Nov 24, 2014

True Detective, ep. 1

The most interesting part of True Detective lies underneath the ritualistic violence, the multigenerational sex, and the harrowingly intense camerawork. There is something deep here, operating across episodes, mainly contained within the psyche of Rustin Cohle (or possibly Nic Pizzolatto). At this depth, True Detective is a redemption narrative (or even a story of Christian conversion, if you are so inclined).

This submerged story is a little off-kilter with the flashier goings-on. Most of its plot movement occurs before the show begins, it surfaces only rarely, and its climax occurs in the final scene of the final episode.

Yet when it does surface, it is entirely absorbing. The noir hard-boiledness and cajun hoodoo simply can't compete.

The first surfacing occurs as Rust and Marty drive away from the crime scene that entangles them in consuming mystery. The crime scene breaks Rust out of his generally silent melancholy; a punctuated monologue ensues:

Rust: I'd consider myself a realist, alright, but in philosophical terms I'm what's called a pessimist.

Marty: Um, okay, what's that mean?

Rust: It means I'm bad at parties.

Marty: Let me tell you – you ain't great outside of parties either.

Rust: 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.

Marty: That sounds god-fucking-awful, Rust.

Rust: We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self. A secretion of sensory experience and feeling. Programmed, with total assurance, that we are each some body. When in fact, everybody is nobody.

Marty: I wouldn't go around spoutin' that shit, I was you. People around here don't think that way. I don't think that way.

Rust: I think the honorable thing for our species to do is to deny our programming. Stop reproducing. Walk hand in hand into extinction. One last midnight; brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.

Marty: So, what's the point of getting out of bed in the morning?

Rust: I tell myself I bear witness. But the real answer is that it's obviously my programming. And I lack the constitution for suicide.

Marty: My luck, I picked today to get to know you. What was it, three months? I don't hear a word from you. And ...

Rust: You asked.

Marty: Yeah. And now I'm begging you to shut the fuck up.

Rust: I get a bad taste in my mouth out here – aluminum and ash. Like you can smell the psychosphere.

Marty: I got an idea – let's make the car a place of silent reflection from now on. Okay?

(catch the delivery here)

Marty is out of his depth, though he manages enough wit to close the conversation without getting sucked in to Rust's obsessive metaphysic. Excepting the "psychosphere" line (which is just jargon thrown in for good measure), Rust's position is clear:

  1. Rust is a nihilistic materialist. We are things, and beyond that we are things without meaning.
  2. We are programmed, so that even if we come to realize the truth of our situation, we are helpless to change it. Appropriately enough, this theme will keep cropping up.
  3. Despite the situation, Rust sees an out – voluntary extinction, a letting-go en masse. It is unclear if this would be better than the programmed status quo, or just different.

Interestingly, Rust maintains some normative constructs despite his nihilism, like natural law and honor. These concepts don't square neatly with his main thesis; instead, they suggest a cluttered mind. Rust is a very smart man who has seen a lot, done a lot, and read a lot. All of this has left him deeply pessimistic. His metaphysic is soaked in this pessimism, though the philosophy appears to have arrived after the experience. It is post-hoc, messy, and possibly circular.

Rust can outargue most people he meets (Marty certainly doesn't engage him). By the time of this monologue, he has sunk into nihilism for want of hope or competitive alternatives. However, this doesn't mean that the metaphysic is true. He has traded the uncertain hope of something better for the certainty of knowing how terrible things truly are.  It is the best he can bring himself to believe given his circumstance.

This will remain Rust's status quo for most of the show, yet it will be radically different by the end. But that is an analysis for another time.

[rereads: 2.5, edits: word cuts, man those webcite links suck but I'm not changing them]