True Detective – Season 1 (2014)
created and written by Nic Pizzolatto
directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga
In the opening credit sequence for the first season of HBO’s True Detective, The Handsome Family sing “A strange hunger haunted me / the looming shadows danced / I fell down to the thorny brush and felt a trembling hand.” It is an apt line for this anthology series whose maiden voyage is all about obsessions, encroaching darkness, and intricate characters and situations. As is usually the case with the best TV series and films, True Detective seems to be about something – in this case a murder investigation – but turns out to be about much, much more.
For most of the season’s first half, we see two different timelines in each episode: In 2005, detectives Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) look into the ritualistic killing of a prostitute in rural Louisiana. Seventeen years later, in 2012, the both detectives – older, beaten down – are questioned about their earlier case. What exactly went down? The narrative is knotty, probably unreliable. Marty is a womanizing, boozy cop, a man who is all id: He can’t control his libido, his aggressive impulses, his macho posturing. At one point, he even beats the crap out of of two teenagers who have had consensual sex with his daughter – this is a guy not to be messed around with. On the other hand, Rust is all super-ego: Critical, analytical, the realist who looks at life and can see nothing but despair. Their oil and water relationship is the backbone of the show, and much has been written about their superb performances (all true).
Eventually, True Detective focuses solely on the 2012 timeline. Ten years have passed since Rust and Marty have spoken, their partnership violently ended when Marty’s wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan) seduced Rust in order to spite her philandering husband. But now there’s new evidence that suggests the case is still open and there could be a greater conspiracy at play. Both men reluctantly reunite to find the still at-large killer, and the finale has Rust and Marty coming face to face with the larger-than-life assassin called the Yellow King (one of several references to a 1895 book of stories by Robert W. Chambers). They almost die in the encounter, physically and emotionally. But they don’t. And here’s where show creator Nic Pizzolatto raises the bar in a way that I found not only surprising, but rather refreshing in its audacity.
Pizzolatto is mashing up several genres here: The serial killer procedural with the dark pessimism of Se7en (1995); the Southern Gothic of a city dealing with post-Katrina distress (the desolate and derelict vistas are haunting enough by themselves, beautifully captured by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw); and most importantly, hardboiled crime fiction of the pulpy variety. Separately, Rust and Marty embody many of the classic detective tropes: alienated, cynical, tough-talking, prone to philosophizing, working outside a system that hides terrible secrets and which the investigator(s) can’t quite make sense of. The fact that the plot in True Detective feels somewhat loose is no accident: This is a world where things aren’t wrapped up in a neat little package. In true hardboiled fashion, the show ends up not being about how the partners solve the crime, but rather about them: Their moral code, the way the case upsets and challenges said moral code, and who – or what – they become in the process.
Most detective films that deal with these themes climax with the protagonist in a quandary of ambiguity. The French Connection (1971) ends with “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) failing to capture heroin smuggler Alain Charnier. In The Long Goodbye (1973), Philip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) realizes his best friend Terry has been deceiving him all along and kills him in cold blood. In Chinatown (1974), Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) watches helplessly as Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) is killed and the depravity of Los Angeles continues undeterred. 1987’s Angel Heart‘s final image is of Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) literally losing his soul and descending via elevator to hell. But in a daring move, Pizzolatto and director Cary Joji Fukunaga end True Detective on a positive note that upends the nihilism and tension which they’ve carefully constructed.
The season’s coda has Rust and Marty wounded and recovering at a hospital. Their shared experience having investigated this case for almost two decades – a case rife with child torture, rape, and demonic alliances – has changed them. Marty is visited by his now ex-wife Maggie and two estranged daughters, both of whom he hasn’t seen in years. He cries, aware of all the things he’s gotten wrong, the pain he’s caused in his selfishness and insecurity. In a different room, Rust slips briefly into a coma and believes he’s felt his deceased daughter’s presence in the darkness, calling out to him. He also breaks down weeping. In the final shot, Rust and Marty walk together as Rust says “I tell you Marty, I been up in that room looking out those windows every night here just thinking, it’s just one story. The oldest. Light versus dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.” Instead of being more certain than ever of the senseless and arbitrary joke that is life – a trait that Rust has clearly shown throughout the series – he’s now ready to give life a chance.
Risky indeed. I am not sure why it works, but it does. Although many people seem to have had problems with it, I think it goes back to something my friend Gerry said: It feels earned. These men were already broken when we first saw them discovering the body of the dead prostitute: Rust a haunted, sad shell who hadn’t been able to save his only child from a car crash, Marty beholden to his primal impulses. They have finally found the balance, the peace that has eluded them for so long. In the end, True Detective is really about these two characters and their journey to the abyss and back. It was never about facing a powerful evil sect that offered human sacrifices to big ol’ Lucifer. It was about facing – and vanquishing – a far worse baddie: The devil inside.
Carlos I. Cuevas