True Detective Episodes 1 & 2 Review

Apologies for the lateness on this, as I had a sojourn in Park City followed by a return to the academic world. I thought about waiting until after the 3rd episode to write down my thoughts, but seeing as I watched Episode 2 recently I might as well do it now.

True Detective is billed as a showcase for two heavy hitters–Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson–to unveil their acting chops. They’re dropped into a world that has become a production darling: the serial killer realm. Just in the last 2 years there’s been a number of series using this backdrop, and they range from high quality (Top of the Lake; Broadchurch), to middling (The Bridge; Hannibal), to bad (The Following; The Killing). Of course these series’ have differences (Top of the Lake for instance isn’t about a killer really but a child rapist and the girl who’s gone missing), but the general idea is to create a really dark show that deals with people’s fucked up lives.

Through 2 episodes, it appears True Detective‘s ambition is to be the most profound of them all. The tried and true strategy has been to focus on exploring the insular worlds of these stories, where bad deeds have gone unpunished for so long because the villains control the town and these villains have grown more evil in their complacency, just waiting for a hero to come knocking. A movie analogue would be the recent David Fincher adaptation of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. As the story progresses, you uncover more secrets in the town and learn about horrible pasts. For me, True Detective only hits some of the elements that make the great works in this genre great.

The show is assuredly dark, thanks mostly to McConaughey’s harrowing performance as Rust Cohle (how absurd is this name by the way?) He lost a daughter some time ago, but still refers to her as if she is alive (resulting in Marty not realizing she’s dead until the second episode). He’s also worked undercover for four years in narco doing all sorts of odd jobs that required a deeply undercover junkie. What did he get for all that? A couple month stay in a psych ward after murdering a few cartel members, and a psych pension. Texas police, recognizing the grave extent of his service in so short a time, were ready to give him a cushy retirement package, but Cohle didn’t want to hang up the uniform just yet. Instead he requests a transfer to homocide anywhere they need him, and Louisiana comes calling. From Texas, he brings his past with him, which can’t help but creep out the other man in the pairing, Martin Hart (Harrelson).

So far we don’t know much about Marty aside from his penchant for strange pussy and the feeling like he’s always got a huge wad of dip in his mouth or something. He says when you’re done with work you need some time to unwind before you face the family. Enter his lovely co-ed flame he bangs on the reg. Sounds like a healthy home life. Hart seems to be respected on the force, which may be why Cohle was assigned to him as a partner. Whatever the reason, these two haven’t exactly become fast friends. At first it’s Cohle droning on about how nothing in life matters and all sorts of cosmic, fatalistic thoughts.* Marty tries to get him to shut up about that sort of thing, but it’s of no use. By the second episode Cohle is (intentionally?) provoking Marty about his cheating, and disrespects the rest of the department. Cohle is arrogantly sure of his beliefs and unwilling for the most part to hear anyone tell him otherwise.

*This is what really bogs down the show to me. Almost everything that comes out of McConaughey’s mouth is either a question to a lead, or a pessimistic observation. He spends minutes staring out car windows, wondering why he’s here at all. He words are devoid of all emotion, which makes the things he say oft-putting. Especially when he discounts how the other person will respond (which is always).

Fortunately for the uber-observant Cohle, the murder they get put on appears to be committed by someone cut from the same cloth as himself. A prostitute is found raped, murdered, and positioned in a very deliberate way: hunched over with antlers coming out of her head and a strange symbol on her back. Furthermore, there are odd birds-nest looking things hanging around the tree. Cohle almost immediately concludes this was not the work of a random psycho killer, but that of a deliberate, well-executed murderer, and the show clearly wants us to think he’s right. What message is the killer trying to get across? That’s far from clear, but it has something to do with Christianity and occult symbols. In the second episode every single lead the characters talk with mentions how the deceased had begun going to a church down south (CLUE), and lo and behold, there’s a cave drawing of someone with antlers. To the average Joe like myself watching, I can’t see how finding this drawing advances the case that much, except to say that there’s obviously a connection. However I have no doubt that in the dark recesses of Rust Cohle’s mind he can figure something out. The religious element only adds to the gravity Nic Pizzolatto (the writer) wants the story to have. Not only are we following a serial killer, but there may be symbols and divine forces at work too!

I should also mention that the entire premise of going over the details of this case remain hidden from us. The show flashes between scenes in 1995, when Cohle and Hart first meet, and 2012, 10 years after they parted ways. The detectives (including Brother Mouzone for Wire fans) asking the questions have indicated that the person arrested/killed (I’m not sure we know yet) back in ’95 may not have been the right guy, since a new woman has been executed in similar fashion. However, they seem very concerned with asking Hart about Cohle’s role in the case, and interested in keeping Cohle himself talking as they liquor him up. They say in vino veritas, so perhaps giving him 6 tall boys can open him up a little more, but it still remains a mystery why they want so many details. All we can conclude is that compared to 2012, 1995 Cohle feels like a chip, young go-getter.

As I write this on Monday morning, having not seen the 3rd episode yet, I must confess that I am not particularly excited to watch it. Despite setting the drama in backwater Louisiana, the world has not been developed beyond the two leads. We know both men must have some problems in their past, but what else is going on? The detectives travel from seedy bar to sketchy harem looking for clues, but once these bit players nudge the ball along they’re gone. Has this madman killer affected the mood of these places, or was it just happenstance that the most depressed detective in the area got put on the case? I expect future episodes to explore more dreary-ness in the land this dead prostitute inhabited, but I fear the show is missing out on introducing us to a three dimensional landscape.

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One Response to True Detective Episodes 1 & 2 Review

  1. jake blum says:

    Maybe this is just me and my youth years of watching SVU and criminal minds, but a good murder mystery always drawns me in. I’m not in it so much for the characters as I am for the suspensful ride of figuring out just what the hell happened here. To that extenet, I think the show has done a phenomenal job navigating two intricate plotlines.

    Agree with your point on the show not achieving a fuller development of beyond Rust and Marty, but this is a mini-season with just 8 episodes, so I’m not as concerned with supporting character development (though I appluad any further scenese with the fireball). I also think they’ve done a great with each character in his own respect. Yes, Rust always says the same things but that’s how he operates – systematic and self-assured – and that’s what makes him a great detective to watch. Where we see his development is in his actions (i.e. seeming like his enjoying time with Marty’s family) and in the smaller moments where he breaks his rigid mold, like when he talks about his daughter (who I believe he acutally ran over and is a large reason why he is so fked up).

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