In the New Republic yesterday, Isaac Chotiner expressed relief that Sunday night’s episode of True Detective had returned to its roots as a “police procedural,” praising one scene in Episode 7 by comparing it to a “great scene between Kevin Spacey and Guy Pearce in L.A. Confidential.” This is like praising a scene between Vronsky and Anna in Anna Karenina for reminding one of a “great scene in Danielle Steele” (okay it’s not quite that bad). Nevertheless, Chotiner’s commentary reflects what has become the consensus critical view that True Detective is a well-acted and compellingly plotted mystery, which is held back by its occasional pretensions to intellectual seriousness. Above all, True Detective stands accused of engaging in philosophy.
Well, of course the ones making the accusations all claim that it is fake or pseudo philosophy. “The series reveals itself as … a vehicle for long-winded exchanges about religion and responsibility that are writerly in the worst way,” wrote Mike Hale in the New York Times, adding that Matthew McConaughey’s character, Rust Cohle—the show’s portrait of a philosopher (or “philosopher”)—is “saddled with most of [writer Nic] Pizzolatto’s more egregious dialogue.” For Grantland’s Andy Greenwald, Cohle is “an antisocial oddball who jots down everything in an oversize ledger and is prone to unprompted philosophical disquisitions,” while for the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, he is “a macho fantasy straight out of Carlos Castaneda. A sinewy weirdo … [who] delivers arias of philosophy, a mash-up of Nietzsche, Lovecraft, and the nihilist horror writer Thomas Ligotti.” (Nussbaum levels this as part of a broader criticism of the show as being misogynistic, which it may be.)
The three critics above are all on record as disliking True Detective; I’ve personally been more surprised by the way that those who claim to like the show have responded to their charges. “The premise of the Nussbaum piece seems to be that the ‘talk’ on the show is dumber than we’re led to believe,” writes Cynthia Dagnal-Myron in Huffington Post, “but here’s the thing. I don’t think the talk is supposed to be brilliant. I think the point is that both lead male characters are a damned mess.” Chotiner agrees. Cohle’s monologues, he says in response to Greenwald, are not supposed to be philosophically provocative; they are supposed to mark him as a “character who is both smart and crazy, often wise and frequently disturbed.”
So on the one side we have critics who find Cohle’s dialogue to be “egregious” and “shallow,” and on the other we have critics who say that that’s just the point—Cohle is a damned mess, and one of the ways the show conveys it is through his incomprehensible philosophical soliloquies. (Kenny Herzog of New York magazine trots a middle ground, praising the show for giving us “philosophy for thought, whether inconsequential or essential.”) This means that nowhere is the possibility considered that Cohle’s philosophical remarks might be, on the one hand central to the show, and on the other philosophically serious and significant.
In part this reflects the discomfort that many of today’s critics seem to have with highfalutin ideas being expressed in contemporary art—and especially in an art as supposedly democratic as television (“Television, once my chosen medium for vegging out, has become increasingly snobby in its literary pretensions,” wrote one critic after episode 5). We live, after all, in the age of “show, don’t tell,” the covertly anti-intellectual writing school directive a version of which Greenwald actually levels at Pizzolatto. But what if, before chiding Pizzolatto because he “tells instead of shows,” we take a minute to think about what he is trying to tell us, assuming both that he has something to say, and that he is managing so far to say it: presumptions consistent in the first place with that Pizzolatto has said about the show,1 and in the second with my own experience watching it to this point.
The two episodes that have received the most attention for trafficking in what is assumed to be philosophical nonsense are Episodes 3 and 5, portentously titled “The Locked Room” and “The Secret Fate of All Life.” In both cases, Rust delivers monologues that have been singled out for ridicule, such as the following:
I have seen the finale of thousands of lives, man. Young, old, each one was so sure of their realness, that their sensory experience constituted a unique individual; purpose, meaning, so certain that they were more than just a biological puppet. Truth wills out, everybody sees once the strings are cut off all down.
Excerpted and introduced with a knowing wink, of course such dialogue can easily be dismissed as “a mash-up” of Nietzsche, Lovecraft and Ligotti. I don’t know much about Lovecraft or Ligotti (and I’m not convinced Emily Nussbaum does either), but the dismissive reference to Nietzsche strikes me as gratuitously careless. For starters, the show has a more than merely allusive relationship with Nietzsche. Just before Hart kills him, the initial murder suspect Reginald Ledoux tells Cohle, “Time is a flat circle,” to which Cohle responds “What is that, Nietzsche?” Later (actually it comes earlier in the show’s narrative), Cohle quotes back the “flat circle” comment to the detectives questioning him, adding his own interpretation that “Everything we’ve ever done, or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again.”
In this interpretation, the flat circle has implications similar to those of Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal recurrence, which holds that the life we lead will recur identically for all eternity. The idea can be categorized as nihilistic insofar as it denies the prospect of supernatural salvation, and precludes any possibility of escape from nature. On the other hand to affirm it, Nietzsche thought, was to affirm the ultimate, eternal significance of every moment of the life one actually leads.
What if Nietzsche were a police officer in present-day New Orleans? More than any of his specific ideas, this is the question True Detective explores through Rust. 2 Many of the early scenes in the show establish Rust as a harsh fatalist intent on delivering the news that God is dead (so to speak) to his incredulous partner. Not only does Cohle not believe in salvation, he disbelieves in love (“I don’t think a man can love,” he says after Hart asks if he thinks it’s possible to be in love with two women at once, in one of the show’s funniest exchanges) and considers individuality to be an illusion. This is what the first quotation above is about. People believe that they are unique individuals, he says; in fact we are nothing but “biological puppets.” Only just before death does it become clear that
You, yourself, this whole big drama, it was never anything but a jerry-rig of presumption and dumb will and you could just let go, finally know that you didn’t have to hold on so tight. To realize that all your life, you know, all you love, all you hate, all your memory, all your pain: it was all the same thing. It was all the same dream, a dream you had inside a locked room, a dream about being a person.
Together, the two monologues combine classical philosophical skepticism—here Cohle sounds notes from Berkeley or Descartes, while the first speech is closer to Nietzsche and Hume—with a more familiar scientific determinism. Based on our senses alone, there is no way we can be sure that life is anything other than a dream or a delusion; based on what science tells us, it seems unlikely that our notions of individuality and free will are anything more than convenient fantasies.
Now, one might certainly disagree with such ideas—not only do they conflict with common sense, and with our common experience of the world, they are also subject to serious philosophical objections. However to dismiss them as shallow or nonsensical is not only irresponsible, it risks completely missing the challenge the show poses to us in the form of Rust’s character. Although True Detective has sometimes been criticized for failing to offer a robust counter-argument to Rust’s skepticism (“That’s above my pay grade” says one of the detectives in response to the flat circle speech), the truth is that not even professional philosophy has offered convincing responses to it. Contra the exertions of a Descartes or a Kant, it remains open to the modern (that is, secular) skeptic to say, as Rust does to Hart at one point, that the only difference between himself and those who find meaning in family, love, individuality, or spirituality is “denial.”
At the same time, looking forward to the last episode, I wonder if the true counter to the skeptic’s philosophy has been coming this whole time from Rust himself. When Hart asks Rust in Episode 3 why, if he believes what he believes, he hasn’t killed himself, he answers that he doesn’t have the constitution. But Rust, despite his skepticism, seems to value something that goes by the name of “commitment.” Hence the black comedy of his congratulation to Hart after he shoots a defenseless Ledoux in the head: “It’s nice to see you commit to something.” His obsession with commitment is actually what distinguishes Cohle from the other characters on True Detective. The rest of the police officers, for instance, are just doing their jobs; Rust is committed to his (he does not “let go” of the case at hand whether he receives a paycheck and a desk at the precinct office or not). This is in tension although not entirely inconsistent with Cohle’s Nietzschean worldview; indeed, some Nietzsche commentators have argued that to affirm the eternal recurrence is precisely to realize one’s ultimate responsibility for the commitments one makes, and fails to make.
Perhaps most significantly for the thematic development of the show as a whole, Cohle, like Nietzsche, is extremely sensitive to the ways in which human beings will tend to mask from themselves the reality of their predicament. The most revealing moment in Episode 7, from the philosophical perspective, was Hart and Cohle’s interview of Delores Jackson, an elderly black woman, formerly employed by the Tuttle dynasty that they believe to be at the center of a series of ritualistic kidnappings and murders. Toward the end of the interview, after Cohle shows Delores some drawings meant to jog her memory, she begins to shake and chant the hectic chorus: “Rejoice, death is not the end!”
The scene is unnerving enough that it can be easy to miss (as Hart does) the significance of the words. If, as seems likely, Delores is repeating a refrain from the rituals she witnessed as a younger woman, then we are being alerted to what connects the murders at the heart of the mystery with the show’s other depictions of human denial and delusion. On the steps outside her house afterwards, Cohle tells Hart that he hopes Delores was “wrong about death not being the end of it.” The sentiment is aimed less at the belief that life may go on after death (the “flat circle” is after all a variant of this belief), than it is at anyone who would “rejoice” at the prospect of a second life, or assume that it could release them from responsibility for their actions in this one.
It is not, in other words, the biological insignificance of human life that motivates the murderers, but their refusal to come to terms with that insignificance. Likewise Hart’s serial betrayals of his wife and family, his fits of inattention and laziness on the job, and his inability to see women as anything other than innocents or sex objects. In a telling early scene with his wife, Hart reveals an almost childlike fear of aging; that is, of mortality. But this acknowledgment is only momentary (and not coincidentally followed by sex); for the most part, Hart is in denial about what he is afraid of, with disastrous result for all around him.
It is not immaterial that Rust is presented, as Chotiner and Myron point out, as a damaged and isolated man, whose philosophical outlook was likely informed by the death of his daughter and the disintegration of his marriage. But this does not invalidate that philosophy; it simply shows the kinds of facts it is capable of accounting for. True Detective, that is, does not argue for the reality of death; the occupation of its main characters, not to mention the show’s haunting opening scene, presupposes it. Yet it draws a line between a detective whose curiosity stops at the edge of his illusions, and the “true detective” who refuses, as Rust tells Hart in Episode 7, to avert his eyes. Rust is certainly not portrayed as a happy man—and yet he is, as Maggie observes at one point, “responsible.” This means, particularly, that he does not delude himself about what he is responsible for. One thing he believes he is responsible for is the “circle of violence and degradation” that has afflicted his community, if only in the sense that it may lie within his power to “tie it off.”
I am aware that none of this can convince a skeptical viewer of the philosophical seriousness of True Detective. Ultimately, there is no way to prove that the show is truly philosophical as opposed to being, as Slate’s Willa Paskin puts it, “pretentious in a nonsensical way.” My suggestion is just that, to not take the philosophy in the show seriously, is to not take the show seriously. It seems plain to me that True Detective means what it says; the least we can do—at least those of us who have felt the show’s ability to disturb and challenge us—is refuse the temptation to deny it.