True Detective and Breaking the Hard-Boiled Code

Of all the genres used in True Detective, hard boiled detective fiction is the most easily recognizable. Detectives Marty Hart and Rust Cohle have front row seats to the graphic violence and systemic corruption in their city, making them cynical anti-heroes in the style of Phillip Marlow and Sam Spade. To hard boiled detectives, crime is not a disease; it is a symptom of human society. This bleak outlook affords the detectives little hope that solving crimes will do anything to better the world around them or fix the broken nature of modern society. Without hope of change, the world of the hard boiled detective becomes a type of limbo.

Stasis isn’t a problem for most hard boiled genre works, as they thrive off the friction between the dark and light halves of the protagonist’s nature, using that tension to keep audiences guessing if there is a line between good and evil that the detective is not willing to cross. hard boiled fiction always provides resolution to the case, but rarely allows the detective to resolve his own issues. If the detective experiences any personal growth in the course of the story, he risks upsetting the delicate balance of his world; therefore he remains cynical and removed, always questioning the motives of others, but never investigating what motivates his own behavior.

The static nature of a hard boiled detective’s character maintained through isolation and a personal moral code. Though he may have contacts in both the criminal world and the straight world, the detective is never fully in league with the criminals or the cops. He may have love interests or sidekicks, but the detective is ultimately a man who answers to no one except himself. True Detective breaks this convention by introducing dual protagonists, allowing the show to move beyond the limits of traditional hard boiled works and explore what happens when two detectives turn their investigative prowess on each other.

You don’t pick your parents and you don’t pick your partner.” – Marty Hart

At first Detectives Hart and Cohle seem to be polar opposites – Cohle is the disaffected loner and Hart is the jovial small town cop. Of the two, Cohle is a better fit for the hard boiled archetype of the too-smart-for-his-own-good cynic with a soft spot for dames. Under his folksy exterior, however, Hart is more like Cohle than he cares to admit. His life is segregated in to three parts: work, family and sex. The first two parts of his life are the socially acceptable aspects and he tolerates enough overlap in these areas, but just enough to keep up appearances. The third part of Hart’s life, his extra-marital relationships, are not socially acceptable and therefore are separated from his home or work life. In choosing to parse out his world this way, Hart ensures that no one around him ever has a full view of his life or his motivations. Some part of him is always hidden from his family, his coworkers and his lovers. Hart’s isolation is less overt than Cohle’s, but it is no less real.

The hard boiled detective’s isolation serves an important function. It separates him from friends, family or a spouse – anyone close enough to the detective to comment upon his personal code or try to influence it. As Hart notes, “People give you rules.” Operating in a moral gray area, the detective lives not by society’s rules, but by his own code of honor. This disregard of social norms is necessary for the detective to be effective, given that he operates in a world of corruption where the only person he can trust is himself. The problem with this personalized code of ethics is that without an external influence, it can become justification for self-serving behavior both on and off the job.

Without me there is no you.” – Rust Cohle

At the outset of the Dora Lange investigation, Hart and Cohle are firmly in hard boiled detective territory. They have their personal codes of ethics in place, allowing them freedom to work in gray zone between legal and illegal, moral and immoral. They put their considerable investigative skills to work on the case, but both men spend almost as much time questioning each other as they spend interviewing suspects. The detectives develop a familiarity that erodes the boundaries of their carefully constructed worlds. Cohle begins showing up at Hart’s house unannounced, eating his wife’s food, talking to his daughters and mowing his lawn. This proximity makes it hard for Cohle to ignore the damage done by Hart’s infidelities. Hart, in turn, invades Cohle’s boundaries by accompanying him on unauthorized undercover work, seeing the normally stoic and sober Cohle intoxicated, violent and disturbingly enmeshed with a brutal biker gang. Knowing the self-degradation Cohle is capable of leads Hart to worry about his partner’s mental stability. The more the two men see of one another’s lives, the better they become at questioning the faults in the other man’s code of ethics. It’s a vulnerability that is unnatural to a hard boiled detective’s refusal to conform to outside judgment and creates a tension between the two men that cannot be sustained.

The breakdown of Hart and Cohle’s partnership is spurred by two things: the events at the Ledoux compound in 1995 and Cohle’s sexual encounter with Hart’s wife in 2002. Detective Hart’s impassioned killing of Reggie Ledoux was right according to both his and Cohle’s moral codes, but it was legally wrong. The detectives work together to craft a lie that squares them with the law and turns them in to heroes. In committing to this falsehood, Hart and Cohle are forced to commit to each other. To remain clear of the law, maintain their jobs and positions in the community, both men must uphold the lie for the rest of their lives. This union festers over the next seven years as Hart and Cohle grow resentful of the debt that they owe each other.

When Hart starts cheating again in 2002, his wife Maggie is pushed to her limits. It’s unclear if she knows about the lie that binds her husband to Cohle, but she knows enough about the detective’s volatile relationship to turn it to her advantage. Maggie turns up on Cohle’s doorstep in tears, pleading with him to “be honest” with her – first about Hart’s philandering and later about his attraction to her. After they have sex, Maggie is the first to pull away. She reveals her intentions saying, “I’m sorry, but thank you… this will hurt him.” Maggie used Cohle to end her marriage, but unwittingly formed another, physical bond between the two detectives. Hart and Cohle are now bound together professionally and privately. To live with this situation, the detectives would have to alter their hard boiled codes and accept judgment from someone other than themselves and admit to their own failings. Hart and Cohle remain true to their hard boiled codes and end their partnership with blood, tears, and isolation.

What you were was never anything but a jury-rig of presumption and dumb will… and you could just let go.” – Rust Cohle

By the final episodes of the season, both Hart and Cohle have paid the price for living by their flawed personal codes. Both are tired, lonely and haunted by their legacy of loss and violence. Time has granted them much needed perspective on the fallout from the Ledoux compound raid. As younger men, Hart and Cohle were too wrapped up in defending their egos and their clashing moral codes to see the error in their detective work. Unable to let go of his guilt over his lost daughter and seeking redemption, Cohle returns to Louisiana to investigate the nagging link between the Tuttle family and ritual murder. When he reunites with Hart, the men make cursory jabs at each other, but strike up their partnership again with little resistance. Their desire for friendship, familiarity and their dedication to justice is finally greater than their need to remain isolated and static. Hart, in particular, is a much stronger detective. Freed from the pretense of being a family man, he kept up with the changing nature of detective work. In 1995 Cohle was the one to track down tax records and follow obscure leads, but in 2012 Hart is the detective with computer savvy and access to online databases of public records. He even makes the case-cracking connection between the “spaghetti monster with green ears” and the Childress family business, earning a grudgingly respectful “Fuck you!” from Cohle. Unburdened from the rigidity of their codes and working together, Hart and Cohle are better detectives and better prepared to face the Evil they find in Carcosa.

“I know who I am. And after all these years, there’s a victory in that.” – Rust Cohle

Ultimately, Hart and Cohle are not resigned to the hard boiled detective’s fate of ending the story right where it started, back on the job and awaiting another case. They began the story defined by their cynicism and isolation. They end the show physically broken, but psychologically mended and ready to share their lives with others. Hart’s family comes to visit him in the hospital, demonstrating that they still love him, not as a perfect father figure, but as a flawed man who happens to be a good cop. Upon waking from his coma, Cohle sees his reflection in the hospital window, superimposed over the lights of the city. He must accept that he is not a martyr figure separated from the society for which he tried to sacrifice himself. Cohle’s near death experience prompts a visceral memory of his daughter’s love and allows him to finally break his isolation, admit his grief to Hart and receive comfort and understanding at last.  Outside the hospital, the men look not at the world around them, but up at the stars. Freed from their self-created gray moral codes, they can see the difference between light and dark. Hart and Cohle are True Detectives, not because they solved a case or fixed a corrupt system, but because they resolved the conflict and dishonesty within themselves.

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Melissa Milazzo works in scientific publishing, but is neither a rocket scientist nor a brain surgeon. She spends far too much time with her nose in a book or a screen. The best place to keep track of her reading, writing and rants is She lives in San Diego, California with her novelist husband and two illiterate dogs.

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Also by Melissa Milazzo:

Time is a Flat Circle: Examining True Detective, Season One


1 Comment

  1. Niles Day says:

    Doña Milazzo, You Are One Bad Ass.

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