True Detective. 2014. 8 episodes directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga; written & created by Nic Pizzolatto. Starring Woody Harrelson, Matthew McConaughey, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Potts, and Tory Kittles. HBO Home Entertainment. Rated 18A. 458 minutes. Bonus Material Not Rated. Crime/Drama/Mystery/Thriller
★★★★★ (Season 1)
★★★★1/2 (Blu ray)
The story of True Detective looks, on the surface, as similar to other television shows about police officers, serial killer cases, troubled partners with their own separate and troubled lives; you know the type. There are a lot of things, though, to separate this one from many of the others.
Nic Pizzolatto’s show begins its first season in the year 2012 – Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), former partners, are being interviewed about an old case involving a young girl named Dora Lange who was found dead in 1995, bound with a set of antlers placed on her head. Two detectives seem to be looking back into Lange’s death in relation to a new murder, which could be connected. The storyline spreads from ’95 to 2012, as well as hovering around 2002 when things went sour between Hart and Cohle. While the two men battle their own private lives and mistakes, they’re confronted with a possible conspiracy stretching across the state of Louisiana. Everyone believes the Lange murder to be some type of “occult murder“, but Cohle particularly deeply suspects a vast cover-up involving everyone from church officials to governors to the police force itself. Hart reluctantly follows Cohle until it becomes painfully clear he is most likely right.
While the description I’ve given of the plot might even sound like a riff on Serpico or Prince of the City, it really is a fresh detective show. While many have accused Pizzolatto of stealing material from Thomas Ligotti (I won’t go into it here – look it up), I don’t necessarily agree. There is a lot of really good material. It isn’t all about McConaughey’s performance (which is amazing), nor Harrelson’s either (also amazing). It’s not even about Cohle and his whimsical conversation with the present day detectives sussing out from him what they can, or his great banter with Hart in their driving scenes, particularly the very first episode of the show. There’s simply a really great mystery to this show. Even when Pizzolatto really gives us a few great clues, ones not too hard to follow through, there’s still a lot of excellent tension. For instance, even in the final episode when we clearly know who the killer is there still exists a really tense and dreadful atmosphere. Right until the finale of the episode, it’s hard to predict what might happen in the end. At least in my mind. I thought to myself, several times, in that last episode I knew where things were headed – and constantly, Fukunaga and Pizzolatto really played with my expectations. That atmosphere carried through the entire first season of True Detective.
Another excellent thing about this first season is the presence of all the red herring material Pizzolatto doles out in many episodes. I’ve seen a lot of really thoughtful interpretations, pre-season finale, of who the killer might turn out to be, who is involved in the massive conspiracy. I’ve also come across a fair share of really mental interpretations too far out into the psychosphere (dig it) for me to give any modicum of credence. But that’s what makes some shows really engaging and interesting. When fans of the show, even certain people who rag on the show with what they deem to be formulaic interpretations, can’t stop discussing possible theories it really goes to illustrate how well the show has reached an audience. I’m not saying it isn’t divisive – it certainly has been. I just think Pizzolatto really did some great, twisty writing.
There was a point in time I really believed Marty’s father-in-law had some sort of involvement in the grand conspiracy, and maybe there is a chance that’s still the case (I don’t believe so – doesn’t make it so), but this is the great part – Pizzolatto leaves little trails of bread crumbs that don’t go anywhere, that play part in the coincidence of the real world, the unforeseeable events in life, and lead us off on paths of pure imagination. I mean, there are several little red herrings such as Audrey’s situation. For instance, Cohle calls his daughters down to dinner and as they leave their room he notices Audrey has placed 5 male dolls around a single female doll in a very inappropriate and suggestive manner. There’s also a small drawing in Hart’s house representing the spiral image drawn on Dora Lange’s back in the first episode; one of his daughters drew it. These little clues are really red herrings. Pizzolatto does not want the answers to come easily here, as he shouldn’t, and these extra bits really help to send a lot of people off on imaginary tangents, thinking of who the Yellow King really could be, et cetera. Genius writing.
There are a few similarities between True Detective and the British trilogy Red Riding. Both take on stories about corruption and murder in rural areas; the original murders sparking both plots are similar, as the Red Riding story starts with a girl found dead, wings put on her back (as opposed to the antlers on the head here). One scene in the first Red Riding film with Andrew Garfield playing a reporter named Eddie Dunford is reminiscent of a scene in True Detective where Cohle visits a woman in a mental institution and drives her into hysterics; one difference mainly has to do with the difference in their occupations, as Dunford’s visit is followed by a severe beating at the hands of the police for bothering the woman, while Cohle is disciplined by his superiors. Finally, each of these shows has a young male prostitute who provides links to the murdered girl, albeit in different ways. Not to mention, in Red Riding the prostitute plays a much bigger part. Whereas Cohle only meets the young male prostitute present in True Detective during a single scene, which is basically thrown in as an extra link to something fishy going on in the main case. There are no doubt some similarities between Red Riding and True Detective, but mostly I would say they are coincidental. Certainly, most of these similarities are either connected to the similar themes (corruption in police force & authority figures), and the majority, if not all, are only really connected to the first Red Riding film; the other two in the trilogy really don’t connect up much, aside from the aforementioned police corruption angle. I think maybe Pizzolatto might have been influenced more by the novel Red Riding is based on instead of the films, and either way the influence is no more than a bit of the surface. Each of these works are quite different and aim to accomplish much different things.
There are a few specific points I’d really like to address in regards to some of the deeper meaning behind True Detective overall.
First, I want to mention the reoccurring number five. I believe the first time this really comes into play is when Hart and Cohle interview Dora Lange’s mother, Mrs. Kelly (played by the fabulous Tess Harper) – while Cohle looks around and Hart asks the lady questions, he notices a picture of a young girl (most likely Dora) surrounded by five men on horses, each of them dressed in what we later learn are costumes for what’s called Courir de Mardi Gras. In the second episode, as I mentioned earlier, Hart finds his daughter Audrey’s dolls placed in a very promiscuous situation: five male dolls surround one female doll, one of the men is hauling down his pants to have sex with the girl.
Furthermore, in the present day scenes during the latter half of the season, Cohle drinks beer while being investigated and cuts them up: he places them in a circle of five, indicating the undiscovered members of the grand conspiracy (harkens back to those five horsemen in the picture at Mrs. Kelly’s home).
Most people might look at this as another instance of red herrings, or some such idea. However, in literature specifically, the persistence of numbers, especially in earlier literature such as from the Middle Ages, usually has a kind of significance. I happen to believe the number five here happens to refer to the pentagram, or a pentangle as it’s referred to in an index of the Middled English Anthology edited by Ann S. Haskell.
This ties into the plot of True Detective directly, as we clearly see in a scene with villain Reggie Ledoux – when Hart and Cohle arrest him, his back is visible and has a massive tattoo of a pentagram, more specifically the Sigil of Baphomet. These instances of the number five all tie in to the evil angle – the five horsemen are dressed just like those men in the video Cohle finds and shows to Hart in Episode 7, the beer can figures point to the five horsemen, as do the dolls in Audrey’s room. They might not be the only repetitions of the number five. They’re just the ones I’ve noticed. I think these little details are the sorts of moments which really elevate True Detective above a lot of the detective procedurals on television, and on film for that matter. Provides more to dive into aside from the main case the show focuses on with the story, and offers endless hours of re-watchable scenes.
One of the biggest things, for me personally, I ended up realizing was how Cohle sort of ended up predicting the future when he talks about being able to “smell the psychosphere“, and that it tastes like “aluminum and ash“. Maybe others noticed this quickly, but I think it’s something a lot of viewers never once thought about for a second. In the present day while Rust is being interviewed by the two new detectives looking through the old Dora Lange case, he is continuously smoking (ash) and drinking out of (aluminum) beer cans. He’s literally unable to escape the psychosphere he first found himself in. This was one thing I really enjoyed. Coupled with the end of the episode where Hart and Cohle meet up once again in 2012, Cohle’s broken taillight (not fixed since their decade old fight from 2002), this really goes to show how all of this case, everything in it, the fact it has not truly been solved and it was his case, really stuck to Cohle. There is nothing to do except solve the case because if not there is truly no escaping it. Having this “aluminum and ash” come back as a part of the story, in a very slight sense, was a really clever way of tying things from the past back into the present, showing how the entire atmosphere of the case would never really wash of Cohle. Another instance of the great writing inside True Detective.
Undoubtedly, one of the greatest parts about the entire first season is the excellent character development.
There’s Hart, who is basically a by-product of the misogyny inherent in the place he lives. While he is not one of those elite predators who uses his authority to help cover-up the murder and abuse of young women, Hart is nonetheless affected by the overall state of misogyny and the atmosphere of where he lives. This can be seen through his treatment of women throughout the season – his daughter, his wife, his mistress. There’s even the thread where he reconnects with a young hooker from earlier in the season; Hart interviewed her in connection to Dora Lange in ’95, and later he begins to sleep with the girl when she’s older. This really goes to show, when he’s trying to reconnect with his wife, how much his heart is truly in a normal relationship. In ’95, Hart gives the girl some money and tells her to “do something else” – Cohle then ribs him by asking if it was a down payment. Of course, later we find out it really was an early payment for services to be rendered. Maybe Hart didn’t know it then, but his ideas of women would never change. Though she was older, the fact Hart could engage in a sexual relationship with the girl after seeing where she came from, the life she grew up in, and our look at his hypocrisy after having taken offense with the older lady who’d been pimping her out in ’95, it’s obvious this man is only good as a detective – he is a true detective, and nothing else. He can’t be a good father or husband, truly. Only good at enforcing the law.
Cohle is not perfect, however, he’s much more about control, as opposed to Hart who represents a real loss of control. McConaughey did a great job of playing Cohle, with all the philosophical thoughts and out-there theories. I don’t know if anyone else could have done such a great job with the material given. Cohle has a lot of different things going on. I really like how his story came to a close by the end of the season, and part of the pessimistic attitude he’d been displaying for most of the episodes tied off, or at least loosened a little. While coming face to face with death, he finally discovers there may possibly be something beyond the brink, or maybe not – regardless, he finds out the thought of something more than life, pas death, isn’t as terrifying and ignorant as he once thought it to be. On the one hand, I also think Cohle provides a really great opposite for Hart in the sense he is a man who lost his wife and child (the former because of the latter’s death) – Hart has those things but does not appreciate them, and yet he really wants to have those things in his life. On the other hand, Cohle lost it all, and whether or not he would have it again if that chance was available, he seems to really not have wanted it to be with – maybe this is due to the death of his child, maybe he has been this way all his life. I just think having Cohle be the way he was, Pizzolatto provided a really great antithesis to Hart; having them as partners really juxtaposed their separate world views and created more tension between them than what naturally existed in their dialogue. Not to mention, having Harrelson and McConaughey, two real life friends, play these characters worked better than could have ever been expected.
I have to mention the 6-minute tracking shot in Episode 4 “Who Goes There”. This is a monumental scene in television. Probably the best scene of any television show I’ve seen in the last 5 years or more. Honestly. Even shows I love like The Sopranos and The Wires also from HBO never had such incredible camerawork as this; while there were a lot of great scenes in both those shows, nothing like this. Just the sheer size of this tracking shot is really amazing. I can’t get enough of it. Right from the moment Cohel grabs hold of a hostage, the camera never breaks, following him through this whole scene. Fukunaga mentions on the Blu ray release how there was a need to give this scene some sort of tension – we know Cohle makes it out all right because we’ve already seen the 2012 narrative partially, so we’re aware he has survived – so the tracking shot itself serves as a way to really keep us in suspense, as we literally ride along with Cohle. I thought it was the most thrilling scene of the entire season. Tied only with the big finale with Hart and Cohle facing the murderer in his self-made world of Carcosa. If nothing else, you’ve got to give it to True Detective for really knocking this particular episode out of the park.
The Blu ray release from HBO is absolutely on point. While I expected maybe just a smidgen more, there are still some great features. To start, the picture and sound on this release are beyond perfect. While I watched True Detective several times over already, the Blu ray actually ended up revealing more to me than I’d ever noticed. Just little small bits. Everything is so clear and gorgeous here from the music, the sound design, to the spectacular sweeping shots of landscape and rugged terrain of Louisiana. Then there is the audio commentary, including bits from Pizzolatto, which really help the shed light on the overall production. One featurette on the release called “Inside the Episode” gives us bits from each episode with thoughts from both Fukunaga and Pizzolatto, covering everything from story, to writing, to directing, editing; all of it. There are really valuable pieces of insight from the writer and director. Definitely worth watching at least once. Also, there’s a Making Of featurette; this encompasses everything including some interviews with the actors, et cetera. Finally, there are some deleted scenes, as well as exclusive interviews with Harrelson and McConaughey concerning the filming of the series’ first season. All in all, a bunch of great stuff making this Blu ray a must-purchase for any real fans of the show. As in most cases, the picture and sound alone are worth it. I can’t get enough. I’ve watched the episodes through a couple times now since getting the Blu rays. Wonderful release.
Anyone who has seen True Detective knows it is either loved or hated – I don’t think there is much middle ground. My opinion is that this must be one of the best shows ever on television. Lots of people reference shows like Twin Peaks, and others, but I really think aside from influence and maybe a bit of homage, this series stands on its own. No matter if the second season turns out to be a bust, this first season is a classic bit of television. All of it was shot on film, giving things a really beautiful look, and the fact both Fukunaga and Pizzolatto were on board for the entire season really helped with its overall vision. I know there are those who don’t exactly dig the show, but I really find True Detective to be in a league of its own. I hope the show continues to prosper, I’m really looking forward to what Pizzolatto has in-store for the second season. Pick up this Blu ray if you loved this as much as I did, and you will not be disappointed in the slightest.