Finally, someone just like you, bro.
I won’t try and say the following is anything more than anecdotal, gleaned from a very small survey of me and mine. Nevertheless, it’s more than enough to raise the alarm: Multiple reports of young men comparing themselves to Rust Cohle, eponymous hero of HBO’s True Detective. Maybe it’s happened to you: While surfing your Facebook feed, you come across a status saying something along the likes of “I identify so much with Rust Cohle” or “if I had to pick a TV character I’m most like, it’s Rust from True Detective.” Maybe this hasn’t happened to you at all and it’s unfathomable to imagine how it ever could, in which case: lucky.
For those of you who were only kind of sort of paying attention for all of True Detective’s eight episodes, I’ll sum up Rust: He’s well-read, strikingly handsome, prone to telling it like it is, and utterly without need for social norm. He’s like Gary Cooper in High Noon, if he spouted way more weed philosophy about “scented meat” and the geometric shapes that time sometimes resembles. On a show whose underlying theme was masculinity and the way men act — whether by force or by choice — in a hard world, Rust was the righteous divining rod, the noble certainty to partner Marty Hart’s mealy-mouthed rage and blatant hypocrisy. If Marty was a douchebag for being so protective of women and kids yet cheating on his wife and ignoring his family, Rust didn’t show any such obvious contradictions. He was here to do one thing: Stop evil, no matter the personal cost — the Spartan apartment, the fallow love life, his unfortunate choice in facial hair.
So what does a dude get by identifying so hard with Rust? An affirmation of that single-minded focus, maybe — the sense that you know what you’re talking about, and that you’re doing alright by ignoring those around you in pursuit of a sole ideal. (Whether that ideal is exposing occult pedophiles or posting on message boards without impunity.) But what it means to let everyone know you identify with Russ is a little more complicated. That BuzzFeed has been able to gin up a billion dollars’ worth of traffic with quizzes like What Fictional City Should You Really Live In? to Which Asexually Reproducing Plant Are You? is evidence that people like publicly confirming some deep-rooted personality trait they believe they have, even if it’s in a fatuous way. I don’t want to talk about why I’m a moody jerk, so I’ll just share this status affirming that I’m just like Batman. It’s dumb fun, yes, and an easy way to pass the time, but it also works as a substitution for the things one might be unwilling to talk about in depth with another person.
But identifying with Rust because of his philosophy ignores the biographical detail that made him what he is: a dead child, a dissolved marriage, daily immersion in a world stuffed with senseless murder and crime. He went deep into the shit and never came back; instead, he’s committed the rest of his life to acting as the last line of defense for everyone else. It’s honorable, though not infallible. Pretend as you will that you can remained unmoored from other people, but eventually your solipsistic rationalizations lose weight. When Rust meets with Maggie in a diner to salvage Marty’s marriage, he tries to write off his partner’s infidelity as some biological necessity — another part of his working theory that death is the answer, people are shallow, and we’re all the victim of our own shoddy programming. Maggie, who knows what it’s like to be on the other side of such self-involvement, snaps back and says he must’ve been a fantastic husband. Shocked back into the world of other people, Rust leaves without saying a word.
That’s the fine line of the show’s writing that makes Rust a real character and not Reddit.txt made flesh. Rust might’ve been through all of society’s heavy shit, but it’s not enough to take him out of it. He has to learn, however slowly, to co-exist —and in the show’s world, he eventually comes around. Flash forward to 2012, and upon reuniting with his former partner, Rust asks him how he’s been and a clearly bemused Marty notes that this is more than he’d ever asked when they’d seen each other every day. But a lifetime of getting wet on Lone Star couldn’t fog out a truth more obvious than books: You need other people to live.
The show leads there, too. The irony is that all of Rust’s existential pontificating ends up mattering for nothing. He talks about how he’s ready to die, but the miracle of modern technology saves him from death after being stabbed in Sunday night’s series finale. Then, after recovering in the hospital, he tells Marty that when he came close to biting it, he felt the presence of his dead daughter and father amidst the darkness. There, he became a part of everything he’d ever loved. “I said, ‘Darkness, yeah.’ and I disappeared,” he says. “But I could still feel her love there. Even more than before. Nothing. Nothing but that love.”
This is the real heavy shit, a reality-altering experience that only comes at the precipice of death — not from any number of philosophy texts, but something too big to explain. It’s a little corny, yes: “Love was the answer all along” isn’t the series-ending answer you’d expect from so dark a show, which placed such a granular focus on The Way We Are. But thinking you know everything is never enough, even for someone as smart as Rust. Ideological submission in the face of life might be his most identifiable quality, not the entry-level preoccupation with space-time — and dudes rushing quick to identify with culture’s coolest cop might want to keep that in mind.
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