I think the appeal of the mystery genre is that it acknowledges the apprehensions about the unknowns of life while also giving us a fantasy where things can be solved and order prevails over chaos. Through mystery fiction and crime procedurals, we are rewarded with motives, purpose, and reasons that explain the real-life horrors of the world and play into either a faith in justice or a despair about human nature.
HBO's anthology series True Detective, written by novelist Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, is very much an examination of those themes. The show follows Detectives Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) as they investigate a brutal, ritualistic murder of a woman in 1995 and are also questioned by two other detectives 17 years later after a similar murder, even though Cohle and Hart supposedly caught the original killer. Both detectives are remarkably different in worldview, but similarly flawed. And it's through those flaws, and the filter of their worldviews, that we see the evolution of the mystery at the heart of the series and the toll it takes on their lives.
Please read below the fold for more on this story.
"You think, you wonder, ever, you're a bad man?" —Martin HartJust to be clear, everything that follows is going to be a discussion of what's happened from the beginning to last night's show (episode 6). So if you're not caught up, and don't want to be spoiled, this would be the place to stop reading.
"No, I don't wonder, Marty. The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door." —Rustin Cohle
Unlike most of those movies of that era, True Detective is not really about the killer or the murder that is at the center of the story. It's an important part of the story, but the series is really an examination of two characters that have a yin-yang relationship to each other and how the circumstances of the investigation filters through their worldviews, flaws, and how that affects everyone around them.
The amount of critical acclaim and public word of mouth this show has achieved over just six episodes has been pretty amazing. It's the best show on television at the moment, riveting and rich with allusion, and has featured some amazing performances and cinematography. Matthew McConaughey is already having an amazing year with Dallas Buyer's Club, and this show has seemed to cement his reputation as a top-tier actor in Hollywood. Over at Grantland, Andy Greenwald described McConaughey's performance as Rustin Cohle as “a rubber band wrapped tight around a razor blade.”
- Rationalization and Denial: The difference in perspective between the two lead characters is that one of them comes at everything from his own ego and rationalizes all the crappy things that he does and that happens in the world. The other gives not one fuck about what people think of him, but denies that both the crappy and the good matter for a damn thing in the long run. Woody Harrelson's Marty defines himself by how society perceives him, wanting to conform to the structure and role of what he thinks being a "man" means within it. But the character is always rationalizing his own shitty behavior or shifting the blame when he steps over the lines of society and family. Marty thinks he "deserves" to let off some steam by fucking the hot court stenographer, or using his badge as a means to roughing up the guys that had sex with his daughter. On the other hand, McConaughey's Cohle professes a belief in the futility of life and denies that anything has meaning. But whether the character truly believes that, or just wants to believe it as a coping mechanism is one of the issues in interpreting him.
- The Difference Between Appearances and Reality: Marty always attempts to project an image of being a good guy and having a life that fits his perceptions of "the way things are supposed to be." Even during his interview in 2012, Marty always presents himself as a genial good ole boy and can't say a bad word about anything. And the reason he can't do that is because his ego won't allow it. Rust was a great investigator, not only because Rust is a great investigator, but because Marty was the lead detective and Rust is also a reflection on him. And it's not just that Marty fucked around, and loves indulging in "big dick swagger." He was (at least in 2002) violent with everyone in his life, wife and daughter included, whenever things in his life didn't fit his vision of how they're supposed to be. ("Don't mow my lawn!") I actually think in a lot of ways Harrelson's perfomance is the tougher of the two leads. Marty is a "straight man" to Rust's metaphysical ramblings, but Harrelson still gives a modulated performance that shows a character that clings to control, but at the same time is out of control.
- What Makes "The Taxman" Tick?: To call Cohle a pessimist is a bit of an understatement. The character's existential/nihilistic philosophy is a creation of tragedy (losing a daughter, which the show has never fully explained the circumstances of the death, and his marriage) and the terrible things he's seen and done as a cop. McConaughey plays Cohle as a man always standing on the edge. You always feel like he's a hair away from violence or self-destruction through alcohol, drugs, or just take your pick. But even in all of his metaphysical commentary about how worthless human existence is, I think Cohle is just as much a hypocrite about acting differently from what he projects as Marty. For example, even before what happened in last night's episode, in all of Rust's interactions with Maggie you get the sense that he envies the home life Marty has and on some level desires a life where he could come home to a wife and those girls. In fact, I think he resents that Marty throws that life away to go chasing skirts. Beyond that, there's the dichotomy of a character that professes that human consciousness is a delusion that has no purpose or meaning becoming obsessed with solving a crime. If this existence is deterministic and an illusion, why give a shit about a murder, or even a series of murders, that you believe have, are, and will happen for all eternity? Because Marty is absolutely right that Rust spends a lot of time fretting about life for someone who claims to think it's bullshit.
"I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in human evolution. We became too self aware; nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, a secretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody’s nobody. I think the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal ... This is a world where nothing is solved. You know, someone once told me time is a flat circle. Everything we've every done or will do, we're gonna do over and over and over again ... I think about my daughter now and what she was spared. Sometimes I feel grateful. The doctor said she didn’t feel a thing, went straight into a coma. Then, somewhere in that blackness, she slipped off into another deeper kind. Isn’t that a beautiful way to go out — painlessly as a happy child? Trouble with dying later is you’ve already grown up, the damage is done too late. I think about the hubris it must take to yank a soul out of nonexistence into this. Force a life into this thresher. As for my daughter, she spared me the sin of being a father." —Rustin Cohle
- Reading Between the Lines: When it comes to the family storyline, there's the contrast between Rust, whose worldview is shaped by the effect of losing a child, and Marty who has two children that he's never home to see. While the show hasn't confirmed it (yet), it seems to be implied both in behavior and actions (like the drawings below) that Marty's daughter Audrey has been sexually abused by someone.
- The Suffering Wife: The episode that aired last night totally changed the way I looked at Michelle Monaghan's Maggie. Before this episode, the character had been described as a well-justified "nag" to Marty. Maggie is not a fool, and she's written as someone who's smart enough to know that her husband is full of shit when he claims to be working and doesn't come home at night. But I dreaded the turn in the plot where she would sleep with Rust. The show has been telegraphing some attraction between the two in all of Maggie and Rust's interactions going to the first episode. An affair between the two always struck as being a little too obvious and a hacky direction. But I was surprised at the depths of the character's vindictiveness and her ability to manipulate the situation. Maggie uses Rust as a means to an end, since she knows that if she just kicks Marty out again he'll come back again and again begging for another chance. By fucking Rust, Maggie knows it's something Marty can never forgive or forget, and I think that's what pisses Rust off so much. Down under the nihilism, Rust cares about Maggie. And after the sex, when Rust realizes that she used him for spite, not because she actually cared about him, that's what sets him off.
- Women as Trophies: True Detective has been criticized for the depiction of its female characters, which have been described as "a parade of scolds, sluts and the strung out." Emily Nussbaum at the New Yorker has written an article complaining that the show presents women as "disposable female bodies." But Willa Paskin over at Slate argues that is the point. The depiction of women on the show is not a flaw, it's one of the main themes of the story. Women are missing. Women are being tortured and murdered and no one seems to notice or give a shit. The fact that Marty treats the women in his life as either disposable pieces or things to be controlled is part of his major flaw. If Marty had shown Lisa (Alexandra Daddario) just an ounce of respect and let her live her life on her own terms, instead of breaking down her door, she probably wouldn't have called Maggie (at least not yet). According to Paskin, True Detective is "a man’s story taking place in a man’s world, a world in which ignoring women has been the cause of untold horror—and has probably delayed that horror’s resolution as well." The subtext for this has been there since the early episodes. Just as an example, there are scenes of prostitutes, some of them children, walking the streets in droves for everyone to see, and no one gives a damn.
From Andrew Romano's interview of True Detective creator/writer Nic Pizzolatto at The Daily Beast:
Pizzolatto: I think my serial killer’s personal pathology is wrapped in very culturally relevant symbols that may not be immediately apparent. Not just hunting, but the idea of woman as trophy to be stuffed and displayed. The idea of prayer, and one of the necessities of the prayer pose being the blindfold: in order to effectively pray you’re going to have to ignore some very basic facts about the world.
So to me it’s not just that Cohle and Hart are hunting for their savage id or their most destructive portion. It’s that the killer has some resonance in the kinds of shows we’re talking about. We only have the one murdered woman at the crime scene in the entire series. It’s not an unrelenting horror show. It’s meant to stand in for the universal victim in this type of drama. Because while I think we’re doing a good job of telling the story that this genre demands, I think we’re also poking certain holes in it and looking at where these instincts begin, both in the type of men that Hart and Cohle represent—and in ourselves as an audience.
- Setting as Character: One of the great achievements of this show is how it uses the Louisiana setting at establishing the mood of the piece. There's an unsettling feeling throughout in the depiction of decay and a dread for what the future holds, with Hurricanes Andrew and Rita being name dropped at various times.
- One Writer, One Director: The show is a bit unusual in its auteur-anthology format. There is no writer's room on this, and every episode is directed by the same director. It's just one guy writing it all, 38-year old Nic Pizzolatto, who was a college writing professor four years ago. Cary Joji Fukunaga directs every episode, which are all shot on 35mm film. There's a singular vision given to the work, and Fukunaga has been lauded for stunning visuals. In particular, Fukunaga received high praise for a complicated six-minute long "oner" take that ends the fourth episode. When I first watched it, I thought there had to be some digital stitching that edited together the sequence (like the way Alfonso Cuarón did the sequence in Children of Men). However, the take in True Detective was actually six minutes long and carefully choreographed.
To cover as much ground as he wanted to in the sequence, Fukunaga needed to shoot in an actual housing project, and that was the first complication in planning the oner. It took weeks to even get permission to film on-location, but once he received it, Fukunaga went straight into mapping the shot and finding "the most interesting path, but also the most logical path" for Cohle to escape with Ginger. That interesting and logical path eventually takes Cohle and Ginger over a chain-link fence, a maneuver that proved to be the most complicated of the intricate sequence.
Watching just the fences portion of the oner back, the camera floats over the high barrier in a movement that almost looks effortless. Getting the shot, however, was anything but. Because the location was an actual housing project, the "True Detective" crew wasn't allowed to take down any portion of the fence, so they had to improvise. "At one point, we were going to build a ramp, and the operator was going to walk up it," Fukunaga said. "But that wasn't very safe." The solution ended up involving placing the Steadicam operator on an elevated jib, or a weighted crane, which carried him over the fence and back down to earth.
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
- The King in Yellow: At various points in the story of True Detective, there are references to Robert Chambers’ 1895 collection of short stories, “The King in Yellow," in which several of the stories are connected by a fictional play, about the titular ruler, which drives to insanity whoever reads it. The novel was an influence in the creation of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos," with Lovecraft taking "Hastur, the unspeakable one" from Chambers' book. The murder victim in True Detective, Dora Lange, had said she had met a “king.” In her diary, she mentioned “the Yellow King” and “Carcosa,” which are all references to "The King in Yellow."
- "We Are Nobodies Not Somebodies, Puppets Not People": Given the references to an Eldritch Abomination, many have noted that Cohle's philosophy seems to be taken from from Thomas Ligotti's nonfiction novel The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. In the book, Ligotti lays out an argument for why the reality as it currently exists is as horrific as anything dreamed up by Lovecraft.
- The "True" Monster at the End of the Dream: The murder and its strangeness led Marty and Rust to Reggie Ledoux, who had already killed one child and seemed to be preparing to kill two more. The pieces of the crime seemed to fit together. Charlie Lange, Dora Lange's husband, had talked about her in prison, causing Ledoux to take an interest in her, and he ritualistically killed her. But since we know there were many more murders before and since Ledoux's death, that leaves a bunch of possibilities. Was Ledoux really Lange's killer in 1995, and there's someone new copying his work in 2012? Was Ledoux working with others, as part of a cult that's been responsible for all the murders? Could Ledoux have been innocent of Lange's murder, and it was always someone else that Rust and Marty never caught on to? The fact that almost all of the missing person reports are marked "report made in error" seems to suggest that someone within law enforcement is covering up the murders and attempting to shift blame elsewhere.
- Edwin Edwards Merged With Jimmy Swaggart: One name that keeps coming up in the investigation is Tuttle. In the True Detective universe, Reverend Billy Lee Tuttle (Jay O. Sanders) is the cousin of the governor of Louisiana, which is attempting to use his influence to start his own charter schools and is able to force through an investigation of "anti-Christian activities." But all indications and suggestions are that the killer (or killers) are somehow connected to Tuttle or possibly being protected by him.
- The Suspicion of Rust: From back in episode 1, you get the feeling that the investigation in 2012 is directed at Rust, and that's confirmed by episode 5. The detectives in 2012 believe Rust may have been the killer all along and directed the investigation in a way to divert attention. However, their theory doesn't match up to what we see in the flashbacks to 1995. The question then becomes whether you can split the difference and believe that Rust has been driven so far over the edge that he snapped and is the killer in 2012? I don't buy it for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it's been such an obvious direction from the get-go that I don't think it's the resolution that Pizzolatto will choose. Moreover, of the two lead detectives, I could see Marty being the killer before I would think it of Rust. Marty is violent with women, has a daughter with indicators of sexual abuse, and he spends a lot of nights away from home. But even that feels like a stretch and hacky. My own theory is that it has to be some sort of cult run by Tuttle. And Tuttle's people are using their connections to direct the investigation toward Rust as a distraction.