Matthew McConaughey Goes on the Hero’s Journey in ‘True Detective’

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What was the big deal about Matthew McConaughey and “True Detective”? I’ll tell you what the big deal was — everything. The eight-part series was TV at its best. Fans, like me, became hooked by the previews and stayed with it all the way to the end; all of us paying rapt attention trying not to miss any clues.

The mood of the series is set by the haunting theme song and stylized opener, which have both become hits on iTunes and YouTube. Each week I listened more intently to the lyrics:

From the dusty mesa
Her looming shadow grows
Hidden in the branches of the poison creosote

Matthew McConaughey is the reluctant protagonist of The Hero’s Journey. With biblical and literary references throughout, the darkly cynical Rust Cohle (McConaughey) cannot exist in a world full of horror and darkness. He must restore balance in the sick and twisted world around him and inside him.

Led by instinct, he struggles to find a way to make some sense out of his traumatized existence. His daughter had been struck by a car and killed while she was riding her tricycle in the driveway. Rust’s marriage didn’t survive the horror and he turned further and further inward, becoming a nihilistic, broken man.


Cohle works for a while undercover trying to clean up the drug world, but gets lost in alcoholism and addiction. He keeps moving faster towards the relief of death, but his mission to survive and leave something on this earth makes him face down his addictions. He starts over by staying clean and away from the people, places and things of the druggy underworld and moving on to homicide.

There Cohle is put on a case to find the murderer of Dora Lange, a young prostitute who is found ceremoniously bound in a prayer pose facing a tree. Antlers and a thorny crown have been placed on her head.

She twines her spines up slowly
Towards the boiling sun
And when I touched her skin
My fingers ran with blood

Throughout the show, there are frequent references to the 1895 book “The King in Yellow.” Cohle is paired with detective Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson), who at first introduction seems a sociable and a normal church-going family man. He has a beautiful, smart and nurturing wife (Michelle Monaghan) and two lovely daughters.

But as we get to know Hart better we see his soul is worse than Cohle’s. Hart is deceitful and narcissistic. He sees everything as an affront to him and justifies all sorts of bad behavior with no regard for who gets hurt. Hart is leading a double life, trying to manage the horrors he sees by indulging in every impulse and doing whatever he wants. He sleeps around on his wife, is emotionally absent as a father, and can’t keep from flying into rages, punching guys in bars, and shooting a tattooed Ledoux in the back of his head.


Hart and Cohle, which happens to rhyme with heart and soul, follow clues and so do we as the investigation leads to more missing children and more murders. With every atrocity, Cohle finds confirmation that the world is a wretched place.

The show is darker than dark but not without levity. The constant banter between the two detectives is hilarious and the richest dialogue in the show. Cohle says things like, “I got a bad taste in the air — aluminum, ash — like you can smell the psychosphere.” To that Hart says, “I just want you to stop saying odd shit like you smell a psychosphere and you’re living in someone’s faded memory of a town. Just stop.”

Cohle drives Hart crazy in the way he has totally rejected social mores, especially religion, but Hart is the epitome of what Cohle hates about religion: hypocrisy. Cohle sees this church-going man pretending to believe in right and wrong but treating people horribly and justifying it based on his own self-indulgence.

Driven by his pain, Cohle works closely with Hart because he is compulsively drawn to try to right the world’s wrongs. He becomes obsessed with finding the members of the satanic cult who have brutalized children. Maybe if he can restore order he could then die knowing that his cursed life had meant something.

Cohle drinks to forget and chain smokes as if the cigarettes provide the fuel he needs to stay one step away from madness. The two detectives come across a group of incestual families in Louisiana that are so sick and twisted they make “Deliverance” hillbillies look nearly normal. There are the Childresses, Ledouxs and Tuttles, which includes politicians, evangelists, meth heads and a brother having sex with his brain-addled sister. Everywhere Cohle and Hart look they come up against ghastly discoveries and roadblocks. They keep piecing things together — as do we, the audience.

In the hushing dusk under a swollen silver moon
I came walking with the wind to watch the cactus bloom
And strange hands halted me, the looming shadows danced
I fell down to the thorny brush and felt the trembling hands

The scriptwriter of the eight-part series, Nic Pizzolatto, seemed to be examining man and his ability to distort reality so much as to create some sort of agreed upon order out of maniacal cruelty and call it a religion.

Cohle is a realist, an atheist with a strong sense of right and wrong and no motivation towards any god-bestowed rewards. He is almost like an animal, a trained dog who has caught a scent. Cohle cannot stop until he can bite his teeth into the man with the scar across his face, the Yellow King, and his agents of chaos.

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When the last light warms the rocks
And the rattlesnakes unfold
Mountain cats will come to drag away your bones

The governor and all of the politicos beneath him, like the Sherriff of Iberia County, are all facilitators of bedlam. Carcosa is a label for a place of evil. The team of Hart and Cohle bring to mind Luke Skywalker and Obi Wan Kanobe — linked in an effort to save their world.

I have saved every episode and will go back and watch each one again and again looking for all of the clues, like the cross in the background of shots of Cohle. What does it mean? It’s time to search the metaphors of Carcosa and the King in Yellow. I don’t believe in God, but if I did, I’d thank him for this brilliant show.

And rise with me forever
Across the silent sand
And the stars will be your eyes
And the wind will be my hands

I leave you with two glossaries that may help you slog through the clues.

Glossary 1

Glossary 2

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