True Detective: The Psychology of Hart and Cohle

HBO's True Detective: A psychological analysis of detectives Hart & Cohle.

Posted Jan 26, 2014

This is the first in a series of articles on the psychology of the characters in "True Detective".

True Detective, HBO’s new mini-series looks like any other cop/whodunnit show -- on the surface. Two Louisiana CID homicide detectives -- Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), who solved a case of ritualistic murder years earlier, are now being separately interviewed about a recent, almost identical, case near Lake Charles. Chole sets the stage at the end of episode one by saying cryptically, “How could it be him, if we already caught him in ’95? How indeed detectives?”

As the interview of Hart and Cohle progresses we are transported back to the murder investigation 17 years before. Prostitute Dora Lange's nude body is found in a sugar cane field, tied underneath a lone, old and weathered tree. The body has been posed in a kneeling position, her head crowned with thorns and antlers. Knife wounds are carved into her abdomen, with a spiral design tattooed on her back.

True Detective is not as much about the murder as it is about the two investigators who are in charge of solving it. It's their lives under the microscope. The skeletons in each closet, what they do and how they justify it all.

Hart and Cohle is a word play on heart and soul, the body and the spirit. Hart, a typical guy, what you see is what you get. Solid, grounded, good father. Chole the spirit, is a loner, tapped into his unconscious self and the pain of the universe. The two homicide detectives are as different as night and day, or are they?


Hart is initially viewed as the Louisiana good ole boy cop. He describes himself as a, "regular dude.... with a big ass dick." The friendly one, the family man, the Christian, found in church every Sunday. He loves his wife and is protective of two young daughters.

At one point, he gives an underage prostitute money, telling her to "do something else". Cohle notes the exchange and asks, "Is that a down payment?", to which Hart angrily replies "Is shitting on any moment of decency part of your job description?"

But, a night of drinking with the boys, telling how he let a co-ed go in exchange for a sexual favor is followed by a late night visit to a much younger woman he’s having an affair with. Hart justifies this hypocrisy saying, "You gotta decompress before you go being a family man. What you get into -- working -- you can't have the kids around that. So sometimes, you gotta get your head right. This is for your wife and kids, too. You gotta take your release where you find it... or where it finds you. In the end, it's for the good of the family."

Hart's wife is not happy about the hours he spends away and suspects it’s not all job related, but stops short of an outright accusation. But the tension is mounting after a huge argument about what he needs -- and is not getting -- from her and the family.

Hart, for his part, may not want to bring work home but when he goes to his daughters' room to get them for dinner they are playing. On the floor is a nude female doll, lying face up. Standing around her, poised menacingly, are four clothed male dolls. The fifth one is kneeling between her legs. The kids know more than they should and we are left wondering how?

Hart does not particularly like the deep thinker Cohle, and says "I just want you to stop saying odd shit….. like you smell a ‘psychosphere’ or you’re in someone’s faded memory of a town” and while we are in the car just “shut the f_ck up!" The tension between the two partners is enormous but he rationalizes, "you can't pick your parents or your partner."



Cohle is called the Tax Man because, unlike the small notepad of other officers, he carries a big ledger. He’s introspective, has no friends and is not liked or understood; on the surface a typical “bad cop”. In a contradiction, he tells the prostitute he’s buying Quaaludes from, "Of course I'm dangerous. I'm police. I can do terrible things to people... with impunity”, while at the same time insisting on paying fair value, and trying to justify to her that he only takes them to sleep.

His descent into darkness began when his three year old daughter, Sophia, was hit by a car and killed while riding her tricycle in the driveway. What’s not said is who was supposed to be watching the girl? He wears his guilt like a cloak, and as often happens, a single tragic event can shatter an otherwise ‘normal’ life forever. The marriage "couldn't handle it", his wife left and he turned to drugs, robbing dealers to maintain a free supply. Eventually he snapped and, "I emptied a 9 into a crackhead for injecting his infant daughter with crystal. He said he was trying to purify her."

Cohle was given a choice: he could serve time or go deep undercover in a HIDTA (high intensity drug traffic area). He chose the latter and worked in that capacity for four long years. His cover was blown after killing three cartel members, and he ended up at North Shore Psychiatric Hospital in Lubbock, TX with PTSD.

While there, he read a Bible verse from Corinthians which he recites from memory, “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body…….Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.” This triggered a desire to switch from narcotics to homicide, thinking that would somehow keep him connected as a part of the body -- i.e. the human race.

The partners have only worked together for three months and Hart is oblivious to Cohle's past and the demons within. At dinner one night with the family Hart’s wife, Maggie takes the time to listen, the only one to do so, and Cohle seems to appreciate the questions and opens up-- perhaps for the first time in years and stays longer than planned.

Cohle's nihilistic view of the world being nothing but pain and suffering is shown by how he copes with the death of his child: "I think about my daughter now and what she was spared. Sometimes I feel grateful. The doctor said she didn't feel a thing; went straight into a coma. Then, somewhere in that blackness, she slipped off into another deeper kind. Isn't that a beautiful way to go out, painlessly as a happy child? Trouble with dying later is you've already grown up. The damage is done…."

He now copes with his own pain and guilt after leaving the force saying, "Now, I live in a little room out in the country, behind a bar; work four nights a week. In between I drink and there ain't nobody there to stop me. I know who I am. After all these years, there's a victory in that."

Just as we think we are starting to understand Cohle, he talks about “neural damage” from so many drugs. He tells the new detectives about his “visions” which he says are not hallucinations. "Most of the time I was convinced I'd lost it. There were other times I thought I was mainlining the secret truth of the universe."

As episode two draws to close, we are left to ponder exactly who/what is good or evil and the juxtaposition of Hart and Cohle; heart and soul.

For more on the show check out, "True Detective: A Psychological Analysis" here 

And part III on Hart and Cohle here.

Also check out: Is Hart The Yellow King?

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