True romance?

HBO’s True Detective’

5 minute read
“Without me, there is no you.” Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey, left) to Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) in “True Detective” (
“Without me, there is no you.” Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey, left) to Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) in “True Detective” (

True Detective broke the Internet in 2014.

On the surface, the show is well-covered territory: police procedural/buddy cops/hunt for a serial killer. Matthew McConaughey is transcendent as Rust Cohle, a nihilistic philosopher shaman. Woody Harrelson is no less amazing as Marty Hart, the good ol' boy with a volatile temper.

Rust and Marty pursue a ritual killer, the Yellow King, and the Internet blew up with theories. Was the culprit supernatural? Or a cult? Whodunit? I was as sucked in as anyone, combing the intricate set design, the dialogue, to unearth hidden meaning. Not until I stopped accepting the story’s ostensible plot did I notice clues about its real meaning.

True Detective is a love story.

In fairness to us fanwankers, the show is riddled with red herrings. The first was Yellow King’s identity. Ultimately, the conclusion was straightforward: a deranged mass murderer hiding in plain sight, a member of a sprawling, well-connected family of elites who run Louisiana.

The second was the apparent love triangle between Rust, Marty, and Marty’s wife, Maggie.

The Rust/Marty falling out was heavily foreshadowed. Their partnership begins in 1995. Despite their deep philosophical differences, Rust and Marty’s worst conflicts center around their relationships with women. When Rust confronts Marty about his philandering, Marty slams Rust against a locker. Their faces inches apart, arms entwined, this clinch looks like nothing so much as an embrace. Rust mows Marty’s lawn while he’s not home, and Marty freaks out about it…but really, he’s angry about how Rust talks so sweetly to his wife Maggie.

Or so we think.

Rust and Marty solve the case, or so it seems. Marty impulsively executes the suspect, which Rust and Marty cover up. Keeping this secret only deepens their intimacy. Hailed as heroes, their partnership thrives for seven years, until Rust realizes that they got it wrong in 1995. In his fervor to reopen the case, he alienates Marty and gets suspended from his job. Concurrently, Maggie finds out Marty’s cheating on her again. She seduces a drunk, desolate Rust and throws her infidelity in Marty’s face, ending their marriage.

Rust is devastated. He shows up at the police station and lets Marty beat him up, though he is clearly Marty’s physical superior. The fight ends when he tosses Marty into the rear end of his truck, busting the tail light. It’s still broken when they reunite ten years later.

More than just rivals

At this point, I realized that Rust and Marty were in a type of love Eve Sedgwick called homosociality: Two male rivals appear to compete for a lover, but they are just using the woman as a conduit to disguise their attraction for each other. I jokingly posted on Facebook that I wanted the show to end with Marty holding Rust in his arms as “Up Where We Belong” swelled in the background.

Imagine my shock when that’s almost exactly what happened.

Investigating the case in 2012 is the pretext for their reunion. There’s a new ritual killing, and the misguided police suspect Rust. Both he and Marty have deteriorated during their ten years apart. After token resistance, Marty runs into Rust’s arms. After all, Rust showed Marty the secret world underneath everything, an exciting realm of ideas, of monsters, where they could be heroes. Marty offered Rust credibility, credence, and meaningful critique. Neither of them could ever connect with a woman that way, lost as they were in their iterations of Southern machismo. To them, women are victims, lust objects, or distractions. Only another man could ever be a three-dimensional person — only this man.

Maggie’s chagrin at their reunion is palpable. Though Marty had ditched her, he has taken Rust back. She visits Rust to reassert herself, but Rust dismisses her. Her irrelevance is finally brought home. It was never about her, really.

Intermediary women out of the way, Rust invites Marty into his inner sanctum, a storage locker filled with his maps, photos, and evidence about the Yellow King conspiracy. For Rust, this is the emotional equivalent of getting naked. Marty no longer shies away, but embraces it, and Rust moves into Marty’s detective offices. Absence has made the heart grow fonder.

Together, they crack the case and almost die doing it. They enter the killer’s labyrinth and confront him. The Yellow King’s knife penetrates Rust’s abdomen, but he saves Marty with a shot in the nick of time. Afterward, waiting for rescue, Marty cradles Rust’s head in his lap as they gaze skyward through an oculus. So sad, so romantic.

Everyone expected Rust to die, but he doesn’t. There’s a sweet scene of Marty watching Rust sleep. Rust wakens, and embarrassed, reacts gruffly. It’s with love that they flip each other off: Fuck you indeed. When Rust is well enough, Marty wheels him outside to look at the stars. He offers his friend a gift wrapped box.

“Are we getting engaged?” Rust asks.

My mouth was agape.

There was no ring in the box, but Rust and Marty touch each other affectionately and talk about the future. They walk off into the sunset together…actually, Rust hobbles away in his half-open hospital gown, eager to get out of the hospital and into the car with Marty. For the first time, clinically depressed Rust Cohle can say, “The light is winning.”

The homosocial love story is almost as old as the hetero one: think Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot. True Detective was derided by some critics as sexist and objectifying women. The truth is, women were always a way of mediating the relationship between Rust and Marty. As taken as I was with the murder mystery, I was even more moved by the artful rendering of a love that really dares not speak its name. Rust and Marty aren’t gay. They just love each other better than anyone else. In fact, it’s so tough to talk about straight men who are in love that we needed an elaborate, absorbing, Yellow King-shaped MacGuffin to hide it.

The show is over now, and Rust and Marty are together. All that’s left for us fanwankers now is to write fanfiction about them.

What, When, Where

True Detective. Written by Nic Pizzolatto, directed by Cary Fukunaga. HBO.

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