Scooping up HBO’s True Detective (episodes 3 and 4), I’m struck by the discrepancies between Matthew McConaughey’s Rusty Cohle and Woody Harrelson’s Martin Hart, both detectives in the dirty Louisiana bayou but every different. Sure, they’re linked by the two-part display of their murder investigation, in 1995 and 2012, of a serial killer, but their characterization by Nic Pizollatto is exquisitely different. One represents a fake, skin-deep faith in religion, marriage, and the law; one doubts everything, but is willing to make a full disclosure of that fact.
I’m still not sure who is on the up-and-up, and knowing that the next season (there is almost assuredly a season two) involves a completely new cast, we don’t have predisposed ideas of who is on the side of the angels. Frankly, we have reason to doubt both of these guys! But consider what we know so far.
Hart is married to Michelle Monaghan’s Maggie but he’s having an affair with a younger woman on the side. He’s still exploring the case of the dead, ritualistically murdered women as if it’s all straightforward. He says that belief is what keeps us all from going off the rails and letting us see what good is in the world, but he doesn’t actually act like a person who has embraced faith at all.
Cohle is different. So much different. He’s struggling with drug-induced trances, not sure what’s a powerful vision of his subconscious and what’s just a fantasy. He says religion is manmade, a control valve, and that there’s nothing beyond life itself, that death is just a release. He knows that the law isn’t really interested in going as far as it needs to get to the bottom of these murders, and so he takes matters by the fourth episode, into his own hands. And marriage? Well, we can see some signs of his value there brewing, but nothing completely provable yet.
While True Detective pushes the envelope sometimes, it’s not just a grimy criminal procedural with splashes of Mickey Spillane; it’s actually a thought-provoking exploration of what it means to be real, to be authentic, and to experience life as it really is. What is true? What makes sense? What defines us? True Detective is exploring these questions, and proposing that there are no easy answers.