Series review: True Detective

True Detective hit the small screens back in January, and two months later, it has all come to an end. The show splits into two, with the first half focusing on two Louisiana State detectives talking about their first case together; that of the death of Dora Lang, a woman killed, stripped and left in a field with a crown of antlers. The second focuses on their actions in the present day, decades after the case ended, after they were meant to have found closure. With its stellar cast and its short series run, it is a booking that came in with big expectations. Are they met? Absolutely.

HBO’s show is a renegade in several senses. There is no crack team of writers and directors all jigsawing the show together; instead it’s left to the two man unit of Nick Pizzolatto writing every single episode and Cary Fukunaga directing each one. The series is an anothology—eight episodes encompassing one single story and then moving on. Different case, different actors. The final effect is of something that is just subtly more cohesive than anything else that has come before, something that feels whole.

The acting for a start is simply magnificent. If Fool’s Gold and Ghosts of Boyfriends Past has been the price paid for McConaughey’s current emergence, well then, the price is worth it. McConaughey plays Rust Cohle, a dark, twisted, bitter cop with a viciously nihilistic take on the world and the people around him. Pizzolatto’s writing shines through him, with the first episode laying down the marker for the rest of the season; Rust slips scathingly into a cold, calculated tirade against human existence. Marty Hart, his partner, played by Woody Harrellson asks ‘So what’s the point of getting up in the morning then?’ ‘Because it’s obviously my programming… and I lack the constitution for suicide,’ comes the deadpan, matter-of-fact answer.

With so much of the praise headed towards McConaughey, it would be easy to miss Woody Harrellson, and it would be wrong too. As Marty, he is the foil to Rust’s venom, the straight guy to the philosophical mess that is his partner. And with these two comes the fizzing, flickering tension that the show is really about. For all the death and symbolism, the show is about these two men as partners who struggle to stay in the same room together. This is not a buddy cop antagonism, this is far deeper and far more visceral—a palpable sense of distrust and borderline intolerance of each other and what they each stand for. For a show so dominated by these two men and their issues, with life, love, death and work; credit must also go to Michelle Monaghan as Maggie Hart, Marty’s wife. While not afforded as much screen time as the others, she still manages to pull off her role with subtlety and verve, playing a wife who watches her husband slowly succumb to the case he works.

The entire show is shot through with a heavy sense of dread, an almost physical weight of unease that seems to hang darkly in the air. It’s a combination of so much in the show, the slight sepia colouring to the screen; the long, slow drawls between the main characters; the thudding growl of the guitar in the background as the tension ramps up. The vast openness of Luisiana, with its unkempt wild grass and the wilting, splintering houses stretching out along the Bayou paradoxically suffocate the viewer, pinning them down with the idea that a killer could hide anywhere. The Dora Lang case which is the sole pivot of the first half of the season is played out slowly and deliberately—the occult and voodoo surrounding the case, the deer antlers and Carcosa and the Yellow King all left unnervingly unexplained as the show spools out.

Cary Fukunaga, with no real experience and almost unheard of, punches leagues above his weight, handling the camera with the confidence and style of someone far, far more experience. The highlight of course, something inevitably championed by anyone who has seen the show, is the utterly phenomenal six and a half minute tracking shot that plays out in episode 4- an astonishingly choreographed six and a half minutes that sets off and ends one of the true great scenes of screentime.

The second half of the season slips back into a more standard cop drama thriller, with Marty and Rust chasing down a dead lead from a long time past. This tends towards a lessening of the dread that was cultivated through the previous episodes and at times it feels like a different show, but what it loses in unease, it gains in ratcheting tension levels. The chases and the leads, the unearthing of new clues in slick snapshots steer the show towards it’s inevitable ending, with the inevitable unmasking of the monster at the end of the dream. The final scenes, when they come, feel right. Maybe not what you were hoping for, and maybe just a touch below the startling brilliance of the early part of the show, but right nonetheless. The show highlights some of the best writing since Breaking Bad, and possibly also some of the best acting. If you watch nothing else this year, be sure to watch this.

PHOTO/ wired