True Detective: The Abyss Also Gazes

True Detective establishes from its outset that it has no desire to exist as a conventional police procedural. Make no mistake – this HBO anthology series is nothing less than a real and true meditation on sin. It quickly becomes clear that we are meant to examine occasions of sin in all their forms, at varying levels of severity. The central act of evil that serves as the show’s skeleton – namely, the murder and ritualistic mutilation of a woman named Dora Kelly Lange and the efforts of two Louisiana State Police detectives to solve it – is just the beginning. Nic Pizzolato, the crime novelist who created True Detective and wrote all eight episodes, is as fascinated by the casual wrongs and weak behaviors we perpetrate every day as much (if not more so) as he is by Grand Guignol violence.

The show also sets itself up to poke holes in the facile notions of alpha masculinity that run rampant through American society, particularly in police work. Interestingly, the criticisms that have so far emerged about it seem to think it’s directly or indirectly upholding those tropes and celebrating the burden of the male antihero. Such beliefs aren’t baseless, especially given the overwhelming pervasiveness of antihero shows on TV and serial killer narratives in all media.

But I disagree with them, because beyond the surface mechanics of True Detective‘s story, it quickly reveals itself to have greater ambitions for its two central characters. Rustin Cohle – played by the great, ascendant Matthew McConaughey – is not simply a cynical, brilliant antihero cop in the mold of Jimmy McNulty from The Wire or NYPD Blue‘s Andy Sipowicz. Rather, he has moved far past cynicism and entered the terrain of deep, genuine despair. He is buoyed only by his intellect, natural detective instincts and a fundamental if subtle desire to do something right, even if he’s often doubtful whether “rightness” can be clearly defined in his worldview. Cohle’s partner Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) is a typical alpha male, calling attention to his “big-ass dick,” dismissing Cohle’s nihilistic rants as overeducated bullshit and cheating on his wife to escape job stress. His hypermasculinity is presented as a bad joke, one he’s unaware of and that is a thorn in the side of his competence as murder police. By contrast, for all his despair, Cohle is a hero, not an anti-anything, but one who’s lost confidence in his ability to be essentially good. We feel a great empathy for him, and want to see him break out of his willing mental imprisonment. What makes him ultimately heartbreaking is that we know such emotional self-rescue is all but impossible.

We know this due to the show’s other central story conceit. True Detective diverges between 1995, when Cohle and Hart are working the Lange slaying, and 2012, when they’re being interviewed by LSP detectives about the possibility of their case still being open. Hart has changed little – slightly fatter and way balder, but essentially the same guy from ’95, still absurdly macho. Cohle ain’t so lucky. His hair is gray, long and stringy, his clothes and body look like shit and he’s fallen to the type of day-drinking alcoholism from which there is little to no hope of recovery. It seems like his journey from cynicism to despair has turned another corner, into the fringes of insanity. (Another criticism of Detective is that Hart and Cohle don’t look like they’ve changed enough in the 17-year gap. I think this is missing the point in Hart’s case, because he’s likely never going to fundamentally change, as he seems unaware that his alpha attitude was anachronistic then and is more so now. With Cohle, aside from the physical differences, his 2012 persona features a sense of pitch-black humor that his 1995 despair wouldn’t have permitted, but is now sadly appropriate to his probable mental instability.)

So what happened? While we’re obviously going to find out, it’s to the show’s credit that the plot details are secondary to character, atmosphere and theme. It’s also why I haven’t even delved into the story itself yet, and why I don’t plan to write weekly recaps. The mystery is a Trojan horse through which to deliver a deeply unsettling examination of how unbridled masculinity inevitably begets wrongdoing, ranging from casual transgressions that, when added up, engender damage to everyone in their vicinity (Hart’s infidelity and ignorance of his family life) to the grand-scale narcissism inherent in the depraved murder of Dora Lange.

The show presents an interest in religion and faith, and how warped they can become. Clarke Peters and Shea Whigham play preachers, the former unshowy and genuine, the latter a proselytizing fundamentalist. Jay O. Sanders shows up as a minister with an alarming level of influence on Louisiana’s governor, who speaks in banalities, exhorts the LSP to quickly solve the case and creeps Cohle the fuck out. Cohle, meanwhile, is an avowed agnostic who nonetheless keeps a crucifix above his bed and applies a talismanic significance to it, while Hart calls himself a Christian but pays his proclaimed religion nothing more than lip service. These portrayals of belief are contrasted with the occult, vaguely Satanic characteristics of Lange’s murder – the crown of antler horns, her hands bound in a prayer position, the disturbing twig sculptures hung around her body that resemble nothing so much as obscene dreamcatchers designed by some demon.

McConaughey’s portrayal of Rust Cohle is his best work so far as an actor. Even within the context of his current career renaissance, McConaughey’s core persona is readily apparent (if subversively so) in all his excellent comeback roles, from Killer Joe to Magic Mike and Dallas Buyers Club. In True Detective, he creates something else entirely. He is visibly somber and haunted, with notes of barely-suppressed anger and a relentless intelligence. He alternates between wordless rumination and extensive rants about the fundamentally diseased nature of mankind. (The latter drives everybody nuts.) In a lesser actor’s hands, these Pizzolato monologues would be passable at best, not because they’re bad but because they’d arguably work better on paper, which makes sense given Pizzolato’s novelist background. As voiced by McConaughey’s laconic twang (which he strips of its usual charm), these long dialogue passages become cries to a God who’s either absent or deliberately feigning deafness, but whose response Cohle angrily still seeks.

The remaining cast is no slouch. Harrelson acquits himself well in the uncommon (for him) role of straight man, an intriguing counter to Cohle. The aforementioned Peters, Whigham and Sanders take to their religious characters like the excellent chameleonic actors they are. Lange’s imprisoned husband makes a brief but lasting impression, as do the relatives of a missing girl who may be connected to Lange’s slaying. Michelle Monaghan, while underused, brings her A game as Hart’s cuckolded wife. Michael Potts does the same as the lead detective interviewing Hart and Cohle in 2012, casually uncovering the inconsistencies in their stories and leaving you unsure as to what, if anything, of what we’ve seen is 100 percent true.

As a piece of filmmaking, True Detective is flawless. Series director Cary Joji Fukunaga, uses an expansive visual style that is oneiric, Southern Gothic and realistic all at once. Benefiting greatly from the seamless, roving widescreen cinematography of Adam Arkapaw (who shot Top of the Lake, my #10 TV show of 2013, with similar excellence), Fukunaga has crafted the most visually stunning show currently airing, and in the past decade, only Breaking Bad and Hannibal have exhibited equal or greater quality in that department.

It must be said that True Detective is not perfect. In the early going, it short-shrifts its woman characters, especially Monaghan, who’s good enough an actor to deserve more than playing an archetypical police wife. And seeing as how she’s one of only a few women on screen so far, that makes this issue much more glaring. Also, if you wanted to, you could poke holes in the writing of Cohle’s hope-devoid monologues and dismiss them as dime-store nihilism. They kind of are. But I ultimately buy them – because of McConaughey’s performance and the feeling I have that Cohle is aware of how ridiculous he sometimes sounds and plays off it, using it as a defense mechanism. Those issues aside, I would only criticize further by saying that the show’s overwhelming darkness, at times, comes off as a myopic version of human nature. I’m grasping at straws here trying to find things I can question – that’s how impressed I am with it.

The relatively short nature of the project means that it likely won’t have the time to drop off in quality. *crosses fingers* If all goes well, this will without a doubt be HBO’s newest dramatic institution, a flagship show capable of standing alongside Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire.

Most important, though, is that none of the horrors in this show are played in a glib way. You feel the weight of Dora Lange’s death because the main characters do so evidently, and Pizzolato does not write a story that views her as the cheap consequence of faux-existential torture porn. (In other words, this shit isn’t The Following.) At the same time, the heaviness of True Detective does not come off as pretentious, which it easily could have.

Rustin Cohle says, “The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.” The same logic can easily be assigned to True Detective‘s role in the TV landscape. The airwaves are indeed clogged with “bad,” damaged, difficult and often violent men, and with most of the great dramas that focused on them gone, the ones we’re left with that cover such territory can come off as cheap by comparison. This has also led many, with good reason, to become sick and tired of male antihero shit, and if True Detective hadn’t made it clear that we are in no way intended to revere anything about these men, I might have felt quite differently about this show.

Fortunately for me and for anyone else with such concerns, the quality of the storytelling and filmmaking, along with the thematic depth and real, unshakeable darkness in this show – evident in the words, actions and faces of these particular bad men – makes it worthwhile for us to spend time with them on Sunday nights. Others need not apply.

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