True Detective part 4: The World Needs Bad Men

If you want to start from the beginning, part one of the True Detective Essay can be found HERE

THE WORLD NEEDS BAD MEN. WE KEEP THE OTHER BAD MEN FROM THE DOOR.

– Rust Cohle

Detectives Hart and Cohle are bad men in the position to do bad things. As Cohle points out to a prostitute, “Of course I’m dangerous. I’m police. I can do terrible things to people with impunity.” It’s a common theme in pulp and detective fiction that in order to stop criminals the men who chase them must become equally as brutal. What makes True Detective unique is that it doesn’t focus on the morality of Hart and Cohle’s decisions. It remains focused on the bigger question: Why does Evil exist? If Evil did not exist, there would be no need for men like Hart and Cohle voluntarily spend decades of their lives chasing it. If there were no monsters, we would need no labyrinths to contain them and no heroes to slay them.

In the Minotaur myth the hero is Theseus, a brave youth who volunteers to kill the Minotaur in order to end the practice of sacrificing boys and girls to him year after year. Cohle clearly fills this role in True Detective, being the driving, obsessive force who runs headlong in to the labyrinth in pursuit of the monster. But it’s Hart who fills a more quiet, but equally important role: that of Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos who falls in love with Theseus and gives him the ball of string he uses to make it out of labyrinth alive. For all the jokes about the “bromance” in True Detective, there’s no denying that Hart and Cohle are involved in a meaningful relationship. On Cohle’s side, the interest seems largely driven by utility at first – Hart is a good partner and does solid police work. Hart’s interest in Cohle is a little more enigmatic. Hart is well respected by his superiors. He’s on track to rise through the ranks of the police force, should he want to, and yet he chooses to partner with Cohle, an obvious trouble maker. Cohle bothers him on a visceral level, challenging Hart’s religion and calling him on the hypocrisy of spouting family values while cheating on his wife. There seems to be no gain for Hart in maintaining his partnership with Cohle, and yet he chooses to follow him in to the labyrinth once in 1995 and again in 2012.

In his interviews, Hart fancies himself a great judge of character, but ends up telling us more about his own nature than he does about anyone else. He is a man who knows what matters in life, what keeps people tethered to their communities and responsibilities. In the first episode, he describes the problem with Cohle by saying, “Past a certain age, a man without a family can be a bad thing.” In a later portion of the interview, he talks about his security business and Private Investigative work telling the younger Detectives, “once you’re out (of the police work), you have to stay busy. Most end up in the cemetery.” Both are good pieces of advice, but Hart isn’t great at following through on them. He loses his family through infidelity and his retirement is far less busy than he would have people believe. Still, he can see the thread that ties people and society together, just as clearly as Cohle can see the spiral pattern of the universe. Theseus and Ariadne, Hart and Cohle, both pairs of characters need each other in order to kill monsters and live to tell the tale.

One of the first things Cohle says upon waking up in the hospital after killing Errol Childress is, “We didn’t get them all.” Even fresh from a coma Cohle knows that the job of slaying Evil is not done. It is Detective Hart, the man who holds the string, the man who knows the way out of the labyrinth and back to society, who keeps Cohle from getting sucked in to his destructive spiral again by reminding him, “but we got ours.”

Detectives Hart and Cohle have done their time as bad men guarding the labyrinth. They’ve played their part and in turn, the job has taken a toll on them. By the end of the show Hart is gone to seed, divorced and estranged from his daughters. Cohle is a suicidal alcoholic. The only way for them to have a happy ending is to step away from the chase, to stop running down the same path only to find a different monster at the end each time. There are other, younger men like Detectives Papania and Gilbough to guard the labyrinth and fight the monsters. In time they too will age or die and the cycle will begin again with new names, new faces, new monsters. Time is a flat circle and this story is another version of a myth about a labyrinth, a monster to be slain and two people searching for a way out.

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6 thoughts on “True Detective part 4: The World Needs Bad Men

  1. Genius! Great insights! The comparison to the Minotaur fable are excellent. I like how you saw these characters. I can’t disagree. These guys are excellent noir sleuths and deserving of great analysis!

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