If there’s an Emmy for starting conversations and stirring debates, True Detective has it in the bag.
The first season of True Detective, HBO’s eight-part anthology series set in the Louisiana bayou and starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, became such a lightning rod for the first few months of 2014 that the final episode, which aired on Sunday night, could not possibly have lived up to the anticipation and enthusiasm. When the series began, much of the praise was focused on the performances, with McConaughey cementing his recent cinematic resurgence and Harrelson quietly matching him in sheer intensity and charisma. By the end, the discussions had shifted to issues of race, gender, serialized storytelling and thematic priorities.
The show’s merits are a separate, though related, issue. The finale confirmed that series writer Nic Pizzollatto was far less interested in constructing and then unraveling an intricate mystery than he was in observing the evolution of two characters over nearly two tumultuous decades. For fans who were hoping for and expecting a mythologically charged payoff, the result must have seemed disappointing. But for people who were content to dig into the opposing moral philosophies and questionable fashion choices of Detectives Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Harrelson), the season delivered.
The first four episodes employed a structural gambit that heightened the intrigue surrounding these two characters. In 1995, Cohle and Hart investigated a series of gruesome murders and dealt with problems both personal and professional. Seventeen years later, Cohle and Hart recounted a version of their stories to two detectives (Michael Potts and Tory Kittles) interested in exploring the details of this long-forgotten case. How did 1995 Cohle, with his too-big suits and short hairdo, morph into 2012 Cohle, with a mean ponytail and a newfound passion for constructing figurines out of empty beer cans? Why didn’t Cohle and Hart’s stories match up? Why was the case reopened years after it had been closed? These questions were the show’s initial narrative engines, and they lent each half of the story an extra layer of tension.
By the time Cohle and Hart had taken a detour from the case into a land of drug dealers and cultlike gangs, the enthusiasm around the show began to swell, culminating with the final sequence of Episode 4, six minutes of which were filmed in an elaborate “tracking shot.” At this point, viewers and critics argued about whether this sequence was a case of empty stylistic showing off (conceived by the series’ director, Cary Fukunaga) or an organic extension of the narrative. I found the sequence powerful not only because of the difficulty involved in executing it, but also because it served as a marked contrast to what had come before, in both style and substance. For the first time, we saw Cohle in his true element, snorting cocaine and relishing the opportunity to play the role of the quasi-villain.
With the fifth episode, perhaps the finest of the eight, True Detective rapidly ascended to the tier of shows that inspire fervent scrutiny and frantic theorizing on the Internet. Who is the Yellow King? What is Carcosa? Why is Rust massaging that tree branch sculpture with such affection? I confess that I had little interest in the answers to these questions, and based on the finale, I expect Pizzolatto didn’t either. Some of the disappointment with the season’s final stretch came from the unreasonable expectations that the show had been playing the long game with us the whole time. It hadn’t.
I’m more open to some of the other criticisms, and sympathetic to the idea that this was a very good show with a lot of great elements and a few lackluster ones. As much as I want to simply accept that the two-dimensionality of the female characters (and, really, every character not named Rust or Marty) was intentional as a reflection of Cohle and Hart’s reductive perspective, I can’t help but wonder if these eight hours would have been richer with the inclusion of meaningful supporting characters. After all, Breaking Bad was ultimately a show about and dependent on Walter White’s perspective, but the show made plenty of room for the evolution of its supporting characters, even in its first eight episodes. This shortcoming doesn’t take away from what the show did well, but it does suggest a failure of ambition that one hopes Pizzolatto will correct in future seasons.
Similarly, the resolution of the murder case merited less screentime than Pizzollatto awarded it in the final episodes. After all, the writer told Alan Sepinwall at the start of the season that he couldn’t be less interested in serial killers. In that case, why spend any time at all exploring them, when you’re clearly so much more interested in what’s going on in the minds of people who investigate and interrogate these monsters? Better yet, why not flesh out the rest of the ensemble (including excellent actors like Michelle Monaghan, Ann Dowd, Potts and Kittles, Michael J. Harney and more in too-small roles) or let us luxuriate for a few minutes more in the sultry Louisiana heat, captured in frequently astonishing feats of direction and cinematography? The most memorable moments in each of the last three episodes – particularly Rust and Marty in the parking lot in Episode 6, Rust and Marty in the bar in Episode 7 and Rust and Marty back in the car in Episode 8 – had little to do with plot mechanics and everything to do with the ongoing plight of these two characters. When Pizzollatto reverted back to the procedural elements, the show suffered.
Ultimately, this season was strongest when dealing with the evolution of these two men, and the stories they tell themselves, each other and the people who trust them. Each man dealt with pain in his own way – Rust simply chalked it up to the inherent limitations of existence, while Marty took advantage of the people whom he held dear. In the end, they found themselves standing outside the hospital, contemplating all that had befallen them. Marty finally began to realize that his actions could have real consequences, while Rust’s brush with death awakened him to what he had been taking for granted. The stories Hart and Cohle tell in the first few episodes aren’t the final word, but merely a starting point in the process of understanding two men who use stories to hide their scars.
Fukunaga leaves us by panning from Rust and Marty to a shot of the night sky, filled with stars. For all of its faults, the anthology structure affords True Detective the opportunity to do something entirely different when we pan back down to wherever Pizzolatto has decided to take us next. Whether True Detective exceeded, matched or fell short of your expectations, perhaps its most exciting contribution to the evolution of American television is that it will tell a new story and introduce new characters next season. The Internet is clearly excited about this prospect – the #TrueDetectiveSeason2 meme was ubiquitous for a few weeks in the middle of the season’s run. For a trial run, True Detective Season 1 was more than sufficient. Let’s hope it reaches new heights next year.