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It has been several months since I saw HBO’s first season of True Detective, but something about the series has stuck with me. Detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart investigate a series of bizarre ritualistic killings, but to be honest, I didn’t care much about that. What stuck with me was Rust’s pain and, even more, Marty’s domestic failures. Each man tries to explain and explain away his actions, but neither man is able to live according to his professed philosophy. Both men talk about and talk around the burden of living as beings that matter in a world of other beings that matter.

Matthew McConaughey gives a great performance as the brilliant and tormented Rust. In long monologues, he asserts that the universe and human life are ultimately meaningless: “Human consciousness is a tragic mistake in evolution. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self.”

What makes Rust so endearing is that he obviously can’t believe what he is saying. He lost his young daughter in an accident, and McConaughey plays every one of Rust’s philosophical diatribes with a howling anguish just under the surface. It would hurt less if his daughter were a tragic mistake in evolution, but he can’t bring himself to think of her as a mere thing with an illusion of a self.

He can’t think of anyone else that way either. When an inmate asks if showing pictures had inadvertently led to the death of the inmate’s wife, Rust tells him that the pictures had probably played a key role in the murder. When Marty later says that Rust had been needlessly cruel, Rust responds that the inmate had asked about his own parole situation before asking about his dead wife. Rust, more than anyone else in the show, can’t stop thinking of people as beings with personal significance and the power (and the responsibility) of free choice.

Woody Harrelson has a tougher job in the role of Marty Hart. Hart is, on the surface, a professional family man of no great distinction. Marty believes that people need to tie themselves to institutions of work, church, and the nuclear family in order to make life tolerable.

In a poignant early scene, Marty comes home late from work. He sees his young daughters looking adorable in bed. He sees his attractive wife, appearing all the more attractive through purposefully flattering cinematography. We see that Marty has everything that someone of his philosophy could want. But despite everything, Marty chooses to go to sleep in a chair while still wearing his work clothes.

Marty’s problem is the reverse of Rust’s. While Marty tries to fit into the humanizing institutions of middle-class life, he can’t stop treating other people as means rather than as ends in themselves. The institutions that Marty talks up exist for their value as either social utility or personal therapy. Whether it is family or work, Marty is always pursuing his own happiness. He cheats on his wife and treats his first mistress (or the first mistress we see, anyway) as his personal property. He ignores his children as much as he can get away with and abuses his power as a police officer for personal satisfaction.

His arguments with his wife are both pathetic and self-serving. Marty isn’t able to recognize the significance of other people. This leads him to constantly manipulating others and constantly being snared. He has the wife, the kids, the house, and eventually the acclaim and a promotion for solving an infamous murder. But Marty finds himself utterly alienated and ends up losing his family and quitting his job.

The formal murder mystery of True Detective is serviceable. It provides Marty and Rust with the opportunity for crisis and resolution. It also acts as an external manifestation of Rust and Marty’s vices. The murderers treat their victims as things for sexual gratification and as a route to spiritual ascension. They reflect and horribly exaggerate Rust’s philosophical contempt for the idea of human significance and Marty’s use of other people as means. Marty and Rust’s initial failure to find the real murderer parallels the lies both of them continue to live. Many years later, both men are terribly wounded after finding the real killer, and both are forced to face the truth about themselves.

Marty’s family visits him in the hospital, and it isn’t a happily-ever-after reunion. His daughters have reached adulthood while he was estranged from them. His ex-wife has remarried. But they still come to his side, not because they need structure or identity, but because they love him. Marty sees that, after all he has done to them, he is an end and not a means to the ones who love him.

Rust, on the other hand, wishes he had not survived. While he was in a coma, he felt the presence of his daughter and his late father. He wishes he had remained with them. It isn’t clear that Rust actually comes to believe in an afterlife or an eternal soul, but he emerges able to acknowledge that human significance is real.

If there was one disappointment in the series it was that the murder conspiracy itself added up to less than its initial promise. True Detective’s mythology borrowed from Robert W. Chambers’ King in Yellow mythology and from H. P. Lovecraft. (There is a point where a bundle of sticks seems designed to recall the idol in Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu.)

So it’s disappointing when the real murderer turns out to be both socially marginal and personally and utterly pathetic. Lovecraft portrayed the followers of Cthulhu as marginal degenerates, but he also portrayed them as, in some ultimate sense, right about the meaning of it all. The primitive cults had stumbled on the great truth of the insignificance of man in an infinite and indifferent universe; they had grasped the “terrifying vistas of reality and our frightful position therein.”

In True Detective, we never get a principled case for this despairing philosophy—even for the purposes of refutation. No one faces those terrifying vistas and insists on calling them the truth. Rust mouths the words, but it is very different coming from him than from Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s characters respond to the idea of the indifferent universe by either going mad or responding with a stoic courage that has no obvious rationale. By contrast, Rust clings to the idea of an indifferent universe like a drowning man clutching a piece of driftwood in the ocean. We do get a rejection of despairing materialism from Rust, but, unlike Lovecraft, Rust never really believed it in the first place.

Pete Spiliakos writes for First Thoughts. His previous columns can be found here.

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