“Let’s make the car a place of silent reflection from now on”: Reflections of Secularity in True Detective

A paper I wrote in April 2015 for my American Secular class.


The incense and the candles and the colors on the wall
Your image stands reflected as a princess come to call
Your suspicions I’m confirming as you find them all quite true
And the kingdom of heaven is within you

“Kingdom of Heaven” by 13th Floor Elevators

At the conclusion of “Seeing Things,” the second episode of True Detective, the song “Kingdom of Heaven” begins to play when the detectives find the incriminating occult painting on the burnt-out church. The song’s subject matter and appearance at this particular point underscores the series’ intertwining of the occult, the secular, and the religious. The song’s title and chorus comes from Luke 17:21, “the kingdom of God is within you,” and the no doubt more rhythmically pleasing syllables of “heaven” are just as remarkable as the original bible verse. The idea that access to God’s kingdom of heaven and therefore his grace and salvation is within us rather than through religious practice is at odds with many Christian sects’ interpretations and iterations. Unlike Matthew 3:2, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near,” Luke’s verse is not eschatological; instead, it means to inspire introspection and self-reflection. Essentially, that which will save you is already inside you, if, and only if, you will recognize it. This is not a popular sentiment among church leaders who would rather have people come to them for guidance, which provides the basis for the dogmatic aspects of religion that so often become the counterpoints to secular arguments. Detectives Marty Hart and Rustin Cohle, played by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey respectively, seem to weave back and forth across the line separating belief and skepticism, self-reflection and superficiality, and religion and secularity. But because they each occupy a different side of these binaries throughout the series, it is more likely that these are not binary opposites at all. Indeed, Hart and Cohle represent a Janus-like figure, simultaneously looking outward in opposite directions on various issues, but grounded in similarity. What makes True Detective a more compelling series than a typical odd-couple buddy-cop pairing would yield, though, is the show’s examination of religion, philosophy, and occultism, and its insistence upon the self-reflection each detective does or does not do (and often, the self-reflection he thinks he’s done). In order to underscore the theme of outward perception and self-perception, mirrors and reflective surfaces are significant parts of the mise-en-scène. Jacques Lacan identified the self-recognition stage of development, the time when an infant recognizes itself in a mirror, as the initial establishment of an “I” and an “other.” Cohle is figured as self-reflexive and intuitive, a non-believer, and reflections help his character and define him. Hart is in denial of his double-life, is a believer of some kind, and his lies define him. He is incapable and unwilling to examine his own actions, and pretends to everyone, including himself, that he is living a morally virtuous Christian life. Mirrors constantly appear in scenes with Hart, but do not provide any reflection for him. The title of the series becomes another clue, as the real investigation is into what is “true” about each detective.

Religiosity in southern Louisiana is a given in True Detective. A mix of French Catholicism and Pentecostal tent revival influences meld with Voudon and Santeria in a unique way, but “every person within a thousand miles of here is ‘religious in some kinda way,’ except [Cohle].” The first episode establishes the dichotomy between the detectives in their systems of belief. Hart, the self-described “regular guy,” already finds Cohle to be somewhat of a strange loner. During this scene, driving along the desolate stretches of bayou backwoods and industrial detritus, the landscape appears reflected in the windows of the car, sliding across each character’s head. Rather than have the camera seem to be positioned inside the car, the viewer is purposely removed from the scene, looking in to a closed space and aware of the foreboding landscape that surrounds. This jarring effect distances the viewer and reminds them that they too are “bearing witness” to something rather than fully immersing themselves. The reflections on the car windows, then, serve to make the viewer reflect on the different vantage points at play: that of the secular nihilist and the religious optimist. Prompted by his visceral reaction to seeing Dora Lange’s corpse, Hart asks Cohle about his religious beliefs:

HART

Today, that scene, that is the most fucked up thing I ever caught. Can I ask you something? You’re Christian, yeah?

COHLE

No.

HART

Then why you got the cross for in your apartment?

COHLE

That’s a form of meditation.

HART

How’s that?

COHLE

I contemplate the moment in the garden, the idea of allowing your own crucifixion.

HART

But you’re not a Christian. So what do you believe?

COHLE

I believe that people should talk about this type of shit at work.

HART

Hold on, hold on. Three months we been together, I get nothing from you. And today, what we’re into, now… do me a courtesy, okay? I’m not trying to convert you.

COHLE

I’d consider myself a realist, alright, but in philosophical terms I’m what’s called a pessimist.

HART

Um, okay. What’s that mean?

COHLE

Means I’m bad at parties.

HART

Let me tell you, you ain’t great outside of parties either.

COHLE

I think human consciousness was a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law.

HART

Huh. That sounds god-fucking-awful, Rust.

COHLE

We are things that labour under the illusion of having a self, this accretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody when in fact, everybody’s nobody.

HART

I wouldn’t go around spouting that shit, I was you. People ‘round here don’t think that way. I don’t think that way.

COHLE

I think the honourable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.

HART

So what’s the point of getting out of bed in the morning?

COHLE

I tell myself I bear witness, but the real answer is that it’s obviously my programming. And I lack the constitution for suicide.

HART

My luck, I picked today to get to know you. Three months, I don’t hear a word from you and then—

COHLE

You asked.

HART

Yeah. And now I’m begging for you to shut the fuck up.

Hart assumes Cohle is religious partly because everyone Hart knows in the area is religious, and partly, as he says, because the only decoration in Cohle’s apartment is a crucifix, a signifier of belief. Cohle explains that instead of it signifying that he accepts Christ as his saviour, he has re-defined its significance for himself. Cohle says he meditates on the “moment in the garden,” that is, the Agony in the Garden, when Jesus prayed to God for the chance to not have to endure the crucifixion. Jesus “allowed his own crucifixion” by adding that if God will not let him escape it, He will nevertheless do God’s will. Hart does not understand how meditating on biblical texts can be exclusive of being Christian. He cannot separate the religious bible from the secular bible, like Cohle seems to, and demands to know what Cohle does believe, because everyone must believe something. For Hart, belief in something, anything, is more likely and more palatable than Cohle’s introspective “pessimism,” as Cohle calls it. In fact, Cohle blames his pessimism on the very introspection that separates him from Hart. He believes that the tragedy of humanity is that humans became too self-aware – like humanity hit Lacan’s mirror stage and can no longer be content with a passive, pluralist existence. As such, nihilism is a better description of Cohle’s particular brand of pessimism. Not only does Cohle feel that our world is as bad as it could be (“It’s all one ghetto, man”) and that evil will triumph, but he also has a specific rejection for religion, and a belief that nothing on Earth has real existence. He is so sure of this belief that he considers himself to be a realist above all. He maintains that the understanding of a self, the Lacanian “I,” is false and illusory. In a particularly unbearable scene in the 2012 timeline, the compellingly insufferable Cohle frustrates Detectives Papania and Gilbough when he rambles, imitating a religious devotee, “Surely this is all for me. Me? Me! Me! I! I! I’m so fucking important! I’m so fucking important, right?!” This is essentially the same monologue as the one in the car, but seventeen years coupled with alcohol have amplified its insistence and antagonism. Cohle understands, in 2012, that his belief in non-belief is as fervent as the religious examples he dismisses during the series. For Cohle, the narrative of his understanding is the important part – not the secularity.

Meanwhile, back in 1995, Hart is disturbed by Cohle’s explanation of his non-belief system, and claims that he does not feel the same way – though the viewer never gets a clear definition of Hart’s belief system. While Hart rejects Cohle’s nihilism, it is Hart who lives with disregard of the human moral and religious code rather than Cohle. His taking the Lord’s name in egregious vain is just one of his transgressions against the Ten Commandments. Numerous references to Hart’s apparent intellectual deficit come up over the course of the series, but instead of painting him as incompetent, they underscore his surface-level thought process. Unlike Cohle who intuits and “gets a read” on people, Hart is better at talking to people to get the facts. Just as he has never taken the time to consider himself and his actions more deeply, he has not had to think about what a philosophical pessimist could be, so he asks for a definition. Later, Hart explains the difference between the two detectives’ viewpoints: “The difference is that I know the difference between an idea and a fact. You are incapable of admitting doubt. Now, that sounds like denial to me,” to which Cohle replies, “I doubt that.” Hart is summing up their different detective strategies, but also their outlooks on religion and secularity. In the 2002 timeline, Hart has lost patience for Cohle’s intuition entirely. Cohle is spinning a narrative as he is wont to do: “The alligators are swimming all around us and we don’t even know whether they’re there. And you know why? Cause we don’t see ‘em.” Hart dismisses it entirely: “I caught zero logic in all that, and that last bit? Pure gibberish.” For Hart, the facts are the only important thing, and narrative is “pure gibberish.” What he cannot see, he does not care to know or parse, because it has “zero logic.” Hart does not see anything below the surface – especially not the alligators.

Having established the seemingly opposite viewpoints of the detectives, the series goes on to interweave the strengths and weaknesses that these viewpoints hold. The symbol of the Janus is, however, more useful than a binary opposite, because it elucidates the inseparability of each view from the other. Like religiosity and secularity, Hart’s belief in religion and skepticism coupled with his need for factual evidence in the case are not contradictory elements, but grounded together. Similarly, Cohle’s skepticism toward religion and intuitive investigative style are not contradictory, either. But the series does want to establish a disconnect between the ways the main characters describes themselves and their real selves, and to do that, it uses mirrors.

The most obvious mirror in the series is Cohle’s strange, tiny, circular mirror hanging in his bare apartment. Incidentally, it was McConaughey who suggested this detail to the writer and director, which speaks to the collaborative influence actors and others working on a performance have on the text. Cohle can only look at one eye at a time, and he cannot see anything else in the mirror. Over and over again in the series, Cohle says he can read people, even corpses, by their eyes, so looking himself in the eye is all he needs to do to read himself. There are only two other times in the series when he is reflected: once in the bar in 2012, the viewer sees him through his reflection, though he does not look at himself; and during the last episode, in the hospital bed while he is recovering, his Christ-like reflection appears in the window – but his eyes are all but closed-over by swelling. There is evidence that these examples go beyond any coincidence and represent a real aversion for Cohle when he describes the fate worse than death: the torture the cartels are known for. The cartel men augment the horror of the torture by positioning a mirror in front of their victims to make them watch the whole ordeal. His inability to face himself, literally, could be grounded in his grief and trauma from losing his daughter. Nevertheless, despite the fact that he and other characters describe him as knowing himself well, he never looks at himself. His figurative self-reflection is more obvious given his lack of literal self-reflection.

The tiny mirror in Cohle’s apartment confuses Hart when he goes to stay with him, once he has been kicked out by his wife Maggie: “You supposed to see both eyes in this one?” This is the only time Hart looks into a mirror dead-on in the series, except for an implied look while he is mindlessly brushing his teeth. The tiny mirror forces Hart to look himself in the eye, and that fact, which is purposefully designed for Cohle, is unsettling for Hart. In contrast to Cohle, mirrors surround Hart many times throughout the series, but he also never looks into them. To highlight the distance between Hart and his wife, their interactions often happen through reflections. When he argues with Maggie in the bedroom, she is framed in the vanity mirror. Later when she is living with her new husband, Hart is framed in her mantle mirror. The mirrors haunt Hart when he is cheating on Maggie, too. When he begins the affair with Beth, she projects the image Hart wants to see of himself when she says, “You’re a good man. Anybody can see that.” The two are reflected in two mirrors when they first have sex. The last time she calls, she stands in front of a mirror while she convinces him to come over again, as if she understands the power reflections seem to have in his life. Even Lisa, the woman he first commits adultery with, reflects him when she role-plays a police officer during their sex (he even says he had intended to play that role instead). Hart is constantly near mirrors and reflections of himself, but unlike Cohle, he never self-reflects. Talking about Hart, Maggie tells Cohle “Some people, no matter where they look, they see themselves.” Hart does not feel the need to self-reflect, because he is in denial that anything about him could need changing.

image

In this still, Marty’s Division Bell Pink Floyd tee highlights through paradox the character’s inability to look inward, and also the division between the two characters’ viewpoints. So the Janus of Cohle and Hart look outwardly in opposite directions, but they are joined together, in partnership and in goal. Moreover, each has a complicated relationship with their own reflection – the reverse image of their selves that forces them to confront the reality of their selves. I argue that the Janus is a metaphor for religion and secularity looking outwardly from the same point, because secularity, as a unique concept, has its origin is religion. So to, religion and secularity are each a reflection of the other, and like a reflection, each is reversed. Cohle tells Hart, “Without me, there is no ‘you.’” A reflection in a mirror needs an “I” to be present or it doesn’t exist, just as secularity needs religion to exist because it is defined in opposition to and not independently of religion. Therefore Hart and Cohle are not binary opposites, either. It is certainly counter-intuitive that Hart does not look below the surface of religious belief, yet wants the cold hard facts, while Cohle is a vocal non-believer but is also intuitive and concerned most with narrative. This tension between the two men, as well as the inner tension each of them holds, plays out most acutely when the detectives go to watch the tent revival sermon by Minister Theriot. The sermon itself – one that Cohle dismisses and Hart compliments –introduces the idea of self-reflection when Theriot says “You are a stranger to yourself, and yet He knows you.” Surveying the crowd of transfixed worshippers that make up the reverand’s congregation, Cohle asks:

What do you think the average IQ of this group is, huh?

HART:

Can you see Texas up there on your high horse? What do you know about these people?

COHLE:

Just observation and deduction. I see a propensity for obesity. Poverty. A yen for fairy tales. Folks puttin’ what few bucks they do have into a little wicker basket being passed around. I think it’s safe to say nobody here’s gonna be splitting the atom, Marty.

HART:

You see that. Your fucking attitude. Not everybody wants to sit alone in an empty room beating off to murder manuals. Some folks enjoy community. A common good.

COHLE:

Yeah, well if the common good’s gotta make up fairy tales then it’s not good for anybody.

Here, Cohle and Hart reveal more explicit definitions of their respective opinions on religion – but a contradictory pattern emerges. Despite Cohle’s vehement disregard for “fairy tales” and the story that “the preacher sells,” as he tells Papania and Gilbough in 2012, it is entirely the same type of narrative that he himself seeks and employs. It is the same tactic he employs in the interrogation room, which makes him so successful at getting confessions. What is more is that he uses the empirical tactics that Hart is more likely to use – “observation and deduction” – to draw these conclusions about the congregation. Conversely, Hart reveals that his respect for Christianity comes most from its community-building aspect. But later in the same scene, Hart goes a step further to assign a moral superiority to religiosity:

HART:

I mean, can you imagine if people didn’t believe, what things they’d get up to?

COHLE:

Exact same thing they do now. Just out in the open.

HART:

Bullshit. It’d be a fucking freak show of murder and debauchery and you know it.

COHLE:

If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward, then brother that person is a piece of shit; and I’d like to get as many of them out in the open as possible.

HART:

Well, I guess your judgment is infallible, piece-of-shit-wise. You think that notebook is a stone tablet?

COHLE:

What’s it say about life, hmm? You gotta get together, tell yourself stories that violate every law of the universe just to get through the goddamn day. Nah. What’s that say about your reality, Marty?

Hart is hiding his double life, and his reaction to Cohle saying that immoral deeds would be out in the open foreshadows when he asks Cohle if he has ever considered himself a bad person because his guilty conscience is weighing heavier. Hart accuses Cohle of being just as dogmatic about his non-belief as any religious person when he facetiously asks him if his ledger is a stone tablet. In a way it is: like the Ten Commandments, the ledger is a list of sins. Cohle is more concerned with the idea that lying to oneself in order to be happy and safe is not as important as understanding the sad and desperate truth of the universe, as he sees it. He is accusing Hart and all other religious believers of “bending the narrative to support” their belief, which is exactly what Hart accuses Cohle of when they first see Dora Lange and Cohle intuits that she was a prostitute. Of course, Cohle was correct about Lange. By the end of the series, after his near-death experience and feeling as though he met the spirits of his daughter and father past the physical realm, Cohle may feel that Hart is correct about this, too.

Winding through the maze of Carcosa, Errol Childress beckons to Cohle, calling him “little priest” – something Cohle never would have avowed of himself. Whether it is “drug insanity” or a calculated misidentification to further antagonize Cohle, it reminds the viewer that religion, of some kind, has been ever-present, whether Cohle thought it was “God-bothering shit” or not. Throughout the series, Hart and Cohle attempt to justify to themselves and others who they are as true detectives, and in doing so, they break their own definitions and redefine. Their “I” definitions change over the course of the series, as do their interpretations of their own beliefs in transcendence. The last line of the song “Kingdom of Heaven” before the last chorus is “Then it bathes you in its glory and you begin life anew,” evoking the light pouring down from the open ceiling of Carcosa where each detective rises from the dead. Resurrected, his ex-wife and children’s visit move Hart to tears, and Cohle’s nihilism seems all but eradicated. Each seems to have taken a new perspective on life, and on themselves. By the end of True Detective, each detective has mainlined the secret truth of the universe: the one that was within him.

Works Cited

Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” Given at Zurich, 1949. Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English. W. W. Norton, 2006. Print.

True Detective. Writ. Nic Pizzolatto. Dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga. HBO, 2014. Digital.

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3 thoughts on ““Let’s make the car a place of silent reflection from now on”: Reflections of Secularity in True Detective

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