HBO’s True Detective
Season 1, Episode 1: “The Long Bright Dark”
Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga
Written by Nic Pizzolatto
* For a review of the following episode, “Seeing Things” – click here
* For a review of True Detective’s Season 2 starting with “The Western Book of the Dead” – click here
I’ve already done the second season. Now I’m returning for the 5th time viewing, reviewing each of the first season episodes for True Detective. I love both seasons equally, and I know that puts me in the minority. Either way, Season 1 changed the landscape of modern television, like it or not. There came a whole lot of depth in the writing, even if Nic Pizzolatto riffs hard off Thomas Ligotti and Friedrich Nietzsche. Still, the vision of one writer and one director for an entire eight-episode run made this something to witness, as a great story unfolded with lots of red herrings idiosyncrasies, and plenty wonderful acting to boot.
The first episode, “The Long Bright Dark”, begins with someone being carried in the shadows, a makeshift torch being light in a field out by a large tree, and then a line of fire reaching out into the other trees.
Cut to Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson). He’s on camera being interviewed in 2012 by Dt. Maynard Gilbough (Michael Potts) and the younger Dt. Thomas Papania (Tory Kittles). They start talking about this and that, then finally come to Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey). He’s an unusual man. At the same time, Rust is being interviewed by the detectives in another room. He begins immediately breaking the rules, light a cigarette. This, though a small gesture, sets the tone for part of Rust’s entire exterior makeup, the person he projects to the world while simultaneously he is always watching, always taking notes even if they’re in his head.
The main events which set the stage happen in 1995. A young woman is found in Louisiana, naked, dead, tied to a big tree and wearing a strange set of antlers on her head. On her back is a thick black tattoo of a spiral-like formation. Hart and Cohle are the ones tasked with investigating her death, as State Police. No identification is found on the girl, but it’s obvious to Cohle there’s some significance in the crime, a sort of grandeur so to speak. Right off the bat we understand how different Hart and Cohle are as partners and people. Hart is a very grounded individual, in terms of what he believes and how he sees the world. Cohle is completely the opposite, as if his mind is an open book, an open encyclopedia is more like it. But he understands this type of crime is not just a one-off deal, it isn’t a random event; this killer has done it before, he will do it again. The antlers and the imagery of it all makes this young woman’s death something important – the one who murdered her is twisted, and he sees some kind of fantasy in the things he’s done: “This goes way back with him,” Rust tells Marty. “The kind of thing doesn‘t happen in a vacuum.”
I love seeing the ’95 scenes editing with Hart talking over things. We do get a sense of him being a bit of a big mouth at times. However, on the other hand Hart also shows that he did feel a sense of respect, and still does, for Cohle and his methods. Further than that, we get a sneak peek into the strange life of Cohle: “Believe me,” says Hart, “past a certain age a man without a family can be a bad thing.”
Above the strange murder case, the relationship between Rust and Marty is front and center, obviously. More than that, their relationship with one another begins to speak to their respective lives. We start to understand this easily with the situation involving Cohle getting invited over to Hart’s place for dinner. He shows up drunk; like fucking hammered. We’ll come back to that, though. Part of why I dig the writing of the first episode because we flash back and forth, yet it isn’t distracting. The flow makes things interesting and it’s part of why I was immediately hooked on the first view of this show when first it was on HBO.
First of many car trips with Rust and Marty. “I contemplate the moment in the garden,” Rust muses, “the idea of allowing my own crucifixion.” The philosophical talk begins. There are a few dense lines out of Cohle right away here, part Nietzschean and part Ligotti, Pizzolatto gives us plenty to chew on. As well as an excellent relief on Marty’s part who interjects now and then, things like: “Huh. That sounds god fucking awful, Rust.” Even though a lot of people seemed turned off by the philosophies of Cohle, I think it adds a great counterbalance to the usual film noir detective type stuff a show like this might otherwise go for. Hate it or love it, there’s no in between, but you have to admit this first season, even the first episode is unlike much of anything else that’s ever been on television. It both uses familiar pulpy tropes and also pokes at them, in a Pizzolatto-type way.
Rust: “People out here, it‘s like they don’t even know the outside world exists. Might as well be living on the fucking Moon.”
Marty: “There‘s all kinds of ghettos in the world”
Rust: “It‘s all one ghetto, man. One giant gutter in outer space.”
Words like Satanism are being thrown around at the precinct, where Rust and Marty try to come together as partners and work towards finding their killer. Hart stays behind to do paperwork, while Cohle narrates us through the ’95 events. He drinks cough syrup and chain smokes, heading to a bar somewhere along the side of the highway. There, he meets with a couple women, one clearly a prostitute. Cohle buys them drinks and asks for information concerning the girl he found murdered. Not only that, he ends up scoring himself some pills; there’s more to Rustin Cohle than we have yet to see.
At the Hart residence, Marty checks on his girls who are sleeping soundly, and has himself a drink. His wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan) finds him in the morning, slumped in a chair. He quickly runs off to shower and head to work all over again. At the office, he seems more receptive to the receptionist than he does his own wife.
Cohle and Marty end up with information on the dead girl, Dora Lange. Her husband Charlie (Brad Carter) is in prison. The medical examiner gives them the cause of death, et cetera, and the plot only thickens from there. Marty thinks the crime was personal. Rust believes it’s “iconic” and not personal in many ways. More philosophical talk from Rust starts to piss Marty off, which is actually a little funny: “I don‘t sleep,” Cohle says, “I just dream.” Afterwards, on a street corner Rust sees a little girl who almost looks like a ghost; his daughter, maybe?
The investigation is off to a murky start, as Rust and Marty go from one place to another getting bits and pieces of information. Even a bit about a girl being chased through the woods by a supposed “green–eared spaghetti monster“.
In 2012, Cohle plays a good move. He is a functioning alcoholic, chain smoker, so he needs a few beers especially on his off days, such as today apparently. He blows a bill at the detectives and one of them heads out for a six-pack. We’re slowly seeing more of Cohle, from past to present. Part of why I love this first episode is because there’s such a great and quick look at the evolution of these two men, and still, not all the blanks are filled in.
The two detectives, in ’95, head over to see Charlie Lange in prison. He talks about Dora as a wild party animal into “weed, meth, name it“. They don’t get too much in the way of solid information, but the picture painted of Dora shows her as a young, vulnerable girl who was on drugs, not in her right state of mind. Charlie lets slip a weird bit, telling the detectives Dora said “she met a king“.
Finally, though, we get back to Cohle drunk off his ass outside Marty’s place. We’re getting under the skin of Rustin more and more with each step, which is interesting. They’re both of interest, but Rust seems so incredibly damaged underneath his whole pessimistic facade. Out talking to the prostitute, turns out Rust got too drunk. Marty tries pumping him full of coffee, planning to have someone call from the station and get them out of it. Only when the call comes it seems Rust is more comfortable at the dinner table with Maggie and the kids than he initially expected. We’ll see where that situation is headed down the road. Furthermore, Rust reveals he was married, but they split after their little girl died. Very brief, so quick, and it speaks volumes about Cohle already.
Billy Lee Tuttle: “I don‘t mean to tell men of your positions, but there is a war happening behind things.”
We get an inkling something “went bad” between Cohle and Hart around 2002. They haven’t seen one another in a decade, since whatever happened. And still, Hart sticks up for Cohle’s reputation as a solid hand at detective work: “I don‘t hold grudges,” he tells Dts. Gilbough and Papania. Eventually, Hart comes to understand something else is happening. The detectives are looking for something else. But what is it they’re sniffing out?
In ’95, Cohle has a run-in with another officer of the law, Steve Geraci (Michael J. Harney). Otherwise, there’s involvement in their case from Billy Lee Tuttle (Jay O. Sanders), brother to the governor of the state. He seems very involved, and also too interested. Will he come to have more significance as time goes by? Or simply a representation of attempted cover-ups and the undue involvement of others outside of the police force in police matters? Let’s watch this unfold.
Tracking down people connected to a missing girl who disappeared years before, Marie Fontenot, Hart and Cohle end up at a now disabled ballplayer’s home. He is Marie’s uncle, Danny (Christopher Berry). Mostly, this just gives the detectives more to circle around. Only Rust heads out around the junk in the backyard of the house, he climbs into a sort of rundown greenhouse or shed, where he and Marty find a suspicious wooden ornament much like the things found with the dead Lange girl; a triangle-like twig figure. A sign the killer has returned to lay claim to another victim, in the silence leaving tokens?
In 2012, the detectives interrogating Cohle, or talking to him they say, bring him pictures of a new crime. It is eerily similar to Lange. Yet supposedly in ’95, Cohle and Hart found their man. For his part, Cohle alludes in a sly manner to the fact maybe they didn’t find the killer at all back then. Excellent ending, as Cohle tells them to start “asking the right fucking questions“.
Stay tuned for a review of the next episode, “Seeing Things”. Is Rust a dark hand in all this, or is he merely on the fringe? Does he know more than he lets on?