, lovingly constructing this whole time.
So they had to survive, and this survival was twofold: one in the literal sense, that they did not die in fighting Childress, and secondly in the personal sense, that they survived the two main existential crises of their storylines. First we see Marty recovering in the hospital, surrounded by his ex-wife and his two daughters. He dissolves into tears in their company, stirred into a frenetic activity of the heart as he approaches what he has been searching for, namely that intimacy between himself and those whom he loves. This is also how he is finally able to see himself as a 'good man', in his strength as the family leader. There is a recurring question for Marty, one which he directly asks Rust: 'Do you ever wonder if you're a bad man?' Marty struggles with seeing himself as a good person, which is what he yearns to be; his wife tells him multiple times that he was a better man when he married her, and this helps provoke his infidelity. The second mistress, Beth, says to him in Episode 6, 'You're a good man; anyone can see that'. She seduces Marty not so much through her body, but through her validation of Marty as a person, as 'a good man'. That he is left wanting after the fact is evident both through his body language and the focus on a couple ornaments in her room, an angel and a demon, with the latter being the prominent figure. Now, whether Maggie actually reunites with her husband as with the time they took down the Ledoux cousins, is left unknown, and is more or less insignificant anyway. The point is clear: he sees his wife and his daughters, whom he has loved and created, and can finally see himself as a good man. He has destroyed another pillar of evil in Errol Childress, he has made a family, and he sees enough in that to vindicate his place in the world. His connection to the reality he wants to live in is reëstablished.
It is fitting that the finest, most endearing lines of the series are reserved for the final conversation. After all the philosophical bleakness and haughty condemnations of various ideas that the common man values, it is absolutely natural that this is all reversed in a new, precious insight that is paradoxically as unlike the Cohle we know as it is like him. Marty brings up when Rust told him about how he looked up at the stars as a boy, and made up stories, but Rust presently says, 'There is only one story: Light versus Dark'. If that is true of this story, the two detectives can only be representatives of the Light; they can only be good guys. This is the moment of the show that defines the show, brings everything into focus, and reveals to us finally that it was all along Good Versus Evil. The evil is obviously apparent in the varying villains that are overthrown, but the evil in themselves is just as manifest, and arguably just as repulsive in a more intimate sense as the serial murderers are in the most basic sense. Both characters had to defeat the darkness inside of them at the same time as defeating the darkness walking the world, which acted to symbolize in an ugly, horrifying way the depths of depravity present in us as a species, as individuals. The terrors are real and universal and fully capable of subverting our human authority, even to the point of driving us to hopelessness; and yet, as Rust says, 'Once there was only dark [in the sky]; if you ask me the light's winning'. This is a radical change from when he advocated the idea of eternal recurrence, in which nothing we do matters because it all happens ad infinitum. Now there is a linear creation, a cosmic warfare between principalities that we directly participate in; now there is beauty, and a purpose to our actions. Now there is light where once there was none, and now there is love where once there was none.
In summary, then, True Detective was wildly fascinating from the start. The smoldering intensity of Rust's convictions, the struggle against the disintegration of Marty's family life, the sudden changes in pace between meditative reflection and resplendent acts of violence, the organic, frightening atmosphere that purposefully pervades the entire story were all sufficient in captivating my attention to what I thought was a real good show; but what captivated my deeper interest and what makes it a truly exceptional show was only conveyed in the final episode, when the myriad of personal problems are finally solved in a way that makes them seem so much more real, so much more humanely gratifying than you often find in the cultural vacuum of modern art. Beneath the depressive, heartless atmosphere and the stench of Babylon and human weakness, there is a delightfully subtle narrative that opposes the darkness with a quiet light, that brings the chaos into context. Prior to the final scene, there were only two guys riddled with crises, overcome by chaos, inspiring not confidence in humanity but contempt; but after the final scene there was sublime catharsis and a supremely articulate hope. For there really is only one story, and it is the one that we all live within ourselves and in the world: it is Light Versus Dark, Good Versus Evil, and the greatest hope inheres in our faith that Good really does trump Evil, that the Light of eternity presides when even the blackest void has succumbed.