Thursday, March 13, 2014

True Detective: Grief and Guilt Revisited on HBO

Last week I wrote about Theo Decker, the protagonist in Donna Tartt’s tome, The Goldfinch, and his heavy cloak of guilt. This week, HBO’s hit series, True Detective, presented its final episode in what may be its first season, and closed a tale about the heavy price that guilt exacts upon the human psyche.

Rust Cohle, one-half of a detective team, one mirror image of the toll that grief and chaos requires of us, dwells apart. He never swaggers as Marty Hart does. Rust never takes women and sex for granted either, in part because he no longer desires intimacy. He prefers to dull the pain of memory with sleep, drug-induced, if necessary.

Rust shed his old identify and took up one created by isolation and a deep, unimaginable sorrow that began after he lost his child and then his marriage, both losses sending him into the depths of Dante’s Hell, there dwelling among thieves, dealers, killers, and thugs, becoming like them, absorbing their world view, and chameleon-like, camouflaging himself as one of them to survive. His grief is such that he cannot be more or otherwise.

Even when his life is most derelict, Rust demands much of himself. Trying to instill some order upon disorder, he permits himself to eat burgers and drink beer on Thursdays at a specific hour. Such control over empty, oppressive hours helps them pass; in Rust’s career hours, he fills the heavy unknown with tedium, demanding concentration and devotion. He searches for the byways that lead from one place to another, one person to another, one shred of evidence to another. He fits together a puzzle of chaos one piece at a time until he sees the ordered image.

Rust is clever, intuitive, afflicted, and driven, in part because he grew up isolated from popular culture and learned to dwell in the infinite: the stars and his own imagination. Grief and guilt are even more significant in shaping him. When he lost his child and his marriage, he sculpted a philosophy, bleak and borne of pain. “Everybody wears their hunger and their haunt (Nic Pizzolatto),” he says, and “The only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward (Nic Pizzolatto)” as if man has little within to restrain him or guide him. Only an external authority and the promise of reward suppresses the beasts in our hearts.

Marty Hart, on the other hand, doesn’t think as deeply. He doesn’t seem to contemplate eternity or even the consequences of his actions. He professes to rely upon traditional family values with family being uppermost among them, yet he drinks, in part to dull the ache that is his job searching for a twisted serial killer. But his own depravity fuels his need for alcohol, too. Marty is unfaithful, cannot shout or cajole his first daughter into upright behaviors, and lies as often as required. For his choices, he pays. His wife cheats, tells him, and divorces him. His daughter seems to despise him, and his own lies trap him, rendering him unable to claim the higher ground. He finally can bear no more witness to depravity and leaves police work, too.

The greatest of Hart’s lies is his cold-blooded, premeditated assassination of a despicable excuse for anything human and Cohle’s complicity covering up that truth. This binds the men as does the crime for which they became partners.
Castle Ruins, Lake of the Ozarks
Al Griffin Photography

When Cohle persuades Hart that they didn’t catch the right or only killer, the bond between the two men reignites, and they work together to get to the right solution, to bring down the evil. Cohle even displays a bit of modesty when Hart notices a detail that finally leads to the name of the killer.

What secures their partnership is that they have been naked, their souls stripped bare of any mask, their pain and flaws stark in the sun. In the certain knowledge of their partner’s vulnerability and suffering, they arrive at a place where they truly have each other’s backs, not because of complicity in a cover-up and not because they are required to do so. Nearly two decades after their first encounter, these men have no one else to rely upon in their quest for redemption.

And they find it. Marty reveals that he’s been listening to all of Rust’s bleak pronouncements, and rather than leaving Rust to his personal ninth circle, nudges Rust to remember to look up. He nurses his partner and pal into another journey, this one away from the grief of having lost a child and a marriage, of having glimpsed eternity wherein resides only love denied here on this earth, of regret that he breathes still. Marty guides his friend from that dark night into a glimmer of light. This too is the path that grief and guilt may take--at least according to Nic Pizzolatto, True Detective’s screenwriter.

Reading Challenge:

Find the eight episodes of True Detective. Read them closely for archetypes, character, language, and figurative devices.

Writing Challenge:

Imitate Pizzolatto’s line written for Rust Cohle: “Everybody wears their hunger and their haunt.” What does everybody wear for your line? Be sure to strive for the same alliterative effect when choosing two things that everybody wears.