Review: True Detective Season One

The Spoiler Free Version:

Go watch True Detective.


The Spoiler Full Version:

Everything about this show is top notch, from the music to the cinematography to the acting, but I'm going to talk about the writing. Even with that narrow focus there is so much to talk about, but let's begin with the true heart of the show: Rust and Marty. These two are the greatest incarnation of the Holmes and Watson archetype in a very, very long time. I say Holmes and Watson, but of course in creating them Doyle pulled from Poe's Dupin and Narrator. And if we go back further than that, much further, we can more properly call it the Gilgamesh and Enkidu archetype. In that story, the oldest of all stories, we are given the most transparent view of the essence of that relationship. Enkidu, or Watson or Marty, is of the natural world. He is simple, direct, and lustful, enamored of the simple pleasures of life. He serves to balance Gilgamesh and connect him to the rest of the world. Gilgamesh without Enkidu is selfish and cruel, the embodiment of the Chinese proverb "A great man is a public misfortune." But, with Enkidu at his side Gilgamesh is able to see the folly of his ways and work for the betterment of society. He becomes a great man on the side of the common man. He becomes a hero, and together the two are able to defeat the true monsters of the world. 

In many ways Enkidu, or Marty or Watson, is the real hero of these stories. The one who doesn't need a friend to keep their ego in check. The one naturally on the side of the people. But, Enkidu alone is not a story, for without Gilgamesh he is complacent. So much a part of the world that he doesn't try to change it. We need Gilgamesh, the outsider who struggles for what he is outside of, to have the story. Which brings us to Rust. Rust who positions himself as the ultimate outsider to normal society by maintaining that life is a mistake. That people should "Stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction - one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal" as he says, seemingly pulling from Zapffe's Last Messiah.

I haven't looked into it yet, but I have no doubt Rust, or at least his monologues, has found himself a devoted fanbase of the same sort who celebrate Fight Club as a ringing endorsement of violent revolution and anarchy rather than the critique of hero worship and obedience that it is. While his monologues are fascinating, to celebrate them misses the true heart of the character. Because despite all his monologues Rust continues to fight for the lives he claims are meaningless. He devotes himself to stopping mothers who smother their children and others who take his purported philosophy to its farthest extreme. Why does he do this? He himself is not able to explain it for most of the series. It's only after he truly confronts the extreme of his philosophy, the man who calls him "Little Priest" and recognizes, somehow, a fellow acolyte of death. Only after he confronts this man and the swirling vortex of nothingness at the heart of this philosophy, only after he undergoes his near death experience, his crucifixion, his eighth-circuit awakening, the apotheosis of his twenty year long dark night of the soul is he able to see the truth. That despite the overwhelming presence of darkness in this world, despite the pain all us sentient meat are subjected to in a world we didn't agree to be born into, the light that makes it worthwhile is still there, and as long as we continue to scratch away at the dark it is winning.
This is why the bulk of True Detective is so overwhelmingly grim. Why it never flinches away from plunging us into the darkest aspects of human nature. It was not for the sake of shock value as many other shows that claim to be 'dark' for the sake of ratings. It's because it has to show us that night so dark it seems total, it has to show us the baby in the microwave, to bring us to the same place as Rust and understand him, in order that we may be shown that darkness is not all there is. That there is light, and by understanding the darkness, understanding the worst in humanity, we are better equipped to fight for it.

That's some damn good writing.

Of course, it's not a perfect show. I doubt such a thing can even exist, and there are plenty of nits I feel the compulsion to pick. The penultimate episode, After You've Gone, was a bit of a drag all around. While hearing Carcossa rants from psychos and tweakers and LSD inspired diary entries is chilling, in After You've Gone we get to hear the same babble from a nice old lady who, though later accused of having dementia, is never shown to us as being anything but mentally sound. The results make Carcossa sound like the weird fiction it's pulled from rather than foreboding presence it is for the rest of the series, and gave the series it's only moment of bathos. Finally, in the last episode, while Rust was thematically heading for a crucifixion from the moment he brings up his habit of 'contemplating the moment in the garden,' I'm not sure it had to be quite so on the nose as being stabbed in the side, descending into a three day, near death coma, and coming out the other side with hair more messianic than ever. 

Though, perhaps Rust's near death journey has a closer parallel in Odin, who hung himself from the World Tree and pierced his side so that he might go through near death and gain wisdom. Further echoed by Rust's left eye being wounded to the point of appearing lost when he first wakes in the hospital, mirroring Odin's other trial of giving up an eye for yet more wisdom. Of course, for this argument one would have to ignore the preponderance of Christian imagery in the show and its total lack of Norse symbolism. So why do I bring it up? Because maybe the reason these comparisons can be made so easily is what Rust tells us at the end. It's just one story. The story of light versus darkness. The light of the love extolled by Christ, of the wisdom prized by Odin, of the justice of a society that punishes those who hurt the weak, versus the darkness of violence, of cruelty, of ignorance and blind obedience, the 'chain of command' that the sheriff falls back on to avoid the guilt of allowing children to be taken by the dark. The darkness that comes when people give themselves wholly to the direction of another human being, believing them to be perfect, placing them above suspicion. Because no one is perfect. We all have our dark sides and the only way they can be truly kept in check is for all of us to be equal.

That brings us to True Detectives stance on religion. Something to note is that this show is so well crafted that even the most fundamentalist, hard line Christians could, in theory, enjoy it as a tale of devil worshipers brought to justice. When really the deeper message of the story is that Christianity, at least that of the Tuttle brand with its dogma of blind obedience and faith, is not so far removed from the most ancient, predatory forms of belief. That, in Rust's words, they all amount to "one monkey looked at the sun and told the other monkey, 'He said for you to give me your fucking share.'" It doesn't matter whether it's done in the name of the Sun, or God, or the Yellow King, that kind of system will always be a doorway for the most evil among us to gain power over the rest. 

However, one shouldn't mistake this withering critique of organized religion or Rust's frequent monologues as a condemnation of religion entire. Indeed, one of the most surprising, sympathetic, perhaps overlooked characters the show gives us is the revivalist minister Joel Theriot. When first encountered he seems suspicious if not outright sinister, it's only later that we learn his whole story. That he left Tuttle's organization after his attempts to reveal pedophilia among its leaders ended with being framed for embezzlement, that over the years he's given up on preaching because he's found that nearness to God can only be found in silence. In fact, if Rust hadn't been so busy criticizing his congregation he may have recognized much of the ministers sermon (the text of which was graciously made the top comment of that video). The core of this sermon, the ideas Theriot is wrestling, how we are both simultaneously a part of nature and apart from nature, that we are prisoners of our senses and corporeality, are the exact same ideas that Rust wrestles with for the whole of the show. And the answer Theriot tries to tell him, if only Rust had had ears to hear, is the same Rust finds in the end. Theriot may call it God while Rust calls it the universe, but the essence is realizing our oneness with it and with each other. 

4 responses
Fantastic analysis, I think you really hit the nail on the head as to the thematic elements of the show. I love your insight on the revivalist minister as well as Rust's emotional journey. Although some people might have disliked Rust's "awakening" at the end of the show (a friend of mine was upset because semi-optimistic Rust was "no longer cool"), I agree with you that it completed a character arc for him. It's a personal opinion thing, in the end, and I'm glad that you managed to put into words what I liked about his journey.
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