If you want to start from the beginning, part one of the True Detective Essay can be found HERE
IT WAS ALL THE SAME DREAM, A DREAM THAT YOU HAD INSIDE A LOCKED ROOM…AND LIKE A LOT OF DREAMS, THERE’S A MONSTER AT THE END OF IT.
– Rust Cohle
In the detective genre the term “monster” is nearly synonymous with the concept of big Evil – it’s not tossed around for street thugs who kill over drug deals gone bad or squabbling in-laws who shoot one another over a borrowed car. “Monster” is reserved for those who commit the most heinous of crimes: the rapists, the torture artists, the child killers. True Detective operates under the same rules. We see a parade of terrible people doing terrible things, but there’s only one individual referred to as a “monster.” It’s not even Reverend Tuttle, he of the child porn tapes. No, “Monster” is reserved for Errol Childress: the man with the scars, the man that Hart and Cohle chase through a labyrinth and kill.
The most famous labyrinth in the Western world is the Cretan Labyrinth, designed by the architect Daedalus to hold the Minotaur. Being the product of bestiality, the Minotaur fits the classical definition of a Monster, but he is also the living reminder of the sins of his father, King Minos. When he ascended to the throne of Crete, King Minos was obligated to sacrifice a beautiful white bull to show honor to the gods. Being greedy, King Minos ignored his duty and kept the bull for himself. The gods had their revenge on the selfish king. They made his wife, the queen, lust after the great white bull so much so that she copulated with it and birthed a deformed child with the head of bull and the body of a man. The Minotaur’s deformity and his entire existence is a direct result of his father’s greed and selfishness.
In True Detective, Errol Childress, the scarred man, also bears the sins of his father and grandfather. In episode 7, Hart and Cohle learn that Errol is the illegitimate grandchild of a member of the wealthy and powerful Tuttle family. If Sam Tuttle, Errol’s grandfather, had not been so sexually greedy and fond of philandering, there wouldn’t be a murderous bastard grandchild on the loose in the bayou. Like the Minotaur, Errol Childress also has a facial deformity that can be traced to his father. In talking to a former Tuttle family domestic servant, Hart and Cohle learn that Errol’s father burned him when he was just a child, giving him his trademark scars.
Both the Minotaur and Errol Childress are monsters and both fit the big “E” definition of evil; they are murderous, incestuous, the products of brutality and bestiality. Though they are removed from society these monsters still exact their tolls. In the Minotaur myth, every seven years the city of Athens chooses seven youths and seven maidens to be eaten by the Minotaur or die while lost in the labyrinth. Similarly, Errol Childress abducts and murders his young victims on a schedule and with a great deal of ritual. When Detective Cohle chases Errol in to a series of labyrinthine tunnels we see what appears to be a human skeleton with antlers wrapped in a shroud, a pile of children’s clothes and an altar made of branches and human skulls. Errol’s labyrinth is a final resting place for sacrificed children, just as much as the labyrinth of the Minotaur. Both places are shrines to death of innocents and the endurance of Evil. A chosen few enter, but only the monsters survive.
In most myths resolution comes with the death of a monster, but True Detective subverts this pattern. Hard and Cohle slay monsters in both 1995 and 2012, but they do not gain any satisfaction or resolution from their heroic deeds. If True Detective followed a standard narrative, the story would have ended in 1995 after the Detectives killed the bad guys and rescued a little girl. Instead, this “success” leads to a collapse of the partnership and further doubt and unease about the morals by which they live. No one else seems to notice it, but the detectives know theirs is a tainted victory. In truth, they didn’t really save the children the found. The boy was already dead when they arrived and the girl was irreparably damaged by her abuse. Cohle is particularly haunted by his actions, and the incomplete nature of his victory. When recounting the incident he says, “and that little boy and that little girl, they’re gonna be in that room again, and again, and again, forever.” In 2012, Hart and Cole chase Evil again, but this time there are no innocents to save. No children to rescue.The second time around, the Detectives want something more than to save people or protect their community. They want the truth about Evil, they want an answer to the question that haunted them for 20 years: why does Evil exist? When Hart and Cohle find and kill Errol, the physical embodiment of Evil, they find no answers. The center of the labyrinth may have held the monster, but it was devoid of the truth that they so desperately sought.
We don’t need to look to fiction to understand why catching a flesh and blood monster isn’t satisfactory. In real life, the government captured, tried and convicted Jeffrey Dahmer. Top forensic psychologists spent months questioning Dahmer, trying to learn what drove him to torture, rape, kill and eat his victims before decorating his home with their bones. Their interviews gave us more detail than anyone would want to know about these activities, but left us with no more insights as why such an Evil exists in the world. Capturing this real life monster left us with a few more tools in our psychological profiling kit, but it left the good people of the world just as powerless as we were before. We have as much hope of stopping the next serial killer as we do of stopping the next hurricane that will hit the Gulf coast. Evil is a cycle, a spinning force of nature repeating the same patterns over and over again. It cannot be stopped permanently, but it can be contained by structures like the labyrinth and held in check by men like Theseus and Detectives Hart and Cohle.
Our Thrilling Conclusion: Part 4: The World Needs Bad Men