I’m normally the film guy around these parts, but there hasn’t been a television show that I have jumped at wanting to cover as hard and as fast as I pounced on True Detective. The very concept alone – an anthology show with a different cast and director every season – combined with the fact that HBO can basically let the filmmakers and writers get away with whatever they want was enough. But to then entrust the first series to director Cary Fukunaga (who previously made the brutal but gorgeous looking gangster drama Sin Nombre and the gorgeous looking, but less successful 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre) and cast A list talent like Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in the leads, the show became something that opened a lot of eyes, making it possibly the most anticipated series debut of the year.
But with all that pre-release buzz, wondering, and artfully cut trailers to tease the arrival of the show there also comes a great deal of hype that needs to be tempered. Thankfully, the show (after the three episodes we were able to screen in advance of the series premiere) suggest that unless something goes completely off the rails, the hype is surpassed in what amounts to the perfect answer to all of the dreadfully pat and standard procedural shows that have become almost like a cancer on television. As much as I have a soft spot for something like Law & Order: SVU re-runs on a slow afternoon, True Detective stands alone as a slow burning, thoughtful, genuinely creepy, and almost punk rock “fuck you” to worthless spin-off shows of established franchises and series like Criminal Minds that like to deal with extreme blood-lust one episode at a time and then largely forget about the consequences. If the CSIs and NCISs and whatever other acronym shortened shows out there have you down and you really want something with some meat on its bones (or if you just like exceptionally crafted television), True Detective will be where it’s at for the near future.
For the next few weeks, I’ll be on the True Detective recap beat (Sunday nights immediately following the East Coast airing of the show for the next three weeks, Monday afternoons for the rest of the season) and taking the show on an episode-by-episode basis to see if it keeps up at the great pace it has set. It should be noted from here on out, there are SPOILERS. LOTS OF SPOILERS
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Bouncing back and forth between 2012 and 1995 – and at various points within those timelines – “The Long Bright Dark” kicks off with Louisiana State Police CID detective Martin Hart (Harrelson) being interrogated in present day about his partnership with former partner Rustin Cohle (McConaughey) and their investigation of the case that brought them together.
Quick to say in his interrogation that “you can’t pick your family, and you can’t pick your partner,” it’s immediately apparent that Marty and Rust aren’t going to be your stereotypically mismatched buddy cops, but rather two men good at their jobs that just happen to be forced onto a case that would be terrifying to come across anyone’s desk.
In the centre of a burnt up cornfield is the body of Dora Lang, a young woman who over the course of this episode’s round of investigation would turn out to be a part time prostitute who was drugged with meth and LSD, stabbed repeatedly in the abdomen, bound at her hands and feet, and positioned at the base of a large tree with a crown of thistle and deer antlers on her head to look like she was in prayer with some sort of rune painted on her back. It’s definitely a ritual, and as Rust suggests, something committed by a criminal who has clearly committed this crime before.
Upon the discovery of the body, the tension between the two partners – who by this point have already been together for three months, but never had a case this grisly until now – is instantly apparent. Marty reacts more emotionally than analytically, but while still retaining the eye of a good, albeit slightly cocky detective. When Rust suggests immediately that Dora was a prostitute, Marty bristles at the outright assumption without more to go on than a quick check of her physical attributes. Rust will be proven right, and while as the episode progresses Marty seems to trust his partner’s instincts he still finds ways to keep his somewhat unnerving and on edge partner in check.
If Rust was clean cut and already deeply cynical in 1995, his interview footage from 2012 finds him a long-haired, standoffish person who has given up on life even more than he already had. Lighting up a cigarette in an office where such practices have been long since abandoned and in the episode’s best scene flat out demanding that his interrogators buy him a six pack of beers, Rust comes across as the same intelligent man he was in ’95, but now an absolute misanthropic wreck. Nicknamed “Taxman” back in the day for his propensity for note taking in a large ledger book and for a studious attention to detail that earns the mistrust of many of his colleagues, Rust is clearly battling inner demons every second of his life, and the anniversary of his daughter’s death is clearly on his mind. A quick glance of his whitewashed and nearly empty apartment finds Marty only seeing a pile of books on criminal behaviour and a lonely mattress. In a sequence that this episode is based almost entirely around, Marty is finally able to coax Rust to meet his wife (Michelle Monaghan) and two young daughters over dinner, but the former alcoholic Rust is loaded out of his mind.
One of the great strengths of the series, and one that will be expanded upon in the next few episodes exponentially, is that a great amount of character and narrative detail are packed into the first ten minutes of the episode thanks to some brilliant writing from series creator Nic Pizzolatto. It’s even a shock to present day Marty after a while that their entire interrogation hinges on the relationship between the two detectives. While at a certain point the specifics of the case will undoubtedly become apparent, these two have clearly been called in years after the fact to answer a question no one feels content asking of them just yet.
In their individual scenes, both Harrelson and McConaughey play their characters as men who have had their careers equally made and broken by the case being discussed. For now, Harrelson has less to do in his interrogation scenes except to act mildly put-upon and inconvenienced, with a thin veneer of professional courtesy towards his interrogators. In the present, McConaughey gets to play the same brilliant analytical mind, but one that at some point embraced his inner redneck and just gave up trying to help anyone, including himself.
But in their scenes together, the real-life best buddies clearly have the rapport to take this on screen relationship to another level. In just one car ride conversation that Marty wishes he had never initiated once it’s started, we learn all we need to initially know about these two. Marty is content to go along and get along, while Rust fancies himself as quietly superior to everyone around him and an eternal realist-slash-pessimist. As Marty says early on, almost any personality type can make for a good detective, but they can also be enormous, ignorant failures. It’s yet to be seen where either of these two men will ultimately fall, but the two leads have already made watching their interaction intoxicating to watch, especially on McConaughey’s part.
This is an actor whose supposed “comeback” has been complete for quite some time now after Dallas Buyer’s Club, Magic Mike, Killer Joe, Mud, and The Wolf of Wall Street, and his work here feels like a potential mic drop from someone being electrified just by holding it. He even looks like he’s being shocked in every scene. Rust is unable to sit still, always having to have something in his hands. He’s proud that he doesn’t drink and lords it over people like his entry into sainthood, but he also self-medicates by chugging cough syrup and trying to score Quaaludes off of prostitutes he’s questioning at a bar. He owns a cross just so he can meditate on the crucifixion, but he vehemently refuses to believe in God in the middle of the Bible belt. He’s even sociopathic enough to admit he’s too much of a chicken to commit suicide. He’s an incredibly uneasy person to be around, and the fact that he’s paired with someone naturally geared towards his rhythms and natural strengths is just an icing on the cake.
While this episode is understandably focused more on Rust, that’s not to take anything from Harrelson’s performance here, but there are only two ways his character can lead at this point: he’ll either end up becoming a lot darker of a person than Rust, or he’s the guy who will ultimately have to make the biggest sacrifice when all is said and done. Still, he’s not entirely unsympathetic in this episode when put in opposition to McConaughey’s erudite walking contradiction. It’s a fascinating give and take and one that can only get better with the help of consistently good writing.
The dynamic between the two actors even extends to sequences where neither has to look at each other or explain anything to the other person, like the aforementioned dinner sequence. After finally sobering Rust up outside with some coffee (and Rust seeming quite sincerely sorry for showing up loaded), the scene at the table becomes tense as Marty tries to keep Rust at the table for the shortest amount of time possible. Monaghan plays the humble housewife well, but she’s not given much to do here outside of being polite and trying not to ask many questions of a man who’s obviously scarred. The kids, who don’t know any better, ask a leading question that leads to us learning that Rust has killed a man in the line of duty, but that Marty has never once drawn his gun. Marty grows ever more uncomfortable, not knowing how to answer to most of what’s being thrown at Rust, often biting his lip until it bleeds. Rust grows more suspicious when the children, perhaps quite innocently, start whispering secrets at the table. It’s astoundingly uncomfortable, but it ends with a firm statement that at this point in his life, Rust isn’t past a point of personal redemption, something his confessional video would suggest is no longer the case.
The fact that both actors are capable of working with each other and the supporting cast around them almost autonomously allows Fukunaga to focus on mounting and shooting one of the most stunning to look at shows ever put on television. The Louisiana back-country has rarely looked this equally impressive and foreboding. The opening crime scene takes place on an ordinary day, but it positively pops with character and depth. It’s a show where the geography of the area will probably end up becoming as subtle of a character as the clearly obvious secrets the area hides. He has the sense to let the actors make a lot of their own choices, but to control their surroundings to inform the characters. He knows he’s working with actors that have great instincts so instead of micromanaging them, he finds the best ways to advances the story visually and thematically.
Some of those secrets come popping up in the second half of the episode when Rust and Marty begin to wonder if their case is tied to the disappearance of another girl well before they got on the job. They start hunting down leads that will probably be explored in more detail in future episodes before the final sting of finding a straw made doll just like one left at the crime scene at the home of the prior victim. I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of these “devil nets” being used as a signifier. They’re a bit too on the nose for a show that’s trying so hard to stay away from serial killer movie and TV show stereotypes, but that’s still a very minor complaint, and one that might be put to better use in future episodes.
But it’s the final five minutes of the episode when present day Marty and Rust put together what’s going on that makes one want to immediately watch the following episode. We get a good glimpse at the cops interviewing them. Will they be the ones we will be following in a future series of the show? We learn from Marty that he will remain partners with Rust until 2002 (when Rust supposedly goes “off the grid”) and that this case won’t end their partnership. We know from Rust that they do something heroic by the end when he cryptically asks his inquisitors if they want him to “skip to the hero moment when we got all the girls out.” We also learn that these detectives that are bringing up the case anew are investigating a case that finds the same killer or a damned good copycat has recently killed and posed someone in an even more horrific manner. The final stinger is learning that Rust and Marty allegedly already caught the killer. So now finding out what exactly gives is going to be the bigger mystery than whodunit. And that singlehandedly validates the long form, time shifting story arc. It’s setting itself up as a puzzle where parts might be hammered into place to solve something immediately, only to be torn out in a fury sometime down the road.
And I am trying so hard not to talk about the next episode, which for as good as this one was, there’s an explosion of new information that’s going to expand the story in some pretty epic ways.
Quite intriguingly, the time stamps show that present day Rust’s interview was recorded first (about a week before Marty), and that at the end of this show Marty seems kind of shocked that these detectives are looking into their relationship. Marty clearly doesn’t know they have already found Rust, and the dialogue between them all suggests that the detectives want to keep that secret up their sleeve for a while.
The Big Hug Mug. Someone buy this for me now. Like, immediately.
There were a lot of interesting threads and talk about the religious iconography found within the town, and I’m hesitant to get into it until the case’s connection to the occult gets fleshed out a little more. That being said, Rust’s speech about reflecting on the idea of the crucifixion is priceless.
Things to keep in mind that will probably factor heavily soon:
Alexandra Daddario as a courts worker that Marty inexplicably drops everything to awkwardly run off with, suggesting an affair.
The sketch of the “green eared spaghetti monster” shown to Rust and Marty by another local sheriff tied to the original case.
Rust seeing “ghosts” and saying that he never sleeps.
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