Putting television and movie characters in the middle of an “existential crisis” seems to be all the rage these days. Unfortunately, what the producers of popular media tend to mean by “existential” can be dramatically different from how an actual existentialist might define that term. While those who study the ideas of Existentialism they might find it hopeful that Sartre’s ideas may finally be getting air time, the existential crisis of Sheldon Cooper may bear faint resemblance to one experienced by Ivan Karamazov. But there may be a glimmer of hope. The new HBO breakout show True Detective remains one of the best depictions of Sartre’s complicated existential ideas of Bad Faith and Authenticity.
Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Existentialism Is a Humanism” can be overwhelming for the uninitiated but an investment in the work can be very rewarding! While it would honor neither Sartre nor True Detective to attempt a comparison, the rewards that one gleans from an investment in grappling with the issues presented in the mini-series bears a family resemblance to the insights one might get from a few weeks spent with the French philosopher. On the surface the show is heavy and brooding. It deals with serious subjects that will not be welcome to those looking for an evening of relaxing entertainment. But for those willing to invest, the show’s screenplay is rich with philosophical fodder.
Existentialism has always been, in my opinion, very bipolar; it can be as freeing and liberating as it is cold and unforgiving and True Detective illustrates this tension with a subtle expertise rarely seen in popular media. Writer/Creator Nic Pizzolatto brilliantly explores the angst and despair by constructing a partnership between two detectives, Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson), who are tasked with solving a ritualistic murder case in the deep south of Louisiana. The case, complex and grisly serves as the perfect muse for the superb dialogue between the two main characters. As the show progresses, not only do Cohle and Hart battle each other in a war of ideologies but they begin to battle inner demons of angst and, despair coming to terms with the choices of their past, present, and future.
Cohle is a man completely aware of his choices and the cold implications of them. He’s driven, almost to the point of being determined by the nexus of a path through life he has chosen and his current situation. Yet Cohle seems to be living the more authentic life. Hart is both a family man and an adulterer, he’s an overworked detective who seems not to take his work nearly as seriously as Cohle and has the patina of being the better man. Yet Hart is a man of bad faith. He lies to his wife, to his partner, and most importantly, to himself. As they join forces, they both appear to reluctantly be satisfied with their choices until their partnership surfaces flaws that threaten their annihilation at their own hands . With each word spoken and each silent moment, True Detective weaves a common thread of angst and despair. Cohle, acutely aware of his angst and despair, seems to flourish in his mercy while Hart sleepwalks through all his emotions.
True to form, this HBO masterwork rewards its audience with enough action, sex, and violence, to satisfy even the most Philistine viewer. But the real payoff is the intense and deeply thoughtful writing of Nic Pizzolatto who goes against the grain and refrains from sacrificing a solid screenplay for shock value. Pizzolatto’s script often threatens gratuity but never seems to cross over into it. In fact, the script demands the intensity. An artist like Quentin Tarantino has mastered pairing over-the-top set pieces with a memorable, quotable screenplay. But in Tarantino’s work both elements seem to be isolated from each other. The viewer appreciates both but appreciates them individually. Put another way, you could watch Tarantino’s set pieces with the sound off or listen to the dialogue without the visuals and appreciate either independently. Pizzolatto has mastered integration. You notice the vicious, but it serves as a wholly-needed adornment to the carefully crafted narrative.
Matthew McConaughey’s character Detective Rust Cohle is brilliant, cold, introverted, haunted, moody, and arrogant all the while thinking he has an intellectual edge on those around him because he believes he has pulled back the curtain of life and discovered that there’s no wizard behind it. Life is a façade with no purpose or meaning. So why get out of bed at all? To answer that question he coldly tells his partner that we should all do humanity a favor and stop reproducing; we’re like a virus that needs to be exterminated. The journey that follows, in which Cohle is accompanied by the memories of his past, becomes a hard symbol of Authenticity.
Existentialism claims that in order to be authentic we must be aware that the world is free of objective morality, and our world has no intrinsic purpose, so we must strive to create purpose and value through living a life that is free from what Sartre called “bad faith.” Are we ready to accept that life has no purpose outside what we create for ourselves? That’s an enormous about of responsibility to carry. Having something to believe in, outside of ourselves, something that is more powerful than ourselves, even if it’s a fairy tale, helps us to get through the day. Authenticity is both freeing and exhausting. For most of us, learning to live authentically can involve a constant reexamination of the self. To be truly authentic, we must develop a habit of personal awareness while learning to become somewhat resistant to the external expectations of the world around us.
Cohle attempts to embody this authentic lifestyle and I think that’s why viewers may tend to feel so much pity for him. Do we really want to be that authentic? Cohle lives in the moment. He has no dependents, no corporate responsibilities to tie him down, and even seems to eschew what we might call normal responsibilities to his fellow man. But then he becomes obsessed by the ritualistic murder of a young girl. And we learn that it’s more than just the mental puzzle that drives him. He actually seems to care about the victims. In fact, his care goes so deep, seems so authentic, that he rises above (or maybe better, descends below”) the clichéd mantra “it’s my job” uttered by so many on-screen detectives. At the same time, he’s tortured by the case and we get the sense that the locus of his torture is the depth of sympathy he has for the victims and the impatience and vitriol he has for the perpetrators. Cohle races from scene to scene in a hyper-sense of awareness desperately trying to figure out who he is, all the while attempting keep it together to solve the case.
The Heart of Bad Faith
While Cohle is written as an anti-hero, it is Hart with whom we tend to relate. Cohle’s psychology is exhausting in its non-normativity. Hart is everyman, he’s accessible, he’s us. While we balk at his lack of authenticity, we relate to it. Freedom is terrifying even though we all say we want it. When you realize it’s all up to you, that you’re the author of this novel that is your life and you determine where the story goes, that you’re no longer bound by the rules of morality or social constraints, that you have ultimate free will, you suddenly become ultimately responsible or as Sartre so famously said, “you are condemned to be free.” For Detective Hart, freedom eludes his grasp and he slips into bad faith.
A person who constructs an inauthentic persona acts in what Sartre called “bad faith.” Living in bad faith means you believe you have no other choice but assume the role you think you should play. The inauthentic person is the one who lies to himself and thus creates a fiction about who he is and gets others to believe the fiction is reality. The person who acts in bad faith is not intentionally lying to others (that is, willing telling them falsehoods). Rather, the person is lying to themselves and they know this. These lies create an internal conflict that makes being authentic impossible. Sartre writes, “To be sure, the one who practices bad faith is hiding a displeasing truth or presenting as truth a pleasing untruth. Bad faith then has in appearance the structure of falsehood. Only what changes everything is the fact that the in bad faith, it is from myself that I am hiding the truth. Thus the duality of the deceiver and the deceived does not exist here.”
Early in the show we see Hart in a bar being very loud and obnoxious, arrogant and carefree. As a detective, he’s responsible for the lives of his men, and he’s forced to see and do horrible things all in the name of duty. Hart becomes a man apparently with no choice but to be the stoic family man and detective, and he can justify blowing off steam with a mistress, because, after all, that’s the name of the game. He reluctantly assumes the weight of the world on his shoulders but unbeknownst to him, he lives as a man burdened by a world he has created.
Detective Hart is a brilliant depiction of a man pseudo-shackled by life in what Sartre argued is a life of his own making. When we assume we have no freedom to control our lives and succumb to the external circumstances that limit our movement, we are living in bad faith. Hart’s drunken mind is tied up with thoughts of self-pity and loathing for a world that doesn’t give him what he deserves. By acting in bad faith, Hart denies himself choices and remains shackled to the world of half-truths and deception that he created.
The Duality in All of Us
True Detective is powerful not merely because it powerfully depicts authenticity in one partner and bad faith on the other. Rather it shows a duality in both men with each emphasizing one or the other. And this is the way life tends to be. For example, Cohle is who he believes himself to be: fully aware of the choices available to him. One scene in particular shows Cohle staring into a mirror large enough for a single one of his eyes. He tells himself he’s content with his choices and will assume the role of a man burden by freedom. But we get the impression that he’s lying to himself and he knows it and won’t have any part of it. There are moments throughout the show when Cohle is at Hart’s home for dinner and on one occasion spends the day mowing the lawn and sipping lemonade. As a result, it begins humanizes Cohle and feeds his need for companionship. Does he want the “burden” of the bourgeois life? Is his raw authenticity too much for him? We learn that this angst is buried deep and the warm embrace of a family for a man living in a dark world is something he can’t ignore. But he does choose to ignore it, and assumes the role of man with no choice but stay the outcast.
Both detectives are torn between “liberating freedom” and “contentment of bad faith”. Many of us can relate to that and this why True Detective is about all of us. Of course this analysis is my perspective. Its less important that you agree with my viewpoint and more important that, with a show this complex, to watch without a lens and draw your own conclusions. True Detective implores us to eschew a pre-determined plan and like the existentialism the show portrays, write our own story.