The debut of HBO’s new series, True Detective starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, was a huge success on Sunday, putting up the biggest numbers for a premiere on the network since Boardwalk Empire, despite competition with the Golden Globes. But more than just the Nielsen numbers, True Detective is quickly catching on with the Internet, and it’s clearly going to be one of my favorite kinds of series: The kind that inspires theories and predictions, the kind that drops clues, the kind that uses symbolism and literary devices, and the kind of series that can not only be watched and enjoyed, but that can be examined. (SPOILERS AHEAD)
But what you’re thinking about the identity of the serial killer is probably wrong.
The moment above at the end of the pilot episode triggered the same thought in a million people on Sunday night: Rust Cohle is the serial killer. I know, because that’s the inkling I had, it’s exactly what my wife suggested after she saw the scene, and that very theory is floating all around the Internets. And that’s exactly how creator/writer Nic Pizzolatto designed it. He wants us to think that, probably as a kind of misdirection: If we make that assumption, then we start to bend the narrative to support that assumption, and while we’re looking in one hand, Pizzolatto will be doing all the magic with his other hand.
That said, the stuff that folks have come up with to support that assumption has been fun. Mostly, the speculation that Cohle is the killer has centered around three trains of evidence:
1) That, as smart as Cohle may be, no one could be as lucky about his guesses as Cohle has been, unless he had some inside knowledge. He instantly knew the victim was a prostitute; he knew the antlers were a type of crown (and he wanted to assure his fellow detective that this was true so that the killer’s motivations were not misunderstood), and he knew exactly where to find that devil net, without looking anywhere else. He walked straight to it, as though he knew it was there all along.
2) Some of the lines in Cohle’s philosophizing point to him as the killer. “We are creatures that should not exist,” he says. “The honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing.” He’s a humanity hating nihilist, but that doesn’t necessarily make him the killer.
3) Then there is this line, “I don’t sleep, I dream.” That has led to speculation that Rust Cohle is not only the killer, but that he doesn’t even know it. He’s schizophrenic, or has multiple personality disorder, and his “dreams” are not actually dreams, but a reality where he goes around killing prostitutes and sticking antlers on their heads.
It’s a fun line of thinking, but again: It’s exactly what Pizzolatto wants us to think. There are a couple of instances in the episode itself when Harrelson’s character even accuses Cohle of “bending the narrative” to support Cohle’s own theory, and I think that’s what Pizzolatto is doing to us: It’s smart. But it can’t be Cohle, because Pizzolatto has to know that’s what everyone is thinking now, and it would be too obvious. I’ve seen the movie Identity, and the multiple personality disorder ending to that serial killer was a horrible cheat, and there’s no way that McConaughey and Harrelson (or HBO itself) would sign on to a series with an obvious ending that everyone figured out by the end of the first episodes. That would be like the disastrous sixth season of Dexter all over again, where the Internet figured out the reveal episodes before it happened.
… unless, of course, as the series progresses, it doesn’t become about the identity of the killer at all, but his motives and Martin Hart’s realization that Cohle is the killer over the course of his interview with the two detectives. I’ve argued that what makes the series so great and different from other crime dramas is that the identity of the killer is secondary to the character development, and that it’s getting inside the minds of Cohle and Hart that make this series so spectacular. It is possible, then, that Pizzolatto is leading us to an obvious conclusion because the identity of the killer is irrelevant to what the series is trying to accomplish, which is to get inside the minds of Cohle and Hart and explore them. Maybe in the fourth episode, Pizzolatto actually reveals Cohle as the serial killer, and we spend the second half of the season exploring what it is that drove him to kill prostitutes, and wondering how long it will take for Hart to figure that out and curse himself for not realizing it much earlier …
… but I don’t think so. Because when Cohle says, “You’re asking the wrong f*cking questions,” the most obvious conclusion anyone would draw is that the right questions are about how he pulled off murders. That’s a seed that Pizzolatto wanted to plant, not to lead you to the killer, but to throw you off the scent.