Jesus Christ in True Detective

As I’ve said many times before: It’s no secret–I love Matthew McConaughey. Upon watching the first season of True Detective, I came to admire McConaughey’s acting chops even more than I previously had. His descent into the nuanced pessimism of Rustin Cohle was truly awe-inspiring. After finishing the season, I began researching more about the philosophy behind the show, and discovered a plethora of articles and videos detailing the pessimism and “weird fiction” True Detective offered. Despite the obvious inclusion of pessimist philosophy, I found the inclusion of Judeo-Christian themes an interesting blend of optimism and pessimism. In fact, Cohle’s character arc was the most intriguing to me, as he represents a twisted form of a Christ archetype.

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On the surface, the evidence of Cohle as a Christ figure is clear: a philosophical man, a judge, a man who is kind and respectful to prostitutes, a man who cares for women and children. Cohle sacrifices himself in the final episode for the greater good, as he is stabbed by the show’s primary villain; this fatal wound allows Cohle to fulfill the ultimate Christ narrative, as he slips into darkness, death, only to be resurrected shortly thereafter. In the interrogation room, Cohle crafts sculptures of people out of his old beer cans, metaphorically creating man, and rattles on about other dimensions and time with a semi-omniscience. McConaughey himself even suggests Cohle’s “part man, part God” nature in his book Greenlights where he writes “[Cohle is] an island of a man who lived between the mortal respect of death and the immortal need for its deliverance. A man who, without sentiment, fiercely sought the truth no matter how much it burned.”

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From the first episode, Cohle’s talent for detective work is obvious. Woody Harrelson’s character, Marty, outlines Cohle’s ability, suggesting an uncanny, semi-omniscience Cohle possessed not just in his philosophical ramblings, but in his work. Additionally, the visions Cohle experiences as a leftover side effect of his acid-induced gig as an undercover narcotics officer represent a sort of supernatural connection. Furthermore, in the final episode of the series, Cohle envisions a spinning, glowing blue vortex above him; the void is all consuming and seems to hold some spiritual significance, as it distracts him from his mission to hunt his suspect in the depth of a concealed underground lair (an obvious archetypal descent into Hell or the underworld). This odd internal conflict between Cohle’s supremely logical, pessimistic ideas illustrated throughout the series, and the oddly spiritual, supernatural visions and hunches he experiences mirrors the contradictory nature of Jesus as man (logical, rooted in reality) and God (requiring a level of faith, more emotionally and spiritually driven). 

Beyond these superficial components of Cohle’s Christ-like persona, his affinity for his occupation reveals a deeper layer of the Christian, redemptive undertones. As a detective, part of Cohle’s job description also requires him to interrogate suspects, something he is incredibly gifted at doing (surprise, surprise). Throughout the show, audiences repeatedly witness Cohle effortlessly drag confessions out of various suspects, as he skillfully identifies each suspect’s individual values, playing upon their internal guilt and shame. As such, he acts as a moral judge, further reflecting Jesus Christ. Christ himself inherently represents a judge as the “Perfect Man,” something discussed at length by figures like Dr. Jordan B. Peterson. As the “Perfect” or “Ideal Man,” the existence of the idea of Christ automatically judges those who do not live up to the ideal. Cohle’s interrogation methods function in this paradigm. By harping upon an individual suspect’s guilt for not adhering to their values, he taps into their conscience, their morality. Those who are guilty of not living up to their own moral virtues eventually break and confess their sins before Cohle, with a few suspects even asking for forgiveness. 

Interestingly, Cohle tells a particular suspect, a woman accused of killing her three young children thanks to Munchausen by proxy, that she should kill herself, acting both as a fateful judge as much as a moral one. In the interrogation room, Cohle also admits to killing someone who had injected their infant with crystal meth, again serving as a moral and fateful judge. Cohle’s reactions to these individuals seems inconsistent with his misanthropic, anti-natalist pessimism. Early in the show, Cohle expresses his belief that humans should do ourselves a favor and stop reproducing. However, his anger at such individuals who would kill their own children suggests that Cohle believes in the inherent value of each child, and thus the value of reproduction. In fact, Cohle’s entire line of work suggests the inherent value of each new life. Why else would he fight so hard to solve this case, to capture the predator who was kidnapping, raping, and killing women and children across Louisiana’s southern coast? Why would he spend 17 years of his life consumed by the mystery, willing to sacrifice himself (much like Christ) to prevent more women and children from the same cruel fate as the show’s original victim? If Cohle were truly a pessimist, would it not be a fruitless effort to dedicate oneself to helping others and preventing further tragedy? Why not just let it go on? The conflict between Cohle’s motivations and his pessimistic outlook add to his part man/part God nature, further aligning him with the Son of God.

The emphasis on children is particularly interesting due to the clear Christian connection between Jesus and children. Throughout the series, children are victimized, whether by the show’s main villain, or by situations into which they were born. The young runaways at the brothel the detectives visit are victims of their circumstances, while babies throughout the show are victims of their parents’ neglect, addiction, or the neglect of other adults (in the case of Marie Fontenot, she was a victim of villains and a corrupt police system). Even Marty’s children are victims, as alluded to with the emotional troubles his daughters face throughout the show, including acting out as teenagers or by drawing explicit images, and struggling with their mental health after their parents’ divorce. This is perhaps best exemplified by a small detail included in the shootout in a poor black neighborhood as Cohle goes undercover to find Reggie Ladoux. Amid the chaos of the shootout, Cohle scours the house, finding a young boy watching television in his bedroom; Cohle takes the young boy to the bathroom, instructing him to stay put in the bathtub so as to ensure he was protected during the shootout. The moral position to save children is clearly Christian, based in the Scripture, “whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” The dedication Cohle has to save children may be immediately explained by his desire to redeem himself for losing his daughter, while the emphasis on protecting children contributes to his Christ-like resemblance. 

Cohle’s resurrection is perhaps the most obvious allusion to Christ in the show. Cohle describes his experience to Marty, noting that as he slipped into death, he felt pure love, and saw both his daughter and his father, alluding to an encounter with God upon death. He states, “…we were all, the three of us, just fading out.” The “three” he refers to includes his father, himself, and his daughter, clearly aligning to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Cohle’s escape from the hospital is an escape from the tomb, walking barefoot and clad in a white robe, essentially in the classic Jesus getup. Cohle’s final observation, “Once there was only dark, but if you ask me, the light is winning,” clearly calls back to Genesis’s “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light’: and there was light.” This thematic observation exemplifies the core of the entire show–Marty’s struggle between remaining a dedicated family man and a troubled sinner; Cohle’s attempt to not be utterly consumed by the darkness his life experiences afforded him; Cohle and Marty working against a corrupt police system to establish the truth behind a string of missing-children cases executed by demonic, pagan dissidents. The final defeat of the show’s villain, Errol Childress (who identifies himself as Carcossa, a demonic figure), illustrates the Christian version of “light versus dark,” God versus Satan/Lucifer, and simultaneously outlines a clear moral coda. 

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Of course, Cohle’s character does not completely overlap with Jesus. The pessimistic philosophy he espouses, his disdain for the religious, his own sinfulness, and his apparent atheism (early in the show) all complicate the identification of Cohle as a Christ-figure. However, the blend of the Christ archetype with a nihilistic hermit is an intriguing combination, making the show a more compelling watch. The unique blend of Cohle’s character encompasses the “light versus dark” theme, with the two variables competing for dominance in Cohle’s psyche. Wisecrack discussed in a video essay the theory that the inclusion of optimistic undertones–in this case, a Christ-like hero–is actually a “Trojan horse for the revelation that everything is actually terrible,” a philosophy perpetuated through the works of Leo Strauss. Alternatively, the inclusion of Christ-like resemblances adds a deeply American connection to a quintessentially modern American story. The show takes place in the deep southern wasteland of Louisiana, and exposes the horrors of lower class life in America, including incest, addiction, violence, crime, deterioration, and instability–problems that are largely forgotten or ignored by populous coastal cities, the inhabitants of which often write off the everyday individuals like the ones in True Detective as white trash, country bumpkins, or hicks. Cohle’s Christ not only lends a distinctly American morality to the story (morality historically embedded in a Judeo-Christian tradition), but communicates the near miraculous nature of what it would take to save the least fortunate in our country, suggesting only an act of God could pull the lowliest Americans from the depths of their depression. Perhaps both estimations are true and even compatible, bringing an even more grim characterization to the decrepit Louisiana hell-scape depicted in True Detective.

No matter the “reason” for the Christ figure in True Detective, the truth remains: I still love Matthew McConaughey.

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