Watching The Detectives: Rust Cohle & Marty Hart, An Appreciation

Stephen Grasso compares True Detective to that other generational work of US TV brilliance, Twin Peaks and talks about the identity of the King in Yellow. And hey, guess what? Massive, massive spoilers...

"You are in Carcosa. Take off your mask."

True Detective opened with a crime scene every bit as iconic as Laura Palmer wrapped in plastic. The horrific outsider art spectacle of Dora Lang crowned with antlers and bound to a grim tree in a burnt-out field offered a mystery that strongly recalled David Lynch’s inscrutable and much-loved series.

Speculation had been rife throughout last year that Twin Peaks might return, fuelled by a casting call that amounted to nothing. The ghost of Laura Palmer had once told Agent Dale Cooper, by then incarcerated in the red-curtained abyss of the Black Lodge, that she would see him again in 25 years. The events of Twin Peaks were set in 1989, so the time frame made a degree of sense, and the thwarted hopes of closure that fans of the show had nursed for decades suddenly came rushing to the surface.

Rumours of a Twin Peaks sequel in 2014 were quickly dashed, but instead we got True Detective. A bleak 21st Century iteration of the same essential drama, yet stripped of its wholesome small town charm and purged of its endearing characters. The majestic red wood forest swapped for a blasted landscape of pawn shops, strip joints and mean wetlands that threatened to swallow up what little life was left. Sour black coffee gone cold, and cherry pie crawling with bugs in the merciless Louisiana sun.

Even the character of Rust Cohle, played by an almost unrecognisable Matthew McConaughey, seemed like a corrupted analogue of Kyle Maclachlan’s Agent Dale Cooper. Visionary dreams replaced by acid flashbacks and amphetamine psychosis, Tibetan mysticism swapped for the nihilistic, anti-natalist worldview of Thomas Ligotti. Rust Cohle could have been the version of Dale Cooper that stepped out of the Black Lodge 25 years later, crushed by horror and devastated by grief, driven half-mad by everything done to him.

True Detective immediately staked out its territory as something that deviated from the episodic television format we have become accustomed to. It would be a tightly scripted eight episodes with one writer, one director, and a clear beginning, middle and end. Not a sprawling multi-season epic that either gets cancelled with plotlines left unresolved, or else strings its audience along indefinitely with layers of meaningless incoherence written by committee and made up on the fly. It was a finite story, and its brevity seemed to promise both clear direction and the hope of a satisfying resolution to its mysteries.

The intriguing occult conspiracy that its detectives began to unravel drew you into its world, but the acting, scripts, direction and photography kept you there. Cryptic references to the weird fiction of Ambrose Bierce, Robert W. Chambers and HP Lovecraft created a climate of speculation that propelled Chambers’ 1895 novel The King In Yellow into the Amazon bestsellers list. Internet sleuths came up with a thousand theories that implicated practically everyone who appeared in an episode.

Woody Harrelson’s detective Marty Hart was suspected because he had yellow hair and a promotional poster for the show cut off the top of his head in a suspicious way. An unseen fast food employee was pitched as the killer because the detectives once drove past a burger joint that had a yellow crown as its logo. The freeze frame culture of contemporary television viewing subjected every scene to microscopic scrutiny.

A class year book glimpsed for a couple of seconds was alleged to contain childhood photos of several characters who had appeared in the show, based on vague resemblances and over-active imaginations. A child’s drawing of a spiral that matched markings on Dora Lang’s body was spotted pinned to the fridge in Mary Hart’s home. A framed picture above Marty’s bed was identified as the same image that appeared as a mural in the hospital where Cohle visited the girl they rescued from the woods.

True Detective was clearly more concerned with its two lead characters, their internal world and relationships, than it was with the crime they were investigating – but some viewers responded to its mystery element as if it were an interactive iPad game littered with clues that could be pieced together and solved by an observant eye. Needless to say, the somewhat Scooby-Doo ending that we got, where the killer was revealed to have been the surly groundskeeper all along, was a disappointment for many.

Since the first episode it had hinted at a sprawling occult conspiracy that reached as far as the Senator’s office, implicated the church and police, and may have been going on for decades. The repeated references to The King In Yellow, Carcosa, and a green-eared spaghetti monster, suggested that there could be a supernatural denouement to the story. Its narrative resemblance to Twin Peaks fed this speculation, as that series had itself ended with a surreal and otherworldly finale.

Marty’s daughter was thought to have been involved in some way, given her portentous arrangement of five Ken dolls around a naked Barbie, her inappropriate schoolyard drawings of cocks, and later ill-fated roadside goth threesome. This motif of five perpetrators was echoed by the five tin figures that Rust Cohle made out of beer cans in the interrogation room, and in a creepy photo of five hooded Courir le Mardi Gras riders surrounding a young Dora Lang that hung on the wall at her bereaved mother’s house.

It was widely hoped that the finale would reveal who these five men were and what they were up to. Perhaps it would turn out to be the so-far-unseen Senator Tuttle, his church minister cousin, the chief of police, Marty’s father-in-law, and that fast food guy? Maybe they had been abusing kids in the name of Hastur or Cthulhu?

There were also suggestions that Marty’s wife Maggie could even be a part of it, betrayed wife by day and high priestess of the Great Old Ones by night. The series had received some criticism for its thinly-sketched depiction of women, but maybe this was simply misdirection intended to divert your attention away from the cabal of murderous nuns that served the Yellow King? There were many questions to be answered and loose ends to be tied up in its last episode, but True Detective – at least on the surface – opted for the contentious path of not bothering to address any of them.

However, its resolution was congruous with the mode of storytelling it had employed from the beginning and with that of its literary forbears. Robert Chambers’ story The King In Yellow has potency because its horrors are never really explained. You never find out exactly what the King in Yellow is or why it is so horrible, and are instead made to fill that disturbing vacuum with the ugliest things of your imagination. Nothing can be worse than the King in Yellow, because its substance is your own most depraved, abyssal visions hung on a bare scaffold and draped in tattered yellow fabric. Like the twig-sculptures of True Detective’s Carcosa, the notion of the King in Yellow is a spirit trap that you must impose your own meaning upon and fill with your own personal nightmares.

HP Lovecraft was directly inspired by Chambers and employed the same literary device in his Cthulhu mythos tales. The enduring appeal of his stories does not come from rampaging tentacled monsters and flesh-eating fish people parading luridly on the page, but from everything that doesn’t happen. Lovecraft’s best stories stay with you because of the impossible vistas, unnameable terrors and black secrets that are implied and suggested, rather than from anything that is directly shown or explained.

The mysteries of Twin Peaks exist on a similar spectrum. In its final episode, Agent Cooper enters the liminal world of the Black Lodge, Jimmy Scott sings hauntingly of sycamore trees, and Michael J Anderson speaks backwards and dances on a zig-zag floor. Like much of David Lynch’s work, the meaning of these surreal sequences is never made explicit or explained away as one thing or another. It deliberately invites multiple readings and its ambiguity permits the narrative to operate on more than one level.

For instance, the nature of the evil spirit Bob, shown to be responsible for the murder of Laura Palmer, is never really spelled out – but it’s implied that he’s a personification of the old evil that led Leland Palmer to abuse his teenage daughter. In one scene, Leland looks at a drawing of Bob made by a police artist and recognises him as a man from his childhood who had a cabin in the woods near his father’s house and used to throw matches at him. The subtext being that the face worn by the wicked spirit Bob was the face of Leland’s own childhood abuser. The pattern of abuse is transmitted from generation to generation, as such things sometimes are, and given objective form as Killer Bob.

A purely supernatural reading of Twin Peaks diminishes its meaning to a simplistic tale of warring angels and demons, when more is at stake. The evil spirits of the Black Lodge are depicted as objectively existing entities, but their existence is inseparable from the evils that lurk within. They are personifications of the suffering we inflict upon one another, and the unresolved family torments we can inherit from our ancestors, manifest in our own lives, and pass on to our descendants. It is the ambiguity of Lynch’s mythology that permits it to contain such layered meaning.

True Detective employs similar devices throughout. While the principle murderer is revealed at the end, the series never fully tears the pallid mask from the face of its King in Yellow. The nature of his cult and the identity of its various conspirators remain veiled and we’re left in the dark, stumbling through the tunnels of Carcosa, unable to see the full shape of its horror but imagining the worst.

The video tape discovered by Rust Cohle in Reverend Billy Lee Tuttle’s home is like the series in miniature. We never see more than a glimpse of its content – a young girl blindfolded and crowned with twigs, positioned on an altar surrounded by men in strange costume and animal heads. All we see is the visceral reaction from those who have watched a few minutes of the tape, and we are forced to imagine the sickening scenes that it must contain. Similarly, Chambers’ original story involves a play called The King In Yellow which drives people mad when they read beyond its first act. We are never given more than fragments of its text.

At the conclusion of True Detective, we are invited to consider its murders as the work of a mentally disturbed serial killer. The crime is filed away into a familiar box, its occult elements written off as "Voodoo", but in this instance, the term simply means "some weird shit with twigs in the woods that we don’t understand". Nobody is going to dig any deeper than that. The killer is dead and the case is closed.

While this may seem frustrating for a rapt audience expecting to have the mysteries of Carcosa explained and the Yellow King unmasked, there are enough pointers given and suggestions dropped throughout for its occult narrative to be assembled in some detail.

The opening scenes of the final episode that follow Errol Childress hint strongly at a scenario reminiscent of the HP Lovecraft stories ‘The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward’ and ‘The Thing On The Doorstep’. In the former tale, Charles Dexter Ward becomes obsessed by the works of his notorious black magician ancestor, piecing together his rituals from scattered fragments and eventually raising him from the dead, only to be killed and replaced by the old wizard who assumes his identity in the present.

In ‘The Thing On The Doorstep’ we meet Asenath Waite, the mysterious wife of the narrator’s best friend. We learn she is from the coastal village of Innsmouth, a location that features in several Lovecraft stories and whose populace have interbred with hideous amphibious beings known as Deep Ones. It is suggested that Asenath had a human father, but her mother was a Deep One. It later becomes apparent that Asenath’s consciousness has actually been replaced by that of her deceased gender-swapping sorcerer father who inhabits her body and lives on in the present.

The coastal setting of True Detective and its decaying small towns, the isolated deep bayou location of Errol Childress’s house and subterranean temple, and the hints at a sprawling in-bred family with dark secrets that permeates the whole landscape, are all reminiscent of Lovecraft – yet relocated to south Louisiana instead of New England.

One of the most anomalous sequences in its final episode is the scene where Errol Childress returns from the barn, where his father’s wasted body is bound to a bed, and cycles through four or five distinctly different accents. From a deep south rural twang to a clipped Cary Grant-like manner, and then an antiquated form of English where he beckons "come sit upon me lap lass", and then back to a regional Louisiana dialect.

A psychological reading of the show would infer some form of multiple personality disorder, yet it almost seems that he is cycling through different voices and personas from his family’s long disturbing history, back to the colonial English of the land’s early settlers. Perhaps a succession of ancestors who have held the title of the King in Yellow each inhabiting his body and speaking through him in turn. His comments about an ascension and almost being able to see "the infernal plane", suggest that some lengthy occult process spanning generations of Tuttle’s and Childress’s nears completion.

When Marty enquires at the house after Childress, he is told "he’s all around you, before you’re born and after you die" as if this evil is a part of the landscape itself, inescapable, eternal, worse than anybody. In the creepy sex scene between Errol and his half-sister, he asks her to tell him of their grand-father – the patriarch of the family, old Sam Tuttle – and her childhood abuse at his hands. It is as if he is becoming aroused by stories of his own perverted exploits in another earlier body. Perhaps the desiccated, fly-eaten corpse of Errol’s father strapped to the bed was the previous vessel for this ancient evil, transferred into Errol following his ritual scarification so that the King in Yellow might live on in a fresh form and continue his work.

Nothing is made explicit, and the mystery at the centre of True Detective is at once all of these things and none of them. What is evident, however, is that there is a conspiracy that extends beyond Errol Childress and his activities. The level of cover-up that appears to have taken place over several decades, missing person files closed and investigations halted, makes no sense if it is just a lone psychopath in the swamps. Clearly several wealthy and powerful men have been involved, including Senator Tuttle and Reverend Billy Lee Tuttle. It seems unlikely that these figures would be in thrall to a man like Errol Childress, even if he were an illegitimate family member. It seems equally unlikely that Childress would be made the King in Yellow at the head of the family cult, unless the title referred not to Errol himself but to the discarnate figure that inhabited his body, or some similar explanation.

However, there is also an implication that Childress’s activities are more overt than those of his predecessors. The family tradition may have previously been an extension of Louisiana Courir le Mardi Gras with a discrete sideline in child abuse, before Errol began leaving dead women strapped to trees with antlers attached to their heads and such like. When Billy Lee Tuttle swoops in with his task force to try and cover up the killings, there is a sense that the elaborate crime scene left by Childress may not have been entirely sanctioned or appreciated by the men of higher social standing within the cult who find themselves implicated in the murder. There seems to be some discrepancy between the wealthy paedophile ring preying on orphans and other children who nobody will miss if they disappear, and the bold visual statement of the Dora Lang and Lake Charles murders.

When Cohle pursues Childress into his maze of tunnels, he is told: "Do you know what they did to me? What I would do to all the sons and daughters of Earth?" It is as if Errol was himself a victim of these family traditions, abused by his grandfather, mutilated by his father, and the inheritor of countless generations of perpetuated suffering. One could well describe this dark inheritance as an inhabiting spirit or a wicked ancestor living on into the present through the body of Childress, without there necessarily being an element of the supernatural involved at all – at least not in the way it is usually understood. Like the relationship between Killer Bob and Leland Palmer in Twin Peaks, the spirit world of True Detective is an ambiguous proposition and manifests most tangibly in the actions of flesh and blood human beings and the narratives they live by and perpetuate.

Ultimately we do come face to face with the real King in Yellow at the end of True Detective. We meet him at the altar of skulls, antlers and bound branches hung with strips of faded yellow fabric that Rust encounters before his visionary episode and subsequent gutting. The body of the King in Yellow is formed from the narratives woven about this sparse wooden scaffold covered in rags, both by the Tuttles and Childresses involved in the cult, and by the audience who are left to impose their own narrative meaning upon the bare frame and flapping yellow scraps they have been shown.

The title of the final episode is ‘Form And Void’. It is a reference to the line in Genesis that describes the primal darkness that comes immediately before the statement "Let there be light." It thematically prefigures Rust Cohle’s unexpected epiphany in the final moments of the episode, where he looks up at the stars in the night sky and makes the observation "Once there was only dark. Seems to me the light’s winning."

The motif of black stars occurs throughout the series in relation to Carcosa and the King in Yellow. In this context, the black stars seem to symbolise the priests and acolytes of Carcosa, Errol Childress, Reggie LeDoux, whoever else is involved. Swirling black spiral vortices of darkness that suck in and extinguish all light and life around them.

Rust Cohle sees himself as a bad man who keeps the other bad men from the door, but Childress repeatedly calls him "little priest". Like Agent Dale Cooper, his visionary episodes mark him as a shaman of sorts, and akin to the shaman, he returns from the brink of death with new understanding.

The series has been criticized for its sudden u-turn from the bleak, anti-natalist philosophy espoused by Rust Cole for most of the season, to what has been interpreted as a default Christian theological position, with Rust recast as an unlikely Jesus.

While there is a degree of truth to that, foreshadowed from the beginning by Rust’s meditation on his own crucifixion, he could just as likely be seen as reflecting something of the Norse god Odin in those final scenes. Laying in his hospital bed with one bloodied eye socket, contemplating the visions received while suspended in the air on the blade of his enemy. These are all old stories, a primal narrative, continually reinterpreted to fit the cultural preferences at the time of their retelling.

At the moment Childress plunges his knife into Rust’s gut he tell him "This is Carcosa. Take off your mask." Cohle argues throughout the series that we are nothing but sentient meat that should never have attained consciousness and did so by cruel accident. Meaningless units of flesh deluding themselves with elaborate stories and comforting fairy tales to hide from the stark realities of a cold and meaningless universe.

However, it is clear that Rust’s own preferred narratives are equally delusional. Marty points it out early on in the Revival tent when Cohle is castigating the religious believers. For a man who professes to be a nihilist, he seems to care a lot about existence. However forcefully Cohle might elaborate on his beliefs, they remain an armouring he has constructed against the world. A desperate means of coming to terms with the loss of his daughter and a way of carving out a measure of cold comfort in the night.

His actions are often contradictory to the philosophy which he espouses. He takes a death wish undercover job because he lacks the stomach for suicide, but his will to live eclipses its dangers. He asks for a transfer to homicide division out of an urge to "rejoin the body" and fulfill some undefined obligation to the human race. He repeatedly displays a warmth and compassion that seems inconsistent with the notion that all human existence is a pointless mistake devoid of any meaning. Embracing the castrated suspect at the Revival tent, making sure the young boy hides away in the bathroom during the raid on the projects, returning to the Dora Lang case ten years after being thrown off the force.

Finally, he confronts the abyss itself and is eradicated completely. He is offered the thing that he has always yearned for, to fade out into eternal nothing, but still he comes back. It is not a vision of the typical Christian heaven that he encounters during his near-death experience, and it is perhaps not the possibility of an afterlife that provokes his shift in perspective. There are no Cherubs or scampering lambs, just a slow sink into the primordial soup of his beloved dead, joining them in nothingness forever. But he comes back.

At the end, his mask is removed. All of the elaborate stories he tells and narratives of existence he weaves throughout the series are stripped away. Revealed to be no less illusory and self-serving than Marty’s hollow rationalizations about how his philandering was for the good of the family. Rust confronts what remains after he is pared back to nothingness, the rigid armouring of his narratives shattered, his mask taken away. There’s still the pulse of life, a possibility of love and friendship, a hope for the future, a sliver of light in the darkness. It can seem distant, fragile, almost invisible in the night sky, but it’s a blazing inextinguishable sun. There’s more to us than sentient meat, or even scented meat, plodding around in the dirt and deluding itself with pleasing fiction. Take all of those stories away, and something still endures. Hard to define, but worth living for.

Follow Stephen Grasso on Twitter @gypsylantern

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today