True Detective: touch darkness and darkness touches you back

This post is inspired by Jaybercrow’s recent rare 6-monthly post about the bleak inheriting the earth.

true-detective-posterI watched True Detective with the rest of the family a while back – well we all watched it at different stages, sometimes together, and talked about it later: such is modern consumption of media! I’ve been meaning to blog about it since then but something has stopped me – something Jaybercrow put his finger on. There is a fairly vague spoiler ahead btw.

It is exceptionally powerful television. The desolate cinematography perfectly captures the sense of menace within lost backwaters of southern Louisiana in which cops Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaghey hunt a serial killer over 17 years. The foreboding soundtrack sets the scene for what follows – check out Far from any Road by the Handsome Family so see what I mean.

The plot isn’t unfamiliar: ritualistic murder, corruption, bad religion and politics. But what the writer, Nic Pizzolattto, managed to achieve brilliantly, is telling of the story of the compelling and complex relationship between Harrelson’s ‘Marty’ Hart and McConaghey’s ‘Rust’ Cohle.

Both actors give, I think, perhaps the best performances of their careers. Cohle’s relentless nihilism against family-man Marty’s flagrant hypocrisy sets up a narrative that shapes the whole series. That is, just below the surface of our apparently advanced ‘civilisation’ is a dark dark world: a world of violence, abuse, fear and horror in which the powerful take advantage of the weak with impunity. That darkness embraces individuals, the law, the church, the powerful, drug-dealers as well as obvious victims – murdered prostitutes and children.

Every major character is deeply flawed. But it is McConaghey’s Cohle who, alone, sees the world as it truly is. No-one can live with such searing ‘prophetic’ honesty – he can hardly live with himself.

And so the story under the story is whether there is any hope for McConaghey. And therefore is there any hope for any of us? That question is sort of answered in the last episode – of which a little more in a moment.

What’s so compelling about such a bleak tale? Well, its truth for one. ISIS? Indiscriminate killing by Drones? Child abuse covered up in Rotherham? In Ireland? A world in which the weak and vulnerable are ruthlessly exploited by the powerful with impunity. The sin and hypocrisy in my heart – and dare I say in yours. Law and politics, when working well, will never deliver utopia. At best, they will put boundaries on the depravity of the human heart and we fool ourselves if we believe otherwise.

Dwelling in such unremitting darkness feels true to life: it captures the reality of a globally twisted world that perhaps we now know far too much about. News about the darkness assaults our senses every day. It is compelling to watch someone like Rust Cohle face the darkness head on, with no illusions or sentimentality.

And it’s here that my ambiguity about watching True Detective comes from: there is such little light in TV series like these that they leave you in the dark. I’m thinking of other superbly made series like The Sopranos and the (Scandinavian) film / book series like Girl with a Dragon Tatoo, both of which I hugely ‘enjoyed’.

I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that there is a little shaft of light at the end of True Detective. But, for me anyway, it was unconvincing: the darkness had been so well drawn that the light felt contrived and out-of-place.

The gospel of Jesus Christ shares the truth that ‘Rust’ Cohle sees. Like him, it is not remotely sentimental or optimistic. Like him, it is unflinchingly realistic about human nature and the injustice and sin that is woven into all areas of life. But True Detective’s gospel struggles to get out of the darkness that is has so brilliantly described. It lurches, unconvincingly towards an illogical optimism.

Put it this way: Christian hope does not rest with you or me – or with ‘Rust’ Cohle or with any individual seeing life in a new way. Such hope is transitory, individualistic and ephemeral. But Christian hope is based on what God has done in history. It is not ‘cheap hope’ – but a deep hope that rests entirely on God’s victory over sin, evil and death at the cross and resurrection of his Son. It is only in God’s redemptive work that there is hope of the healing of this beautiful yet tragic world in which you and I live:

 “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.  (1 Cor 15:55-58)

 

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4 thoughts on “True Detective: touch darkness and darkness touches you back

  1. Thanks for these thoughts Patrick. Funny enough I’ve been watching True Detective as well (2 episodes to go) and it was partly in my mind as I wrote my blog post. Your post makes me reflect that in the absence of the gospel, despair and bleakness are the most truthful response to the world, and false optimism and contrived happy endings are inherently untruthful. But I’m still left wondering about the cumulative effect of immersing myself in these dark dramas. I guess I need to immerse myself more often in the “don’t be afraid” of the gospel!

    • Hope I haven’t given anything much away! Interesting to know what you make of the whole thing.

      McConaghey is, I think, quite brilliant : his character is almost Nietzschean (not sure how to spell that!) in his brutal honesty of life without God; yet he is also a seeker of justice. against those misusing power. Maybe the fact that writers don’t go all the way with Nietzsche is that it would become almost unwatchable / unbearable? To embrace total darkness leads to true nihilism and who can live with that? Nietzsche didn’t manage it and stay sane. I guess it would turn audiences off after a while. We need hope.

      Maybe positive way of looking at your question about dark dramas, is that they graphically remind us that the gospel addresses head on big, deep, powerful themes. It’s far more than personal fufilment or happiness.

  2. I was a bit irritated with the ending of true dectives even though I really enjoyed watching it and I couldn’t really figure out why. It felt a bit cheesy. But your sentence about it lurching toward an illogical optimism has perhaps put its finger on it.

    • Same : during the series it was McConaghey’s ‘true’ character that was the more attractive. I found myself rooting for him and hoping for some light and hope – I guess redemption is the word. Just when and how it came did, as you say, seem a bit cheesy.

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