‘True Detective’ Season 1 Episode 1 Recap: “The Long, Bright Dark”

By January 14, 2014
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Matthew McConaughey has been on quite the hot streak recently. The change in trajectory his career has taken over the past few years is a bit baffling, to say the least. I attended a screening and Q&A for Dallas Buyers Club a few nights ago and the first question of the night asked him about this shift. He talked about how a few years back, the scripts coming to him weren’t posing a challenge. His wife had just given birth and he decided to hibernate for a bit and start turning down roles to give him more time to take care of himself and his family. A few years went by and suddenly (I’m paraphrasing here) he stated he became a good decision for the likes of both William Friedkin and Steven Soderbergh.

I suppose that’s putting it mildly. Since those good decisions, McConaughey has delivered outstanding performances in not only Killer Joe and Magic Mike, but also Mud and Dallas Buyers Club. The latter just won him a Golden Globe this past Sunday, his first. His most recent outing has him paired alongside another great actor – Woody Harrelson – in the highly anticipated new HBO series “True Detective.”

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Season 1 of “True Detective” follows the story of two Louisiana detectives, Martin Hart (Harrelson) and Rustin “Rust” Cohle (McConaughey), as they investigate a gruesome serial killer’s homicide of a woman in the midst of a sugar cane field sometime in 1995. The narrative jumps back and forth from that year to 2012, where both Hart and Cohle are being questioned separately due to some of their case files being destroyed during 2005’s Hurricane Rita.

Hart’s new partner back in 1995, nicknamed “Rust” or “The Tax Man” due to his huge ledger full of case notes, is an odd sort. Haunted by his failed marriage and dead daughter, he carries those ghosts with him as his own personal demons to the murder scene where the body of prostitute Dora Lange was discovered tied up, cut up, raped, and wearing a crown of deer antlers. Reminiscent of Will Graham’s personal struggle and attachment to the murders he investigates in NBC’s “Hannibal,” Rustin Cohle quickly dives deep into working this crime.

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While the murder in the sugar cane field outside of Erath, Louisiana is definitely important to the story, the main focal point is the relationship between Hart and Cohle. It’s an odd couple pairing of sorts and the dialogue between the two is a puzzle in itself. Cohle lets out a number of bizarre metaphysical thoughts regarding human nature and existence, at one point stating, “I can smell the psychosphere” and another point delivering this handful of Sartre-esque philosophy:

I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in human evolution. 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. I think the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.

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Hart, on the other hand, is the proverbial Abbott to Cohle’s Costello (forgive me for that analogy) and puts a good effort into shutting down the kooky banter as much as possible. This is their relationship and the chemistry is dark, brooding, and yet riveting to watch.

Aside from the chemistry (?) between the two detectives, we are also given a peek inside the home lives of both Hart and Cohle (heart and soul?). Detective Martin Hart is (unhappily?) married in 1995 to Maggie Hart (Michelle Monaghan) and they have two girls. Theirs is what looks like an average family home life, aside from Hart sleeping on the chair in the living room after drinking what looked like whisky the night before. Detective Rustin Cohle, however, resides alone in a sparse apartment. Unfurnished, which just a mattress on the floor and a few other pieces of accouterments including a crucifix affixed on the wall above the bed. Hart makes it a point to mention he isn’t religious.

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In case you hadn’t heard this yet, this season of “True Detective” is a self contained story. Delivered in an eight episode arc, it’s a pretty good bet that the plans of writer/showrunner Nic Pizzolatto is to show you the darkness in both of the leads and I have a feeling we’re only at the edge of a very long drop into the abyss. These characters will not be coming back if there is a season 2, so why not pull out all the stops?

Speaking of Pizzolatto, I read an interesting piece at Forbes yesterday discussing the different cloth this “True Detective” story was cut from and the method in which the show was created. First off, Mr. Pizzolatto is the sole writer of the first eight episodes of this anthology series, stating that he locked himself in a Van Nuys garage for a handful of months to write the show. Further, all eight episodes were directed by just one director, which is unheard of in the TV world. Cary Fukunaga was the man at the helm, and his previous work highlights include the films Jane Eyre and Sin Nombre.

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“True Detective” is a bleak and beautiful slow burn. Yet “The Long, Bright Dark” gives the audience just enough of a taste to want to definitely want to come back for more. Erath, Louisiana in 2012 doesn’t feel much different at all from the world they travel back to 17 years earlier. Both Hart and Cohle are interviewed separately and we come to find out Hart’s filled out a bit, lost some hair and his marriage didn’t work out. Cohle, on the other hand seems to have let his inner demons take hold of his outward appearance. The reason for their attendance at these interviews is soon revealed as there has been another murder way too similar to the Dora Lange case which was “solved” 17 years earlier.

After looking at the gruesome image handed his way, Rust asked the detectives, “How could it be him, when we already got him in ’95?”. It’s obvious the detectives behind the camera are slightly suspicious Rust is the killer, as some of the details found on the new body weren’t released to the public. Alas, it’s noon time on Thursday and that means Rust wants an ashtray for his Camel cigarettes and a six pack of Lone Star. After further pressing him for his insight, Cohle takes a drag from his cigarette and a swig from a flask and tells them, “Then start asking the right f*cking questions.”

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HBO has convinced me that “True Detective” is worth my viewing time. What say you, dear readers? State your case in the comments below and meet me here this time next week as I will be discussing episode 2.

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Aside from throwing words onto your screen here, he has written for the likes of FEARnet, Examiner, Dread Central and MTV Movies Blog. And yes, he was Percy on VR Troopers.
  • Glan1957

    loved the aesthetics of the first episode (kinda reminded me of when i first watched the killing) and love that tv shows are leaving NY, LA, and CHI and capturing atypical culture and landscapes as part of the stories. great review, but i think you mean “ledger”, not leger. i look forward to reading the next one.

    • AaronPruner

      Totally! I dig the whole contained story thing too. The fact that HBO may have ended Treme which takes place in New Orleans yet decided to have another show in Louisiana, I think that’s pretty nifty.

      I checked and I indeed wrote “ledger” 🙂