True Detective: Existential Nihilism for the Masses

In his 1996 novel Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace has a seventh grader, Hal Incandenza, write an essay contrasting Hawaii Five-O and Hill Street Blues, an essay that ponders the evolution of American television heroes.

Remarkably observant, young Incandenza underscores sociological differences in the programs. For example, Five-O’s Steve McGarrett has the luxury of working on “one case per week” in an office that resembles “the libraries of the landed gentry, hushed behind two heavy doors and wainscoted in thick, tropical oak.” On the other hand, Hill Street’s Frank Furillo, a precinct captain, juggles several cases at once in the chaotic confines of a cluttered cubicle-crammed station house teeming with clashing personalities. Essentially, “McGarrett is not weighed down by administrative State-Police-Chief chores, or by females, or friends, or emotions, or any sorts of conflicting demands on his attention” whereas Furillo “is beset by petty distractions on all sides [. . .] with suspects and snitches and investigating officers and angry community leaders and victims’ families all clamoring for redress.”

Colbert Root in his Summer of Jest, a handy on-line scene-by-scene summary and analysis of the novel, recaps the essay for us:

Where McGarrett exemplifies the modern man of action, Hal argues, Furillo typifies a man of postmodern “reaction.” Both protagonists are heroes of their own show’s culture, but both are also ill-equipped for the other’s world. McGarrett, as the modern man of action, is single-minded, acting to “refashion a truth the audience already knows into an object of law, justice, modern heroism.” Contrariwise, Furillo succeeds because he is cast within a large system; he excels at being a cog in a very large and bureaucratic machine [. . .] That Furillo comes after McGarrett as a typical US protagonist reflects a shift in US cultural preferences. Audiences, Hal says, want the stoic bureaucrat. His successes and shortfalls more closely align with their own. But, Hal ponders, what comes next? What hero will succeed Furillo?

from left Rust (McConaughey) and Marty (Harrlesson)

from left Rust (McConaughey) and Marty (Harrlesson)

Well, if we look to the current HBO crime drama True Detective, the answer is Rust Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey), a nihilistic metaphysician, an agoraphobic detective who considers human consciousness “a tragic misstep in evolution” that enables us “to labor under the illusion of having a self” when we’re merely “accretions[s] of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody.”

This cat makes Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and Mike Hammer seem downright dewy in comparison. His partner Marty Hart (played by Woody Harrelson) considers Rust “the Michael Jordan of being a son-of-a-bitch,” and when Rust says shit like, “It’s all one ghetto, man, a giant gutter in outer space,” Marty virtually begs him to shut up. You see, despite having kinky handcuffed sex outside of his marriage, Marty is a family man, a Christian who holds essentially a Medieval view of the cosmos, a belief that divine reward or punishment keeps folks (though obviously not himself) in line. Rust responds, as you might expect, with scorn:

If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward then, brother, that person is a piece of shit. And I’d like to get as many of them out in the open as possible. You gotta get together and tell yourself stories that violate every law of the universe just to get through the goddamn day? What’s that say about your reality?

Set in the semi-industrialized backwoods of Louisiana, the narrative features superb characterization and brilliant acting as the two detectives try to solve a series of grisly ritualistic murders. So many symbolic crosses (e.g., aerial shots of perpendicular lines of trees) sneak into the story I can’t help but wonder if its creator, Louisiana fiction writer Nic Pizzolatto, is making some sort of statement.

Whatever the case, Rust is not the fellow you want your sons to grow up to be. He’s a bit of a throwback, a cross between Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man and a Zen Buddhist.

He’s also about as fascinating a character as television has ever produced.

2 thoughts on “True Detective: Existential Nihilism for the Masses

  1. WOW loved it hit nail on the head….so so good being with you all yesterday…;many many thanks again…..hugs all around

  2. Pingback: True Detective Revisited: The Fall of American Culture | You Do Hoodoo?

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