Written by Zac Platt.
It was clear early on that True Detective would be something special. A new HBO anthology series with each episode being written by creator Nic Pizzolatto (author of Galveston), directed by Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre), and the big-name duo of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson starring in an epic mystery spanning 17 years. Yet still True Detective managed to surpass its expectations and not only creates one of the most intricately crafted seasons of television ever, but a rich and powerful work of fiction comparable to the most celebrated classics of film and literature.
True Detective Season 1 is a character study on Detectives Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Harrelson) during 3 key periods of their life. The framework of their relationship is laid out in the first episode, by cutting back and forth between the beginning partnership and interviews with them 17 years later. In 1995 they began an uneasy partnership and solved the murder of Dora Lange, worked as partners for seven years until in 2002 something came between them. In 2012 they are brought in for questioning about the validity of the Lange case.
The spiralling conspiracy of the Lange case drives Hart and Cohle, but the real mystery of the show is in filling the gaps of Cohle and Hart’s relationship. The 2012 Cohle is a haggard reflection of the man we meet in 95; a drunken hermit with a poorly kept ponytail and handlebar moustache. Hart, though older and fatter, has fared much better and alludes to some great falling out they had while still promoting a sense of loyalty to his old partner. It’s the history between them that draws you in, but it’s the complexity of the world and the ponderous script that will go on to define the show. Pizzolatto’s script is bursting with ideas and motifs that transform the detective genre into a discussion on the everlasting battle between good and evil.
Fukunaga hits it out of the park on each and every episode, bringing to life Pizzolatto’s desperate and haunting world. Fukunaga’s bitter tone and imagery make the Louisiana of True Detective as much a living and breathing character as Cohle or Hart. It draws in from the surrounding hodgepodge of religion and history and exhales an almost paranormal evil. More than his deftness in creating an atmosphere, Fukunaga leaves his mark with his tense, cinematic scene construction. There are plenty of examples to cite, but none quite like the incredible 6-minute, single-shot climax of episode four. In what could be a set-piece from Children of Men, we watch an undercover operation explode into chaos across a gang-ridden neighbourhood. I won’t go into any more detail, suffice to say it’s one of, if not the, most incredible sequences I’ve seen realised on a television show.
An early criticism of True Detective was the lack of female characters to grace the show. While she certainly doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, we do at least get one well-explored woman with Hart’s wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan). While her plight may not carry the same weight as the detectives’, Monaghan presents a proud and calculated character that cuts through the manipulation and self-delusion of the men who dominate her world.
It’s through her eyes we see the most honest criticisms of Hart and Cohle’s characters. While the duo frequently point out each other’s flaws, both ascribe what they themselves are missing as what’s wrong with the other. But Maggie is not one for bullshit and lays bare their hypocrisies. Through this lens we see Hart as an exaggerated man’s man, someone who believes whole-heartedly that cheating on his wife is good for their marriage and helps protect Maggie from the horrible things he sees on the job. Somehow, Harrelson is still able to elicit sympathy with an earnest unknowing of what a man is supposed to be as he (hilariously) turns to the nihilistic Cohle for advice.
This brings us to the show’s biggest gun. Cohle is a fantastic creation, a lonely soul that wears his depression like a badge of honour and launches into instantly quotable soliloquies on the various injustices of existence. It could easily be a bit too much, but with McConaughey’s spot-on delivery he is able to make his musings at once disturbingly profound and yet somehow comedic in just how needlessly dark he paints the world. Often Cohle becomes the vehicle for the show’s subtext, but that isn’t to say he is a means for lazy writing. Rather, his questioning the world peels back the scab for Cohle, Hart and the world of True Detective to delve into the flesh of the show’s philosophies.
While it’s great seeing the three eras come together, the show does lose a little steam in the last few episodes as they fall into a more linear structure. True Detective is a show that feels like a novel, and as a whole the finale is a beautifully poignant conclusion that offers a surprisingly optimistic note for us to leave on. But as standalone episodes, the final two don’t quite excite as much as the show’s peak toward the middle.
Likewise, the villain just doesn’t quite terrify as much as he is built up to, though to be fair he was merely a representative of a much larger evil. The idea that good only reacts, that the evil was already done and all the heroes can do is take this one player off the board is a powerful concept, but the avatar of that evil deserves a certain level of menace that True Detective didn’t quite hit the mark on. While I could appreciate the eccentricities and specifically quoted dialogue of the antagonist, I can’t help but feel more casual viewers who aren’t prepared to do research beyond the show will be confused by his oddness rather than scared by him.
True Detective is a show that begs to inspire. Essays will be written about its literary references, who or what the “Yellow King” actually is and its grand ideas of good and evil. As with any great work of fiction, repeat viewings unlock more and more of this incredibly constructed world. The ending, while perhaps relatively lacklustre, will likely be the definitive conclusion to an anthology. It capitalises on everything preceding it and, in a few lines of dialogue, redefines it all as just one of many battles in a never-ending war. But it doesn’t disarm their struggle as futile; it proudly announces that each minor victory is a step towards a better world. With just eight episodes Pizzolatto and Fukunaga have created one of the most exciting shows currently on the air and filled a void left for many with the conclusion of Breaking Bad.
Good luck with season 2.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10