True Detective Season 1
directed by cary joji fukunaga, written by nic pizzolatto, starring matthew mcconaughey, woody harrelson
4 yellow ties out of 5 black stars
Suppose you’re on your way to work in the morning, and just outside your building you run across a man holding a cardboard sign. He’s grizzled and rheumy-eyed, gripping the tattered sign with ratty hands. On it, in strong, handwritten capitals, it says ‘everything matters.’ As you pass he makes too much eye contact and flips it over. In the same clear letters, ‘nothing matters.’ Oh man, you think, hurrying past the street socrates, today was going so good. Now I’m going to spend the whole morning stuck in the throes of this existential crisis instead of working. Those spreadsheets aren’t going to spread themselves, and all I can do is wonder if I should’ve gotten out of bed because what does it matter, or wait, maybe not getting out of bed would bring the whole universe to a screeching halt…
Each possibility is terrifying in its own right. Maybe every single thing---from which socks you wear to which spouse you marry to which god you worship---ultimately resonates out beyond this mortal coil. Every possible choice you could make leads to a set of infinitely branching futures, each one just as meaningful as every other one. Who could live with the responsibility? Or maybe it’s all bunk and no one’s responsible for nuttin’ because there’s no such thing as inherent value anyway. Either way, it’s hard to come out from under the covers.
But even worse to contemplate is the chance that there’s meaning all around us, just hidden. Hints to a secret, mystical reality wait for discovery while we fumble through the world, wondering ‘is this it? Is this right?’ True detective leverages the tension among these philosophical positions brilliantly to create unparalleled eeriness.
The show’s first season follows louisiana detectives rust cohle and marty hart as they try to solve a bizarre case that begins with a creepy, arranged murder and seems to include devil-worship, missing persons, and a conspiracy to hide a multi-generational child molestation cult. The case takes place throughout the coast, dipping in and out of the bayou as the detectives slowly uncover evidence, never quite sure where the next haunting clue will show up, nor exactly what kind of tarpit they’re sinking into.
‘Yeah, most of the time I was convinced that I’d lost it. But there were times when I thought I was mainlining the secret truth of the universe.’
Reality is what we perceive it to be, or so a friend of mine who’s fond of hallucinogens is wont to say. There but for a few extra dopamine receptors go I. True detective pounds this unsettling truth home with both sledgehammer and delicate jeweler’s pick. Rust’s periodic hallucinations leave him more disposed to the idea of hidden realities, but even marty eventually feels the cracking of the good ol’ boy ice at his feet as their ominous case drags on. As they drop further into the seedy pit where women and children are sacrificed, the sense of otherworldliness becomes oppressive. Even us, the viewers, start to feel the shadows pressing in. Ears pricked, we think we can discern the yellow king, a minotaur of a man who rules in the land of carcosa. In myth, more than human; in action less. And clever, so clever. A king who combines all the qualities of a monster under the bed, devious madman, and bestial hillfolk. Clearly, certain clues lead to the king’s feet, but we never quite manage to lay our hands on a map. Antlers strapped to a woman’s corpse, a peculiar spiral symbol carved into her shoulder, the scene adorned with a mobile of eldritch dreamcatcher cages, yellow ties hanging below smiling faces, black stars tattooed on a woman’s neck...all intentional, all baffling. In what reality do these signs make sense? We tiptoe along with rust and marty, hackles fearfully raised.
And the veil is thin. Rust’s allegiance to this world is especially shaky. His moral compass wanders, and his unapologetic nihilism gives us the impression he could slip away into carcosa at the slightest nudge. Marty is more firmly rooted, but correspondingly more blind to the true nature of the case. It’s only later, when he accepts the existence of a sinister greeneared spaghetti monster [it’s a mark of well show wields its power that the word ‘sinister’ is appropriate here] that he makes significant contributions. The journey up to that point, however, is fraught. Marty’s selfdenial reinforces our wish to be done walking the timorous boundary between worlds and catch a flesh and blood killer already; Rust’s selfindulgence threatens our safety in the here and now as he discovers each disturbing clue and pulls us deeper.
The show also has a calculated philosophical underpinning. Nic pizzolatto, the writer, has said he used certain books to inform the story and rust’s character. One of them, in the dust of this planet by eugene hacker, deals with what hacker calls ‘the horror of philosophy’ and his attempts to grapple with our ‘unthinkable world.’ Rust says at one point that he considers consciousness to be an evolutionary mistake because it dooms us to be the only animal who thinks it’s here for a reason. It’s a sentiment straight from thacker, whose pessimistic philosophy is pretty well summed up in his statement, ‘ironically, the stupidity of our species may be its only legacy.’ The truth may in fact be ‘the world-as-itself,’ as thacker calls it, a place untouched by human perception or judgement. It’s our own unique horror that we can never enter this place, never actually find truth. Divine or evolutionary design conspire to keep us separate from reality.
True detective takes this a step further. What if both marty and rust are wrong and the truth is actually carcosa? What if the killer’s the only one with access to divinity? The mix of tangible and existential horror makes the show uniquely fascinating and frightening.
True detective is a masterclass in scary sound and light. Long, widelensed shots of the louisiana coast add to our sensual unease. Coupled with faint, tribal backing music, we know we’re traveling where we’re not welcome. Labyrinths of bayou and diaphanous spanish moss clutter up the land, transforming into an earthy, primal realm where changelings lurk, ready to steal and consume newborns. We’re off the edge of the map. Riding in the squad car with rust and marty, watching trailer parks and revival tents roll by, there’s a faint taste of bile in the back of the throat. The people we encounter are unmistakably other, and hostile to our purpose. No amount of flexing of your tolerism muscles can prevent the creeps from rolling up your back. It’s the inborn fear all good christians get when faced with serious, ancient, bloody paganism. Pan himself could be around the next tree, reeking and parched, ready to dance and feast and pillage and unleash madness on every sister and daughter. There be monsters here, and they’re old. And hungry. And unimpressed by your rationality.