True Detective (Season One) (2014) offers pointed commentary on our society. Often, the subtler portrayals of the protagonist's flaws offer foils to ourselves rather than the characterizations of the story's villain, in this case, a sociopathic murderer. Whether it be the way that the camera lens serves as an extension of our own eyes or serves as a mirror held up to our own human desires and motivations, we often automatically grab onto the protagonist's perspective and assume it as our own. In the case of True Detective's protagonists, the decision seems easy: we relate more with the flawed detectives Martin "Marty" Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) than we do with the Yellow King, who sums up all that is utterly terrible in the world. We root for the "good" guys, despite their stark inadequacies.
What is interesting is that, despite our automatic support for the "good guys," the two detectives - Marty especially - tend to manage authority in ways that are objectively similar to the ways in which the Yellow King imposes his will. While it seems to the viewer that the show's most glaring atrocities have been wrought by a sociopathic serial killer's hand, abuses of similar but subtler nature unfold at the hands of Marty, who imposes his will in similar ways to his nemesis: through violence.
In the first episode of Season One, Rust talks about possible motives for the Dory Lane murder, and cites the strong desire of an individual to have “total assurance that [they] are somebody” as one motivation. The powerful desire of wanting to "be somebody" underscores a fundamental insecurity that the show's leading men possess, to varying degrees, and precipitates their need to receive validation from others and to exercise power over others for self-satisfaction. Both Marty and the Yellow King exercise power over women, specifically, through the use of violence and force. The Yellow King's methods indisputably are more macabre; ritualistically maiming, torturing and killing them. Marty's methods are more domestic and less barbaric; nevertheless, he uses violence as a tool to illustrate his dominance in situations that involve his relationship with women. One such example of this manipulative behavior takes place in the third episode, when Marty drunkenly visits his mistress, who has moved on from the relationship. Marty breaks down the door and wrangles with the man she has inside, throwing him around her room and roughing him up. In more of a display of power than and act of violence, Marty shows the viewer that his truest form of diplomacy is intimidation.
The Yellow King acts as a foil to Marty. Marty will never be as terrible as the Yellow King, but the way he manages authority is similar. The negative repercussions of his actions are more in touch with the average viewer's experience because they are less far-fetched, and more imaginable. Similarly, later in the first episode, as Rust explains to Marty his theories motivating Dory Lane's murder, Rusty says that the killer has “an attachment of physical lust to fantasies and practices forbidden by society.” Not only does this quote accurately describe the murderer, it also alludes to Marty's attraction to certain social taboos such as adultery. Specifically, Marty engages in adulterous activities with younger and, in his eyes, more lustful women than his wife, a socially unacceptable behavior.
Thus, certain parallels can be drawn - if not wholly, then in part - between the "good guys" and the "bad guys," and between Marty and the Yellow King in particular. True Detective (Season 1) lays bare the underlying core of human motivation and suggests that the line between good and evil may not be as clearly delineated as is often thought.
In the words of Victor Hugo, "humanity is our common lot. We are all made from the same clay."