True Detective, the new drama series that premiered on HBO last Sunday, January 12th, marks a new step forward in the network’s storied history of highly ambitious works of television. From The Sopranos to The Wire to In Treatment, perhaps the network’s most structurally unique series, HBO has not shied away from taking risks in the television form. Running for 8 episodes, this first season of True Detective is created by professor and novelist Nic Pizzolatto, who serves as the sole writer on each episode. Similarly, Cary Fukunaga (director of Sin Nombre and 2011’s Jane Eyre) has directed all 8 episodes. The form of television is one that allows multiple voices to come together under the leadership of one showrunner to create a consistent tone with multiple players in the sandbox. By allowing one singular writer and one singular director to craft an entire 8 episode season of television, HBO is both taking a leap of faith on the skill of these individuals (and we have to assume that HBO read all 8 scripts before green-lighting the series) and fully trusting in their shared vision. In many ways, despite being broken up into 8 hour-long installments, True Detective almost functions more like a very long film, a luxury only premium cable could allow. These 8 episodes will have a beginning, middle, and end, and the story told within will be complete. Finally, hiring two big guns in the likes of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson to star in the series shows not only a commitment to vision and integrity but HBO’s desire to make this series an event.
As a note, the plan for the future of the series (and the high ratings thus far suggest that there will be a future) is that each season will take on a new case with new characters, essentially allowing True Detective to serve as an anthology. The future involvement of the cast and creative team is unclear at this point.
Episode 1×1, “The Long Bright Dark”
It begins, as it so often does, with a murder. The naked body of Dora Lange is found in a field, displayed in ritualistic fashion and adorned with a crown made of antlers. Small sculptures made of twig are found near her body. The imagery is graphic and satanic, and bears a passing resemblance to events from NBC’s Hannibal. The year is 1995, and the lurid, melancholy, almost hypnotic vision of Louisiana drips across the screen with a heavy dose of Americana.
We are introduced to our two main characters, Martin “Marty” Hart (Harrelson) and Rustin “Rust” Cohle (McConaughey), detectives investigating the aforementioned murder. True Detective is a show of small details. Although I am certainly engaged by the whodunit aspect of the murder, and suspect that it will slowly boil over the course of the season as we get new clues and twists, the mood, world building (as it were) and the characters are far more impressive. This is likely by design. The narrative works in familiars, but the whole feels authentic and unique. Harrelson’s Hart is the seemingly more collected and “normal” of the two detectives, and he brings his typical southern charm to the role, but there is clearly an anger bubbling underneath the surface. On the flip side, Rustin is far more unhinged and unusual, and McConaughey’s performance is transformative. He has been on a career roll since The Lincoln Lawyer in 2011, and he just received his first Oscar nomination last week, but Rustin Cohle may end up being Matthew McConaughey’s finest work to date. The acting here is in the small moments; the gestures, the glances, the pauses. It is remarkable that Harrelson and McConaughey have never worked together before because although their partnership remains contentious they have an on-screen chemistry that crackles.
The structure of the series has us jumping back and forth in time between the original 1995 investigation and 2012, when Hart and Cohle have been called in by young detectives to be questioned about the old case. It is in these 2012 scenes that the performances these two actors are giving become truly remarkable. The distinct outward physical changes are one thing (and surely Rustin’s long, stringy hair and ostentatious mustache are an external reflection of his inner turmoil of the past 20 years; he has given up on all pretenses), but it is the subtle shifts in posture, expression, and even cadence that suggest the passing of time and the weight of the memories that these men are carrying with them. As Rustin smokes a cigarette, despite his two police questioners telling him that it’s not allowed, or demands that they buy him a pack of beer so as not to interrupt his usual Thursday drinking, his slow drawl accentuating each answer, it is clear that he has achieved an understanding that perhaps it all means nothing. His inner serenity is an absence of care.
Fukunaga and Pizzolatto give the characters time to breathe and extemporize. As the narrative and the mystery begins to unfold, in a far more naturalistic and methodical fashion than is usually seen in a police procedural, the focus is squarely on the characters and the mood. Rustin proves to be a philosophical man with a dark worldview (a nihilist), and it is fascinating to watch his process unfold and how Hart deals with his new partner. These may be smart men and good cops, but they are damaged goods. As the 2012 inquiries continue we focus on a dinner held at Hart’s house. We meet Harts’s wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan) , who expresses interest in Rust’s past, and two adorable daughters. This dinner happens to occur on the birthday of Rustin’s deceased daughter, and this tragic detail paves the way for the intense despair and melancholy that permeates throughout the entire episode and likely the entire series. There is such gravitas and intensity on display that it hardly matters if we have seen similar investigations in police dramas before.
Rustin and Marty begin to piece together the twig statue and discover that Dora used to be a hooker (there are lots of hookers in this show) just as we come to learn, through Rustin’s own intelligence, that it is no mere lark that this 1995 case is the focus of the 2012 inquiry. An individual of remarkably similar ritualistic nature has killed in 2012, but how is this the case if Rustin and Hart “caught their man” in 1995? How indeed. The episode ends on a haunting cliffhanger and it is clear that True Detective is serious, excellent television.
Episode 1×2, “Seeing Things”
This episode picks up almost immediately where the first left off as it becomes known that perhaps Dora Lange’s killer is still at large in 2012. Headway on the investigation is made as Rust and Marty find themselves having to inform Lange’s mother of her daughter’s death. This is a particularly uneasy scene in a show filled with them; Dora’s mother does not take the news well. A photograph of a young blonde girl surrounded by men in black hoods is chilling. The theme of parents and children, and the effect they have on each other, permeates throughout this episode.
The pace of the investigation is intentionally languid, as Rust and Hart almost literally go door to door in an attempt to find out whatever they can about Dora’s past. They find themselves at a sort of brothel/home for lost girls where Dora used to work and Rust discover’s Dora’s diary. Haunting sketches and the moniker “The Yellow King” stand out. Are these allusions to Dora’s murderer? What sort of things was she into? A folded up flyer for a local church revival is the only lead that our detectives are left with. Meanwhile, Rust and Hart’s boss Major Ken Quesada (the always reliable Kevin Dunn) stresses that the higher ups want a newly formed “Occult Crimes Task Force” to take over the job and that they are not happy with Rust’s unusual methods. The men are able to negotiate an additional two weeks (“to the end of the month”) to investigate/solve the case. Louisiana continues to serve as a character in its own right as Fukunaga paints with dread. Major kudos to the series’ location scouts and cinematographers. A particular moment stands out: as Hart and Cohle drive on their way to the aforementioned brothel a handful of young girls, no older than 10, smoke cigarettes on the side of the road. It is a passing moment but the look on Cohle’s face says more about the state of these areas of Louisiana than any dialogue could.
Once again, though, the investigation serves merely as the backdrop for this dark portrait of two opposing men slowly ripping apart at the seams. Pizzolatto’s main interest clearly lies in the effect that being a detective has not only on the men who do it but those around them, and he is composing one harsh, utterly compelling picture. If the first episode had one noticeable flaw it was its underuse of its female characters (why cast talents like Alexandra Daddario and Michelle Monaghan if you aren’t going to use them?) but that slowly begins to rectify here. In the first episode Marty Hart may have seemed like the “better” of these two men but that facade is slowly eradicated as we learn that he is just as broken as Rust. We see him cavort with Daddario’s character Lisa, and it is clear that this bit of kinky extramarital sex (complete with the expected nudity one gets on HBO) is not a first for Hart. This occurrence becomes quickly clear to Rustin, and he uses it as leverage to disparage Hart, particularly as Hart expresses concern over the young age of one of the girls they meet at the brothel. I imagine that Rustin longs for the seemingly “safe” family life that Hart has and resents the actions that he takes to potentially mess it up.
The fabric of Marty and Maggie’s marriage is thinner than it initially seems. At a family day at Maggie’s parents house it becomes clear that Marty’s dedication to his work, and the effect that it has on his psyche, (not to mention his extracurricular activities) puts a major strain on their relationship. Marty accuses Maggie of being a “ball buster,” but Maggie just wants more time and intimacy from her husband. Harrelson and Monaghan bring years of pain to these scenes and they feel like a couple on the precipice of break. The acting in this show is simply superb. In one of the episode’s most heartbreaking scenes, Marty walks in to his daughters’ bedroom to find action figures displayed in a sort of murder diorama. One can only imagine what it is like to live in the home of a man who investigates horrific crimes for a living.
This job – of being a cop, a detective – clearly takes a major toll on those who have it. This is plain and evident in the case of Rust and it is where we get the episode’s title from. In 2012, Rust has a hauntingly beautiful – and exquisitely performed by Mr. McConaughey – monologue about his past. We learn more about his daughter’s untimely death, the way it broke his marriage, and his eventual coping mechanism of throwing himself fully and completely into his work. Rust spent years undercover as a drug addict before eventually spending four months in a mental facility. He now has hallucinations (“sees things”) that bend the fabric of reality. Fukunaga’s imagery in these hallucinations is surreal and beautifully composed, whether the bright streaks of light on a street as Rust drives or the group of birds that form images in the sky. As we delve deeper and deeper into Rustin’s past and we begin to see the layers of his head his investigative process, and his surprising amount of composure, suddenly doesn’t seem so bizarre.
We see our two questioners/investigators in 2012, Detectives Gilbough (Michael Potts) and Papania (Tory Kittles), slowly begin to piece together just exactly what happened in 1995 but more importantly they are assembling a bigger picture of Hart and Cohle as men. It becomes evident to Hart, just as it did to Cohle in the first episode, that this focus on the 1995 Dora Lange murder is no coincidence. Almost 20 years later and these horrific, satanic, ritualistic murders still haunt. How will it all come to pass? Do Gilbough and Papania have a bigger purpose or do they merely serve as the audience surrogate in these 2012 scenes? At what point will Hart and Cohle finally break and will they meet again in 2012? We now know that it has been 10 years since they last spoke and we know that there is still much left unsaid between them. The episode comes to a close in 1995 as our two detectives find an old, dilapidated, burned church in the middle of nowhere. A crude charcoal sketch of a figure with antlers – much like the one’s Dora was found wearing – lies on the wall. We are one step closer to solving this mystery and True Detective has now produced two world-class episodes of television.