True Detective offers a portrait of heroic behavior in an age of anti-heroes. By sticking a little bit closer to the classic myth of the hero as articulated by Carl Jung (Man and His Symbols), Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) and others, this eight episode mini-series manages to stand out from some of the narrative conventions of modern times that are favored by “serious” movies and TV.
[Spoiler alert: This essay will include broad plot summaries as well as a few specific details that may ruin some of the tension for people who have not seen these series/movies.]
While the “Movies and the Mind” blog has tended to focus on feature films, this time I would like to digress and consider a TV mini-series. The line between movies and cinema has been blurring for decades, and these days there is little reason to treat the two media as completely separate in terms of their psychological impact on viewers. Historically, the power of TV has come from compelling characters and writing that viewers can turn to week after week. The necessity of churning out 20+ episodes a year with relatively limited financial resources has forced TV producers to simplify the “cinematic” qualities of visual storytelling that are so striking in great movies—cinematography, lighting, editing and fancy camera movements. At least since Twin Peaks in the early 90s and The Sopranos starting in the late 90s however, it is easy to argue that some visual narratives meant for the small screen have been able to sustain cinematic qualities over the course of entire seasons.
True Detective certainly qualifies as cinematic. Starting with the cryptic, provocative opening credits, the show casts a visual spell. It creates a strong atmosphere and continually deepens its sense of place. It also tells its complex mystery using sophisticated story-telling devices like non-sequential flashbacks from multiple characters that jump across large expanses of time. No wonder the series recently won an Emmy for directing.
For much of True Detective, Louisiana police detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) behave like the anti-heroes we have come to know but not-quite-love in recent decades. They flirt with the kind of corruption and debasement that grim detective movies like The Bad Lieutenant (both the 1992 and 2009 versions) luxuriated in. These kinds of stories challenge the knee jerk tendency that audiences have to empathize and root for the good protagonists. There is great satisfaction in identifying with the good guys. That is why in most TV and movies, even when the characters are shown as flawed, they usually redeem themselves by the end of the story.
But when characters lie, steal, cheat, do illicit drugs, commit murder and don’t clearly redeem themselves, it challenges comfortable identification. Hollywood films have been making use of anti-heroes ever since the 60s in movies like Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch. It took longer for television to catch up. The theory is that while people might tolerate troubling protagonists for the course of a two hour movie, they do not want to repeatedly return to characters on TV shows that they don’t like or find morally repugnant. Still some of the best TV of the past 15 years—The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Mad Men just to name a few—have challenged conventional wisdom. So does True Detective.
Detective Hart presents himself as a family man, but he is an often-absent workaholic who justifies his affairs with the stress of his job. He also sometimes comes off as glib and unreliable. Detective Cohle is even more off-putting. He has a history of profound grief and substance abuse, but even more than that, he alienates everyone around him (including presumably a significant portion of the audience) with his morose demeanor and his tendency to spout despairing existentialist musings about human nature like a character in a 60s French art film. There is also the fairly strong suggestion that Cohle himself may be involved in the serial killings the detectives are investigating. These are not likable characters. And they are not very heroic as they make graves errors in the investigation, let their personal lives interfere with their ability to do their job, and violate ethical guidelines on a regular basis (in the most extreme case, shooting a bound suspect in the head at point blank range).
Throughout much of the show, one frequently gets the feeling that this is all going to end badly. In fact, it seems to be a character study designed to prove Cohle’s worst assumptions about human nature correct. But it doesn’t end badly. Despite their flaws and failings the last episode has these two imperfect characters rising up out of the muck of their own lives, solving the case, acting in a self-sacrificing manner, and catching the killer.
For this pessimistic anti-hero genre, viewers would, at the very least, expect one or both characters to be killed, their blood being the price for their previous sins (like in Shakespearean tragedies or Breaking Bad). Instead, Cohle’s seemingly mortal injuries turn out to not be mortal at all. He recovers, and in the end, shares with Hart a relatively more positive philosophy about the light slowly winning out over darkness.
The ending has been criticized by some as being too optimistic for a show that spent the majority of its eight episodes dwelling in the darkness of the human soul. The anti-hero genre is sometimes lauded as being corrections to the tendency of romantic comedies and super-hero movies to provide simplistic answers to the deep problems of the modern world. From this perspective the ending is a sell out, removing True Detective’s from its place as one of the great stories of modern times.
I am sympathetic to this analysis, and many of my favorite movies are indeed on the dark side. Still, I felt there was something heroic even in the show-runners decision to make such a dark work of art and then try to imagine how old-fashioned heroism could be found in this unlikely context. I feel good at the end of a decent super-hero movie, but the feeling is temporary. True Detective has stayed with me in a deeper way, leaving me unnerved but slightly optimistic. This is a story that really earned its heroic portrayals and even its happy ending.
(Skip Dine Young's Psychology at the Movies is available at http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ISBN=0470971770 )