True Detective‘s first season won five Emmys and the adulation of audiences craving philosophically engaging crime drama. At first glance, the finale seemed to wrap everything up too neatly for a series that distinguished itself with its unique tone and structure. But a closer look reveals a carefully detailed thesis buried in the show’s narrative.
Detective Rust Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey) repeatedly disparages the religious practices of the locals whom he and his partner Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) investigate, diagnosing the murders they’ve uncovered as symptoms of a general intellectual weakness among the Louisiana populace. It’s true that many of the crime scenes have strong religious overtones, such as a dead body posed in prayer or cult symbolism displayed near a corpse. But in the finale, after a near death experience following a violent struggle with the duo’s main suspect, Cohle tells Hart of a near-death revelation that pulled him back from his nihilistic abyss. This contrasted the religious fanaticism of a sick society with the kind of spirituality that brings hope and the will to keep fighting.
This dialectic allows Rust to separate himself ideologically from those he pursues. His efforts to stay outside their “psychosphere” (or collective consciousness) only work to the extent that he is able to put himself outside and objectively understand their methods. Yet, he shares some of their self-destructive thoughts and impulses. The theme of a law enforcement agent who can identify with his quarry, and yet still judge their crimes dispassionately, is a hallmark of great crime fiction.
The occult aspect of the case brings a different angle to Rust and Marty’s pursuits. The idea of murders being perpetrated not just by one, but by an entire group of deviants, contributes to a general paranoia and atmosphere of dread that hangs over the entire series. The ritualistic killings, cover-ups by community members, and disturbing video that Rust uncovers (documenting a group of sodomites and killers wearing masks) point to a conspiracy that will force the duo to lay their lives on the line to uncover the truth and serve justice to the perpetrators.
The symbol of the spiral, which is seen in notebooks, tattoos, and Rust’s occasional acid flashbacks, points toward a sense of unraveling. As the case grows unwieldy and the partners’ lives begin to spin out of control, the chaotic entropy that the spiral represents starts to manifest. Likewise, as the two men put aside their personal differences and crumbling private lives to refocus on the case, the spiral becomes a symbol of progress and hope – a way to break out of a repetitive and defeatist nature that Rust alludes to with the remark “time is a flat circle.”
The typical “buddy cop” tropes are still at play. This is still a story of two guys who dislike each other from the start, but eventually grow to respect one another as a result of their collaboration. Cohle is a former narcotics agent who got addicted to drugs, Hart cheats on his wife, and both men drink too much, ticking off a number of boxes on the “cop drama” checklist. We even see Cohle in a scene where he turns in his badge and gun.
The strength of True Detective lies not in these tired cliches but in the way it rearranges the typical narrative structure to create tension and mystery in the narrative. It’s aided greatly in this endeavor by the writing of Nic Pizzolatto, who (with a stellar cast) breathes new life into old archetypes. The second season premiered last Sunday June 21st and is expected to live up to the first with notable actors Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, and Taylor Kitsch taking the lead roles this season and an all-new storyline leading the series. So make sure you don’t miss a minute of it this summer.
True Detective Season 2 is currently airing on Showcase on Mondays at 3.30pm and 7.30pm AEST, express from the U.S.