True Detective offered a different kind of detective story. Its basic conceit per season follows a set of detectives solving a typically brutal murder or disappearance investigation. The case serves as the tip of the iceberg for what makes True Detective special.
Besides the case, the True Detective characters themselves offer a range of emotional depth. Each has their own in-depth characterization, from the detectives themselves to those around them. That gives True Detective characters a real edge compared to the typical police procedural series and offer more than simply having the ability to solve a case.
1. Rustin “Rust” Cohle (Matthew McConaughey)
Rust starts out as an enigma in True Detective season one. His deep philosophical musings made him an outsider on the police force. This included a begrudging relationship with his partner, Marty. Rust comes from a tragic past, initially starting from his introduction in 1995, and merely gets expanded upon as the season progresses. His nihilistic persona morphs by the season's end, changing into a more hopeful outlook on the world.
Along the way, that includes allowing others (Like Marty) into his life. His philosophical beliefs and eventual changes made Rust the series's most engaging and exciting character. Viewers simply could never predict what he would say or do next, offering an air of unpredictability unlike any other.
2. Martin “Marty” Hart (Woody Harrelson)
Marty starts True Detective as a typical tried and true police officer. He has a good job, a family, and an all-around “happy” life. As time progresses, cracks in the facade start to appear, with Marty continuously cheating on his wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan).
Like many True Detective characters, Marty’s life slowly starts to implode. The Dora Lange case and his begrudging relationship with Rust remain his life’s only consistent. That relationship stays that way until 2002, when his friendship with Rust ends (after Maggie cheats on Marty with Rust). Marty’s obsession with this case proves a deeper loyalty to his former partner.
Watching his trials and tribulations only skims the surface of his character. Instead, the focus shifts to Marty’s quest for normalcy and pride in solving this case when all (his family) seems lost. He becomes a better person by the season's end, focusing on solving the case and making his family proud.
3. Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali)
Wayne Hays’s True Detective story proved one of the most emotional. Hays starts the series as a determined detective, set on solving the missing Purcell children's case. Hays thrives as one of the series' best characters, reeling from post-war trauma and rebuilding his life. With his tough and efficient demeanor, he remained living as a great detective.
As the series progresses and he gets older, Hays’s struggle with dementia adds a surprisingly relatable and humane depth. While he keeps his commitment to solving the Purcell case, his memory begins to play tricks on him. His struggle to separate fact from fiction makes Wayne’s journey easy to become invested in.
4. Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster)
In season four, Liz Danvers has a rough exterior starting in the first episode. While not having many friends (besides a somewhat ally in Peter Prior), and a past trauma (not fully disclosed) involving a child, she manages as a capable detective.
Danvers' undying dedication as a detective makes her so compelling among True Detective characters. She comes from her own traumatic past, but it does not detract from her duties. Danvers manages to live as a detective who genuinely cares about the job. That level of caring could stem from hiding her own problems but gets delivered compellingly to audiences.
5. Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis)
State Trooper Evangeline Navarro has her fair share of emotional demons. This largely includes an unsolved case of an Iñupiat woman, Anne Kowtok, that Navarro tried solving with Liz Danvers. That should not be considered Navarro’s sole trauma but a mere piece to her story.
Viewers instantly care about Navarro and have hope for her eventual happiness. Hooking audiences in after only one episode earned her a top spot on the list.
6. Roland West (Stephen Dorff)
Roland’s arc in True Detective season three made him more than Wayne Hays’s partner. Instead, it involves him serving as someone incredibly loyal to Wayne and his only true friend. That continues until violence in the case fractures the duo’s relationship.
As Wayne begins to suffer from dementia, he goes to reconcile with Roland. The duo eventually band together one last time to solve the Purcell case once and for all. Roland realizes that, at his core, the bond he shares with Wayne cannot be broken. He helps Wayne maintain a humanity that both men had long forgotten until they reunited in 2015. Roland West ends up as more than just Wayne’s former partner, but actually a reminder of his moral center.
7. Antigone “Ani” Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams)
Ani Bezzerides showed herself as another damaged but capable detective. Her investigation with Ray Velcoro and Paul Woodrugh opened a can of worms for the investigation itself and Ani’s turbulent past. With her father being essentially a cult leader and sister a webcam performer, Ani’s relationships have remained fractured.
Beginning in season two, Ani has started heading down a dark road. Ben Caspere's case helps her put her life into a needed perspective. This perspective includes her relationships, which involve the blossoming romance with Ray Velcoro. Watching how Ani comes to terms with things (while keeping the tough exterior) delivered a different kind of narrative arc for a lead character in the series.
8. Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell)
Corrupt cops serve as regular characters in police television shows. In most cases, they never have a proper redemption arc. Thankfully, Ray Velcoro managed to prove that theory incorrect. Velcoro starts season two as one of the most corrupt detectives in the entire series. Ray works under the gangster Frank Seymon (Vince Vaughn) as his fixer, committing bribery, intimidation, and even acts of brutal violence.
Simultaneously, he hopes to lead by the example of being a “good man” to a son who may not actually be his. Over time, Ray uncovers the level of pure depravity in the Ben Caspere case. That discovery puts things into perspective for Ray, helping him reform himself. While he meets an untimely end, Ray has tried (and in some ways succeeded) to redeem himself. It made for a unique redemption arc that delivered a rewarding viewing experience.
9. Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo)
Amelia has to serve two very distinct purposes in True Detective season three. Early on, she has to have a romantic spark with Wayne Hays. In these moments, audiences have to believe the relationship on a surface and emotional level. Then, as the series flashes forward to an older Wayne, Amelia has to serve as a moral compass and his conciseness.
Meanwhile, in another timeline, she has to investigate the case on her own, writing a book in the process. Amelia balances a tough exterior and warm emotional center existing as a looming shadow over Wayne’s late life. With the season tackling three different years (1980, 1990, 2015), Amelia has to exist as three distinct versions. Thankfully, each version becomes more compelling than the last.
10. Maynard Gilbough (Michael Potts) & Thomas Papania (Tory Kittles)
Some might consider these True Detective characters underwhelming in the overall series. However, in actuality, they have more to do than meets the eye.
Gilbough and Papania get tasked with being the audience conduits. Viewers uncover pieces of Rust and Marty through their interactions with Gilbough and Papania. Like the two investigative detectives, viewers know that Rust and Marty refrain from expressing the whole truth.
In the dialogue alone, both characters (no matter their limited screen time) offer a counterbalance to our protagonists. This makes their relationship mirror what Rust and Marty might have been if they’d remained partners.
11. Peter Prior (Finn Bennett)
Peter, or (as he’s known thus far in season four) “Prior,” has a level of optimism, innocence, and a sense of duty. Serving under Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster), he wants to prove himself.
With conflicting opinions involving his father Hank (John Hawkes), time will tell where his loyalties lie. He serves as someone without the dark emotional baggage (at least as of yet) fans of this series might expect. It exists as a nice counterbalance to what motivations past seasons have given their characters. Prior offers hope in a world (specifically Ennis, Alaska) steeped in real darkness.
12. Frank Seymon (Vince Vaughn)
Frank Seymon offered audiences a glimpse into the other side of the True Detective world, the criminals. Frank and his partner, Ben Caspere, had a successful criminal empire. After Caspere’s death, Frank’s empire got turned upside down. Season two made him become a survivor looking to claim what he lost.
Audiences know Frank’s destiny will not have the happy ending he strives for throughout the season. In a world of detectives, getting a glimpse into Frank’s way of life delivered a refreshing take on the corrupt True Detective world.
13. Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch)
Like all of this series' detectives, Paul Woodrugh has his own secrets. His veteran past, private security work, and interpersonal relationships have led him to have a troubled life. Add in the case of season two (the death of Mayor Ben Caspere), and Paul goes on a deeply emotional journey.
The character walks a fine line between someone with a tough exterior and real pain buried beneath the surface. Some would consider his past and problems cliched, which does not do the character justice. In True Detective, Paul offered a different kind of compelling detective character.
14. Maggie Hart (Michelle Monaghan)
The wife role can always come with its own narrative risks. The writing could make her an unbearable presence. Maggie, Marty’s wife in season one, does not have this problem. At first, she amply conveys the role of the loyal and trustworthy wife. Over the season, Maggie begins to uncover her husband's true nature.
Audiences understand her point-of-view without her ever feeling like a nag to our heroes—that approach to an archetypal character made for an emotionally engaging watch.
15. Errol Childress (Glen Fleshler)
Detective shows always need a strong antagonist like Errol Childress. A recurring suspect in season one, Errol has the name “the green-eared spaghetti” monster. When revealed as the groundskeeper of the “Light of The Way” academy, audiences know he has a connection to the case.
With his imposing size and obvious mental issues, Errol proves himself a real and very menacing threat. Audiences know Marty and Rust have a tough battle ahead with this frightening figure. The final episode of season one shows Childress as the series' best and most terrifying villain.
16. Hank Prior (John Hawkes)
In season four, Hank Prior serves alongside Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) in the Ennis, Alaska, police department. Thus far, Hank seems steeped in some sort of corruption within Ennis. He also awaits a new mail-order bride that will supposedly be in Alaska sometime soon.
His prickly banter with Liz helps showcase him as a detective who operates in a morally grey area. At the same time, Hank exists as someone with a family, his son Peter (Finn Bennett). Hank’s rapport with Liz and slightly contemptuous relationship with Peter make for an interesting bit of characterization. Time will tell if that will be expanded upon, but the results prove his potential as another complex character for the series.
17. Jordan Seymon (Kelly Reilly)
Since her time on True Detective Season Two, Kelly Reilly has played a ferocious and beloved character on Yellowstone. Years earlier, she played another character that made her strengths well known. Jordan essentially plays the role of Frank’s (Vince Vaughn) consciousness throughout season two. She serves his wife, true love and motivation for Frank to get what he wants most out of his life: a family. She becomes his biggest supporter, helping him make incredibly tough calls. Jordan wants to help Frank reclaim his empire, regardless of the moral and ethical cost.
18. Audrey Hart (Erin Moriarty/Madison Wolfe)
The role of the detective’s daughter runs the risk of getting called archetypal. Audrey’s journey starts as a child who loves her father. But like any child, she does not see the truth behind the happy exterior of her parents, Marty (Woody Harrelson) and Maggie (Michelle Monaghan).
Over the series, she begins to see her father's real (and unfiltered version) of himself. While acting out in the typical teenage angst and anger as the years progress, her frustration feels genuine. Audrey lost her father, and as she grows older, still has to reconcile with it.
19. Tom Purcell (Scoot McNairy)
Tom Purcell exists in season three as more than just a cliche. His role as the father of the missing Purcell children sounds simple in theory. In actuality, Purcell proved himself as a determined and surprisingly nuanced character.
While stumbling into a depression, he remained on the hunt for answers. He meets a detrimental fate but maintained hope to find his children alive. Tom’s conflicted and tragic history offers one of True Detective’s more complex non-detective characters.
20. Austin Chessani (Ritchie Coster)
True Detective season two occurred in the town of Ventura, California. Austin Chessani runs the fictional, industrial town of Vinci as its corrupt mayor, controlling the decisions. From his first scene, Chessani gives the air of a bad man. He simply wants problems to disappear (like the season's central case), using the Vinci police department (Ray Velcoro) to cover things up.
In keeping with the themes of corrupt politics, Chessani earned a place on this list. His sleazy persona delivered a different kind of villain for the sophomore season. It offered a glimpse into the political corruption that the story would eventually discuss.