Rust Cohle, The New Mike Hammer — True Detective Takes on Its Influences

So many words have been spilled about True Detective in the last few months, it’s hard to get one in. Whether you’re taken by the show’s red herrings (or yellow herrings, as it were) or disgusted by the lack of strong female characters, there’s no escaping that something about the show’s dark world view has grabbed people, much like the middling abyss we all desperately stare into awaiting the answers.

One of the things that seems amiss, though, in all the conversation about the show is where it sits in the pantheon of detective fiction. Obviously, for a show called True Detective this would be an obvious place to start. Rarely does the conversation shift over to genre traits or character archetypes. The show’s darkness comes from pushing  the ideas of Raymond Chandler, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mickey Spiliane, and, hell, Dick Wolf and Shane Black onto premium cable. All of detective fiction plays a role in HBO’s hit series, which is part of what makes it so compelling.

Most of the world seems caught up in the painfully nihilistic world of Rust Coehl. His musings on the sadness of humanity or the flatness of time seems out of place in a TV landscape more interested in being seen or respected (see: Tony Soprano, Walter White). But Cohel’s personality comes from an existential sadness commonly found in the Mike Hammer. Unlike Same Spade or Philip Marlowe (both embodied by Humphrey Bogart), Hammer’s hard man style caused him to lash out at the world. He was very much an outsider who saw the world for what it was. Think of Watchmen‘s Comedian and put a fedora and trench coat on him, and you have something closer to what Hammer was. Rust Coehl is the post-9/11 version of this character. He takes his work seriously, to the point of obsession, causing it to break apart his connection to the rest of society. At a certain point, like Hammer, he must solve the case because of a deeply-rooted psychological obsession with finding justice, a common trait of detectives. Rust Cohle is Mike Hammer for a Breaking Bad world.

But hard-boiled detective novels aren’t the only thing on creator Nic Pizzolatto’s mind. For the last two or three decades detective and police procedurals have seen many incarnations, but none have been as prevalent as the Law and Order-type procedural or the buddy cop movie. Of course, many have already pointed out how the True Detective‘s overcast style resemble something of Dick Wolf’s empire, but the first episode of True Detective points at something else: Lethal Weapon. The blog True Detective conversations hilariously captures the conversations between Rust and Marty. The show sets up this dynamic from the get go, good cop, crazy cop. The former, a veteran of the force, the latter a depressed shell of a man who’s family is gone and lives on the edge, deep undercover. Sound like anyone? Because I just described Martin Riggs from Lethal Weapon. The buddy cop movie and these procedurals flies in the face of police reality, but they’re compelling because they put actual people against superhero-like villains. But the actually pilot points of shows like True Detective are repeatedly mocked on True Detective. Episode 2 sees Rust and Marty’s boss, Major Quesada ask, “You ever solve a murder that’s been in the red more than a week. You ever clear one where two rounds of questions didn’t hand you the fucking answer?” Pilzzolatto’s calling attention to the processes of TV detectives and the fiction of these “true detectives.”

Basically, True Detective takes the past of detective fiction and heightens it. These two guys are Sherlock and Watson, but played straight and to their dark extremes. The things they’ve seen and the things they will see alter their world view, change their perceptions, and challenge what they though they knew about their jobs. The violence, sexism, and existential crisis of the genre are pushed to their absolute limits in True Detective, and it’ll be interesting to see where it ends up.

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