The Philosophy of True Detective, S1, Part 2
Cohle: The ontological fallacy of expecting the light at the end of the tunnel, that’s what the preacher sells, same as a shrink. See the preacher encourages your capacity for illusion and he tells you it’s a fuckin virtue. Always a buck to be had doing that. Such a desperate sense of entitlement, isn’t it? Surely this is all for me? Me, I’m so fuckin important. Right? There are broader ideas at work. Mainly, what is owed between us as a society for our mutual illusions.
In the last installment I delved into the meaning of the philosophies behind True Detective season one. The season spans 8-hours of rich, meaty material written like a novel that plays upon the screen. Dissecting that novel like the murder mystery it masquerades as, piecing together the clues, and coming up sharp under the detective’s curse to the real purpose of the story all about purpose – was something I couldn’t pass up. Here in part two, I will continue and conclude the case of the 550pg script that came out of left field and made Television history.
“Everybody thinks they’re going to be something they’re not. Everybody thinks they’ve got these big plans.”
Often throughout the series, lines like this from otherwise unsuspecting characters (in this case, a dead girl’s grandfather with a heavy Louisiana drawl) are planted as clues. These lines, much like the preacher’s, are not about what’s happening in the scene or about the case – they’re about Cohle and Hart. When it comes to writing, nothing on the page is without purpose. Especially when it’s written for the screen. Everything shown is for a reason. Including the subliminal crosses placed periodically throughout the series, Rust’s tattoo and the iconic shots of intersecting highway loops and branches of sprawling landscape that resemble our central nervous system.
The entire season is showing you the right clues while intentionally distracting you – visually, audibly. Hoping you’ll miss the serial killer mowing the lawn nonchalantly talking to Cohle the same way you’ll miss the meaning behind the story and it’s existential questioning of the meandering purpose of the life of two men who are opposite sides of the same coin. They are joined, one, together – but they will never intersect. To borrow a line from another HBO series, Six Feet Under, “there’s two kinds of people in this world: there’s you, and there’s everybody else and never the twine shall meet”.
Hart consistently questions the type of man he is, and often looks to Cohle to give it to him straight, brutal as the truth may be.
Hart: Do you wonder, ever, if you’re a bad man?
Cohle: No, I don’t wonder Marty. World needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.
It’s the truth he seeks from Cohle. In a way, Cohle is both a father-figure and preacher-figure to him. He’s “definitely not shy about speaking his mind,” and also offers genuine companionship to Hart. For example, as hard as Cohle was on Hart for cheating on Maggie, when she kicks him out he not only comes to Maggie’s aid, he lets Hart live with him. Though he never comes to fruition with it, there is a sense of purpose here for Cohle. A way for him to feel like he’s righting some of his own wrongs vicariously, perhaps in preparation of his own end, despite their ongoing arguments about the case and which way to take it. It’s constantly an egotistical stand off.
Hart: I noticed you have a tendency toward myopia – tunnel vision – blows investigations. Your vision skews, twists evidence, You’re obsessive.
In defense, Cohle masks his bristled agitation at Hart’s accusation with an insult to Hart’s personal flaws, “you’re obsessive too, just not about the job”. Hart’s insecurities with his lack of sense of self come through once more:
Hart: You know the real difference between you and me?
Cohle: Yup, denial.
Hart: The difference is, that I know the difference between an idea and a fact. You, are incapable of admitting doubt. Now that sounds like denial to me. Cohle smartly quips, “I doubt that”.
Indeed denial is a differentiating factor between Hart and Cohle. Cohle accepts the terrible realities and pointless repetition of life, whereas Hart desperately grasps onto anything or anyone in attempt to hold on just a little bit tighter. Where his family won’t do, he drinks, where drinking won’t do he sleeps around, where that won’t do he gets violent, when all of it catches up to him – he pulls back, makes amends, tries religion, tries to tell himself his family is everything, only to repeat the same patterns.
Not unlike Hart, Cohle dismisses things he later re-adopts, such as the philosophical ramblings of one of the men the captured and killed who quotes Nietzsche to him moments before he’s shot by Hart. Cohle re-iterates the very quote in the interrogation room when recanting the story.
Cohle: Someone once told me that ‘time is a flat circle’. Everything we’ve ever done or ever will do we will do over and over and over again – forever. Death created time to grow the things that it would kill, and you are reborn, but into the same life that you’ve always been born into. How many times have we had this conversation, I mean who knows? You can’t remember your lives, you can’t change your lives, and that is the terrible and secret fate of all life – you’re trapped. Like a nightmare you keep waking up into.
His dark ideation of life being a nightmare is the second time we’ve heard it, as he previously stated life being “a dream you had inside a locked room, a dream about being a person”.
The unsolved murder mystery merely serves at the catalyst for Pizzolatto to tell the story of how two men came together, apart, and back together again over the span of twenty years. Who is Cohle? Who is Hart? Who are they to themselves, to each other? Cohle refers to himself as a “realist” and a “pessimist” but he is not a pessimist. He suffers from PTSD and major depression, which is much deeper with far more realistic with frequent, unbridled, raw perceptions of life and death than your average person encounters on a daily basis, “pessimist” or otherwise.
Hart recants of himself, “infidelity is one kind of sin, but my true failure was inattention. I understand that now”. Cohle references circles, and flatness, in association with his and all other life. It’s a theme that will recur for him the rest of the show.
Cohle: You ever hear of something called the M-brane theory? In this universe, we process time linearly, forward. But outside of our spacetime, from what would be a fourth-dimensional perspective, time wouldn’t exist. We would see our space time look flattened, like a single sculpture. To them it’s a sphere, but to us, it’s a circle.
Then again in episode 7.
Cohle: My whole life is one expanding, circular fuck up and I think it’s about to close out.
Cohle tells Hart, “a man remembers his debts, we left something undone”. He ensnares a reluctant Hart to help him finish the one thing left open-ended in his life. Again, he refers to his life as a circle after Hart asks, “why’d you come back?”
Cohle: Something I had to see to before getting on with something else. My life’s been a circle of violence and degradation as long as I can remember. I’m ready to tie it off.
In the end you come to realize Cohle’s battle wasn’t necessarily with what happening to him, but rather what was happening within his head – the things outside of his control. He says of himself, “what happened in my head is not something that gets better”. They both talk about how their lives have become, “quiet life, no girlfriend, just go to work and go home”. For someone with Cohle’s hyperactive brain combined with depression, this can lead to “another darkness, deeper”.
That rapid intelligence and drive, unchecked, can become destructive. When there’s no distractions left to fill his time he’s left facing the reality that we’re all doing just that – distracting ourselves with self-acclaimed purpose until the clock runs out. Hart is no different, distracting himself with his work, family and cheating until he slows and realizes the best he ever had it was the best it’d ever be.
Hart: I was going to play baseball, ride bulls, you know. You end up becoming something you never intended…I guess you never even really know why.
Cohle: I suppose I could’ve been a painter, or a historian. Old scenes, new details. Life’s barely long enough to get good at one thing.
Hart: If that long.
Cohle: Yeah, so be careful what you get good at.
There are only the two sides to take away from the story – a realistic sense of understanding, or the realization of inattention to understanding – same as there is to views on life. To borrow one more quote from HBO’s Six Feet Under:
“You only get one life. There’s no God, no rules, no judgments except for those you accept or create for yourself. And once it’s over, it’s over. Dreamless sleep forever and ever. So why not be happy while you’re here. Really. Why not?”
After all, isn’t happiness the flip side of the same coin as purpose? Two sides of the same flat circle. Same as Cohle and Hart, same as good versus evil, or as Cohle puts it in the finale:
Cohle: There’s just one story, the oldest, light versus dark.
Hart: Seems like the dark has a lot more territory.
Cohle: You’re looking at it wrong, once there was only dark, you ask me, the light’s winning.
“Now, think about all the things Cohle is talking about,” Pizolatto said in an interview in 2014, “Is he a man railing against an uncaring god? Or is he a character in a TV show railing against his audience? Aren’t we the creatures of that higher dimension? The creatures who can see the totality of his world? After all, we get to see all eight episodes of his life. On a flat screen. And we can watch him live that same life over and over again, the exact same way.”
Cohle: To realize that all your life, all you love, all you hate, all your memory, all your pain: it was all the same thing, it was all the same dream. A dream you had inside a locked room. A dream about being a person.
After catching their guy, almost dying, and living through it, Hart remarks “it occurs to me you’re unkillable”. A once ready-to-end-it Cohle comes back to his true self, realizing he must and will keep living.
Cohle: We didn’t get them all, Marty.
Hart: Yeah, and we ain’t gonna get them all. That ain’t what kind of world it is. But we got ours.
To quote Cohle, “everybody has a choice” and “nothing is ever over”.