Friday, July 4, 2014

True Detective

"Touch darkness and darkness touches you back."

"Matthew Coniglio's Georgia home held a trove of child pornography, more than 50,000 images and videos stored on laptops, external hard drives and thumb drives. Among the stash, hidden in a bedside table turned around to conceal the doors, authorities made an even more horrifying discovery: 56 8-millimeter cassette tapes they say show him raping and molesting girls. All were unconscious, apparently drugged, FBI Special Agent William Kirkconnell, who viewed the tapes, told The Associated Press. Some were so incapacitated they were snoring. The camera was always turned off before they awoke."   -The NY Daily News
I read this story in my local paper two days after I finished watching Season One of True Detective. If you've seen the show, this news story probably sounds eerily familiar. There are monsters among us. It's not a pleasant thought. If you are looking for a fictional story to help you come to grips with that kind of horror in the world around us, True Detective will do just that.

Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Eric "Marty" Hart (Woody Harrelson) are assigned to investigate a horrific murder. They discover it is just one soul-searing link in a chain of evil formed by dozens of victims, many of whom are very young. Unfortunately, even those whose cause is just cannot escape the stain of that kind of sin. They must subject themselves to the hell of seeing and documenting horrors that should never see the light of day.There is a price to be paid for even knowing about this kind of corruption. No matter what Rust and Marty were when they first became detectives, they are both damaged goods now.

Cohle is a nihilistic, brooding, pessimistic atheist who thinks nothing matters, consciousness was an evolutionary mistake, evolutionary urges explain Marty's affairs (a perspective which failed to comfort Marty's wife), and people all secretly long to die. Perhaps that's why he spends quite a bit of his life doing his best to drink himself into an early grave. Why he has decided to hunt down criminals with a passion bordering on mania is not entirely clear, considering that his worldview offers little to help him even have the vocabulary to discuss good, evil, choice, justice, and goodness. 

Marty is a smug, duplicitous, outwardly religious detective who manages to justify a multitude of sins. He has affairs so he doesn't take the job home ("In the end, it's good for the family"). He beats his daughter's dates mercilessly and executes criminals because, well, he was really angry. He treats women (even his own wife) as objects, men as tools, and life as a game. Everybody around him pays the price. When his daughter begins to live like the women he has bedded, he rages at her and insults her, not even pausing to realize she is becoming the kind of woman who attracts men like him.

I've heard it said that the reason we can portray evil with such depth and nuance is that we understand it. We don't know how to portray goodness with the same clarity because we don't understand it. We know what it's like to give in to the worst angels of our nature; the better angels seem to hover just off our shoulder. True Detective understands evil both horrific and ordinary. What True Detective fails to provide is an equally compelling look at the goodness needed to counter it.

Cohle and Marty both have moments of clarity in the last episode: Cohle finally finds the connection to the human race he has been looking for ever since he read a verse in Corinthians that "the body is made up of many parts." Marty finally drops the mask of "Everything's okay - I can handle it" and breaks down weeping in front of his family. It was a hopeful ending to an otherwise bleak show. Perhaps Cohle will stop drinking himself into oblivion and Marty will actually begin to treat his wife and kids like people who matter.

I can appreciate that. I'm just not convinced that the show wants us to see this as anything other than lies we tell ourselves to pretend life is good and meaningful. Cohle would say these things are just tricks an accidental consciousness plays on sentient animals. He claims that religion is "stories that violate every law of the universe just to get through the goddamn day." How is Cohle's epiphany any different? The semi-happy ending felt out of place in to a story that provided very little reason to believe that genuine hope is an option at all.

True Detective offers the best and worst of a TV series. Let's do the best first.

McConaughey and Harrelson are brilliant in their roles. There characters are morally vacuous, but the show does not shy away from letting us see them at their worst. I don't know how other viewers processed the show, but I saw this as a sobering look at the price of evil. The actual crime felt like the background - it's the drama of Cohle and Marty that carries the show. Something inside each of them is terribly damaged, yet I found myself hoping, episode after episode, that they would turn around. When Marty finally dissolves into tears in the last episode as the weight of what he has seen shatters his bravado, that felt right. He is a man whose life could change if  he learned to tell the truth.

On the other hand, HBO in not AMC. AMC raised the bar on basic cable with The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad. They managed to tell grim stories within the confines of what I assume to be the equivalent of a PG-13 rating. HBO is not constrained in the same way. I can understand the relentlessly crude language (which is not the same as saying I think it was necessary) but the nudity and/or sex just didn't need to be there. We get it - Marty is sleeping around, and he meets every other person in a strip club. He's a jerk. At some point, a show about the bad men who exploit and use women becomes a show that exploits and uses women.

As the final episode ends, Marty claims that though the universe is full of darkness, the light is winning. It was a great line. I too believe that darkness will be defeated in the end;  I just don't see how True Detective provides any reason for me to think that's true. It seems to me that true detectives would be as passionate about dealing with the source of the evil within them as they are about stopping the evil around them. But perhaps that is for Season Two.


  1. Thanks for this insightful look, as always! I really appreciated this line in particular: "At some point, a show about the bad men who exploit and use women becomes a show that exploits and uses women." That's a bit how I felt about Game of Thrones from the same network.

  2. Agreed. I've read the books, but I bailed on the show after Season One. It was too much...

  3. I surely -- REALLY surely -- loved Season 1 and recommend it unreservedly. That includes both the violence and the language that tend to make me twitch, though others seem not to be affected. Look. Just view it. I suspect you'll like it enough to collect it. This is not my genre, exactly, but it is SO good!

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