‘True Detective’: Time is a Flat Circle.

Season 1 Analysis, Part 1

True Detective is an HBO anthology series made up, currently, of 3 seasons. Each season chronicles different crimes, start to finish, with an alternate cast of actors portraying entirely new characters in new settings. The initial eight-part mini-series (now known as season 1), which aired in 2014, is set in Louisiana, USA. Season 1 follows a pair of homicide detectives, Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson), as they investigate a case which begins with the discovery of a murdered prostitute.

The show marks True Detective writer/producer Nic Pizzolatto’s debut as a screenwriter. Previously, he worked as a professor of literature and creative writing at Indiana University and is also a published fiction author. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Pizzolatto said that his approach toward writing for the screen was the same as that for writing novels, which may explain the complexity, detail, and heavy symbolism in his screenplay. 

The Gothic aspects of the series are presented as eternal, universal, and contextually realistic, resulting in an affective and lasting portrayal of what the Gothic may mean in a contemporary, Southern setting. Today on Generally Gothic, this is what we will begin to explore through a close textual analysis of True Detective, Season 1.

© Generally Gothic | True Detective Stills, HBO

In the same aforementioned Rolling Stone interview, Pizzolatto is referred to as having  “a serious Faulkner jones” – in other words, a fascination with the literary style and works of William Faulkner, the widely accepted progenitor of the Southern Gothic subgenre.

Stylistically, the influence of Faulkner upon Pizzalotto’s writing is apparent, not only in the multiple narrative voices, but also in the fragmented temporal order of True Detective, which is reminiscent of Faulkner’s novels As I Lay Dying (1930) and The Sound and the Fury (1929). The series has a story duration of 17 years, but a relatively short plot duration, as the majority of the events occur in flashbacks; the interviews hosted by sergeants Papania and Gilbough create a narrative framework, providing reason for Hart and Cohle to tell their stories.

In addition to being split into three separate time periods, the narrative explores the principles of time in a wider sense. Rust Cohle adopts a theory, popularised in modern Western civilisation by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, known as Eternal Recurrence. In the following clip from episode 5, which is entitled ‘The Secret Fate of All Life’ Cohle explains his take on the theory. 

‘The Secret Fate of All Life’, True Detective S1:E5, HBO.

As he explains in his monologue, Rust believes time to be eternally cyclical. Literally speaking, his existence in the world inhabited by the audience conforms to this theory. As a fictional character, he is destined to relive “every pain and every pleasure […] every hope and every error”, as described by Nietzsche, for all eternity. In Gothic terms, however, this monologue encourages the audience to consider the repetition of their own lives, introducing an element of discomfort which, on a personal level, is more chilling than the crimes depicted by the show.

During this clip, Rust poses the rhetorical question: 
“Why should I live in history?”
This may be interpreted as an expression of his displeasure at the way in which society refuses to learn from its mistakes. In light of this statement, Rust’s subscription to the theory of Eternal Recurrence seems pessimistic; it is as though he feels unable to alter anything on a significant scale, and therefore resigns himself to the reality of eternal, human suffering.

In The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzsche wrote:
“A chorus of natural beings live, ineradicably, behind all civilisation and remain eternally the same, despite the changes of generations and of the history of nations.”
As a well-read man, with a clear interest in philosophical reasoning, Rust’s question (that is: “Why should I live in history?”) appears to be a direct response to the German philosopher. Rust is aware that historical and generational anomalies do not affect the repetition of life’s order and thus no longer wishes to be a part of it.

Rust’s emotion is reflected in the iconography of this scene. As this still (bottom left within image below) demonstrates, Rust appears deflated, fatigued and disinterested. In a 2014 interview, McConaughey claims that, by this point, Rust has “lived longer than he’d hoped.”
Set in the 2012 narrative framework, the shelving space behind him is filled with outdated technological equipment and papers filed for storage. The screen space is permeated with greyness. Rust’s clothing, hair and even his skin, due to the large tattoo on his arm (unfortunately not visible in this precise still) maintain the colour scheme. The effect is that Rust becomes associated with the similarly grey background; the implication of this, is that he is becoming, or will eventually become a forgotten piece of history, like the artefacts behind him, having made little discernible change on a grand scale, as the circle begins again.

© Generally Gothic | True Detective Stills, HBO | Meme, unknown

The problem, which the character faces then, is that, despite his apparent disinterest and disdain for the world, he sincerely cares about the murder case, so much so that he dedicates 10 years of his personal life to it, in addition to the 7 professional years.

As the True Detective narrative progresses it becomes apparent that the character’s reflective philosophical tendencies do not result in a wholly self-serving individual. Pizzolatto confirms this in interview, stating that “if Cohle is a supposed nihilist, he is a phenomenally unsuccessful nihilist. He’s too passionate.”

As depicted by the image on the right (within the image above), McConaughey, who plays Rust, is a more literal victim of the flat circle of time, as True Detective marks the third time which he has acted alongside his co-star, Woody Harrelson. The middle shot is taken from Surfer, Dude (2008), the final is from Edtv (1999), with the top image, of course, being from True Detective. Initially intended as an amusing aside, the similarity in the screen spaces of these three shots, whilst by no means affirming, are rather worryingly reminiscent of Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence theory.

© Generally Gothic | True Detective Stills, HBO

Whilst no implications that the actor, Matthew McConaughey, experienced an existential crisis whilst playing the character, Rustin Cohle, are intended, there is an arguably Gothic suggestion in comparing the two when considering Austrian psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud’s ideas of doubling. This connection is to be considered as revealing the realism in the elements of Rust’s character, which initially may be perceived as fantastical, or overindulgent.

In ‘The Uncanny’ (1919), Freud writes that the double, which is “to be considered identical by reason of looking alike […] possesses knowledge, feeling and experience in common with another person, so that his self becomes confounded, or the foreign self is substituted for his own – in other words, by doubling, dividing and interchanging the self”.

In an interview, McConaughey revealed that he created a 450-page character profile on Rust, which, amongst other things, differentiated between what he refers to as ‘The Four Stages of Rustin Cohle’ in order for the actor to better understand and portray the character’s progression. McConaughey determined that his interest in the role was due to the character’s “clear obsessions”.

In his own words, he states that, in Cohle, he found “somebody where I could grab a-hold of their obsessions and get drunk on them.” McConaughey, by his own admission, approached the role with the same ardour that his character displays in his detective work. To complete this parallel, Marty mentions, in the first episode, that his partner is pejoratively referred to as ‘The Tax Man’ by his peers, due to the fact that he records everything in a large notebook which he is rarely seen without.

As well as meticulously recording information of his own, Rust is portrayed as a well-read character. Piles of books are visible in his apartment and also in the storage locker which he uses as an office whilst working on the case, post-employment. Amongst Rust’s collection is an anthology of works by American poet, Theodore Roethke.

Roethke’s two most famous poems, ‘In a Dark Time’ (1963) and ‘My Papa’s Waltz’ (1942), are strikingly relevant to the themes discussed in True Detective. In the pictured (above) excerpt from the first poem, the question “Which I is I?” is posed. In relation to the implications of The Uncanny this line highlights issues of self and identity, which, is a more prosaic way of interpreting Freud’s theory, in comparison to its Gothic applications. The poem’s narrator goes on to say:
“The mind enters itself, and God the mind,/And one is One.”
Through the imagery of union, this passage neatly coincides with the doubling of McConaughey and Cohle.

© Generally Gothic | True Detective Stills, HBO

Alternatively, when considered in the context of True Detective alone, these lines can be read as a reference to the symbolism of Rust as representative of God/Jesus, which surfaces, at points, in the series. Through his philosophical monologues and implied extensive research, True Detective can be read as a Bildungsroman, or journey of growth for Rust, who, through his relationship with Marty, ends the series in a more emotionally positive place than where he began.

The line “God the mind” mirrors Rust’s enlightened view that those answers which are in existence, can be found through knowledge and attention. In this phrase, the word ‘God’ can almost be read as a verb, as in ‘to master the mind.’ Perhaps then, the implication is that mastering the self is the only chance one has of combating the various forms of monsters that life presents. Generally speaking, however, the bookish quality of Rust’s character, completes the cyclical interest in literature apparent in True Detective, which begins with Faulkner, who influenced Pizzolatto, who created Rust, who became a subject of research for McConaughey.

Come back next week for Part 2, where we complete the analysis of True Detective Season 1 with an exploration of the eternality of the Gothic.
In the meantime, check out the first of July’s Southern Spell series of blog posts:
‘Between One Cap and One Period: Reading William Faulkner’.
Or, run away with the circus with June’s Circus of Horrors series of blog posts:
‘Found Circus Photographs: Forgotten in the Mitten Interview’,
‘Sawdust & Sequins: The Art of the Circus’,
‘Beneath the Big Top: Interview with a Circus Artist’, and
‘The Gothic History of the Great, American Freakshow’.

2 thoughts on “‘True Detective’: Time is a Flat Circle.

  1. Love the analysis! When I saw the series, I loved Rust from the first chapter, I thought it was a very interesting character. But, honestly I didn’t thought about analyzing him from a Gothic point of view, this was mind blowing to me! I had not noticed the quotes he used and the authors he had read.
    I had to watch the first season of the serie for a Narrative II class, I loved it, so I chose to write an essay about it. I focused on the symbolism used in the representation of Carcosa and the inspiration for the Yellow King.
    I love reading your articles, I will look forwards to read the next discussion!


    1. Thank you! Yes, I dove in pretty deep! 😀
      Oh, cool! That sounds fascinating. Does narrative class look at stories across media? I read ‘The King in Yellow’ after watching ‘True Detective’; I really enjoyed it, but honestly can’t remember any specific associations or realisations it lead to… I’ll have to check my copy and see if I left any notes for myself!
      Also, sorry I took ages to reply – I didn’t get a notification of your comment for some reason.


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