The Double in True Detective

Dr. Jekyll famously posited that “man is not truly one, but two,” a reference to one of the tenets of Gothic fiction: the double. Page through the genre’s staples, and the sets of doubles are as ubiquitous as stormy weather or labyrinthine abodes. Often, Gothic twinning is representative of the duality within man, or simply put, good versus evil, as with the aforementioned Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Other Gothic pairs include Matilda and Isabella in The Castle of Otranto, Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason, and Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature.

The double was passed down to the Gothic novel’s descendant, horror film. Buffy the Vampire Slayer memorably used the double in the episode “Doppelgangland,” wherein Willow’s vampire doppelganger from another dimension takes a trip to Sunnydale and thoroughly confounds the Scooby Gang, who understandably assume that their good friend has been killed.

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Willow encounters her vampy double.

In Buffy, the double is used for comedic effect, allowing for some great mistaken identity gags. But laughs aside, the episode nicely typifies the double’s place in Gothic fiction. In the episode, Willow is questioning her reputation as a reliable, maybe predictable person. She meets her double just as she’s in the process of reevaluating herself. Horror films and novels are often about subverting our constructions of normalcy (that’s why Michael Myers terrorizes an idyllic suburban neighborhood), and what’s more disturbing than being confronted with your own construction of self? In meeting our doubles, we must reflect on the permeability of our identities.

Fitting, then, that HBO’s True Detective, a show that spends a lot of time considering the nature of selfhood, is littered with doubles. The most obvious pairing is Matthew McConaughey’s Detective Rust Cohle and Woody Harrelson’s Detective Marty Hart, a couple of Louisiana cops tasked with solving a gruesome murder. At first the men seem quite different; Cohle lives alone, and is fairly antisocial and prone to philosophizing, while Hart is a family man who seems to enjoy beers with the fellas and a good dirty joke. As the show continues, though, the characters become more and more complex, and more and more similar. “You’re obsessive,” Hart says to his partner in the most recent episode. “You’re obsessive too,” Cohle replies. “Just not about work.” Even without verbalizing their similarities, the show frames the two men as doubles, dressing them in the same palette or shooting them in parallel, as if they’re two sides of the same coin.

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Doubling can also be found in the form of Hart’s daughters, cherubic blondes who are often dressed almost identically and, in a recent scene, were blocked to move in unison.

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See also: the double date between Hart, his wife, Cohle and his setup. Notice that Hart’s wife, played by Michelle Monaghan, also physically resembles Cohle’s date, creating another visual double. During the date, a thematic doubling of sorts arises during the characters’ conversation about synesthesia. Cohle explains his condition as “a type of hypersensitivity. One sense triggers another sense. Like, sometimes I’ll see a color and it’ll put a taste in my mouth; a touch, a texture, a scent may put a note in my head.” Replies his date, “So when something feels good, does that mean it feels twice as good? Like, say, two different ways?”

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Lastly, Cohle and Hart, while doubling each other, are further doubled by the detectives who interview them in the show’s framing device.

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Even the show’s title, True Detective, can connect back to doubling, for in not pluralizing the noun it’s as if the two protagonists we see on-screen are in some ways one and the same. Toward the close of the most recent episode, Hart, somewhat uncharacteristically, asks Cohle a question about selfhood. “Do you wonder, ever, if you’re a bad man?” he asks. “The world needs bad men,” Cohle replies. “We keep the other bad men from the door.” At episode’s end, the bad man is revealed: a naked figure holding a machete and wearing a gas mask stalks across the frame, ostensibly the killer we and the detectives have been searching for. But earlier Cohle and Hart were established as bad men themselves, and so is this not another metaphorical, monstrous double? Already the lines between “good” and “bad” have been muddied in True Detective‘s universe, but often in Gothic fiction one double subsumes the other. In the end, this may be a story of death, but the mutilated bodies we’ve already encountered may not be the only victims.

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