By Josh Oakley
True Detective’s first season was a story obsessed with power structures. From race to gender, religion to politics, those in control pressed their thumb upon the lesser throughout. Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) were two white men with guns and badges. They were, unquestionably, gears within the system that oppressed. Rust said as much: “The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.” These two men were the show's main strength, but their narrow view of perspective was its most gaping flaw.
Those performances by McConaughey and Harrelson were sometimes crutches the show leaned on too hard. When prose sounded too purple, McConaughey was forced to sell abstract nonsense as human speech. He is a good enough actor to do this, but with better writing he would not have too. Luckily, he was given opportunities to flourish, such as the final scene of the season. This is a moment that will be played on every reel of footage meant to prove the actor’s talent. It is flashy acting, but with enough shades of subtlety to be powerful without tipping over the top. Harrelson is given fewer speeches, but he too has a profound ability. This is seen best in a scene where he slurps spaghetti and takes control of his television set without realizing that control of his family will soon be ripped from him. Marty Hart circa 2012 is a towering transformation, as nearly all of the man’s pretenses have been stripped away, unless he is around another cop. Then he speaks of his large dick, as he did when he was younger. Yet the authenticity behind the swagger has disappeared.
True Detective reveled in abstract concepts, to the point where definition was occasionally lost. “Evil” became a word that was meant to speak for entire swaths of humanity, but instead fizzed out into nothingness. The show was best when it utilized Rust and Marty in focus, zeroing in on them as people, rather than concepts. When the theme broadened, the viewpoint remained fixed on these two men, and the impact suffered. Large, weighty meanings were tethered to a window so restricted that getting any perspective on the matter was difficult. It is one thing to see something through the eyes of a character, and another to have a work of art avoid having a perspective on said character. There was rarely a scope through which the audience could gather any emotional pull from these meaty themes, as they were so bundled in mysterious men who refused to show their true self until the very end. The men were interesting to watch. The rest often was not.
It is difficult, even with the aforementioned failings of the show, to deny the mystic pull of this creation. The music, cinematography and locations were sublimely tied to those grandiose concepts that never fully landed. But even when True Detective was faltering, it did so hypnotically, coaxing the viewer into a land where evil men perform magic and good men don’t exist. One of the best lines of the season was spoken by Rust in the first episode: “This place is like someone’s memory of a town, and the memory is fading.” Showrunner Nic Pizzolatto’s dialogue could dip into self-parody at times, but he is also responsible for beautiful quotes such as that and the final line of the season.
Perhaps True Detective would have been better off as a different show. The pieces that worked – namely, the look at how time brings people through unbreakable mental cycles – have little to do with Carcosa or a Yellow King, beyond yet another abstract of evil never yielding. When the show failed, it was typically due to an effort to connect a detective story trope to a theme, and the trope could not shoulder the weight. There is plenty of good here, even splashes of great, but there is also an overreliance on what came before. This is ok. The world needs good shows. They keep the bad shows from the door.
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