My Theory on the True Secret of True Detective
I’m weirdly obsessed with True Detective Season 1. I don’t usually get this way with things, but I’ve watched it three times so far. And I’ve come to believe in a weird idea about Rust Cohle and why he is the way he is.
I’m not the only person to have come up with this theory (if you poke around, there’s a reddit thread about it, and it turned up in an academic journal of all places), but I did come up with it independently. And needless to say, this is going to massively spoil the whole season for you.
Here’s the core of the theory: Rust Cohle, and certain other characters, are aware that they are characters in some kind of scripted drama.
How can I support that idea? I’m going to stay entirely within the text of the show itself, and not rely on anything said by writer Nic Pizzolatto.
Rust is Pretty Weird
This is one of the most distinctive qualities of the show, and a huge part of why I’ve inexplicably come to love it so much. But so what? Lots of shows have weird characters. The thing about Rust is that he talks like a character — melodramatic, flowery at times, ridiculously terse and badass at other times. And almost no one else talks like this. His manner of speaking stands in stark contrast with how everyone else speaks. In fact, one of the best, funniest moments comes from Marty reacting to Rust’s weird way of talking.
Rust: This place is like someone’s memory of a town. And the memory’s fading.
Marty: Stop saying shit like that. It’s unprofessional.
Did you ever try to talk like you’re a character in a movie? Say something really romantic or badass or clever? Sounded really weird, didn’t it? That’s how Rust sounds to everyone around him. They talk like real people because they don’t know that they’re characters in a show. Rust knows, so he’s free to offer all the philosophical monologues he wants.
Rust’s Philosophy Says So
Rust spends a lot of time telling Marty about his philosophical views, and even more time talking about them in the police interview. A lot of it is boilerplate nihilism and pessimism, but he also says a lot of things related to the world being an illusion. Like:
“All your life, all your love, all your hate, all your memories, all your pain, it was all the same thing. It was all the same dream, a dream that you had inside a locked room, a dream about being a person.”
Without quoting from every episode, Rust reiterates that theme a lot. That choice is an illusion. That we’re all playing parts. That time repeats itself.
Religious and Insane People Know Too
It wasn’t actually Rust that clued me into this theory, it was Theriot, the roadside revival preacher. On the third rewatch, I was listening to his sermon, happening mostly in the background, and he said something that was not your standard Bible-thumping brimstone preaching:
“This world is a veil and the face you wear is not your own.”
What? That is not your basic dogma. That was the moment I realized it. Theriot tries to deal with his awareness by letting other people know, through his sermons. When that’s no longer possible, he just becomes a drunk. He has no other way to cope with it. The other people who are aware are either insane, religious, or have used a lot of drugs. Reggie Ledoux talks about Carcosa (and he’s the one who tells Rust that “time is a flat circle,” more on that later). Childress is overtly aware of it, talking about ascending to a higher plane and perhaps even adapting to different personas as a manifestation of his awareness — he can act like a country hick, or talk in a British accent, or play the omnipotent villain at the end, all as ways to try and break the cycle, to say, “I know what’s going on and look, I can play any character I want.” In fact, the murderous behavior of Ledoux and Childress could be an attempt to break the cycle by committing actions so heinous and disturbing that they force the “writer” to change the script and end the cycle of repetition. Of course, that was in the script all along.
Rust’s Cosmology Isn’t Real
The first time you heard Rust say, “Time is a flat circle,” you probably figured that was something you’d skimmed over in A Brief History of Time, or some new string theory variant you hadn’t heard of. But that isn’t a real philosophical or cosmological concept. Reggie Ledoux made that up and told it to Rust very shortly before he died. And — bear with me, because this is a little on the nose — but he could literally be talking about a DVD. I know, I know, that’s almost comically silly. But…
“From that vantage…we’d see our spacetime would look flattened, like a single sculpture with matter in a superposition of every place it ever occupied, our sentience just cycling through our lives like carts on a track. Everything outside our dimension, that’s eternity, eternity looking down on us. Now, to us, it’s a sphere, but to them it’s a circle.”
Does it not sound like the way a character in a show on a DVD would describe the realization that their entire universe was a DVD being viewed from an impossible perspective by a being in possession of said DVD? Seriously.
Rust Finds Meaning
At the end, in some way, Rust seems to be at peace with his life and the loss of his daughter. I think he’s created an existential point of view that allows him to create meaningful experiences in what is otherwise a meaningless existence. And that’s not a small detail — it’s what makes this so great. Because a show about a guy who knows he’s in a show could just be a weirdly morose Monty Python sketch. But here, the show tells us something about ourselves.
Existentialism is complicated, but here’s the nutshell version I remember from that one philosophy course I accidentally took in college: all meaning is constructed. Nothing has any inherent meaning.
That does not mean that nothing has any meaning. It just means that the things we think are important are important because we say they are. We build meaning in our lives and within our greater culture and live our lives by those meanings. There’s nothing that makes winning the Superbowl, or your mom’s birthday, or the number in your bank account, or the color of your skin inherently meaningful. But we create and attach our own meanings to things: family, money, accomplishments, religion.
I think every thinking person at some point starts to feel the despair of meaninglessness, and understanding this existential point of view can be really important in getting through that. You have to find your own meanings, take solace in them, and build your best life around them.