The true meaning of True Detective
Television critics, journalists, bloggers, and avid fans of HBO’s popular and celebrated “True Detective” series are trying to figure out what the show was really all about. Prior to last week’s series finale many of the show’s fans engaged in wild speculation and outlandish theories (even leading to some nasty arguments in the blogosphere) about who was behind the killings. Part of the enjoyment of “who done it” detective stories is to think along with the actors and try to solve the mystery yourself prior the big reveal and denouement.
“True Detective” followed a duo of Louisiana State Police Criminal Investigations Division homicide detectives as they desperately tried to solve a particularly gruesome and sadistic murder. Early indications are that it’s the work of a serial killer, but as they delve deeper into the case it appears this may be the work of larger cult with membership ties to some of the most powerful political forces in the state of Louisiana. There are allusions to widespread corruption, obstruction of justice, abuse of power and ruthless victimization of the poor by the elite and politically connected.
For the most part, this is all pretty standard fare, even somewhat cliched by today’s standards. Viewers were no doubt attracted to the masterful performances by high-profile “movie actors” Woody Harrleson and Matthew McConaughey; the beautiful and somewhat artful cinematography; and the plot’s unique telling of the story through flashbacks as detectives (now former detectives) are interviewed about the case by contemporary detectives apparently working through a cold case file.
This creates a dynamic in which viewers have to piece together what really happened between what Harrelson (as Detective Marty Hart) and McConaughey (as Detective Rust Cohle) tell their interrogators. This back and forth interview, then flashback technique makes the show more interesting yet also harder to understand. It’s obvious early on that Hart and Cohle are not telling everything they know which leads some to believe that either or both of them may somehow be mixed up in the conspiracy.
Yet the final episode played out fairly perfunctory; an obscure clue led them straight to the house of killer Errol Childress, and after a struggle nearly costing Hart and Cohle their lives, the killer was fatally subdued. There was no surprise reveal or profound unveiling of what it all meant (despite oblique references throughout the show to Caracosa, a fictional city named in an Ambrose Bierce short story and later used more extensively in a collection of horror stories entitled “The King in Yellow” by Robert Chambers). There was an expectation that this widespread conspiracy (and all its conspirators) would be uncovered and all those loose strands would be pulled together all nice and tight.
Instead, Hart and Cohle pontificated about how messed up the world is and expressed regret (Cohle in partiular) at how most of the bad guys got away. The end.
Without profound commentary on the meaning of life and mysteries of the universe, this led some to believe screenwriter Nick Pizzolatto wrote what was essentially a glorfied buddy cop movie: Cohle and Hart are an updated Crockett and Tubbs or Riggs and Murtagh – how disappointing. But that’s not the case.
The meaning of “True Detective” was starring us in the face all along and tipped in its title. The show wasn’t called True Detectives but True Detective – singular. And that true detective was Ruston Cohle played by McConaughey. Pizzolatto essentially made a contemporary film noir – the style of a mid-century crime thriller characterized by whisky-swilling antiheroes, femmes fatales, and most importantly, a bleak perspective on the nature of man and society. Society is corrupt, we never know the powers that be pulling the strings to manipulate the game (whatever that game may be) for their own benefit, all the while maintaining an appearance of virtue.
It’s important to know that before writing this screenplay Pizzolatto taught fiction and literature at UNC Chapel Hill and penned a critically acclaimed novel entitled “Galveston;” itself a modern noir. Obviously Pizzolatto is familiar with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, arguably the two greatest practitioners of the noir style. Clearly, the clues to the meaning of “True Detective” lies not in the “King In Yellow” but in “Galveston” which deftly described the down and out residing in the hard-boiled landscapes of east Texas and southern Louisiana, not the supernatural.
In 1950, Chandler wrote about the difference between a standard detective story and noir (which he referred to as “Black Mask type” stories) in the introduction to a collection of short stories entitled “Trouble Is My Business”:
“The emotional basis of the standard detective story was and had always been that murder will out and justice will be done. Its technical basis was the relative insignificance of everything except the final denouement. What led up to that was more or less passage work. The denouement would justify everything. The technical basis of the Black Mask type of story on the other hand was that the scene outranked the plot, in the sense that a good plot was one which made good scenes. The ideal mystery was one you would read if the end was missing.”
Essentially, the end is missing to True Detective, because the end wasn’t the point; it was the story, the elucidation of character, not necessarily explaining with tidy neatness how a particular caper was solved. And the elucidation of a society where murders can be committed for so long without truly being solved and therefore, a society without any sense of absolute or true justice (and hence it’s not called “True Justice” either).
Writing in the Atlantic in 1994, Raymond Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art of Murder” clearly explains the “realist” detective story (which we now call noir) versus the classic or standard detective story (think Sherlock Holmes).
“The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the fingerman for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of moneymaking, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practising; a world where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge.
“It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it. It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization. All this still is not quite enough.
“In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.”
As the Coen Brothers famously spoofed the noir detectives of Hamett and particularly Chandler in the opening to “The Big Lebowski”, with Sam Elliott describing this iconic character, “sometimes there’s a man . . .”, all the noir writers had a fairly clear idea that for society to have a chance there must be a hero – a true detective – one who perseveres through sheer will of determination, guts, and craft. That my friends is what “True Detective” was about; an incorruptible hero in the midst of a corrupt society. Rust Cohle was the iconic true detective, period.
Though Cohle wasn’t perfect, and the mid-century noir detectives always had their murky backstories and were certainly not choir boys, they lived by their own code and sense of honor and decency; a standard by which the larger society fell woefully short. As for the buddy cop theory; the character of Marty Hart was not Cohle’s buddy. His purpose served to show a clear dichotomy between the true detective and the hack detective; between the clear-headed Cohle and the hypocrisy of “family man” Hart; between who we believe ourselves to be and who we really are.