Delving deep into the psychology, theology, and philosophy of a unique Southern Gothic serial
Words by Edward Weech
Comprising eight, hour-long episodes, the first season of American police drama True Detective (2014) masterfully blends ingredients from cinema and television. Writer Nic Pizzolatto was a university lecturer in English literature before he turned to screenwriting full-time, and his integration of literary and philosophical themes lends True Detective’s script rare depth and texture. This erudition is overlaid onto a simple plot, which avoids the over-complication that marred the (narratively unrelated) second season, while the serial structure allowed sufficient time for the deliberate pacing demanded by its gripping tale, which unfolds across two decades. Moreover, the decision to make a standalone, one-season story meant production company HBO could commit two actors of exceptional stature. True Detective’s stars, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, were at the peak of fame, and McConaughey’s mesmerising performance as Detective Rustin Cohle came at the height of the “McConaissance”—his reinvention as a 'serious' dramatic actor after years of romantic comedies. With his Texas drawl and darkly poetic diction, Cohle might have wandered out of the pages of a Cormac McCarthy novel; and McConaughey’s iconic performance was key to the season’s success.
Set in the southern United States, amid the swamps and bayou of Louisiana, True Detective begins in 1995 with Martin Hart (Harrelson) and Rustin Cohle (McConaughey) investigating a murder. The naked body of a young woman, Dora Lange, has been found in a field, beneath an ancient tree, posed in a position of reverence, and wearing a crown of antlers. The bizarre theatre transforms a frightful scene into something truly disturbing. The detectives are faced with the task of apprehending evil, in both a literal and a metaphorical sense: for in order to solve the murder, Cohle and Hart must first understand the nature of the crime. In a manner reminiscent of Will Graham (William Petersen) in the Michael Mann classic Manhunter (1986), Cohle intuitively grasps that the murder is part of a wider “vision” and identifies the killer as a “meta-psychotic”: “It’s fantasy enactment. Ritual. Fetishisation, iconography.” The murder isn’t the result of impulse or blind rage, but the manifestation of a quasi-religious idea.
Cohle’s imaginative capacity to understand evil is a necessary condition for catching the killer, who he correctly infers has done this before, and will do so again. But Cohle’s intellectual openness and unsociable personality place him outside the circle of trust inhabited by most of True Detective’s Louisiana policemen. It falls to his partner, Hart, an experienced local detective, to defend Cohle’s theories to the higher-ups, and to make the case for the time and resources required. A more conventional, intellectually modest investigator than Cohle, Hart tends to resist his partner’s ambitious theorising, forcing Cohle to explain himself and remain grounded in the evidence. But to his credit, Hart is not so closed-minded as to dismiss Cohle’s intuitions, many of which — as in his instinctive summary of the crime scene — prove to be right. Hart’s rooted approach balances Cohle’s grand imagination, and their complementary qualities ultimately lead them to the killer.
The Louisiana countryside, often submerged under water or covered in thick vegetation, has a threatening and oppressive aspect, suggestive of dark secrets. You might expect monsters to have their lairs in such places — and they do.
True Detective’s story unfolds in flashback format, with the past events of 1995 interspersed with a “present-day” timeline set seventeen years later. The detectives’ hunt for clues brings them into remote and obscure locations that feel as if they have been left behind by the march of civilisation. The Louisiana countryside, often submerged under water or covered in thick vegetation, has a threatening and oppressive aspect, suggestive of dark secrets. You might expect monsters to have their lairs in such places — and they do. The wickedness Cohle and Hart discover has a deep connection to the land where it occurs, with macabre practices shaped by local folklore and ritual.
When Hart and Cohle begin their investigation, they are agents of the law with the weight of state authority behind them. But the state’s coercive bureaucracy proves to be morally ambivalent; and the police hierarchy do as much to hamper as they do to help the investigation. This is partly due to interference from local politicians, which, Cohle rightly deduces, happens because powerful people are connected to the murderer. Yet, explicit corruption is not the only thing that makes the police ineffective: bureaucratic inertia and moral cowardice are powerful factors too. Legal authority can be abused, as when Hart uses his status to facilitate his extra-marital philandering, warning off sexual competitors. And although legal theory identifies the pursuit of justice with the judicial system, our folk and popular traditions remind us that, somewhere along the line, the serving of justice depends upon individual courage. Moreover, natural justice may be unattainable within the confines of corrupt institutions. This social fact is memorably expressed at the end of Dirty Harry (1971), when Inspector Callahan (Clint Eastwood) throws away his police badge after shooting a serial killer set free by a system that prioritised his rights above those of his victims.
In True Detective, Hart and Cohle find most success when they are not operating as police officers. Their first big break comes when Hart discovers a connection between Dora Lange and Reggie Ledoux, an ex-convict who “cooks” crystal meth for the biker gang, Iron Crusaders. Cohle still knows people in the Iron Crusaders from his former career as an undercover agent, and hatches a plot for an off-the-books infiltration to get a lead on Ledoux. Cohle’s plan is illegal, and Hart is the only person in whom he can confide. So begins one of True Detective’s most extraordinary sequences, as Cohle resurrects “Crash”, his old undercover persona, and visits his former associates. In the dead of night, at their remote clubhouse in the swamps, Cohle is recruited by the bikers to assist with the armed robbery of black drug dealers in the middle of a housing project: a high-risk venture partly motivated by the bikers’ racial animus.
True Detective is far from a triumphalist parable about heroes slaying dragons, or the extirpation of evil in external reality. Its focus on the personal lives of its main characters allows meaningful insights into the nature of human sin, and the fact that, in the words of Oscar Wilde, “Each man kills the thing he loves”.
What follows is a modern katabasis: Cohle’s re-enactment of the mythical descent into the underworld. Everything happens at night, in the dark, with illumination provided by open flames. Cohle’s adopted persona, Crash, is effectively a dead man, and the men he encounters are associates from his former life. Using a fake persona and false name to keep his true identity concealed, his drink and drug-fuelled pallor turns his own face into a mask. Cohle is also high on a cocktail of alcohol, stimulants, and hallucinogens, which makes the events even more hypnotic. The Michael Mann-inspired direction and cinematography create disorientation, tension, and a suffocating sense of physical threat and impending doom. The predictable disaster of the drugs robbery provokes a riot, and Cohle is finally rescued by Hart, with one of the bikers in tow—the demonic Ginger.
Heroes in myths and legends often entered the underworld to attain hidden knowledge. By extracting Ginger, Cohle has recovered the secret information to locate Reggie Ledoux. This leads Cohle and Hart — still working without the knowledge of the police — to a concealed complex of buildings, guarded by minefields and improvised explosives, in the middle of the bayou. The events that follow anticipate those in 2012, when the two men, working as independent investigators without police support, finally locate the deranged serial killer, Erroll Childress (Glenn Fleshler). In order to confront the sophisticated, existential evil at work in True Detective, Cohle and Hart must free themselves of the constraints and procedural inelasticity of public bureaucracy. In doing so — by leaving its protective embrace — they place themselves at mortal risk.
But True Detective is far from a triumphalist parable about heroes slaying dragons, or the extirpation of evil in external reality. Its focus on the personal lives of its main characters allows meaningful insights into the nature of human sin, and the fact that, in the words of Oscar Wilde, “Each man kills the thing he loves”. This is painfully obvious in the case of the gregarious Martin Hart, whose “one of the guys” affability conceals a proclivity for aggression and self-destructive debauchery. When we meet Hart in 1995, he’s a popular and successful career policeman with a seemingly idyllic life, married to a doctor and with two young daughters. But he fails to find satisfaction in his domestic life and embarks on explosive affairs with much younger women, which eventually destroy his marriage. In later years, Hart comes to understand that the root of his problems ran deeper even than unfaithfulness: “See, infidelity is one kind of sin, but my true failure was inattention.” It’s suggested that, from a young age, Hart’s older daughter had a troubling fixation with sexual degradation, the destructive potential of which becomes obvious by the time she’s a teenager. Its precise relationship to Hart’s philandering is unclear: perhaps, at some level, his daughter was aware of what he was up to; or perhaps she simply inherited her father’s self-destructive tendencies. What is apparent is that Hart, alternately absorbed in his job and his illicit affairs, did not pay attention to the emotional needs of his family.
All humans are moral failures who become habituated to sin; but some fail more than others.
At his best, Hart is a charismatic man capable of compassion and bravery, but he is brought low by lascivious habits. Tortured by his inadequacies, he is rejected by his family and enters a sad and lonely middle age; though a proffered redemption is hinted at the end of the series. His trials stem from his own choices, and speak to a theme that stretches back at least as far as the Confessions of St Augustine (354-430 AD). Augustine transformed the Western understanding of the will, presenting man’s previous actions — not the material world — as the source for his corruption. Thus, sin comes from within:
In our present state, we do have the free power to do or not to do anything, before we are caught up in any habit. When we do have this freedom to do something, the sweetness and pleasure of the act holds our soul, and it is caught in the sort of habit it cannot break – a habit that is created for itself by its own act of sin.
According to this vision, which True Detective seems to bear out, all humans are moral failures who become habituated to sin; but some fail more than others.
At one point, Hart, wrestling with his conscience, asks Cohle, “Do you wonder ever if you're a bad man?” Cohle implies that he already knows himself to be a bad man but is consoled by the knowledge that the “World needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.” Cohle is right to point out that the capacity for violence and aggression is essential to “keep the other bad men from the door.” But his cynicism and disagreeable nature do not suffice to make him a bad man: the mere fact that Cohle feels an obligation to protect the weak and vulnerable gives the lie to his self-criticism. Being good is not the same as being harmless, and self-knowledge — understanding one’s own capacity for wrongdoing — is a prerequisite for those entrusted with keeping “bad men from the door.” From a psychological point of view, this “dark” side of the personality – the “Shadow” – is a key to personal development. The psychic significance of the Shadow was explained by Erich Neumann in his book, The Origins and History of Consciousness (1949):
Only by incorporating this dark side does the personality put itself into a posture of defence. Evil, no matter by what cultural canon it be judged, is a necessary constituent of individuality as its egoism, its readiness to defend itself or to attack, and lastly, as its capacity to mark itself off from the collective and to maintain its “otherness” in face of the levelling demands of the community. The shadow roots the personality in the subsoil of the unconscious, and this shadowy link with the archetype of the antagonist, ie, the devil, is in the deepest sense part of the creative abyss of every living personality.
It is dangerous for bad men to encounter Hart and Cohle. McConaughey’s wiry build belies Cohle’s surprising strength, which comes from training and technique, rather than mere size. His physique is unimposing, but there is something snakelike him; and he can strike like a snake, in the blink of an eye. Cohle has better self-control than the larger and more impetuous Hart, who is less discriminating and more hypocritical. Hart’s fury is generally provoked by the sexual aggression of men towards people he considers to be sacred, and his violence increases in proportion to their culpability. This results in Hart’s summary execution of Reggie Ledoux, a paedophile and child-murderer suspected of killing Dora Lange. Killing Ledoux is illegal, and it had the dire consequence of allowing Dora Lange’s real killer to remain at large. But, considering the crimes he committed, Cohle suggests it was not unjust. “Reggie Ledoux deserved to die, Marty. That was justice.”
Like the fuel that is a homonym for his own name, Cohle is the fossilised remains of organic life, compressed over time and subjected to extreme heat and pressure.
Compared to Hart, Cohle has exceptional discipline, a trait honed during years of undercover work infiltrating drug cartels and biker gangs in the southern United States. The crow tattoo on his forearm attests to this experience — a physical legacy of past events — and this past is the key to understanding his personality. The path that ended with high-risk undercover work began with the death of Cohle’s two-year-old daughter; his marriage failed soon after and, increasingly unstable, Cohle killed a drug addict who had murdered their own child. To avoid jail, he accepted an extremely dangerous assignment that lasted for four years.
These experiences molded the man we meet at the beginning of True Detective. Like the fuel that is a homonym for his own name, Cohle is the fossilised remains of organic life, compressed over time and subjected to extreme heat and pressure. Cohle is not without human appetites: he uses drugs; he is a chain smoker and a heavy drinker. But he pursues his habits in a calm, ritualistic, remorseless manner. Hart is more reckless, likely to abandon himself to desire or rage when either is stirred. The obvious phonetic associations of Hart’s name hint at the sway of his “heart” and emotions; while his “hot”-headed, impulsive demeanour contrasts with that of his “cold” partner. The heart’s desire is an essential part of the life-force, and love and desire can serve as a motivation for noble aspiration and self-improvement. But it is also true, as the Bible says, that “the heart is deceitful above all things”. The heedless, repetitive satisfaction of desire results in sin and addiction; and these are the flaws of Hart’s character.
Cohle’s name is also suggestive of the soul, the ineffable essence of a human being thought to partake of divinity and survive bodily death. He gives the impression of a man who has given up hope as well as passion; but, for all his pessimism, his professional commitment and sense of morality hint at an ennobling presence within him, whether stemming from God or a vestige of the spirit of society. Together, Hart and Cohle make an effective team, compensating each other’s weaknesses, in the manner of the human Heart and Soul. Just as the individual relies on wisdom and emotion, and intuition and reason, so too do Hart and Cohle work better when applying their complementary skills in unison.
Cohle’s interest in the psychology of Christ points to his abiding concern with the nature of consciousness and the futility of life; it also suggests a meditation on suicide.
Christianity is a recurring presence in True Detective, not only as a personal question for Hart and Cohle, but as a major part of Louisiana’s cultural backdrop. The remote, expansive geography, with its sparse population, is punctuated by isolated churches. But, amid the prevailing atmosphere of poverty and creeping desperation, religion also has disruptive and even sinister potential. More than once, Hart refers to the area’s penchant for religious extremism; while church burnings and animal mutilation evidence the nihilism that is prone to emerge in religion’s absence. And just as religion is woven into the fabric of social life, so too is race. Despite formal equality, the evidence of day-to-day life suggests that segregation remains more common than integration.
When he visits Cohle’s Spartan, ultra-masculine apartment, Hart observes that one of the few non-essential items is a crucifix placed above his mattress. Hart naturally assumes this indicates Christian faith, but Cohle corrects him: “That’s a form of meditation […] I contemplate the moment in the garden, the idea of allowing your own crucifixion.” Cohle’s interest in the psychology of Christ points to his abiding concern with the nature of consciousness and the futility of life; it also suggests a meditation on suicide. But for such an agile intellect, Cohle’s understanding of religion is sadly incomplete. His literalist approach is suggestive of the utilitarian outlook of Jeremy Bentham, which John Stuart Mill famously contrasted with the philosophical approach of the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
Bentham judged a proposition true or false as it accorded or not with the result of his own inquiries; and did not search very curiously into what might be meant by the proposition, when it obviously did not mean what he thought true. With Coleridge, on the contrary, the very fact that any doctrine had been believed by thoughtful men, and received by whole nations or generations of mankind was part of the problem to be solved, was one of the phenomena to be accounted for.
Cohle’s failure to understand the meaning of religion is laid bare when he and Hart visit an evangelical revival. The wild claims and extravagant tenor of the preacher, and the ecstatic reactions of the audience, elicit a predictably cynical and misanthropic response from Cohle. As Hart recalls seventeen years later, this was “old-time religion. You can imagine what Mr Charisma thought of that.” Cohle disparages the crowd, asking Hart to guess their average IQ. All Cohle sees, he says, is “obesity, poverty, a yen for fairy tales”; people handing their little money to con artists. Cohle is unable to accept that any of this has value: he can’t see beyond the Benthamite question – “Is it true?” – to the Coleridgean: “What does it mean?” In this matter Hart, although he lacks Cohle’s articulacy, sees more than him: perhaps because, for all his faults, his heart is more open towards his fellow man. Hart explains: “Not everybody wants to sit alone in an empty room beating off to murder manuals. Some folks enjoy community, a common good.” Presumably unknown to him, Hart has touched upon the understanding of religion advanced by the sociologist Emile Durkheim, and the principle of “collective effervescence” whereby a community comes together to participate in a shared ritual, which serves to unify the group and invigorate its collective spirit:
Thus religion acquires a meaning and a reasonableness that the most intransigent rationalist cannot misunderstand. [...] Before all, it is a system of ideas with which the individuals represent to themselves the society of which they are members, and the obscure but intimate relations which they have with it.
Moreover, Hart is under no illusions about the value of religion to the maintenance of public morality. He forces Cohle to make the unconvincing claim that, without religion, society would be little different from what it is already: that people would do the same bad things they do now, just out in the open. Hart rebukes him for this rare moment of intellectual dishonesty. “Bullshit. It’d be a fucking freak show of murder and debauchery, and you know it.”
Cohle’s dismissive attitude towards religion is part of his general philosophical pessimism. This forms perhaps the central theme of the series, with McConaughey’s magnetic delivery doing much to enliven his challenging monologues.
Cohle’s dismissive attitude towards religion is part of his general philosophical pessimism. This forms perhaps the central theme of the series, with McConaughey’s magnetic delivery doing much to enliven his challenging monologues. The leitmotif of these disquisitions is a deep ambivalence about the value of human consciousness. It is easily explicable, with reference to his painful past, why Cohle would come to such conclusions. He has been exposed to terrible suffering; while his time undercover meant he lived in the daily presence of evil for several years. These experiences led him to share the vision of the young William Wordsworth, of a world where:
Suffering is permanent, obscure and dark / And shares the nature of infinity.
An innate introvert with a tendency to shut himself off from human sympathy, Cohle’s exposure to relentless, unmitigated misery and hopelessness has turned him into a nihilist, and he tells Hart that “I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law.” This introduces a topic that was addressed most directly in the twentieth century by the psychologist Carl Jung, but which has confounded philosophers and mystics from different cultures for thousands of years. Jung observed, for example, that Gautama Buddha “saw and grasped the cosmogonic dignity of human consciousness; for that reason he saw clearly that if a man succeeded in extinguishing this light, the world would sink into nothingness.” Jung believed that the “great achievement” of the nineteenth century thinker Arthur Schopenhauer “lay in his also recognising this, or rediscovering it independently”. Jung’s description of Schopenhauer evokes comparison to Rustin Cohle:
He was the first to speak of the suffering of the world, which visibly and glaringly surrounds us, and of confusion, passion, evil [...] Here at last was a philosopher who had the courage to see that all was not for the best in the fundaments of the universe.
When we encounter Cohle in 1995, his scepticism about the value of human consciousness is incongruous with his personal practice and his calling as a police officer. But in 2012, ten years after resigning from the police force and having spent most of the next decade drunk, Cohle has decided to resolve this contradiction by committing suicide. Even so, the sense that the Dora Lange case was never truly solved has continued to bother him, and Cohle approaches Hart for help to finish the investigation. He feels a moral responsibility to finish the job, and the case represents his last connection to the world of consciousness and his last chance for redemption. Effecting a partial reconciliation, Cohle and Hart ultimately succeed in tracking down the real killer: and this helps Cohle overcome his scepticism and develop a more hopeful vision of life.
Erroll Childress, who styles himself as “The Yellow King”, is the central figure in a murderous cult around which he was woven a twisted mythos.
Before that can happen, however, Cohle and Hart have to reckon with True Detective’s antagonist. Erroll Childress, who styles himself as “The Yellow King”, is the central figure in a murderous cult around which he was woven a twisted mythos. The immediate source for his alter ego is Robert W. Chambers’s anthology The King in Yellow (1895), a collection of “weird tales” revolving around the malign influence of a fictional work that is roughly analogous to H.P. Lovecraft’s “Necronomicon”. Chambers described The King in Yellow as a book “in which the essence of purest poison lurked”:
‘It is a book of great truths,’ I said. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘of “truths” which send men frantic and blast their lives. I don’t care if the thing is, as they say, the very supreme essence of art. It’s a crime to have written it, and I for one shall never open its pages.’
The genre of “weird fiction” generally portrays macabre and Gothic events which, for all their repugnance, have continued to fascinate audiences across the ages. But the special quality of “weird fiction”, which distinguishes it from mere horror, is that the events depicted promise significance beyond their intrinsic frightfulness and their immediate relevance to the characters and plot. Lovecraft summarised the appeal of “weird fiction” as giving a “hint” of “that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.” This confusion of the laws of nature is the heart of the “weird tale”, which is why their protagonists so often lose their minds. True Detective is this kind of story, and Cohle, unravelling the conspiracy of silence that protected Erroll Childress, was forced to confront the possibility of his own madness: “I had my time where I wondered if this was all in my head. That time passed.”
The cult of the Yellow King evokes real traditions of witchcraft and black magic. Robert W. Chambers may have found the original imagery for The King in Yellow in the eleventh-century magical manuscript the Picatrix, which advocated its use as a talisman by which a king might overcome all other kings. A similar image appeared in the sixteenth-century De Occulta Philosophia of Cornelius Agrippa, as a representation of Sol, “a crowned king on a throne, a crow at his bosom, a globe under his feet, robed in yellow”. But, before the scientific revolution, astrological magic was common to almost every human culture, more or less benign forms being practised from the Renaissance and medieval Europe back into antiquity and beyond. And in the nineteenth century, one of the ways astrology came closest to attaining scientific respectability was through the theory of “animal magnetism”. This postulated the existence of an invisible, cosmic force that acted upon the human body, and which was sensitive to the movement of the stars. Schopenhauer himself believed in magic and, as Jason Josephson-Storm explains in The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences (2017), he held that experiments with animal magnetism “empirically confirm the possibility of a magical, as opposed to a physical effect”. Schopenhauer believed that the efficacy of magic was a function of the human will, and that:
In order to ridicule all occult sympathy or even magical effect out of hand, one must find the world highly, indeed absolutely, intelligible. But this can be done only if the world is looked into with an extremely superficial gaze that allows no notion of the fact that we are awash in a sea of riddles and mysteries and that we neither know nor understand either things or ourselves immediately and thoroughly.
Schopenhauer knew how “extremely superficial” our gaze can be. One of his earliest works, On Vision and Colours / Ueber das Sehn und die Farben (1810), addressed the fact that colour does not “exist” in objective reality: it is a function of sensory perception. Yet, while the information about colour is not literally true, it is still valuable for our decision-making processes. We rely on the limited information provided by our senses to apprehend reality: their potential to go awry, and the paucity and unreliability of human sense perception, are therefore suitable themes for “weird fiction”. If we think one of our senses is providing misleading data, it might make us doubt the reliability of sensory information more generally.
It is as if Cohle’s “hypersensitivity” triggers a sensory response to an unseen order operative within reality that can be known intuitively but not rationally.
Chambers comments on this subject at the beginning of his story, “The Yellow Sign”: “There are so many things which are impossible to explain! Why should certain chords in music make me think of the brown and golden tints of autumn foliage?” This peculiar phenomenon, whereby the senses cross-stimulate, is also introduced in True Detective in the form of Cohle’s synaesthesia. Cohle ascribes this “hypersensitivity” to “a misalignment of synaptic receptors and triggers”: “One sense triggers another sense. Sometimes I’ll see a colour and it’ll put a taste in my mouth. A touch, a texture, a scent may put a note in my head.” When Hart and Cohle arrive at the killer’s lair in the final episode, Cohle’s synaesthesia is triggered again: “That taste. Aluminium, ash. I’ve tasted it before.” This is a callback to the first episode, when Cohle noticed the same thing while leaving the scene where they found the body of Dora Lange. There is also a hint in episode two that Cohle has the ability to see hidden connections: he hallucinates a flock of birds which assume a “spiral” formation, mimicking the cult tattoo on Dora Lange’s back. This shape, which recurs across the season, has an uncanny resemblance to the “Fibonacci spiral”, a geometric pattern depending on a mathematical order that occurs across nature from the distribution of leaves on a stem to the formation of hurricanes and spiral galaxies. It is as if Cohle’s “hypersensitivity” triggers a sensory response to an unseen order operative within reality that can be known intuitively but not rationally.
Cohle’s climactic hallucination occurs in True Detective’s denouement, when, while chasing Childress, he reaches the centre of the chilling labyrinth dubbed “Carcosa.” Here, Cohle sees an inter-dimensional portal: perhaps a window into the plane that connects his strange insights. It's a fantastical scene which would not be out of place in a Lovecraft tale. But its immediate significance is that it distracts Cohle, who is seriously wounded and falls into a coma. The near-death experience that ensues, however, precipitates a new worldview that supplants his fatalism and is akin to a rebirth. After waking, Cohle describes to Hart that he had a “vague awareness in the dark”, beneath which he could feel something “deeper, warm […] like a substance.” There he felt the presence of the two beings he was closest to in life, his daughter and his father – both now deceased – and “It was like I was a part of everything that I ever loved.” Cohle’s communion with this basic unity at the centre of his being means that his physical recovery is complemented by a spiritual healing. And during his convalescence, Cohle has ample time to reflect on its significance. Looking out at the stars, night after night, and trying to make sense of what has happened, he arrives at the conclusion that “It’s just one story. The oldest […] Light versus dark.”
This suggests the contest between good and evil, or the cosmic interplay between order and chaos. But in the context of Cohle’s wider speculations, it is perhaps best understood as a comment on the significance of consciousness amid the darkness of being. Indeed, the title of True Detective’s last episode, “Form and Void”, hints at the centrality of human perception in conjuring form from nothingness. The phrase evokes the original act of creation at the beginning of the Book of Genesis:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
This is the state of the universe before God began the work of creation. It corresponds to the state of original darkness which enveloped the pre-human world, which Jung described as “the psychic primal night which is the same today as it has been for countless millions of years.” In episode five, Cohle correctly identifies this pre-conscious state as a kind of eternity, where nothing grows, becomes or changes: in the absence of the discriminating power of human consciousness, everything is part of a unitary existence. Cohle suggests bleakly that “death created time to grow the things that it would kill”, but a more hopeful vision would be that death and time are both, instead, consequences of the development of human consciousness. This process, identifiable with God’s creation of light on the first day, marked the beginning of time and, by separating man from the “psychic primal night” and creating the individual ego, also marked the creation of death.
Cohle’s near-death experience enables him to overcome his obsession with the negative aspects of human consciousness, and to see it for what it is: the light in the dark. His spiritual awakening provides a frame of meaning to come to terms with his painful past.
Cohle’s near-death experience enables him to overcome his obsession with the negative aspects of human consciousness, and to see it for what it is: the light in the dark. His spiritual awakening provides a frame of meaning to come to terms with his painful past. This epiphany is captured in the closing lines of the last episode, after Hart observes that the night sky is still dominated by darkness. Cohle replies: “Well, once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light’s winning.”
It is well-known that near-death experiences can have positive psychological consequences, even leading to lasting improvements in well-being. But one of the most extraordinary things about True Detective is that it goes quite a long way towards establishing a metaphysical basis for Cohle’s experience. In episode five, during his final monologue, Cohle alludes to the existence of an extra dimension while explaining the “M-Theory” of quantum physics:
It's like, in this universe, we process time linearly. Forward. But outside of our space-time, from what would be a fourth-dimensional perspective, time wouldn't exist. And from that vantage, could we attain it, we'd see our space-time would look flattened. Like a single sculpture of matter in a superposition of every place it ever occupied. Our sentience just cycling through our lives like carts on a track. See, everything outside our dimension, that's eternity. Eternity looking down on us. Now, to us, it's a sphere. But to them, it's a circle.
Nic Pizzolatto has explained that Cohle is referring to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of “eternal recurrence” — that existence recurs in an infinite cycle as energy and matter transform over time. This is an elegant metaphor for television or cinema: as we watch, True Detective’s characters repeat the same actions time and again in an endless cycle. (In light of the refrain that “Time is a flat circle”, we might also bear in mind that the entirety of True Detective can be contained on a set of flat discs.) As Pizzolatto points out, the audience watches Cohle from a dimension he can never reach. His three-dimensional world appears on our screens in two dimensions, and so what appears to him as a sphere is, to us, a circle.
Cohle’s hallucinations, which are all pregnant with meaning, can be understood as examples of synchronicity and acausal connection, as can the comatose reunion with his dead daughter and father.
The M-Theory to which Cohle alludes is part of “String Theory”. An attempt to reconcile gravity and quantum mechanics, it suggests the existence of a reality that cannot be detected by our senses and which is not controlled by time or space. Such a theory is highly appealing from the point of view of “weird fiction”, and might also be viewed with hope by those seeking to reconcile a scientific outlook with spiritual or religious intuitions. It also has surprising resonance with certain theories of human consciousness. Carl Jung had a close interest in quantum theory and, working alongside the Noble-prize winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli, he developed the theory of “Synchronicity”, or principle of acausal connection. Jung believed that synchronicity helped explain the existence of mental archetypes and the collective unconscious. The theory also sought to account for the existence of “meaningful coincidences”, or paranormal phenomena, a subject which interested Pauli partly because of his anecdotal, and highly comical, ability to cause the malfunction of laboratory equipment by his mere proximity.
Cohle’s hallucinations, which are all pregnant with meaning, can be understood as examples of synchronicity and acausal connection, as can the comatose reunion with his dead daughter and father. Another meaningful coincidence occurs near the end of True Detective season two, when the death of one of the main characters causes his spouse, many miles distant, to suddenly shudder and weep. Most people experience such phenomena at some point in their own lives. Regardless of their ontological status, their inherent symbolism is that love has the power to intertwine human consciousnesses in the manner of quantum entanglement. This is the scientific phenomenon, described by Einstein as “spooky action at a distance”, whereby the quantum state of certain particles cannot be described independently of one another, so that an action on one particle causes an effect on another, even when they are separated by a large distance.
At the end of True Detective, therefore, what Cohle discovers is the transcendent power of love. The same idea is explored in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), when Cooper (McConaughey) enters a black hole and, thanks to love, can operate on objects across vast distances of time and space. Earlier in the same film, Dr Brand (Anne Hathaway) explains to him:
So listen to me when I say that love isn't something that we invented. It's observable, powerful. […] Maybe it means something more - something we can't yet understand. Maybe it's some evidence, some artefact of a higher dimension that we can't consciously perceive. I'm drawn across the universe to someone I haven't seen in a decade, who I know is probably dead. Love is the one thing we're capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can't understand it.
It would be hard to blame a layman who found enticing the apparent parallels between M-Theory and synchronicity. Both, after all, share the idea of an underlying transcendence that unifies our reality across time and space - something that Jung and Pauli named the unus mundus. This, of course, is an idea common to many philosophical and religious visions, albeit with many variations and as many different names. But so far as the world of True Detective is concerned, our own dimension serves as unus mundus; and as such, perhaps, it is this transcendent reality to which Cohle’s “hypersensitivity” attunes him.
Cleaving to his duty, Cohle’s final, crowning act of heroism is his transcendence of philosophical pessimism. In times past, this might have been considered an intervention of divine grace.
Emile Durkheim explained that the mere existence of collective ideal representations does not in itself assume the existence of “any vague mysterious virtue”. Indeed, they are generated by the mutual participation of a multiplicity of human consciousnesses, operating across time and space:
Collective representations are the result of an immense co-operation, which stretches out not only into space but into time as well; to make them, a multitude of minds have associated, united and combined their ideas and sentiments; for them, long generations have accumulated their experience and their knowledge. [...] From that one can understand how the reason has been able to go beyond the limits of empirical knowledge.
It was such an “immense co-operation” of minds which gave rise to the world of True Detective: a “special intellectual activity” whose great achievement is that it, too, is “able to go beyond the limits of empirical knowledge”. For True Detective is more than a gripping procedural crime drama; more than a tale of deep human feeling. Embedding philosophical and psychological themes that pose fundamental, timeless questions, in its artistic totality, like all truly great works of art, it transcends even the conscious ingenuity of its creators. It is a tantalising work of art that pushes against the boundaries of explicit knowledge and speaks to our deepest intuitions. Its surpassing contribution to human culture is the character of Rustin Cohle, who resonated so strongly with audiences because he gave voice to beliefs, prejudices and assumptions that have come to be held with more or less conviction by large swathes of the population in our “post-Christian” Western societies. Cleaving to his duty, Cohle’s final, crowning act of heroism is his transcendence of philosophical pessimism. In times past, this might have been considered an intervention of divine grace. But it is also a real psychological phenomenon which gives meaning to his life and hope for his future. There could hardly be a more fitting fable for times like these, and a world like ours.
Edward Weech has a BA in History from SOAS, University of London, an MPhil in History from Trinity College Dublin, and an MA in Library Studies from UCL. His essays and reviews have appeared in publications including Arc Digital, The Coleridge Bulletin, and The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. He has previously written about the Rocky franchise for Electric Ghost Magazine.