I recently binged all of HBO’s True Detective. Though not perfect, the show is gorgeous and full of enough mystery and symbolism to keep me puzzling over it long after I was finished watching. Nic Pizzolatto’s writing and the performances by Woody Harrelson as Marty Hart and Matthew McConaughey as Rust Cohle make this a really memorable piece of work.
After heading online to read what other people had to say, I was surprised to find that some viewers and critics found the show boring or disappointing – especially the season finale. These criticisms didn’t make sense until I realized that most people probably came to the show thinking that it would be a mix between psychological horror and police procedural. It’s not an unreasonable expectation, given that True Detective is influenced by the grit of Pulp Detective Fiction, cult horror classics like The King in Yellow and authors like Thomas Ligotti. If viewed through that lens, True Detective is filled with too much philosophical mumbo-jumbo and offers an unsatisfying resolution to the core mystery. Maybe it’s just an unhealthy tendency to obsessively over analyze, but I viewed the show as a modern retelling of the Theseus and the Minotaur Myth where instead of two Athenian kids facing down a monster in a labyrinth, two Southern detectives face down a monster… in a labyrinth.
Why don’t you start askin’ the right fuckin’ questions?
– Rust Cohle
True Detective is not a linear story. It flashes forward and backward in time, winding through almost 20 years in the lives of Detectives Hart and Cohle. It twists around and around in search of answers, but the questions always seem to be shifting. At the outset of the show the question is clear: who murdered former prostitute Dora Kelly Lange and used her dead body as an art project? As straightforward as that question seems, it quickly leads to others. Are previous unsolved murders connected to the Dora Lange case? Why is Rev. Tuttle so interested? Why the pressure to hand it off to a special task force? Should the detectives obey the letter of the law or the spirit of the law to get the information they need? Underneath all these surface level questions lies the real mystery at the center of the series: what is the true nature of Evil? (I’m using the capital “E” Evil here because I mean the big concept of evil, not any one particular act of evil doing.) The detectives need an answer to this question in order to find the killer’s motivation and track him. They need it in order to understand the clues that he has left behind. After a new killing comes to light decades after they believed the original killer to be dead, Hart and Cohle need to know the answer to this for personal as well as professional reasons; they are both haunted by the evil they have seen in the course of their careers. By the mid-point of the show both Cohle and Hart have both killed in the line of duty and lied about it. They need validation that they are different from the other bad men in the world, that there was truth in the justice that they meted out as agents of the law. For all the twists and turns in the investigation, the desire to understand and define Evil is the question that drives Detectives Hart and Cohle and, in turn, the entire series. All the other questions are false paths or dead ends in a dark and confusing labyrinth.
Someone once told me, “Time is a flat circle,” everything we’ve ever done or will do we’re gonna do over and over again.
- Rust Cohle
One of the key symbols in True Detective is a spiral. It first appears on the Dora Kelly Lange’s corpse 1995, but it pops up elsewhere in the investigation, as a tattoo on a suspect, and in the shape of a flock of birds as it flies over the abandoned church.
A spiral is defined by the fact that it is open, rather than closed. A spiral is a line that circles itself, winding and growing but always retaining the exact same shape. It’s the repetition of a spiral that evokes a sense of inevitability. Once the pattern is established, it will never change. The idea of spirals and repeated patterns doesn’t just appear visually in True Detective – it also comes up in language and thought, most notably in Cohle’s rambling interview responses, where he says, “Someone once told me ‘time is a flat circle.’ Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over again.”
The spiral is also significant in that it is a naturally occurring shape. We see it in everything from a nautilus shell to the Milky Way galaxy. We also see it in hurricanes, which come up repeatedly in True Detective. Though we don’t see or experience hurricanes Rita, Andrew or Katrina in True Detective, they are all mentioned by name. These storms force residents of the Gulf Coast into an unending cycle of destruction, loss and rebuilding. They also provide a key plot point by destroying evidence held by the police and paper files held by Reverend Tuttle.
Hart and Cohle enter their own cycle of destruction and rebuilding when they see the spiral drawn on Dora Kelly Lange’s corpse and they spend twenty years spinning around that central point. Over the course of the show we see two cycles in the investigation of the same crime. The two detectives follow the same trajectory in both 1995 and 2012: a murdered woman, an uneasy partnership, a growing trust, a breakthrough after months of investigation, a step outside the boundaries of the law to catch the killer and finally, a feeling of dissatisfaction even after thwarting a killer and being lauded as heroes. The show drives home the idea of repetition and inevitability by using the same characters from 1995 to act out the 2012 portion of the story. Hart’s wife and daughters, Reverend Tuttle, the revival preacher and the girl from the trailer park brothel are all slightly different than when we first saw them, but they still have roles to play. They are trapped in this same spiral just as much as Detectives Hart and Cohle.
Most importantly for our analysis, a spiral is also a labyrinth; the open end is an invitation to follow the curved path of empty space between the lines. It’s notable that the season finale of the show is named “Form and Void,” a title that could be a description of the actual labyrinth through which Hart and Cohle chase the killer – the form being the walls of the labyrinth and the void being the dead space between. That negative space is where Hart and Cohle live and work. It’s the space between what is known and what is yet to be discovered, what is legal and illegal, what is right and what is wrong. In modern English the words labyrinth and maze are synonymous, but in classical terms there is a distinction between the two. A maze is a puzzle with multiple paths and choices of direction. A labyrinth is a shape with a single, non-branching path that leads to the center. It supports the idea that there is a single, inevitable truth to be found if one only follows the path all the way to the end. The viewers, like the detectives, want there to be a central truth, a clear answer at the end of the long and winding investigation, but sometimes a singular answer does not provide solace or resolution.
It was all the same dream, a dream that you had inside a locked room…and like a lot of dreams there’s a monster at the end of it.
- Rust Cohle
In the detective genre the term “monster” is nearly synonymous with the concept of big Evil – it’s not tossed around for street thugs who kill over drug deals gone bad or squabbling in-laws who shoot one another over a borrowed car. “Monster” is reserved for those who commit the most heinous of crimes: the rapists, the torture artists, the child killers. True Detective operates under the same rules. We see a parade of terrible people doing terrible things, but there’s only one individual referred to as a “monster.” It’s not even Reverend Tuttle, he of the child porn tapes. “Monster” is reserved rather for Errol Childress: the man with the scars, the man that Hart and Cohle chase through a labyrinth and kill.
The most famous labyrinth in the Western world is the Cretan Labyrinth, designed by the architect Daedalus to hold the Minotaur. Being the product of bestiality, the Minotaur fits the classical definition of a Monster, but he is also the living reminder of the sins of his father, King Minos. When he ascended to the throne of Crete, King Minos was obligated to sacrifice a beautiful white bull to show honor to the gods. Being greedy, King Minos ignored his duty and kept the bull for himself. The gods had their revenge on the selfish king. They made his wife, the queen, lust after the great white bull so much so that she copulated with it and birthed a deformed child with the head of bull and the body of a man. The Minotaur’s deformity and his entire existence is a direct result of his father’s greed and selfishness.
In True Detective, Errol Childress, the scarred man, also bears the sins of his father and grandfather. In episode 7, Hart and Cohle learn that Errol is the illegitimate grandchild of a member of the wealthy and powerful Tuttle family. If Sam Tuttle, Errol’s grandfather, had not been so sexually greedy and fond of philandering, there wouldn’t be a murderous bastard grandchild on the loose in the bayou. Like the Minotaur, Errol Childress also has a facial deformity that can be traced to his father. In talking to a former Tuttle family domestic servant, Hart and Cohle learn that Errol’s father burned him when he was just a child, giving him his trademark scars.
Both the Minotaur and Errol Childress are monsters and both fit the big “E” definition of evil; they are murderous, incestuous, the products of brutality and bestiality. Though they are removed from society these monsters still exact their tolls. In the Minotaur myth, every seven years the city of Athens chooses seven youths and seven maidens to be eaten by the Minotaur or die while lost in the labyrinth. Similarly, Errol Childress abducts and murders his young victims on a schedule and with a great deal of ritual. When Detective Cohle chases Errol into a series of labyrinthine tunnels we see what appears to be a human skeleton with antlers wrapped in a shroud, a pile of children’s clothes and an altar made of branches and human skulls. Errol’s labyrinth is a final resting place for sacrificed children, just as much as the labyrinth of the Minotaur. Both places are shrines to death of innocents and the endurance of Evil. A chosen few enter, but only the monsters survive.
In most myths resolution comes with the death of a monster, but True Detective subverts this pattern. Hard and Cohle slay monsters in both 1995 and 2012, but they do not gain any satisfaction or resolution from their heroic deeds. If True Detective followed a standard narrative, the story would have ended in 1995 after the Detectives killed the bad guys and rescued a little girl. Instead, this “success” leads to a collapse of the partnership and further doubt and unease about the morals by which they live. No one else seems to notice it, but the detectives know theirs is a tainted victory. In truth, they didn’t really save the children they found. The boy was already dead when they arrived and the girl was irreparably damaged by her abuse. Cohle is particularly haunted by his actions, and the incomplete nature of his victory. When recounting the incident he says, “and that little boy and that little girl, they’re gonna be in that room again, and again, and again, forever.” In 2012, Hart and Cole chase Evil again, but this time there are no innocents to save. No children to rescue. The second time around, the Detectives want something more than to save people or protect their community. They want the truth about Evil, they want an answer to the question that haunted them for 20 years: why does Evil exist? When Hart and Cohle find and kill Errol, the physical embodiment of Evil, they find no answers. The center of the labyrinth may have held the monster, but it was devoid of the truth that they so desperately sought.
We don’t need to look to fiction to understand why catching a flesh and blood monster isn’t satisfactory. In real life, the government captured, tried and convicted Jeffrey Dahmer. Top forensic psychologists spent months questioning Dahmer, trying to learn what drove him to torture, rape, kill and eat his victims before decorating his home with their bones. Their interviews gave us more detail than anyone would want to know about these activities, but left us with no more insights as why such an Evil exists in the world. Capturing this real life monster left us with a few more tools in our psychological profiling kit, but it left the good people of the world just as powerless as we were before. We have as much hope of stopping the next serial killer as we do of stopping the next hurricane that will hit the Gulf coast. Evil is a cycle, a spinning force of nature repeating the same patterns over and over again. It cannot be stopped permanently, but it can be contained by structures like the labyrinth and held in check by men like Theseus and Detectives Hart and Cohle.
The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.
- Rust Cohle
Detectives Hart and Cohle are bad men in the position to do bad things. As Cohle points out to a prostitute, “Of course I’m dangerous. I’m police. I can do terrible things to people with impunity.” It’s a common theme in pulp and detective fiction that in order to stop criminals the men who chase them must become equally as brutal. What makes True Detective unique is that it doesn’t focus on the morality of Hart and Cohle’s decisions. It remains focused on the bigger question: Why does Evil exist? If Evil did not exist, there would be no need for men like Hart and Cohle voluntarily spend decades of their lives chasing it. If there were no monsters, we would need no labyrinths to contain them and no heroes to slay them.
In the Minotaur myth the hero is Theseus, a brave youth who volunteers to kill the Minotaur in order to end the practice of sacrificing boys and girls to him year after year. Cohle clearly fills this role in True Detective, being the driving, obsessive force who runs headlong into the labyrinth in pursuit of the monster. But it’s Hart who fills a more quiet, but equally important role: that of Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos who falls in love with Theseus and gives him the ball of string he uses to make it out of labyrinth alive. For all the jokes about the “bromance” in True Detective, there’s no denying that Hart and Cohle are involved in a meaningful relationship. On Cohle’s side, the interest seems largely driven by utility at first – Hart is a good partner and does solid police work. Hart’s interest in Cohle is a little more enigmatic. Hart is well respected by his superiors. He’s on track to rise through the ranks of the police force, should he want to, and yet he chooses to partner with Cohle, an obvious trouble maker. Cohle bothers him on a visceral level, challenging Hart’s religion and calling him on the hypocrisy of spouting family values while cheating on his wife. There seems to be no gain for Hart in maintaining his partnership with Cohle, and yet he chooses to follow him into the labyrinth once in 1995 and again in 2012.
In his interviews, Hart fancies himself a great judge of character, but ends up telling us more about his own nature than he does about anyone else. He is a man who knows what matters in life, what keeps people tethered to their communities and responsibilities. In the first episode, he describes the problem with Cohle by saying, “Past a certain age, a man without a family can be a bad thing.” In a later portion of the interview, he talks about his security business and Private Investigative work telling the younger detectives, “once you’re out [of the police work], you have to stay busy. Most end up in the cemetery.” Both are good pieces of advice, but Hart isn’t great at following through on them. He loses his family through infidelity and his retirement is far less busy than he would have people believe. Still, he can see the thread that ties people and society together, just as clearly as Cohle can see the spiral pattern of the universe. Theseus and Ariadne, Hart and Cohle, both pairs of characters need each other in order to kill monsters and live to tell the tale.
One of the first things Cohle says upon waking up in the hospital after killing Errol Childress is, “We didn’t get them all.” Even fresh from a coma Cohle knows that the job of slaying Evil is not done. It is Detective Hart, the man who holds the string, the man who knows the way out of the labyrinth and back to society, who keeps Cohle from getting sucked into his destructive spiral again by reminding him, “but we got ours.”
Detectives Hart and Cohle have done their time as bad men guarding the labyrinth. They’ve played their part and in turn, the job has taken a toll on them. By the end of the show Hart is gone to seed, divorced and estranged from his daughters. Cohle is a suicidal alcoholic. The only way for them to have a happy ending is to step away from the chase, to stop running down the same path only to find a different monster at the end each time. There are other, younger men like Detectives Papania and Gilbough to guard the labyrinth and fight the monsters. In time they too will age or die and the cycle will begin again with new names, new faces, new monsters. Time is a flat circle and this story is another version of a myth about a labyrinth, a monster to be slain, and two people searching for a way out.