What is man that you are mindful of him, / and the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8:4)
Death is at the top of the short list of things in life that force us to tackle the big questions. When we are confronted with death—unable to overlook our own mortality—we naturally submit ourselves to a narrative. “He’s in a better place,” “She’s gone back to the earth,” “May he rest in peace,” “Gone, but not forgotten”: these platitudes betray our need for understanding who we are and where we are going.
On HBO’s True Detective, homicide detectives Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) interact with the worst kinds of death on a regular basis. In doing so, Hart and Cohle are forced to grapple with the human experience and their own natures. Thus this Southern Gothic neo-noir crime drama overspills its generic boundaries: it is also a look at two men wrestling with their understandings of God and humanity. And they get it right. Sometimes. Marty and Rust each embrace elements of the true story–the gospel narrative, yet neither understands the full story.
This Southern Gothic neo-noir crime drama becomes much more: it is also a look at two men wrestling with their understandings of God and humanity. And they get it right. Sometimes.True Detective is set in a world akin to Flannery O’Connor’s timeless, fading American South—a world whose sheer brutality forces us to confront the difficult questions. The brilliant music of T Bone Burnett (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), cinematography of Adam Arkapaw (Animal Kingdom), and writing of Nic Pizzolatto create a dark, dusty setting haunted by the same harshness, the same sin, and the same narratives that define O’Connor’s South, and this forces the detectives through the same reckoning that defines O’Connor’s writings.
For two homicide detectives who meet with death daily, then, the narratives they use to make sense of the universe are not abstract principles, but necessary tools for coping with the bleakest parts of existence. As with the protagonists of O’Connor’s classic “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Rust and Marty’s true natures are revealed by how each understands religion. While Marty—much like O’Connor’s grandmother—finds some sort of rest in the Christian narrative, Rust—as with the Misfit—violently reproaches and incessantly picks at it like a blemish that needs to be buffed from the side of society.
In the third episode of True Detective, Rust and Marty find themselves at an old-fashioned tent revival—a throwback to the Christian roots of the American South, a region O’Connor has deemed “Christ-haunted.” To Rust, religion is nothing more than the “transference of fear and self-loathing to an authoritarian vessel.” As he looks out into the crowd, he despises their faith. “It’s catharsis,” Cohle explains, “[the preacher] absorbs their dread with his narrative. Because of this, he’s effective in proportion to the amount of certainty he can project.” For Rust, man is a mistake, and religious narratives are a pathetic escape from reality for the weak:
We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody when in fact everybody is nobody. Maybe the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.
Cohle’s narrative is nihilistic, a philosophical pessimism. He believes human consciousness was an evolutionary blunder and life an inconsequential reproductive cycle. Man is an error, and everything he does is in vain. Total depravity is axiomatic.
Marty doesn’t buy Rust’s pessimism. He’s a family man. A Christian, even—one who’s trying to be good. However, as with O’Connor’s grandmother, Marty’s Christian paradigm is one of appearances only, helping him to hold on to the idea that he is one of the “good guys,” to separate himself from the perpetrators the detectives bring to justice: “I mean, can you imagine if people didn’t believe, what things they’d get up to?” Marty asks Rust.
As the show progresses, we see that Marty isn’t good, despite his professed Christian belief. He tears apart his own life through repeated affairs, drunken outbursts of rage, and an inattention to his family that relationally corrodes it from the inside, all the while attempting to curb the nagging sense of badness with some religion. He keeps his guilt and hypocrisy at bay by justifying his adultery as simply “letting off steam from work.” Putting his sins out of mind prevents exposing them to grace and forgiveness.
Though Marty would never identify with Rust’s cynicism, it’s in his blood just the same, and maybe worse. Marty numbs himself through a mix of religious narrative and self-gratification. The idea of living a decent life of Christian principle for a divine reward of temporal and eternal happiness—Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), as sociologist Christian Smith has labeled this narrative—has produced a deep cynicism in both Marty and Rust. Rust rejects the opiate narrative of MTD with outright contempt while Marty sits nominally under it, numbing himself with the narrative while also secretly resenting it for oppressing and opposing his desires. His superficial convictions allow him to deceive himself, covering over his deeper cynicism and anxiety about death. Yet Marty is guilty by his own standards.
“Do you ever wonder if you’re a bad man?” Marty asks Rust.
“No, I don’t wonder, Marty. The world needs bad men. We keep other bad men from the door.”
Like O’Connor’s Misfit and unlike Marty, Rust is aware of his own badness. Marty hopes that he is good while Rust knows that he—and everybody else—is not. “Everybody knows there’s something wrong with them—they just don’t know what it is. Everybody wants confession, everyone wants some cathartic narrative,” says Rust in episode five. “Everyone is guilty.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Rust Cohle is closer to biblical Christianity. Marty’s narrative looks more “Christian,” but it gets humanity wrong, which in turn skews the rest of the narrative. A God who saves good people is not the Christian God; everybody who needs saved is guilty. Like Nietzsche before him, Rust sees the true human condition—that all have sinned—and the implications of atheism. Rust understands who man really is; he has looked human depravity in the eye and been honest enough to accept it. It is the Imago Dei and the gospel that Rust misses, at least until the end of the series, with the last episode speaking back to Cohle’s nihilism as expressed in episode three.
While unconscious after the episode’s climactic altercation, Rust senses the presence and feels the love of his daughter and father. This experience washes away his cynicism, giving new life through his brush with death. Rust’s ideological transformation is Christological in a sense. He is conquered by evil in Carcosa, left for dead; yet he conquers that same evil, remarkably killing the “Yellow King” and thereby saving Marty. In his return from the brink of death in the hospital, he glimpses meaning and the possibility of redemption.
“Once there was only dark. Seems to me the light’s winning,” Rust reflects to close out the first season.
Rust appears to have discovered the Imago Dei. And through his self-sacrifice which allows for Marty’s (physical) salvation, Rust’s story points to the gospel, the only narrative robust enough to support both the complete guilt of humanity and the perfect hope for those who are guilty. The God who made humanity in His image is rescuing humanity from its self-created darkness. Though it looks like sin will come out victorious, the specks of the Imago Dei—which shine brightest in the gospel narrative—prove otherwise.