As we watch Marty Hart and Rust Cohle track down a killer, both men’s inner and outer lives are studied as well as the opposition in which these two lives sit.
Most notable and explicit is Marty’s dualistic concept of women. His wife, Maggie and daughters represent the wholesome, sexually pure females that must exist in Marty’s family life. However, outside this family unit exists the sexually exciting, illicit women who Marty calls up specifically for sex. Marty rationalizes his behaviour: “You gotta decompress before you go being a family man…Sometimes you gotta get your head right…It’s for your wife and kids, too. You gotta take your release where you find it or where it finds you. I mean, in the end it’s for the good of the family.” At one point, presumably in an attempt to be a better husband, Marty tries to resist the advances of Beth, a woman he has succumbed to previously. It is her promise of anal sex, a taboo act that "good" women don't do, that lures Marty back to her. He cannot resist the "whore" who meets his primal desires.
Beth represents an interesting shift in Marty’s eyes from virgin to whore , a transition that proves to be the inverse of her actual circumstances. When Marty first meets Beth, she is an underage prostitute working in a trailer park bordello. He feels sorry for her and gives her money and tells her, “do something else”. Tellingly, Rust asks, “That a down payment?” to which Marty replies, “Is shitting on any moment of decency part of your job description?” Rust’s initial assessment proves prescient when Marty runs into Beth later on in the series. She has given up prostitution and is working at a cellphone store. Marty wastes little time beginning an affair with her, the discovery of which proves to be his and Maggie’s final unraveling.
When Marty’s daughter Audrey is caught having sex in the back seat of a car with two teenage boys (having two men moves the situation from teenage fumble to a level of sexuality beyond her years, deepening the deviation in Marty's eyes), his reaction is over the top – he physically lashes out at her and calls her “captain of the varsity slut team”. And Marty doesn’t stop there: he metes out a severe jailhouse beating on the boys who were in the car with her. Marty’s anger at the boys blinds him to the fact that the desire driving the boys into the tryst with his daughter is the same desire that sends him, often drunk, to the apartment of his much younger lover, Lisa.
Lisa, although not part of Marty’s family unit, begins to take on the role of pure woman when Marty runs into her at a bar and sees her with another man. He breaks down her door that night and attacks the man with Lisa, an explosion of rage against the tarnishing of his pure mistress.
Indeed, a pivotal scene in the series is when Marty’s wife Maggie has sex with Rust, thus ensuring her split from Marty is final. She states it was the only way to make sure they were done: Marty cannot deal with his wholesome wife having fucked his partner – she is forever ruined.
Rust spends many scenes philosophizing about the tension between inner and outer lives. At one point after Marty has just claimed he keeps himself on an even keel and isn’t obsessive about things like Rust is, Marty says to Rust, “You know the real difference between you and me?” To which Rust quickly replies, “Yeah. Denial.” Rust believes Marty is lying to himself. If he really examined who he was, Marty would see the deception within himself.
Rust sees this tension in himself: who he wants to be and who he thinks he is, versus who he really is. When he’s being interviewed, he tells the two police officers about finally ceasing the fight within himself between these two forces:
Rust Cohle: It broke off. It was for the best, you know, I gave her cause. I can be hard to live with. I don’t mean to, but I can be… critical. And sometimes I think I’m just not good for people, you know, that’s not good for them to be around me. You know, I… I wear ‘em down. And they… they get unhappy.Rust tried to act like a ‘normal’ person, accepting Maggie’s set up and engaging in a relationship with Laurie, later on in the series. But the essence of him - the Rust who drinks, who has dark thoughts about human nature, who craves being alone - cannot allow him to be part of a relationship in which the other person is happy. We see a change in Rust from 1995 to 2012. When he's younger, he tries to be this 'normal' version of himself, but Rust in 2012 realizes that this desire is just the mask of a constructed life.
Maynard Gilbough: Yeah, I think the job does that to a lot of guys. It changes ya. Some guys just notice, that’s all.
Rust Cohle: I can’t say the job made me this way. More like me bein’ this way made me right for the job. I used to think about it more, but, you know you reach a certain age, you know who you are. Now I live in a little room out in the country behind a bar, work four nights a week, in between, I drink. And there ain’t nobody there to stop me. And I know who I am. After all these years there’s a…there’s a victory in that.
The unreliable narrator is a technique used by Pizzolatto which furthers the notion of inner and outer lives. We have the truth of how something happened, but we choose how to present it to others. At the beginning of episode 5, Marty says, “I tell [the story of Ledoux's takedown] the same way that I told the Shooting Board and every cop bar between Houston and Biloxi. And you know why the story’s always the same 17 years gone? Because it only went down the one way.” Then as the episode unfolds, we see that his official version of events is not at all what happened. The same occurs when Maggie is interviewed by police. She tells them she doesn’t know what caused the fight between Rust and Marty when in fact she was at the heart of it.
The final episode, criticized by many as a letdown, is far from a disappointment. In fact, if viewers are to take the overarching theme of the examination of the inner vs. outer life, it is the perfect climax and denouement for the series.
When Rust and Marty finally find Carcosa, it is a warren of tangled branches weaving through an abandoned fort. The gnarled visual imagery is that of the neurons of the human brain, through which Rust and Marty are winding, separately, to the final spot where Errol Childress waits. The second half of the episode is a visual metaphor of the series’ descent into the human mind, or the “locked room,” a phrase which titles the 3rd episode. We are watching Marty and Rust explore the mind.
When Rust finally finds and confronts Errol, representing the darkness in the depths of the human mind, Errol implores Rust to “take off your mask” as he attacks him. Played out in front of us, we see Rust find his inner darkness which recognizes how it is hidden behind the public persona of his mask.
Both Rust and Marty are bloodied and beaten after their encounter, but it is Rust, who can still barely stand because of his injuries weeks after the attack, who looks to the sky and says “It’s just one story, the oldest. Light vs. dark…If you ask me, light’s winning.” He recognizes that this idea - of light vs. dark, good vs. bad, human’s inner worlds vs. their outer ones – affects all humans and that in general, despite Pizzolatto showing us the worst kind of human in Errol, we continue on because it’s the light that seems to be winning.