True Detective: Facing the Abyss

True Detective Poster 2

**Editor’s note: this article has been updated to reflect that the Carcosa mythology predates H. P. Lovecraft’s writings.**

Do you ever wonder if you’re a bad man?

No I don’t wonder, Marty.
The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men fro the door.

The dust settles on the first season of what has already become a landmark of great television. I’m talking of course about Nick Pizolloto’s True Detective, starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. True Detective began making waves in its first episode – what seemed to be a gritty noir turned out to be a slow-burn horror story.

As the series unfolded, those suspicions were confirmed by references to the realm of Carcosa and its ruler the Yellow King – inventions of a Lovecraft-esque horror author whose mythology has been added to, revised and enhanced by dozens of subsequent authors. And now, it seems, Nick Pizzollato is adding the story of Marty Hart and Rustin Cohle.

Turns out this is a horror show.

Turns out this is a horror show.

It turns out True Detective is a story about a man staring into the Abyss and finding salvation.

That man is Rustin Cohle (though Marty Hart undergoes a journey of his own). When we first meet Rust, he’s a self-described philosophical Pessimist. In practical terms, that means that Rust is an atheist who doesn’t think the world is going anywhere, that life has any purpose. As he puts it to an incredulous Marty:

I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law… We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, this secretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody when in fact everybody’s nobody… I think 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.

When Marty wonders how a man with such a worldview could even climb out of bed in the morning, Rust admits:

I tell myself I bear witness. The real answer is that it’s obviously my programming, and I lack the constitution for suicide.

True Detective Darkness PosterRust hides inside his philosophy. It insulates him from a world he finds intolerable.

As the show progresses, Rust confesses that his journey into darkness began at the death of his daughter, Sophia (Greek for ‘Wisdom’) and the subsequent disintegration of his marriage. Rust’s Pessimism is a response to his encounter with the Abyss, another philosophical metaphor coined by Nietzsche and embraced by Nihilism.

The Abyss is the nothingness Nihilists claim to be at the heart of human existence. Having lost his child to an accident (facing the Death of Wisdom), Rust attempts to embrace the Abyss, to surrender himself to a meaningless universe. Rust seems to believe this is the only comfort he can find. The other option would be to accept that his daughter’s life was either unimportant to some sort of Grand Plan or a necessary sacrifice.

This is Rust the Pessimist: a man who claims that human life has no meaning, no purpose. But does he really believe that?

She should be his hero. But he loathes her.

She should be his hero. But he loathes her.

Though we get hints throughout the show that Rust cares a lot more than a person of his avowed persuasion should, one particular scene proves Rust a liar. In the interrogation of a mother who’s killed all three of her children, Rust calmly and coolly offers this horrific woman equally horrific advice:

The newspapers are gonna be tough on you and prison is very very hard on people who hurt kids… If you get the opportunity, you should kill yourself.

Here is a woman who fulfills Rust’s initial profile. She has – with all three of her children – resisted the urge to reproduce, killing them each in their cribs in turn. A woman who will now march into oblivion.

And yet Rust does not praise her. Rust does not idolize her. He condemns her (and rightfully so!). In Rust’s condemnation, he proves that despite all his protestations to the contrary, human life still has significant essential value.

Rust finds meaning EVERYWHERE

Rust finds meaning EVERYWHERE

True Detective slowly and inexorably reveals that Rust is not in fact true to his words. He cannot escape the basic regard for humanity that drives him to excel as a detective. Whatever he says, his actions prove that – at least for him – life does in fact have ultimate meaning.

Only when we realize that Rust isn’t true does it become clear that True Detective’s central journey is Rust’s: his striving to find meaning in the face of the Abyss.

In the end, Rust’s journey becomes a secularized meditation on the Jesus story. In other words, Rust is saved by Jesus’ crucifixion.

In that episode 1 conversation, Mary inquires after the crucifix Rust has displayed on his wall – the one decoration in an otherwise stark apartment seems especially odd for a professed non-Christian. Rust tells Marty the cross is for meditation:

I contemplate the moment in the garden. The idea of allowing your own crucifixion. – Rustin Cohle

True Detective HeadlessRust is clearly no Christian – his visit to Rev. Theriot’s tent revival reveals his total disdain for all kinds of belief in God. And yet, Rust embodies Jesus in so many ways. He shows an uncanny ability to empathize with humanity, lending him a near-unparalleled skill in the interrogation room. And he sacrifices his whole life to the pursuit of justice for the Yellow King – this killer of women and children. Rust has abandoned everything in his search for this killer.

But it’s not until his final moments in Errol’s catacombs that, like Jesus wonder why God had forsaken him, Rust finally, truly faces the Abyss he thought he’d embraced.

The show wasn't too subtle, there in the end.

The show wasn’t too subtle, there in the end.

All of the cross imagery that’s been haunting Rust throughout the series culminates on Errol’s knife, when Rust’s quest comes to an end and he embraces the void.

Calling back to his meditation on Christ’s Cross, Rust tells Marty (reflecting back on that moment from the hospital) that he sensed something in the darkness of Death, a darkness deeper than the Abyss of nothingness. A darkness in which Rust could sense pure Love.

Rust surrenders himself to this Love, and on the other side of this death and resurrection, he is transformed. In the show’s final scene, just before this odd couple exits stage right, Rust makes one last observation that proves he’s no pessimist:

I tell you, Marty, I’ve been up in that room looking out those windows every night here and just thinking It’s just one story. The oldest. – Rust
What’s that? – Marty
Light versus dark.
Well, I know we ain’t in Alaska, but appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory…
You know, you’re looking at it wrong, the sky thing.
How is that?
Well, once, there was only dark. If you ask me, the light’s winning.

Rust’s journey isn’t quite Christian. The Loving Darkness Rust describes sounds more like Buddhism’s Nirvana than the Triune God revealed in the person of Jesus. But in allowing himself to be crucified – in giving his life for the good of those who can’t save themselves – Rust finds the answer to the Abyss. And this is a fundamentally Christian truth – acknowledged or not.

Because we bear the image of God, the value of human life is intrinsic and undeniable. To fight for light, to push back the darkness is heroic. It’s what makes a real detective.

BOTTOM LINE: True Detective affirms life in the face of death, finding hope in every act of resisting darkness, defying the Abyss.

YOUR TURN: What did you think of True Detective? Did you find Rust’s journey compelling?

Author: JR. Forasteros

JR. lives in Dallas, TX with his wife Amanda. In addition to exploring the wonders that are the Lone Star state, JR. is the teaching pastor at Catalyst Community Church, a writer and blogger. His book, Empathy for the Devil, is available from InterVarsity Press. He’s haunted by the Batman, who is in turn haunted by the myth of redemptive violence.

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  • Nathan Lee

    I found it interesting that many self proclaimed athiest viewers were angry with the end because they felt it was “Rust finds God” with a real Christian bent. I agree with your Nirvana view. Excellent series. Cant wait to rewatch while I wait for season 2.

    Arent The Yellow King and Carcosa actually pre-Lovecraftian. Lovecraft cited Chambers as an influenve

    • Oooh really!? I have my horror time-lines mixed up. Thanks. I’ll make the edit.

  • Scott Skinner

    I…have very different takes on this, that I’m sure can be attributed to both of us viewing the same events, through different lenses. First, this was my favorite TV series, ever. It appealed to both the actor, and cop, in me. This is precisely the kind of project I’d like be a part of as an actor, and exactly the kind of complex and serial case, I’d like to investigate. Though obviously I don’t wish this level of evil on anyone.

    Ok. I’m the polar opposite with you, as far as Rustin’s “empathy” is concerned. What I saw (and have seen, in real life interrogations) was not empathy, it was a predatory skill. It was not an ability to identify with a suspect, share a suspect’s view. If I may be allowed a weak analogy, does a lion empathize with its prey, at the moment of kill? No. The lion hides….watches….waits, then attacks. It knows its prey, from observation, and practice. I’ve seen this in investigators for most of my life. They do not feel empathy, but, they can use “empathy” as the blind behind which they conceal their attack.

    As far as the mother who murdered her children…I got a sense of disdain from him, toward her. That scene, to me, did not affirm Rustin’s belief in the sanctity of life. Quite the contrary, her actions cemented for him, his belief that humanity shouldn’t exist, and we should all march off together into extinction. What he was conveying, was his revulsion, his sense of injustice that his precious daughter was taken from him, while this woman simply murdered hers. What’s fair about that? He wasn’t goading the woman into killing herself as a means of righteous judgement…he wanted to kill her himself. It wasn’t fair she could destroy 3 children, while he had to accept his was gone. “Why did she get to have 3? Damn her, why does someone like that get 3 children to destroy? ” (quotes, my own). Basically, he knew he couldn’t choke the life out of her himself, right there, much as he wanted to. I’ve felt that way myself, more times than I can remember. He was chastising her…getting her to do to herself what he couldn’t inflict on her. It wasn’t about retribution for what she’d done to her children, or his championing a sanctity of life, it was because a person like her didn’t have the right to exist. He just couldn’t end her himself.

    • I don’t disagree with any of the statements you make – that Rust uses his empathy to catch bad guys (prey, whatever). But the fact of his uncanny ability to empathize is demonstrated and remarked on enough in the show that we all know it’s unusual.

      As for the mother – again, I agree. But if Rust were a true Nihilist, he wouldn’t care. That scene demonstrates (as you point out) that Rust has an innate sense of justice he can’t escape. Even if the bottom line for him is only “you can’t hurt kids” it’s a value.

  • Nathan Lee

    My bigger issue is that I want to keep going on this thread but need to finish Lent lesson prep for this weekend.

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  • LeaveWellEnoughAlone

    Great take. You put into words a lot of things that I’d long thought myself. I’ve harbored the suspicion since a few episodes in, that Cohle could have even once BEEN a Christian…who had lost his faith via a series of personal tragedies and events. In a way the disdain he shows for humanity (other than children…an important, also “Christ-like” trait. Think of Christ’s statement to his disciples to let the children come to him) could only be reached to his extent and in his particular way via a former Christian world view. I myself have often wondered how God could love a race so cruel and self-possessed. Frankly, the quarrels that go on inside a church about trivial things only serves to reinforce this. If HIS people act this way, what hope do we have that non-believers will act any better?

    Skinner, below, makes a few good points but I would counter his argument by pointing out that, when talking to Hart’s wife about his first on-screen infidelity, he notes that the children are the only reason for any of it…the whole “man/woman drama.” Women and children are the ONLY people to whom he shows any empathy at all.

    Sadly, even though I’m a believer, I’ve found myself spouting off much of the philosophy that Cohle did…not the extreme anti-natalism, but his general take on humanity…even to the point that friends and other people who know me have pointed it out. People are fallen, degraded beings and it’s difficult to reconcile our species’ willful degradation with the idea that there is a God who loves us anyway. Could Cohle’s harsh treatment of criminals be born out of a need to see justice NOW? That he can’t wait for some ephemeral future where they’ll finally get what’s coming to them? Could his disdain for humanity come partially from realizing that, after years of living undercover and succumbing to his own degradation, he is no better? Is his pessimism about the rest of humanity grow out of his own self-loathing?
    I’m not making a case that Cohle regained his faith at the end. I will suggest, however, that the slow journey to inner peace is at least now possible. I liked the end because it seemed real. The trip out of severe depression and back from the Abyss is a long, slow, difficult slog with plenty of set-backs along the way. Cohle is still Cohle at the end, but he’s a Cohle who has come to think that maybe…just maybe…finding those small specks of light is worth the crawl through the dark to get there.

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  • Rnickey Lidack

    The Abyss is the truth. Saying “no” to life because of that truth, is not the only choice. But saying “yes” is just as ridiculous. Because it denies the full reality of that truth. Saying “no” just gives in to it. Ultimately it’s just lazy and self-indulgent.

    The true answer lies elsewhere, if you’re brave enough to find it. All the bravery you’ve ever been entertained by, enticed by, or awed by, is childs’ play compared to this ultimate bravery.

    It is, quite simply, why we are here.

    If you choose Christianity, then have the bravery to see the story of Jesus of Nazareth as the tragedy it really is.

    This is all for nothing. But not the nothing you are thinking of.

    Then you may find true peace.