Cycles within a Cycle:
Nietzsche, Cyclicality, and The Absurd
in Nic Pizzolatto's True Detective

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2020, Volume 19, Issue 2


Gautam Pratap
The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, India

In a pool of television shows with surplus variety in plot and innumerable repetitions, it takes a tremendous amount of creativity to tell a story that quenches the entertainment thirst of the audience. The task becomes even more daunting for crime and drama shows, as the genre saturates today's visual market. The debut season of True Detective, the American anthology series by Nic Pizzolatto, starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, seamlessly accepted this herculean task and elevated the bars of creative standards to a whole new level. Though the title may deceive one into categorizing it as a typical "cat and mouse" crime series, the narrative travels leagues ahead in terms of thematic representation, characterization, and tonality. Pizzolatto brilliantly weaves a visual tapestry, encompassing multiple facets such as crime, philosophy, metaphysics, cosmic horror, and even cosmology, thereby creating a unique masterpiece that sets it apart from the rest.
The show can be broadly regarded as an unconventional postmodern narrative, blended with profane philosophy and intense metaphysical conceits. Intertextuality and fragmented narrative structure, two prominent postmodern characteristics, are evident throughout the narrative with multiple external references tied indirectly to the core plot. As Julia Kristeva states, "the notion of intertextuality replaces the notion of 'intersubjectivity,' when we realize that the meaning is not transferred directly from writer to reader, but instead, mediated through, or filtered by, 'codes' imparted to the writer and reader by other texts" (69). These "codes" are spread across the storyline, enhancing the inner themes of the show by transporting the audience to a different realm, persuading them to think beyond the limits of the screen. Despite the lack of any direct references from external sources, Pizzolatto has confirmed in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that he was influenced by Thomas Ligotti's works, concerning existential pessimism and psychological horror: "I read The Conspiracy Against the Human Race and found it incredibly powerful writing. In episode one, there are two lines in particular (and it would have been nothing to re-word them) that were specifically phrased in such a way as to signal Ligotti admirers" (Calia). This article explores the narrative based on intertextual elements from Thomas Ligotti's The Conspiracy Against the Human Race as well as others: Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness, and the works of Arthur Schopenhauer. Intriguingly, Pizzolatto's literary background is evident in the use of these references, which in turn spurs the audience to leap beyond surface level interpretations into a more philosophical realm that is buried within.
The narrative flow is predominantly centered around the lead characters Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson), Louisiana State Police homicide detectives investigating the murder of prostitute, Dora Lange, in 1995. Spread across a time span of seventeen years, the narrative is vastly scattered and nonlinear, with the story progressing in a flashback interview mode while blending with future events. The complexity of time and events strengthens the plot and builds up tension while rendering both the audience as well as the clock more or less perplexed. Time plays an indispensable role in the show. The broken narrative in and of itself is a deliberate attempt to portray the crucial role of time, within and beyond the storyline. Therefore, the fundamental elements of the narrative travel way beyond the limits of the screen and are meant to be viewed from a broad and universal standpoint.
The concept of "flat circle" stands out as one of the most baffling aspects in True Detective. The idea of circular, eternal, or cyclical time is directly mentioned multiple times in the dialogues of Rust. Despite the repetitive stress on the concept, Pizzolatto builds up an air of ambiguity regarding the actual meaning of the "flat circle." He neither explains nor validates it with respect to the show, but rather leaves the ends free for viewers' introspection. The concept of "flat circle" is introduced in the episode "The Secret Fate of All Lives" when Reggie Ledoux, one of the key antagonists, in his last words, talks about his "dream," the "black star," and the "flat circle," prior to getting shot down by the emotionally agitated Marty. Rust instantly attributes Reggie's words to Nietzsche, though he disdains them with utter contempt. Interestingly, Nietzsche's name is only referred to once in the whole series when Pizzolatto deliberately makes Rust mispronounce the name, emphasizing Rust's ignorance regarding any of the Nietzschean concepts. Though the audience is more or less misled in this scene, the reference is, in fact, directly aimed at Nietzsche and his notion of "eternal recurrence."


Eternal Recurrence

"The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust" (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra 341).

Eternal Recurrence or Eternal Return, an intriguing philosophical notion that concerns time, universe, energy, and its recurrence, mirrors the idea of cyclic time wherein the universe along with all its existence and energy has been recurring and will continue to recur innumerable times across infinite time and space. The roots of the concept can be traced back to early Mesoamerican civilizations such as Zapotec and Olmec, employing the use of cyclic time, which later paved the way for the formation of the Mayan calendar, dating back to the fifth century BC. The Mayan calendar consists of two separate wheels, the Tzolkin and the Haab. Time is cyclic on both, and they are used simultaneously with a set number of days occurring before each new cycle. A complete cycle takes fifty-two Haab years or 18,980 days before it recommences anew. Preceding the Mayans, similar ideas of cyclicality were reckoned by pre-Colombian Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Mixtec and Aztec. Meanwhile in ancient Greece, the concept of eternal return was associated with Stoicism, which flourished in Greece and Rome during the early third century BC. Stoic philosophy alludes to a great conflagration at the end of every Great Year, culminating in the periodic destruction of the cosmos, followed by palingenesis, recreating the cosmos so as to repeat the cycle over and over again.

The concept of Eternal Recurrence is not merely limited to early civilizations. It serves major influence in religious traditions, primarily in Asian religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism. The theory takes a slight deviation in Eastern religions, where the focus is fixed on the cycles as a method of churning salvation rather than on the eternity of the cycles. It shares close resemblance to tantric and esoteric teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, which refers to the concept as Kalachakra or the wheel of time, an endless cycle of existence. Kalachakra adheres to the cyclic view of time wherein time is divided into four Yugas, namely Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dwapara Yuga, and Kali Yuga. Each phase has its own limit, ranging from millions of years and gradually decreasing as it passes through each Yuga. This process represents an eternal recurrence of creation and destruction. The catastrophic end to the cycle occurs with Kali Yuga, and the new cycle is recommenced leading directly into Satya Yuga, the creative phase.

In Hindu mythology, the image of the Dance of Nataraja, portraying Lord Shiva's tandava has a few riveting links to eternal recurrence. Prabha mandala, the circular arch of flame which encloses Shiva's dance, symbolizes the cyclic existence of life. Here fire represents the cosmic element of both creation as well as destruction. In addition, the damaru, the hourglass shaped drum on Lord Shiva's upper right hand, stands as a symbol of infinite time. Similarly, the ecstatic dance of Shiva represents the intangible and cyclical nature of life and the universe, where the flow of life is unaltered and well beyond mortal reach. Meanwhile, in Buddhist tradition, the ring of enlightenment around Buddha's head may seem like a relatable concept, but conversely alludes to cyclic achievement of enlightenment instead of cyclicality or eternity.

There have been multiple interpretations of philosophical elements in True Detective, especially with respect to existentialism and pessimism, for instance, in the essay collection True Detective and Philosophy: A Deeper Kind of Darkenss. Though most readings have interpreted the series and primarily the protagonist based on Schopenhauer's philosophy and even Nietzsche's eternal recurrence, the aspect of cyclicality has been overlooked from a broader perspective, especially with regards to the presence of internal cycles within the characterization. For instance, Lawrence J. Hatab's essay, Time Is a Flat Circle: Nietzsche's Concept of Eternal Recurrence, in the aforementioned collection, touches on the concept of eternal recurrence and Nietzsche’s affirmation of life, but he ends his essay with a dilemma, posing a question he fails to answer:

Ultimately, the portrayal of eternal recurrence in True Detective is not in the spirit of Nietzsche's conception. It is more akin to Schopenhauer's response. Nietzsche finds a way to overcome pessimism by affirming life because of its tragic limits. How can this apply to Cohle's apparent change of heart at the end of the series? I don't know. (184)

This is where my interpretation of the protagonist based on the concept of internal cyclicality comes into play and how Rust "affirms to life" in a Nietzschean fashion as opposed to Schopenhauer's response as observed by Hatab. The concept of cyclicality works at multiple intricate levels throughout the narrative with respect to each character as well as to the universe within and beyond them.

This article examines internal cyclicality by dissecting the character of Rust into three distinct phases or cycles as opposed to analyzing him as a whole as already done by prior readings: firstly, The Schopenhauerian Rust, representing Rust in his early days during the investigation in 1995; then The Nietzschean Rust, tracing Rust during the interview phase with the detectives in 2012; and ultimately the The Divine Rust, during the climax and end of the show. Though the character embodies three different psychological states, each phase speaks for itself and stands out as an individual entity, representing an internal cycle. In other words, I argue there are three distinct "internal cycles" within Rust's "eternal cycle of life," spread across three individual time zones.


Cycle One: The Schopenhauerian Rust

From Rust’s ride-along conversation with Marty in the opening episode, the dialogues eerily resemble the core notions of Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.

I think human consciousness was a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labour under the illusion of having a self, this secretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody. When, in fact, everybody’s nobody. I think the honorable thing for a species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing and walk hand in hand into extinction. One last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal. ("The Long Bright Dark" 16:07)

Likewise, in The Conspiracy against the Human Race, Ligotto writes, "the human race will never do the honorable thing and abort itself. To end this self-deception, we must cease reproducing…how many would speed up the process of extinction once euthanasia was decriminalized and offered in humane and even enjoyable ways?" (68). Though both instances reflect an anti-natalistic perspective, they also adhere to Schopenhauer's philosophy of negation and self-denial, where life, a programmed journey where one’s path is controlled and maintained by a specific set of codes, which are subjective to an individual. Irrespective of the social and cultural norms on which these codes are rooted, one can never break or escape the programming of life. An individual is, in fact, confined to the program forever; this program is the fate of all lives. In other words, Rust's "programmed life" is nothing but a cycle in the innumerable cycles of eternity where life and the sole purpose of waking up in the morning becomes a part of his "programming" (in Schopenhauer's term, the "will to life"), as he cannot deny it due to his "lack of constitution for suicide." Schopenhauer states, "They tell us that suicide is the greatest piece of cowardice...that suicide is wrong; when it is quite obvious that there is nothing in the world to which every man has a more unassailable title than to his own life and person" (The Will to Live: Selected Writings 274). The question of suicide or death as an end to this absurd agony of life opens up another question. What if death ends a single cycle only to open the door to the next?

Materiality is a predominant aspect, especially in the modern age, sprouting from the notion of belonging to a mere group of creatures living with an illusion of having a material self, one which we perceive we possess. Here, life can be seen as an allegorical magic show, one in which the magician tricks us into believing that we are in fact someone important, a glorified human entity built upon the false attributes of beauty, power, knowledge, and fortune. At the end of the day, we are perplexed by our own existence or the lack of it and are made to believe in the most satisfying part of the trick, hardly looking beyond it. We prefer being fooled by the illusion to unraveling the truth.

In the conversation with Marty, Rust proposes the solution of denying the programming and stopping reproduction, thereby walking into extinction, which alludes to the anti-natalistic perspectives of Arthur Schopenhauer in his essay On the Sufferings of the World.

If children were brought into the world by an act of pure reason alone, would the human race continue to exist? Would not a man rather have so much sympathy with the coming generation as to spare it the burden of existence, or at any rate not take it upon himself to impose that burden upon it in cold blood? (47)

Schopenhauer had a pessimistic inclination towards life. He advocated for self-denial as well as abiding by the negation of the will, despite merrily holding hands with Tennyson's notion of "striving, seeking and finding" (70). Both Schopenhauer and Rust are equally attuned to the enormous amount of brutality and evil in the world, primarily induced by fellow humans. Just as Rust goes through the realization of the sheer terror and brutality of the ritualistic murders, Schopenhauer was devastated by the institutional sources of human sufferings that prevailed in Europe and the United States during the nineteenth century as an aftermath of pervasive human egoism and malice.

The chief source of the most serious evils affecting man is man himself; homo homini lupus. He who keeps this last fact clearly in view beholds the world as a hell, surpassing that of Dante by the fact that one man must be the devil of another. How man deals with man is seen, for example, in Negro slavery, the ultimate object of which is sugar and coffee. However, we need not go so far; to enter at the age of five a cotton-spinning or other factory, and from then on to sit there every day first ten, then twelve and finally fourteen hours, and perform the same mechanical work, is to purchase dearly the pleasure of drawing breath. But this is the fate of millions, and many more millions have an analogous fate. (Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation 578)

Both Rust and Schopenhauer are equally repelled by the brutally barbaric face of humanity. The only difference is their approach in tackling the inner conflicts. Rust chooses arms over words to prevent the malice whereas Schopenhauer writes about it.
If the rather pessimistic philosophy of Schopenhauer goes in line with the perspectives of Rust, the reason behind his philosophical inclination is vital to the discussion and needs to be explored in detail. The origin of Rust's dejection towards life, traces its roots back to the past, when his daughter got run over by a car. The multiple instances, reflecting on the death of his daughter and Rust's obvious reluctance to show up at Marty's house, reveal the regret which keeps haunting Rust forever. When he finally arrives for the dinner on the birthday of his lost daughter, he indulges in a pleasant and polite conversation with Marty's wife, Maggie (Michelle Monaghan), and her two daughters. At this point, he opens up about the death of his daughter and the divorce that followed it. In a way, we witness a terribly fragmented man, drenched in pain and remorse, who has lost almost everything dear to him. The umbilical cord of life, pertaining to his family, is mercilessly ripped off by fate, and he hardly has any reasons or will to be alive. Despite the tragedy, Rust's repudiation to end life and his constant struggle to live is hardly governed by his lack of constitution for suicide, but in turn by his intense rage against the fate of life itself. Suicide, as Schopenhauer describes, is a "futile and foolish act" (Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation 326) as it does not negate but affirms to the natural will to live. A person who commits suicide still desires life as he does not do it out of hatred or denial, but due to the mere dissatisfaction of the existing conditions of life. Here, Rust is trying to fight his own fate by living it, rather than letting go. In episode three, Rust examines the photographs of the dead victims and remarks:

This is what I mean when I'm talking about time, and death, and futility. There are broader ideas at work. Mainly, what is owed between us, as a society, for our mutual illusions…You look in their eyes, even in a picture. Doesn't matter if they're dead or alive, you can still read them. And you know what you see? They welcomed it. Not at first, but right there in the last instant, it's an unmistakable relief. See, cause they were afraid, and now they saw it for the very first time, how easy it was to just let go. And they saw, in that last nanosecond, they saw what they were, that you, yourself, this whole, big drama, it was never anything but a jerry-rig of presumption and dumb will. And you can just let go. Finally know that you didn't have to hold on so tight ("The Locked Room" 55:33).

Cycle Two: The Nietzschean Rust

The conversations between Rust and the detectives Gilbough (Michael Potts) and Papania (Tory Kittles) underscore the Nietzschean elements in the show by giving birth to the second cycle, the Nietzschean Rust. Despite the distorted nature of the narrative, the audience needs to focus closely on Rust's perspectives to trace his character arc as he shifts from one phase to another with the flip of a scene. A closer look exposes the slow drift from the Schopenhauerean Rust to the Nietzschean Rust as his burning inclination towards negation of will and self-denial gradually turns into an affirmation of life and fate.

In this second phase, Rust transcends his pessimistic attitude and adapts a more serene outlook as he affirms the realities of life and reflects on pure Nietzschean philosophy. In episode five, Rust comments: "Time is a flat circle. Everything we've ever done or will do, we're gonna do over and over and over again…forever' ("The Secret Fate of All Lives" 20:48). Here, Rust reflects on Nietzsche's "eternal recurrence" as depicted in Thus Spoke Zarathusthra and The Gay Science. Viewers may interpret this resignation toward the absurdity of life as pure pessimism. Rather, Rust exposes an acceptance of the rawness of fate and the burdens of life.

Nietzsche, being influenced by Schopenhauer in his early days, shared numerous similarities in basic ideologies, regarding the primacy of a driving will and life being an unending conflict, devoid of solutions or an ultimate salvation. They both equally approved the absurdity and futility of life but differed in terms of acceptance and realization. To questions regarding the worthiness of living, Schopenhauer turned out as a naysayer whereas Nietzsche embraced life with a compelling "yes," which Nietzsche's concepts of the Übermensch and Amor Fati reveal to readers. Eternal recurrence forces one to live his or her life as it is, innumerable times, deprived of any alternatives from absurdity. In such an instance, if the person embraces the recurrence and affirms this fate, the acceptance in Nietzsche's terms, paves way to Amor Fati, a Latin phrase for "love of one's fate," a vital quality of the Übermensch.

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the Übermensch is closely linked to eternal recurrence as multiple interpretations have made clear regarding the symbiotic relationship between the two. Übermensch is a utopian object, an eternal source of aspiration in the cyclical state of time, an eternal yardstick of values or a construct, aimed at culturally elevating and creating superior versions of the self. Nietzsche personally considered Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as the closest to becoming the Übermensch.

Schopenhauer held a different perspective with respect to reality and will. As Hatab points out in his essay, "For Schopenhauer, the ultimate nature of reality is the will, a blind assertive drive to live and satisfy desires. It is the drive that is primary, not any object of desire, or any individual agent of desire, or any satisfaction of desire. So the will never comes to rest in a state of fulfillment" (179). The will emerges out of a productive force, unattainable and other worldly, similar to the circular nature of eternal recurrence, where one travels in eternal loops seeking the Übermensch, but never attaining that state. Similar to the forbidden fruit, once attained, the object, be it religious redemption or the Übermensch, is rendered trivial. Therefore, this thirst to attain the unattainable, gives birth to the will, which in turn triggers us to cross our limits and act beyond our capabilities.
On one hand, the Übermensch stands as the eternal light we seek, a strong will that drives life, a will to overcome despair, distress, and the persistent futilities of life. Religions were created as an alternative to serving this will, depriving people from this agony. In Nietzschean terms, religion weakened humanity. He resented Christianity, as it prevented people from their natural feelings such as anger and envy. According to him, the weak and timid slaves of the late Roman Empire, who hardly had the courage to fight for their ambitions, clung to a philosophy of denial, which made virtue of their cowardice. Nietzsche, in his essay On the Genealogy of Morality, termed this practice as "Sklavenmoral" (123) or slave morality. He considered followers of Christian values as feeble people who craved social status, wealth, sexual pleasure, intellect, and creativity, but were too inept to attain it. A hypocritical creed was structured in their favor, denouncing these cravings due to their lack of ability to attain it and glorified their state of inability as "virtuous denial." As a result, in the Christian value system, not being able to take revenge became forgiveness, submission to people who are more powerful turned out as obedience, weakness was called goodness, and virginity became a symbol of purity.
To rebuild the flaws of religious values and to exist in this chaotic world, Nietzsche in The Gay Science proposed Amor fati, which he brilliantly knits to his concept of eternal cyclicality:

The greatest weight.-- What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust. (341)

Life, an eternal terrarium of multiple elements, needs to be viewed from an external perspective so as to attain a better understanding regarding its complexities, which include elements such as happiness, sorrow, loss, and pain — of which, the vitality of each element is crucial in building up life as a "unified structure." As per Nietzsche, one needs to view life as this "unified structure" ans embrace it, irrespective of its inevitable adversities. As life recurs through multiple cycles, one needs to adore one's own fate and be wholeheartedly determined to live the exact same life innumerable times.

If we affirm one single moment, we thus affirm not only ourselves but all existence. For nothing is self-sufficient, neither in us ourselves nor in things; and if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once, all eternity was needed to produce this one event — and in this single moment of affirmation all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed. (Nietzsche, The Will to Power: Selections from the Notebooks of the 1880s 532).

Delving deeper into Rust's character in True Detective, viewers find that eternal recurrence becomes prominent with respect to Rust as a living embodiment of Übermensch. Evaluating Nietzsche's own notions against Christian beliefs, anything and everything that is humanly unattainable is regarded as divine or virtuous. Therefore, like all other unattainable qualities, Übermensch, being an unattainable one, can be regarded as a divine and ethereal state. The second internal cycle of the Nietzschean Rust embodies numerous qualities that Nietzsche attributes to that of the Übermensch, making Rust a human model of the struggle to attain it. The first and foremost is the self-sufficiency of values and the independence of mindset, followed by highly elevated thinking and unconventionality in behaviors, and lastly the focus on practical application of culture, as to uplift the mentality of the society instead of blindly believing in specific ideologies.
Rust is portrayed as a socially alienated person who embodies the aforementioned Nietzschean qualities of the Übermensch. He regards himself as a man who is "not good at parties" ("The Long Bright Dark" 15:54) and proclaims himself as a "realist and a pessimist" (16:23). The ride along car conversation with Marty exposes Rust's perspectives of human consciousness as a "tragic misstep in evolution" (16:04) and his unconventional take on life. Similar to Nietzsche's Übermensch, Rust has his own opinions on life, exclusively dependent on his perceptions, and he keeps himself isolated from his colleagues. Indeed, his apartment itself symbolizes this isolation and unconventionality of life. Rust's comment: "I don't sleep, I just dream" ("The Long Bright Dark" 30:49) as well as the cross in his room, which he uses to contemplate the idea of allowing his own crucifixion, are a few instances, showcasing his distinct psychological state with respect to Marty, who is more of a religious and family man. Moreover, the most riveting aspect of Rust's character can be found in his religious ideologies, which, in turn, run parallel to that of Nietzschean conceptions, evidently reflecting his opinions on Christian beliefs and the blindfolds of religious faith. In episode three, Rust gives an elaborate lecture on the preacher's speech. Rust's ideas contain numerous tinges of Nietzschean thinking:

Transference of fear and self-loathing to an authoritarian vessel, it's catharsis. He absorbs their dread with his narrative. Because of this, he is effective in proportion to the amount of certainty he can project. Certain linguistic anthropologists think that religion is a language of virus that rewrites pathways in the brain, dulls critical thinking…See, we all got what I call a life trap. A gene-deep certainty that things will be different. That you'll move to another city and meet the people that'll be the friends for the rest of your life, that you'll fall in love and be fulfilled. Fucking fulfillment and closure. Whatever the fuck those two. Fucking need empty jars to hold this shit storm. Nothing's ever fulfilled. Not until the very end. And closure. No, no, nothing is ever over. ("The Locked Room" 7:24)

Here again, Rust reaffirms the Nietzschean idea that nothing is ever over and fulfillment is more or less a mere illusion that sustains existence. Reflecting enlightenment ideals, Rust denounces the authority of religious values and the blindfold it creates to hinder reason and critical thinking. Though he does not proclaim himself as an atheist, his realistic visions often contradict the faith and values bestowed on God. In fact, he hardly denies the authority of God, but rather chooses to criticize the institution of religion and the blinding vale it imposes on the followers.

The ontological fallacy of expecting a light at the end of the tunnel, well, that's what the preacher sells. Same as a shrink. See, the preacher, he encourages your capacity for illusion. Then he tells you it's a f------ virtue. Always a buck to be had doing that. And it's such a desperate sense of entitlement, isn't it? ("The Locked Room" 6:13)

Therefore, the second cycle of Rust has its roots deeply embedded in Nietzsche's philosophy of affirmation, religious skepticism, and the ideals of the enlightenment. In the eternal cycle of life, Rust plays his part in serving justice, undergoing self-purgation, and becoming a better version of himself, by affirming fate and embracing the eternal cycles that he is about to relive forever.

Cycle Three: The Divine Rust

The third and most intriguing cycle is the final phase in which the Nietzschean Rust eventually attains the ultimate status of Übermensch as he transforms himself into a divine entity during the climax of the season. Though both Rust and Nietzsche's perspectives towards religion go hand in hand, a close focus on Rust from a Christian standpoint sheds light on some astonishing biblical allusions. Rust, the man who claims to be a "realist and pessimist" ("The Long Bright Dark" 15:16) as well as a non-believer in Christianity, turns out to be the actual embodiment of Christ himself.

In the opening episode, when Marty asks Rust about the cross in his room despite his claim of being a non-believer in religions, Rust says: "That's a form of meditation. I contemplate the moment in the garden, the idea of allowing your own crucifixion" ("The Long Bright Dark" 15:10). Though this comment may seem trivial at first, the statement embodies a deeper biblical connotation with respect to the show as well as the flow of the universe. The garden to which Rust refers is, in fact, the garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem where Jesus prays before his crucifixion. The garden is regarded as the spot where the "agony in the garden" took place between the farewell discourse at the last supper and the arrest of Jesus.
The symbolism of the garden of Gethsemane and the idea of allowing one's own crucifixion reinforce Rust as a reflection of Christ. Jesus is aware of his fate and, in a state of mental dilemma, concedes to God regarding the agony of crucifixion: "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done" (New Jerusalem Bible, Luke 22:42). Here, Christ accepts his death as God's will and fulfills his destiny.  Similarly, Rust being aware of his fate and the aftermath of his mission in "Carcossa," selflessly embraces it as a part of his eternal cycle and sacrifices himself for justice and the betterment of humanity. The events in "Carcossa" are not something he is led or forced to, but they are chosen at his own will.

The symbol of the cross in the first episode can be explored using Roland Barthes's semiotic analysis in which "signs" are "drawn from a cultural code" (63) and the interpretations vary with respect to each individual depending on "the different kinds of knowledge – practical, national, cultural, aesthetic – invested in the image by the reader" (198). Classical semiotics is based on deciphering the "sign" that originates from the "signifier" (a word or image) and ends up conveying a particular concept (the "signified"). According to Barthes, in "second-order semiological system" (68), the sign of the first system becomes the signifier of the second, leading to a wider, ideological concept, and the sign of the second order system is referred to as "signification," which imposes a connotative meaning to the audience or the readers by reflecting on an underlying mythology.

The cross in True Detective, with two intersecting wooden pieces and a male body, becomes the "signifier" for most of the Western audience who are accustomed to Christian tradition. The image of crucifixion does not just suggest any crucifixion, but the crucifixion of Christ, signifying the self-sacrifice of Jesus for the sins of humanity. The resultant signification of the image ties it to the belief in God and serves as a reminder of self-sacrifice.

For Rust, the cross represents an act of willing self-sacrifice for a greater purpose as opposed to adherence to a religious belief. Though both ideas may seem dissimilar, the core purpose of Rust's self-sacrifice for humanity matches that of Christ. Moreover, there are some interesting visual references in the show that tie Rust to the biblical image of Christ. In the climax scene, for example, wounded and bleeding, Rust is resting on the lap of Marty, which recalls Michelangelo's Pieta (see Figure 1 and Figure 2). Similarly, the concluding scene, featuring Marty supporting Rust on his shoulders, alludes to the images of Christ carrying the cross supported by Simon of Cyrene (see Figure 3 and Figure 4). During the scene when Rust tries to push himself up from his wheelchair, Marty inadvertently exclaims, "Jesus. Oh!" (see Figure 5), which subtly exposes the underlying biblical connotation staging Rust as Christ. Lastly, the wounds on Rust's forehead and the bruised eye share resemblances to the face of Christ as visualized in the movie The Passion of the Christ (see Figure 6 and Figure 7). It is worth noting that the movie portrays Christ with a swollen left eye whereas Rust has the injury on the right side. This deliberate touch is surgically crafted by Pizzolatto to assure the similarities between Christ and Rust seem rather obvious while reinforcing the distinctions that separate the two. Moreover, an imaginary cross on Rusts forehead in the final hospital scene, explains the purpose of the cross in Rust's apartment while equally solidifying the margin between Rust and Christ with respect to the symbol and ideas they individually convey.

Marty's significantly conventional character contrasts with that of Rust both in terms of nature as well as perspectives. The wider range of tonal difference between the characters supplement each other at multiple levels. The names, Rust Cohle alludes to rust and coal, signifying deterioration and pollution, whereas, Martin Hart, refers to heart, the source of life. Contrary to Rust, Marty is a family man who has more of a normal lifestyle with emotional attachments and human flaws. Though the viewers may judge him as a disloyal husband, he realistically portrays a man with human weaknesses. Rust exemplifies a man portraying superior ideologies whereas Marty represents the "common lot."

The internal cyclicality in Marty's character happens in two cycles: he encounters family issues as a result of his own act in the first cycle and eventually acknowledges it and rectifies it in the second. Though Marty's extramarital affair gets exposed to Maggie, she provides him a second chance, which he terribly misuses again, an instance of repetitive human errors and the need for Christ's crucifixion to forgive humanity for all sins. The second cycle evokes pity in the minds of viewers, seeing lonely Marty miserably churning through dating sites and eating microwaved food in his middle age. The acceptance of his mistakes and the remorse he feels becomes evident in the latter cycle as he slowly transforms himself into a better person.
From a universal perspective, the world itself works as an eternal cycle with numerous cycles happening within it. As Rust reflects in episode five, "Why should I live in history, huh? I don't want to know anything anymore. This is a world where nothing is solved" ("The Secret Fate of All Life" 20:39). There is hardly any cure for the evil or the brutality of the human race as it continues its repetitive cycles forever. Towards the concluding part of the season, Marty looks at the night sky, the vast dark side of the world, and comments: "It appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory" ("Form and Void" 52:38). Though Rust accepts the statement, he strikes an optimistic note towards the end saying: "You're looking at it wrong, at the sky. Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light's winning" ("Form and Void" 53:51). This message is, in fact, the ultimate theme that True Detective conveys. Despite all the evil and darkness in the world, there are hardly any solutions to it, and the repetitiveness of evil cannot be restricted. The only viable alternative is to focus on the self and affirm life as it is. Internal cyclicality, a recurring part of the eternal cycle of life, facilitates the transformation of a person by psychologically purifying the self. Life is nothing but a cyclical purgation that brings us nearer to what Nietzsche calls an Übermensch or a better version of ourselves and the solution to the absurdity of life solely rests in embracing this process, irrespective of happiness or despair. As Nietzsche reminds us:

But the worst enemy you can meet will always be yourself; you lie in wait for yourself in caverns and forests. Lonely one, you are going the way to yourself! And your way goes past yourself, and past your seven devils! You will be a heretic to yourself and witch and soothsayer and fool and doubter and unholy one and villain. You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame: how could you become new, if you had not first become ashes? (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra 55)


Figure 1

Michelangelo, Buonarroti. Pieta. 1499, St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City.

Figure 2

Pizzolatto, Nic (Director). (2014). "The Long Bright Dark." [Television series episode], True Detective. HBO.

Figure 3

Titian. Christ on the Way to Calvary. n.d, Museo del Prado, Madrid.


Figure 4

Pizzolatto, Nic (Director). (2014). "The Long Bright Dark." [Television series episode], True Detective. HBO.


Figure 5

Pizzolatto, Nic (Director). (2014). "The Long Bright Dark." [Television series episode], True Detective. HBO.


Figure 6 and 7

Gibson, Mel (Director). (2004). The Passion of The Christ [Motion Picture]. New Market Films. 
Pizzolatto, Nic (Director). (2014). The Long Bright Dark. [Television series episode], True Detective. HBO.



Works Cited

Barthes, Roland, and Richard Howard. Roland Barthes. Hill & Wang, 2010.

"Form and Void." Pizzolatto, Nic, director. Season 1, episode 8, HBO, 9 Mar. 2014.

Hatab, Lawrence J. "Time Is a Flat Circle Nietzsche’s Concept of Eternal Recurrence." True Detective and Philosophy: a Deeper Kind of Darkness. Wiley Blackwell, 2018.

Kristeva, Julia, and Leon Samuel. Roudiez. Desire in Language. Blackwell, 1980.

"The Locked Room." Pizzolatto, Nic, director. Season 1, episode 3, HBO, 26 Jan. 2014.

"The Long Bright Dark." Pizzolatto, Nic, director. Season 1, episode 1, HBO, 12 Jan. 2014.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, et al. Nietzsche: Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Cambridge UP, 2006.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, et al. The Gay Science. Dover Publications, Inc., 2020.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. On the Genealogy of Morality. Woongjin, 2012.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. On the Suffering of the World. Penguin Books, 2004.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation. Dover Publications, 1966.

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. "Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.”"Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation,

The Jerusalem Bible
. Doubleday, 1971.

"The Secret Fate of All Lives." Pizzolatto, Nic, director. Season 1, episode 5, HBO, 16 Feb. 2014.

Shopenhauer, Arthur, and Richard Taylor. The Will to Live: Selected Writings. F. Ungar Pub. Co., 1967.


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