True Detective: A Study in the Lies of Characters

True Detective

S1, E3: Locked Room

(photo from

(photo from

As TRUE DETECTIVE continues, it becomes increasingly clear that, at its heart, it is a show about duality, about the inherent split nature of people. Whether it be our leads, the bureaucracy they are a part of, or the religious institutions that are so woven into the life and politics of Louisiana, nearly every facet of DETECTIVE is divided against itself. No one and nothing is telling the truth, nothing is exactly as it presents itself.

For Martin Hart what was first revealed last episode is deepened and broadened here. In episode one, Hart is the good steady figure. He’s a good cop, a good husband, and a good father in the 90’s. Evidence of his stability—in comparison to Rust Cohle, his long estranged partner—is demonstrated by the fact that the Hart of the 90’s and the Hart of today seem to be roughly the same guy. Yes, his hair has thinned and his waist has thickened, but everything else about him suggests nothing has changed.

In episode 2, however, we see that the initial impression is at least a partial fiction. He is engaged in an affair with a younger woman, he drinks heavily, and his absence is being felt in his home. Here, in “Locked Room” his dichotomy is truly driven home. He is reactive, violent, jealous; a liar not just by omission but by active falsehood. Moreover, that dishonesty lives on in the present as he sands down his edges and, presumably, omits the uglier aspects of himself—and, it seems, Cohle too—in relating the story of the 90’s case to the officers. Officers, who themselves are presenting as interviewers but are almost certainly acting more as interrogators, as each subsequent episode has made clearer.

While Hart’s sham side is perhaps obvious—the seemingly faithful together family man with a mistress and a dangerous temper is a cliché to be certain—Cohle’s duality is more hidden and therefore more intriguing. In the past, he presents as agitated, uncomfortable in his own skin as he tries to settle into a life the approximates what someone might call normal-adjacent while simultaneously believing life is inherently meaningless. In the present, it initially seems that he has come to terms with that struggle and decided to opt out. Yes, he is almost certainly an alcoholic, but he is an alcoholic without delusion. He is who is he, without apology.

In this installment though, the officers scratch at his beliefs a bit and what we see indicates that Cohle might not be as comfortable in his unusual life and philosophy as he first presented. His increased agitation, demonstrated in not just his “carving” of the empty beer cans, but in his progressively less laidback tone hints that Cohle is still a very coiled man. Much like his partner, he is suppressing a side of himself that he wishes to keep hidden, even, it seems, from himself. He certainly does not believe in God and may even buy his interpretation of man as meat driven by biology and nothing more, but this view does not provide him the comfort he professes. In the same way that the congregation of the tent revivalism suppresses doubt with ritual so to, it appears, does Cohle.

Considering the sheer volume of deception the show stews in, it is important to note that there are two characters who seem to present themselves as they are and they are the two most prominent women in the cast. Maggie, Martin’s wife, expresses her displeasure in word and action, and does not hesitate to let others see, whether it is her mother or her husband’s partner. On the other side of Martin’s life, his (now apparently former) lover Lisa tells him she is done with him, is not planning a life with him, and is looking to build a life with someone else and means it. She is not dating to make him jealous or to convince him to leave his wife. This is not some performance for his attention. She is a woman honestly pursuing what she wants and leaving that which she no longer does behind.