Rust Cohle, Jesus, and God: What ‘True Detective’ Is Really Saying About Religion

And so True Detective is over and done with — for this season, anyway. The past eight weeks have seen all manner of internet speculation on what the show is about, and in the wake of last night’s excellent finale, we have a complete series to which we can apply such theories. Clearly, there are all manner of recaps to read on the web (and on Flavorwire), but I want to focus on one particular aspect of the show: what it has to say about religion, and the way we define the meaning of our lives. Spoilers ahead, obviously, so don’t read unless you’ve watched the season finale.

From the beginning, religion has gotten pretty short shrift on True Detective — particularly from Rust Cohle, the show’s endearingly nihilistic antihero. It didn’t take people long to complain that True Detective was “anti-Christian,” but honestly, that complaint only served to illustrate how people tend to pick and choose the things that offend them (especially on the internet.)

The idea of True Detective being anti-Christian, or even anti-religious, misses a much deeper point. Nic Pizzolatto’s narrative is about many things, but most importantly, it explores the nature of storytelling. (I’m not the first to argue this — Pasha Malla’s excellent piece for Slate last week came to a similar conclusion.) The show takes many different approaches to the theme, but the finale suggested that perhaps the most important was an exploration of the stories we tell ourselves.

The most succinct formulation of this idea comes from The Daily Beast‘s Andrew Romano, who wrote this morning, “In the earliest episodes of True Detective, Pizzolatto established a clear dichotomy. On the one hand, there’s investigation — storytelling as a search for the truth. On the other hand, there’s religion — storytelling as an escape from the truth.”

This is entirely correct, but I’d argue that True Detective‘s conception of storytelling as an escape from the truth extends beyond religion. The show isn’t so much anti-religion as anti-self-delusion, of which religion is only one manifestation. When you think about it, there really isn’t a whole lot of difference between Christianity and the Yellow King mythos and Rust’s nihilism — they’re all stories that characters told themselves to give meaning to their lives, and they’re all ultimately destructive and delusional. Life isn’t defined by a cross or a devil net, but nor is it entirely meaningless. In the end, Rust’s nihilism softens into what we might call classic existentialism, the idea that we give our own lives meaning. Just like everyone else in the show, nihilism is a story he’s been telling himself.

This is why anyone who wants to argue that Rust’s near-death revelation was somehow about “finding God” or any such thing is entirely missing the point — it’s not like he’s been converted to the idea that hey, everything’s great after all! It’s more that, like Willard meeting Kurtz, he’s seen the extreme of where his nihilist philosophy can lead, and recoiled from it. And beneath that darkness, he saw something warmer. He’s been on a death trip for decades, but at the last moment he found a reason to live, the thing he’s been seeking all these years.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of fascinating religious allusions in the finale. As Matt Zoller Seitz points out, there’s a definite parallel between Jesus offering himself up for crucifixion and Rust’s journey into Carcosa. In both cases, we have a man offering himself up for death, and in both cases redeeming others by doing so. Rust even gets stabbed in the side. Presumably Jesus wasn’t expecting to get resurrected, either — and doesn’t Rust look more than a little Christlike in that hospital bed?

The thing to take from this, it seems, is that if we define our lives by anything, it should be by the love and compassion we have for others. It’s not in the stories we tell ourselves — be they deranged tales of Carcosa and human sacrifice or self-serving lies about being a great family man or nihilistic philosophical musings about flat circles and the secret fate of all life. It’s by our deeds. This, I think, is the great lesson of this whole story: that our lives have no meaning beyond what we ourselves give them, and if we do that by believing a whole lot of extradimensional mumbo-jumbo, we’re cheating no one but ourselves.

And for anyone who thought it was all too neat, remember that as far as happy endings go, this one comes with a lot of whacking great asterisks. Marty still remains estranged from his family because of his own actions. Rust is still a bereaved father who’s alone in the world. And most importantly, the Tuttles are at large. Our imperfect heroes slew the monster of Carcosa, but the monster’s keepers are very much out there. As Rust observes early on in the series, “This is a world where nothing gets solved.” This sentiment is echoed by Marty in the finale: “We ain’t gonna get them all. That ain’t the kinda world it is.”

It’s not. It’s a world that’s absurd, in the philosophical sense of the word. But it’s the one and only world we have to live in, not a world of fairy tales and monsters and Yellow Kings and salvation through repentance.