McConnaughey’s character on True Detective has been the focus of no shortage of think-pieces and analyses that hinge mostly on a generic invocation of “nihilism”. Rust Cohle is a dark, bleak presence, but he’s not a typical antihero. Cohle is not overtly immoral, or, he’s not constantly overcoming serious character flaws to be effectively heroic. Cohle has a bit of a drinking problem, but his indiscretions pale in comparison to Harrelson’s Martin Hart, a serial philanderer/control freak with a temper. Compared to his partner, Cohle is downright ascetic.
The fact is that Cohle embodies something more akin to an ideal Christian subjectivity than any of the other characters who self-identify as Christian. In the first few episodes, no opportunity is wasted to frame Cohle with a cross, the association being his avowed contemplation of divine suicide or unintentional piety. It all stems from Cohle’s self knowledge: his sins and his ability to sin. This has given him a sort of preternatural insight into the workings of the human soul, and explains his effectiveness as a detective, and this is quite apparent in Cohle’s methods of interrogation. The interrogation room becomes the confessional booth, Cohle the priest, offering not eternal salvation or even forgiveness, but simple relief, relief from one’s own guilt. Cohle’s interrogations are undeniably pastoral, at turns wrenching and heartbreaking as criminals are coaxed into confronting their true selves.
What this means for the conclusion of the first season, I have no idea, but it has been a source of deep irony in the series so far. The man who affirms no meaning, views humanity as a cruel, cosmic joke, is the one who embodies what those around him consider the apex of their own beliefs.