Only two episodes in and True Detective is already one of the most visually striking television shows ever to hit cable. Few programs in recent history have put as much emphasis on its setting as an extension of the characters, as HBO’s drama tells so much about the bedraggled state of its detectives just by focusing on the hurricane-ravaged Louisiana woods they drive through. Torn apart but still standing, Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) are haunted and guilt-ridden, hoping for normalcy and comfort in a dark, deranged community. Their police cruiser, notably the only car seen on the road, cuts through the destruction at top speed. Can they work together to mend a destroyed community and their own equally tattered psyches?
Hart and Cohle are not typical television heroes: they are moody and morose, deeply unhappy with their circumstances and sometimes even at odds with each other. Slowly, these two souls are starting to find things in common and work as a team; however, as flash-forward scenes indicate, there was still a falling out between them that we will likely see in a few weeks. The eight-episode series, written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (Sin Nombre), is already starting to stand out from other crime procedurals, as it is one more ordained on figuring out the detectives than having the detectives figure out the crime. Patient viewers will hopefully find the slow burn pacing of the investigation rewarding at the series’ end, although Hart and Cohle’s mysterious pasts, slowly percolating to the surface, are far more compelling than the details of Dora Lange’s murder.
In “Seeing Things,” the superb second of eight hours, Fukunaga uses a dim visual palette and lets the camera linger on the Louisiana wetlands, strewn and scattered, as a metaphor for the detectives’ fractured states of mind. As Cohle reveals to his partner, his young daughter tragically died at a young age and his marriage could not handle the strain. He checked into a rehab facility and despite thinking with clarity about the criminal matters currently at hand, the sudden sparks that he sees flinging through the sky above him suggest he is still mentally confused. Dopey and drugged, Cohle is prone to chemical flashbacks, the result of his work as a narcotics officer in Texas.
Although Hart looked straight-laced in the pilot episode, he has something to feel guilty about this week. Even with a supportive wife and young daughters at home, he gets his rocks off at the bar before heading to a girlfriend’s house for some kinky sex with handcuffs. The dreary world of casework and dead ends brings him down and he feels that he needs these vices to bring him a boost. “You’ve got to decompress before you can go be a family man,” Hart tells another officer. However, wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan) suspects he is being unfaithful.
In the Dora Lange case, Hart and Cohle are looking for a church where the slain young girl, found lashed to a tree in last week’s opener, was a congregant. They drift through Louisiana, find a group of working girls lurking at a trailer park – a “hillbilly bunny ranch,” the detectives say – who may know the whereabouts of this church where Dora found peace. And, likely, her murderer. As the detectives search for the church, Hart and Cohle are looking for their own salvation. There is real human frailty at the centre of both characters and in the surrounding woods. Perhaps that is what makes a character-driven mystery like True Detective so riveting – their roles as investigators are the only places where Hart and Cohle are decent and worthwhile.