“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.” – Rust Cohle
The first season of True Detective was a supernatural crime drama anthology, consisting of 8 episodes aired on HBO between January 12, 2014 and March 9, 2014, starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. It was written by Nic Pizzolatto, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, and co-produced by both Harrelson and McConaughey.
The story revolves around two detectives, Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Harrelson), who are investigating a series of bizarre, ritualistic murders in rural Louisiana. Rust Cohle believes there is more going on than meets the eye, that there may be some conspiracy to cover up a serial murderer, and perhaps something more sinister. Marty Hart plays the straight man and skeptic, doubtful of Cohle’s sudden leaps of intuitions and suspicious nature, which seems to border on paranoia.
The series begin with the death of Dora Lange, whose body is discovered in a sugar cane field, tied to a tree, blindfolded, with a crown and deer antlers on her head. Strange symbols are carved into her body. Rust Cohle is convinced it was the work of a serial murderer, (“This has scope. And meaning.”), and begins to investigate other missing person’s cases and unsolved mysteries. As the drama unfolds, going on for years, the two detectives lives and psyches begin to deteriorate. Marty Hart drinks too much, and is cheating on his wife, while Rust Cohle sits in his unfurnished apartment, staring at photographs of dead girls and smoking cigarettes.
True Detective is equal parts gritty detective drama, philosophical treatise, folk and cosmic horror. It is as if Twin Peaks had been written by Cormac McCarthy, replacing the wacky eccentricity of that logging town with true grit and unrelenting badassery. As usual for HBO, they have raised the stakes for television, showing what is possible with the format, and striking a victory for the horror genre in the process.
While the bulk of the series narrative is rooted in hard-boiled Detective drama, the folk and cosmic horror of True Detective draws upon a pre-existing mythology, to give it a sense of cohesion and validity, The King In Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. The King In Yellow, and dread Carcosa, is a cult Horror myth system that is tangential, and was later incorporated into, H. P. Lovecraft‘s Cthulhu Mythos. The series has spurred an interest in Chambers’ book, which has been much loved by underground horror fanatics, but has gone bestseller on Amazon, due to the popularity of the series.
True Detective does what Horror does best, revealing the shadow of a civilization – what we are all thinking about, what we are afraid of. It shows the limits of society, where logic and reason fail, and the darkness takes hold.
In an interview with motherjones.com, T Bone Burnett, the creator of True Detective’s soundtrack, put it like this:
“This show does not avert its gaze,” Burnett says. “It takes a good, hard look at who we are right now, in a very profound way…I live in Los Angeles, and I recently took a drive through the middle of the country, and I was stunned by what I saw. In places that had once had purpose, all that’s left is a pawnshop, next to a gun shop, next door to a motel, next door to a gas station, with a Walmart right outside of town. There are people working three jobs just to get by and having to take methamphetamines to do it. That’s the middle of the country, and that’s a plague that’s spreading outwards. We’re not seeing it, and these are things that you see in the show. It’s making a very strong statement, but I’m not going to say what it is. It’s a story that’s going to unfold soon enough.”
It does not avert its gaze, but rather takes a cold, hard look at the shadow of America: meth labs on the outskirts of town, corrupt politicians, Voodoo and Satanism. It is the Return Of The Repressed, a return of Folk Horror, highlighting both a fascination and a superstitious terror of the rural, the natural, things and people that are outside of society. That’s part of why Horror exists, as a parable and also a warning for those that would wander outsight the light and safety of society, outside the cold hard rationality of grids and streetlights.
The most impressive thing to me about True Detective is how Nic Pizzolatto incorporated some of the most extreme and unpalatable strains of 20th century horror and philosophy, and packaged it for the masses, most notably the anti-human nihilism of the Grimscribe, Thomas Ligotti, and the rural cosmic horror of Laird Barron (whom I reviewed recently, and of whom Pizzolatto has expressed an admiration). This inky black existentialism, most often delivered through Cohle’s dreamy soliloquies (he describes himself as a pessimist), about the nature of the “self” and the “human condition” are hard to stomach for even doctors of philosophies, so the fact that these futilistic sonatas are making their way onto Prime Time is telling indeed, as to what our culture is thinking and fretting about.
The main reason True Detective succeeds is in the interplay between McConaughey and Harrelson, (both of whom deliver heavyweight performances). It is the definition of “hard-boiled”, angry, edgy men; hard-drinking, chain-smoking, sarcastic and hilarious. It is an interesting insight into the world of men, and how we act when no one is looking, showing some of the nobility and heroism, and a lot of the weakness and downfalls of such cowboys. The dialogue was some of the most authentic and believable I’ve heard in ages, which means the spell is never broken. You are sucked into this rural Louisiana world, forced to question yourself, your beliefs, and the world around you.
Although this show is definitely Horror (in its at least intimations of the supernatural, as well as all the killing), its not particularly graphic, meaning those who are a bit squeamish about gore could still get into this, and investigate some of the philosophies of the genre, without all the guts. But just because it is not graphic does not mean it is not unsettling – watching the characters descent into madness, as their lives fall around their ears, is a harrowing experience, and you begin to feel a bit loony yourself. It is more unsettling, than terrifying, however.
My other favorite part about True Detectives was the landscape itself – the bayous and bridges of Southern Louisiana are always beautiful, and are caputred with mouthwatering cinematography – lots of aerial shots and widescreen panoramas. Cane fields, abandoned schools, redneck cult houses like something from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, captured like an oil painting. True Detective is a true work of art, a 1 hour movie every week for 8 weeks. That is my favorite thing about the long form of the television format, is how it is able to create this immersive world to get lost in. In that way, TV has even more impact than movies, getting seen by more people, playing a larger part of their lives. It becomes a PART of you.
I was happy to let True Detective wash over me, although its inky black heart can be a bit heavy, and a bit much to take in. I’ve been actively investigating horror and its philosophies for more than a decade, so none of the thoughts are particularly new to me, but they are packaged supremely well.
I discovered True Detective a bit late in the game, a couple of days before the end of the season, and I decided to saturate myself and watch the whole series in one go, so as to report my findings to you, gentle readers.
And what did I find?
Possibly my new favorite TV show, ever.
The acting and writing are absolutely classic, truly timeless. There is a moment, in the 6th episode, where it becomes nearly mired down in machismo, in gravel-throated murmuring, as Cohle and Hart take turns insulting each other in the Batman voice. I laughed a little bit, which is probably not the effect they were going for. But then again, Men, when left to their own devices, with nothing to check themselves, can become a bit ridiculous and overdramatic.
I thought the pacing of the series was exceptional. Limiting it to 8 episodes kept it taut and focused, with plenty of action (see the drug house shootout in episode 5, Who Goes There, as a prime example). It clips along at a good pace, but a solemn and existential air is injected via the existential murmurings of Rust Cohle, who rambles on like Hamlet and is like a gaunt, haunted version of Agent Cooper.
The show also has an exceptional soundtrack and score from T Bone Burnett, the man responsible for the O Brother Where Art Thou? and The Hunger Games soundtrack. There’s a lot of tough as nails gothic country, from the likes of The Handsome Family, whose Far From Any Road is the series theme song, to sludge metal staples like Sleep and The Melvins, along with proto-industrial soundscapes courtesy of T Bone Burnett (that i hope get released someday).
Basically, dig beneath the surface of True Detective, and you will find a guidebook and a road map to some of the most interesting dark art of the 20th century. Robert W. Chambers… The King In Yellow… Laird Barron… Thomas Ligotti… Raymond Chandler… Flannery O’ Connor. It’s a brilliant series that you can lose yourself in for weeks; months and years, when you start to trace the threads.
Without giving away any spoilers, the finale may frustrate some of the more literal-minded out there, sort of like the ending to Lost. I would’ve liked to have seen things wrapped up a bit more tightly, i would’ve like to have SEEN a bit more, instead of having it teased and hinted at, but a lot of times the best horror suggests and leaves it to the audience’s imagination. In that way, True Detective will stay with you, leaving you wondering, inviting multiple watches. I can’t wait to watch the series again, and look for clues.
HBO’s online HBO GO service was actually shut down, due to heavy traffic, on the night of True Detective’s finale, which just goes to show that people are watching, and listening. People are paying attention. During times of crisis and uncertainty, and we are living in uncertain times, there is always a spike in popularity of the Horror genre. It is our shadow, our secret face that we only show in the dark.
Like The King In Yellow says, “Take Off Your Mask”.
To further investigate the roots of True Detective, check out this excellent reading list, from Buzzfeed.com.
To check out some of the music from True Detective’s soundtrack, here’s a Spotify playlist, to further immerse yourselves in the Southern Gothic psychosphere.