The light is winning: on the conversion of Rust Cohle

True Detective spoilers follow.

As if we didn’t need more nihilism in our lives, many of us got introduced to Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) a few months ago. He’s one of the main chracters on HBO’s newest drama: True Detective. The show is an anthology, and its first story follows the murder case of Dorothy Lange and Rust Cohle and his-then partner’s, Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) attempt to solve it. It documents their accounts of the case as new interest develop when two homicide detectives think that Marty and Rust didn’t find the right killer. I’m amazed that in this day-in-age, True Detective actually offers a story of hope, faith, and conversion.

The plot itself is captivating as many mysteries are, but perhaps more intriguing than the plot is the dynamic between Marty and Rust. They are two polar opposites in terms of worldview and lifestyle, but most of the time lead not surprisingly empty lives. Marty is a drinking, cheating cop who is trying to maintain his family life, but seems to be pull it apart with many of his ill-thought choices. Rust has experienced a death of his daughter, a divorce, and has developed a deep philosophical nihilism as a result. Rust’s existential crisis plummets him deep into a dark trench.

A few of Rust’s darker quotations (thanks IGN):

“I think human consciousness, is a tragic misstep in evolution… Maybe the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight – brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.”

Humans, whom Rust calls ‘sentient meat’ are a big mistake. We should have never evolved. (Let alone created.) Rust’s viewpoint is so negative, and so nihilistic, it’s clear that the pain he’s experienced is plunged him into his abyss. He’s hard to relate to, but somehow the audience is still compelled.

“If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward then, brother, that person is a piece of shit.”

His words on faith are even more offensive. So frustratingly certain of his own philosophies, despite his jaded past and continued bad habits in the present, Rust rips into those with faith. And not surprisingly, it is those with faith that surround the story’s central murder. (It seems like Christians are so rarely honored in televisions—then again, if you look around at our actions, it might be justified.)

“This is a world where nothing is solved. Someone once told me, ‘Time is a flat circle.’ Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again. And that little boy and that little girl, they’re gonna be in that room again and again and again forever.”

Rust channels varying philosophers throughout the show, but the angst of Kierkegaard that he can’t heal through a leap of faith is his greatest struggle. He needs to find some faith, to pray, to reflect. He needs to overcome his deep cynicism, and Jesus is the antidote for him. He needs to meet some real Christians—who aren’t motivated by fear.

Rust doesn’t even try to solve his problems, he’s faced with the inevitable of the tragedy of his existence, and the inevitability that it will disappoint. Rust’s addiction to alcohol and cigarettes, and his previous commitment to harder drugs, shows us he has a hedonistic side, but he is not afraid of pain either. He’s trying to forget a loss, but he is ready to face his own death:

“Death created time to grow the things that it would kill.”

Marty on the other hand, wants to keep his family together, but can’t seem to stop cheating or drinking. He’s a fool, out of touch with his emotions, and for him, his life ends up in disrepair as a private investigator eating microwave dinners. Rust on the other hand, ends up as a barkeep, with little to occupy him but his obsession with the case that undid him and his alcohol dependency.

Throughout the show, Rust’s nihilism and great instinct make him a great cop to break suspects into admitting guilt. Ripping into their soul and inflicting more damage perhaps than their crime deserved. One incident puts him over the edge when a suspect returns the blow—declaring the Yellow King is still out there.

Having no one to turn to, an angry Marty (by the way, Rust had sex with Marty’s wife when she realized that Marty was disloyal) is recruited by Rust to keep the case going. Because they both are hiding each other’s dark secrets (they murdered the first two suspects, pinned the crime on them, and then covered up their sin), Marty agrees. Rust’s only iota of hope left is finding the real murderer (the cops believe Rust is the real killer).

Long story short, Rust and Marty end up in a brutal fight with the killer and suffer near fatal blows. Rust has a mission and he completes it, and at the end of his near death experience, he sees a vision of people he loves, and finally starts to see a little bit of hope in a world of darkness.

Looking up at the nighttime Louisiana sky, Rust declares that the light is winning as the stars above him pierce the darkness.

The universe isn’t so indifferent, so cold, so apathetic after all. Rust, despite his disappointment of not finding everyone involved with the murders, is overcome by pursuing justice. Even Marty might rekindle his shattered marriage as he received his axe in the chest.

And to me, that is the essence of faith in Jesus—light overcomes darkness, and light is winning. Lent is all about seeing that faint light in a sea of darkness. And for me? If Rust can see the light, then I’m encouraged. He’s not following Jesus yet, but he’s getting there.

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