Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

This seemed to be the week for souring on True Detective. One complaint against Episode Six concerns its redundancy: Character beats were repeated, and blanks were filled in exactly as predicted. The heavily foreshadowed cause of Rust and Marty’s split in 2002, and of Rust’s quitting the force, was confirmed (Maggie had of course strayed with Rust).

One thing at least was not redundant. As the partnership cracks up, Episode Six gives us a fuller sense of why the plot may require Rust and Marty to reunite—as they do at the episode’s end—and of why it may be important that neither is employed by the official police force in 2012.

The partners’ symbiosis comes into new focus here. Vintage-2002 Rust is an acknowledged genius who alienates his colleagues, while Marty, a middling intellect but a good old boy, prevents the rest of the force from killing Rust. In Episode Six, Rust is not merely unsociable; he is a thorough prima donna. He disparages Marty as merely his secretary and chronicler: “Type the report, man. That’s how we do—I get people to talk, you write the stats. . . . Without me, there is no you.”

But perhaps the dependence goes both ways. Marty notes ominously that “I am the only one [who] ever took up for you—ever.” (Later, when Rust is suspended for insubordination, Marty will protest the decision as “over-the-top.”) Their boss, Salter, warns that Marty is “the only pal you have.” Marty is Rust’s handler, running interference for a rebarbative genius.

And perhaps tethering him to reality. As a prima-donna detective of the Victorian Age once said to the companion who typed his reports: “I am lost without my Boswell.” The DNA of the Rust-Marty partnership incorporates, as all fictional detective partnerships do, the Holmes-Watson pairing—which incorporated the Romantic idea that the man of genius really depends on his mediocre sidekick.

John le Carre represents Holmes’s need for Watson in terms that foreshadow Rust and his foibles: “Holmes—mercurial, brilliant, complex, turbulent Holmes—is not safe out there alone. . . . He can dissemble, go underground, disguise himself to the point where his own mother wouldn’t know him, he can act dead or dying, trawl opium dens”—but left to himself, Holmes will probably overdose on cocaine or find some other means of destroying himself. (The recent spate of Sherlock Holmes updates tend to emphasize Holmes’s instability and his dependence on Watson. CBS’s Elementary even has Watson in the role of “sober companion.”)

Mileage varies in the Rust-Marty partnership, but the Holmesian influence encourages us to expect that the detectives’ reunion will have been a necessary condition for Rust’s wrapping up the Dora Lange case. Marty may be nothing without Rust—we see he is no longer a cop at all—but since 2002 Rust may have gone too far “underground.” His ten years “out there alone” are a lost decade, in the sense that they are recuperable (as television narrative, perhaps as actionable detective work) only now that the partnership is back on. Rust is lost without his Boswell.

2012 will be unlike old times, however, in this sense: Neither Rust nor Marty is on the force anymore. Marty, then, will no longer be interfacing for Rust with the police bureaucracy. Bureaucracy has been an overlooked theme in True Detective, and it is accentuated in Episode Six, where Rust seems to consider it a euphemism for “conspiracy.”

When the retired minister Theriot explains in 2002 why he had left a Tuttle-affiliated seminary—“Bureaucracy. Politics”—Rust prods and gets what he came for: whispers of a conspiracy to shield a senior minister suspected of possessing child pornography. But if Rust can switch out “bureaucracy” for “conspiracy,” the substitution may work the other way round as well.

Rust’s dot-connecting strikes Salter as paranoid. Rust: “Nobody puts it together.” Salter: “Puts what together, Cohle?” Rust: “I can’t decide if it’s a coverup or the garden-variety incompetence.” Women and children go missing in the Bayou, from places near the Tuttle-affiliated schools, and the local police never solve the cases. “Yeah—think about it.” Tuttle’s organization is a major donor to the state policemen’s charity. And remember Tuttle’s attempt to interfere, through his task force, in the 1995 investigation? “We’re in a muddy swamp here, man.”

Salter diagnoses Rust with “mental exhaustion.” Where Rust sees conspiracy, other reasonable people might see the pitfalls of bureaucracy. Individuals and agencies, connected but imperfectly coordinated, will fail on occasion to “put it together.” In a bureaucracy, corruption and “the detective’s curse” (inattention) can look alike.

Worse, bureaucratic structure may institutionalize the detective’s curse. A detective combing the remotest parts of the Bayou, gleaning unique knowledge of his case, takes his orders from a man behind a desk. What is obvious and urgent to Rust on the ground may be neither obvious nor urgent to Salter in his office. We may think of this impasse in terms of genius vs. mediocrity—or, more pertinently, in terms of attentiveness vs. bureaucratic distance.

Rust’s disaffection from the police bureaucracy illuminates his penchant for going undercover, and eventually going rogue. Rust has a history of flying under the radar, of being virtually a freelancer even while on the force. Isolation from the chain of command seems congenial to him. Recall how comfortable he was with Marty’s killing of Ledoux and with the task of covering it up. The crisis demanded what Rust called “commitment”: since they could neither “call it in” nor “hand it off,” knowledge and responsibility were concentrated entirely in the two free agents. So Rust congratulated Marty the jolly bureaucrat for “finally committ[ing] to something.”

When Rust finally quits the force, he does so for the expected reason; his rendezvous with Maggie, we feel, was a long time coming. But equally, his defection from bureaucracy was a long time coming. By going rogue, he liberates himself from complicity in institutional agendas and from the epistemological handicaps enthroned by officialdom. Outside these compromises, he and his partner may finally commit to what they had left undone.

Julia Yost is a Ph.D candidate in English at Yale University.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles