By Chris Towles
HBO’s critically acclaimed crime drama series “True Detective” is a riveting show that supplements the already-macabre story content with an unsettlingly dark philosophical view of people and the world in general, provided to the viewer in the form of Matthew McConaughey’s character, the introspective and cynical Detective Rustin “Rust” Cohle. The first season of this series follows Cohle, and his partner Martin “Marty” Hart, as they investigate and chase a serial killer over the course of 17 years. Over this course of time, the viewer is subjected to the nihilistic musings of Detective Cohle, who quite simply possesses the bleakest view of the world possible at the outset of the investigation. The philosophy that Rust tends to dispense encompasses subjects ranging from mortality and religion to family and relationships, and he has a dismal view on all of these subjects. For the large majority of the show, Cohle has nothing encouraging to say about anything – until the finale of the first season. This season is viewed on a split timeline, during the years of 1995-2002, when the initial investigation into the serial killer was happening, and in 2012, when Cohle and Hart (now since retired) are interviewed by two detectives who have caught a murder case in which the victim was found in the same manner as Hart and Cohle’s first victim. Over the course of this 17-year long investigation, Cohle’s philosophy makes some abrupt changes.
As detectives, both Cohle and Hart have undoubtedly seen their fair share of gruesome crime scenes over the course of their careers. However, the killer whom Cohle and Hart are chasing is something of a different breed. Over the course of the first season, it is made evident to Hart and Cohle that their killer rapes and tortures his victims before he kills them, more than likely as a part of a sick cult, rather than acting as an individual. These victims are staged after the ritualistic killings, with their hands and feet bound behind them, and a crown of antlers tied to their head. In the pilot episode, after the two detectives, who have not been partners for more than three months, leave a crime scene that matches this description and spurs their investigation, we are quickly introduced to Cohle’s dark narrative and attitude that persists throughout the series. When riding in their cruiser away from the scene, Hart tries to pick Cohle’s brain about the gruesome killing that they just left, and winds up getting a hefty dose of Cohle’s worldview:
In a later scene in the pilot episode, Hart tries to appeal to Cohle’s nihilistic views using religion – but to no avail. While chasing down leads on their killer at a local Evangelical Revivalist Church tent, Hart argues with Cohle that the world would be an invariably darker place without religion – a world fraught with murder and lawlessness. Cohle waylays this point of view quite succinctly, in one simple sentence: “If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of a divine reward, then brother, that person is a piece of shit, and I’d like to get as many of them out in the open as possible.” Cohle stops short of ever explicitly stating that he is an atheist in this scene, but the implication is there, plain and bleak for the world to see.
While Cohle’s point of view on life, the universe, and everything, is incredibly depressing and cynical, we learn through the series that he thinks this way for a reason. Cohle was once happily married, and had a daughter with his wife. Tragically for the two of them, their daughter died in a car accident when she was only three, and their marriage did not survive the subsequent fallout. After this happens, Cohle is forced to take a position as an undercover narcotics detective as a result of an altercation where Rust kills a meth addict instead of arresting him. Cohle maintains this position for four years, twice as long as is normal for an undercover narcotics detective, and suffers flashbacks from his heavy drug usage during that time. And yet, even as this show begins to get a viewer to start to feel for Cohle, and even empathize with his point of view (to a certain degree), Rust speaks in a manner that continues to pile on more of the heavy introspection and emotion that is characteristic of the show, while talking with the detectives interviewing him in 2012, after the investigation.
“…To yank a soul out of nonexistence and into this… meat.” It can’t get much more depressing than this. Cohle states almost blatantly in this soliloquy that nonexistence is better than attempting to exist in the world in its’ current state. That it would be better to have never been born, than to try to navigate existence, alone.
But even Rustin Cohle has the propensity for change, apparently. At the finale of the first season, Cohle and Hart come out of retirement and team up to catch the killer who managed to convince them that the blame for the killings laid elsewhere, so many years ago. The intrepid duo tracks the real killer down to an address, and they journey to the property for a final confrontation with the killer. After a gory and significant struggle with their adversary, Cohle shoots the killer to save Hart’s life, and the two make it to the hospital to recover from their battle. However, Rust had sustained much more significant injuries than Hart during the struggle, and is in a coma after he comes out of surgery. Both make a full recovery, however, and the most significant scene of the series comes as Hart is being discharged from the hospital, talking with Cohle at the entrance.
In this monologue, Rustin Cohle essentially renounces every single piece of nihilistic philosophy that he has been spewing for 17 years, since the start of the investigation. He acknowledges a feeling of self, a feeling of his soul, and a feeling of the souls of his daughter and father. Everything that Rust has renounced at this point – a feeling of self, religion, the futility of being a parent, and the futility of being hopeful – Rust takes these things back into his life. The man is reduced to tears, sobbing almost uncontrollably, while recounting an experience that turned his belief system completely upside down. In this moment of clarity, Cohle reduces all of the convoluted, intellectual-sounding yet incredibly depressing sentiments that he has espoused throughout the season to a single simple conflict: “Light versus Dark.” In a moment of extreme reversal, Hart remarks to Cohle, while looking up at the night sky, that it would appear the dark is winning. Cohle responds with wisdom, finally completing the 360-degree turn that he has managed to pull himself into at this point in the series. “Well, once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.” And with this simple scene, the entire feel of the series is changed a bit. The murders and the investigations are revealed to us as nothing but background for Cohle’s transformation from jaded and cynical to hopeful, and looking forward.