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The horrors of the job on ‘True Detective’

The conclusion of the first season of HBO’s crime drama “True Detective” ends tonight, March 9, and no matter how it wraps up, it will go down in history as one of the most provocative first seasons ever done for television. On the surface, this series appears to be a police procedural about two Louisiana detectives trying to solve a series of ritual crimes. What it really is about is the complex ideas of good and evil. And how the lives of the two cops have been ruined by their work. (

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as their younger characters Rust Cohle and Marty Hart on "True Detective", which concludes March 9.
Original caricature by Jeff York (copyright 2014)
Original caricature of "True Detective" by Jeff York (copyright 2014)
Jeff York, Chicago Horror Movie Examiner

“True Detective” knows that it’s one heck of an ugly world out there and that knowledge informs every tense scene, every gloomy shot, and every dread inducing moment. No wonder Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) is so pessimistic about trying to do right in a world that’s become a horror show. He knew it going into the job. It took longer for the simple-minded Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) to figure it out. But it sullied him fully too.

Not for nothing is the nihilistic cop named Cohle and the one driven by his machismo passions named Hart. These two may ultimately arrest the killer tonight, but they’ve already lost their life to him. Their pursuit of this case has wrecked them. They have abandoned duty, their morals, friendship and rational thought to try and reach closure with the case, but it's an endless cycle of violence and insanity they're dealing with. And they've paid a heavy price chasing after it.

They have a shot at redemption in the last episode, and it looks like they may very well solve the crime. The web is brimming with theories about who exactly the “Yellow King” is, the big baddie of the piece, and you can find some of the better thoughts here ( We’ll see if any of them hold muster tonight but the crucial part of the show will be in determining what it does to the two men.

This show has always been more Cormac McCarthy than Agatha Christie. It’s really all about true character, not true detective work. The case turned the once crisp and eager Cohle into a dead-eyed, alcoholic wastrel who aged 30 years in a decade. Hart was prideful and thought he had it together but he lost control to his rage, drinking and infidelity. His peccadilloes drove his family away and caused him to quit the force too. The fact that these two may have a glimmer of hope for something better in the show’s finale is almost out of character for one of the bleakest shows ever put on television.

And yet, despite all of its darkness, the show has been a massive hit, averaging in the neighborhood of 11 million viewers each of its first seven episodes. Why so? Quite prophetically, the show is in tune with our times. Cohle’s and Hart’s jobs destroyed them, just as most Americans believe their careers are ruining their lives too. A full 70% admit to hating their jobs ( No wonder depression is at an all-time high in the nation. This show understands that. Misery loves company, perhaps?

And if you look across the channels, there is a lot of television treading a similar ground. Some of the best dramas on TV are putting damaged and dangerous people whose jobs are killing them at the center of their shows. On NBC’s “Hannibal”, FBI agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) can blame his job for landing him in jail ( He profiled serial killers so well that he couldn’t shake them from his own psyche, and it rendered him too blind to see that his friend and colleague Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) was a murderer who set him up for his crimes.

Over on AMC’s “Mad Men”, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is the misanthrope in the gray flannel suit. For sevens seasons now, he has used his high-powered ad executive job to deceive, cheat or bully anyone in his way.

Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) on ABC's “Scandal” and Alicia Florrick (Juliana Margulies) on CBS's “The Good Wife” have learned to fight political fire with fire in their high-powered careers, even if it’s often unethical or illegal. At least they’re not as ruthless as Vice-President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his wife on Netflix’s “House of Cards”. Their antics would make the Macbeth’s blush.

And who can forget the finale of AMC's “Breaking Bad”? Drug kingpin Walter White (Bryan Cranston) was killed because of his job, and he died in his place of employment, on the floor where he so proudly made his illegal product.

Like “True Detective”, all these shows have struck a real chord with an audience looking for someone, something that understands their pain. These shows ask many of the same ethical questions our disparaged and underpaid work force asks itself daily, just like Rust Cohle pondered in episode three. He said, “If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward then, brother, that person is a piece of sh*t. And I'd like to get as many of them out in the open as possible. You gotta get together and tell yourself stories that violate every law of the universe just to get through the goddamn day? What's that say about your reality?”

The reality is we’re probably all justifying a lot to keep it together in this world, including our jobs. It’s a truth 70% of Americans understand all too well. And it sure does make for some riveting, horrifying and therapeutic television like HBO's incredible series "True Detective".

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