Monday, March 26, 2018

"True Detective," Season 1: review

[NB: spoilers ahead.]

"True Detective" is the brainchild of series creator and screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto. All eight episodes of Season 1, which debuted in January of 2014, are directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga. The series stars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as detectives Martin Hart and Rustin Cohle, respectively. In a moment evoking any number of serial-killer movies and TV dramas, Marty and Rust are given the case of Dora Lange, a young prostitute found murdered and left exposed to the elements in a ritualistic manner back in 1995: she's found bound and naked, riddled with stab wounds indicating torture, crowned with antlers, and defiled with some sort of unholy graffiti, including a spiral that will, along with the antlers and a weird, evil pyramid made of twigs, be a recurrent trope throughout the series.

Season 1 time-jumps between 1995, 2002, and 2012 as the story covers the supposed "solving" of the case, followed by the case's reopening when the killings are shown to have continued all along the Louisiana coast. The series spends time on the rocky relationship between Rust and Marty, as well as on their personal lives away from each other. Marty is married to Maggie (Michelle Monaghan) and has two daughters; Rust was once married, but divorced after the death of his two-year-old daughter. Rust is the intellectual one with a special insight into the mind of a serial killer; Marty prefers to go on instinct and isn't the bookish type. He sees Rust Cohle as an overthinking, self-torturing, cynical soul, but he respects Cohle's methods and intuitions. Marty's own sense of ethics is fairly strangely wired; he's got a soft spot for kids and shows occasional compassion to certain criminals, but he's also a serial adulterer who doesn't realize he's running his family into the ground.

The depositions that Rust and Marty give in 2012, with lengthy flashbacks to 1995, are largely what drive the plot, along with the deepening mystery of who the real killer is and what his connection with local Louisiana religion and politics might be (as it turns out, it's all about family). Sometimes, the narratives we hear in the detectives' separate depositions match the content of the flashbacks; sometimes, it's obvious the depositions are lies that don't match the flashbacks at all. While all the time-jumping might seem nonlinear at first, the story is actually very easy to follow: the passage of time is often made clear by facial hair, head hair, clothing styles, and types of cell phones in use at the time.

Season 1 benefited, I think, from having a single director direct all eight episodes. This allowed for a consistency of style and story that gave the plot a smooth arc. The plot was also extremely well constructed, with converging lines of evidence that eventually led to a horrific conclusion. In terms of tone, the series was brooding and philosophical—a touch of "Silence of the Lambs" and "Se7en" and the slow, drawly, meditative style of Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line," mainly thanks to Matthew McConaughey's spookily cosmic discourses while he's giving his deposition. There was one moment, during those discourses, when McConaughey's Rust talks about time and space as seen from a fourth-dimensional perspective—the perspective of eternity—that threw me out of the series and back into "Interstellar," which featured McConaughey on a journey into the fifth-dimensional recesses of an engineered black hole.

But the best thing about the story's structure was how it subverted the usual expectation that the protagonists might make it out of the story alive. You see, the series's "present" is 2012, and the depositions that take place in 2012 actually end before the season itself draws to a close, leaving us an extra episode or two in which to take the story to its real conclusion. Normally, when stories are told in flashback, we assume the tellers of the story have survived the adventure. When Rust and Marty's depositions are finished, we're only at episodes 6 or 7. Rust tracks Marty down, near the end, telling him there's still unfinished business with the old 1995 Dora Lange case, and the two go back in pursuit of the real killer. This story structure—giving us an epilogue after the main story has been told—adds a delicious and unexpected layer of suspense to the proceedings. Bravo for good writing.

I had seen scuttlebutt, early on, that Season 1 of "True Detective" contained "supernatural" elements in it, and that's worth discussing, but just to warn you, Dear Reader, it's going to be a spoilery discussion. A few episodes into Season 1, we find out that Rust Cohle worked undercover narcotics for four years, which is apparently far longer than most UC cops work: most UCs rotate out after eleven months. During that time, Cohle did plenty of drugs, and they began messing with his head, leaving him prone to "visions." In the season finale, Cohle pursues the killer, known throughout the story as "the Yellow King"—which is a reference to The King in Yellow, a collection of 1895-era stories by Robert Chambers—down into a fortress-like structure that the killer calls "Carcosa," a reference to an image from "Cassilda's Song" in The King in Yellow. ("Carcosa" may itself be a derivative of the name of the old French fortress city of Carcassonne.) The killer seems to be the leader of a cult that tortures and kills children and teens, many of whose bodies end up mummified inside the confines of Carcosa, which is itself something of an evil temple. When Rust, pursuing the killer, enters the temple's sanctum, he looks up and sees what I can only describe as a wormhole composed of a cloud of swirling stars. The vision lasts only a moment before the killer rushes out of the dark to attack Rust, and we viewers are left to wonder whether what we saw was a frightening glimpse of some other reality peeking into our world, or a mere artifact of Rust's drug-addled brain. I tend toward the latter view: the cosmic whorl doesn't play any other role in the plot: by the time the killer attacks Rust (and soon after, Marty), the case has effectively been solved. The weird vision adds almost nothing to the story... except one thing: the cloudy spiral is a reflection of the spiral symbol seen on many of the victims' backs. So we're back to wondering whether Rust's vision was merely a head-trip or an objective hierophany.

I'm not sure why, but this supernatural moment disappointed me: I guess I had been expecting something freakier, like a manifestation of Cernunnos, the antlered Celtic god of life and nature to whom the series keeps coyly referring—but always in the context of the evil and the infernal (which is, as far as I can tell, a misinterpretation of who Cernunnos was; he might have been spun as satanic by the Christian Church as a way of turning the locals away from paganism). The survivors of the Yellow King seemed freaked out by his appearance; one survivor remembered being chased through the woods by a "green-eared spaghetti monster"; many other would-be victims recalled seeing a tall man with distinctive scarring that ran all along the bottom of his face. Drawings found at several important sites showed shadowy depictions of a Cernunnos-like being: a human body with antlers. All of this led me to believe that, if we were in for a supernatural manifestation, it would be along the lines of some sort of antlered, bloodthirsty being not of this world. Instead, we got a wormhole.

Also disappointing was how the series hinted at Louisiana's long history with Vodoun and Santeria without ever really delving into that part of the state's culture. (This story was many things, but a tourism advert for a not-at-all-creepy coastal Louisiana it wasn't.) What was shown was the weird interaction between the Yellow King cult and the local churches, with the Christians sometimes being weirdly syncretic between Protestantism and Catholicism (we see a tent-revival preacher make the sign of the Cross at one point). Moments like this offered us a tantalizing glimpse into something potentially deep and dark, and it might have been nice to explore that for a while, given how meandering the season's plot already was. Alas, all we ever got was a taste, and while this didn't detract from my overall enjoyment of the series, it was still a bit disappointing.

The series's other major flaw was the self-consciously writerly dialogue, which did, unfortunately, remind me in some instances of the stilted dialogue from the TV series "Hannibal." That said, "True Detective" was far, far better written than that other show, and even with the pretentious-sounding way that some of the characters (especially Cohle) spoke, the story generally felt unforced and emotionally authentic. I should also note that the dialogue contained some absolutely hilarious, and absolutely profound, quips and one-liners, many of which ought to be slapped onto bumper stickers and sold for a healthy profit. The show contained a good measure of wit.

"True Detective," Season 1, is stocked with great actors giving great performances. Michelle Monaghan does a fine job as a put-upon wife and mother who reaches her breaking point; Harrelson and McConaughey play extremely well off each other, taking the odd-couple-cop cliché and breathing fresh life into the partnership. I actually appreciated how the story took time to step away from the murder case to focus on all these relationships; the characterization is, in my opinion, what makes the season work as well as it does. Fukunaga's direction is calm and assured, giving us a nonlinear-yet-linear narrative to follow. All in all, "True Detective" makes for a great binge-watching session, and I'm kind of sorry it's all over. Luckily, I now own Season 1, so I can watch it again at my leisure.

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