From a nuts and bolts description of True Detective, there’s not much that makes the series sound exceptional. Literary pedigree, big Hollywood talent, prime slot on premium cable: These are run-of-the-mill attributes in this day and age. “Seeing Things” practically nods toward that notion when Marty goes over the quotidian details of working a case: “You’re looking for narrative. Interrogate witnesses. Parsing evidence. Establish a timeline. Build a story. Day after day.” In his breakdown of procedural beats, Marty may as well be saying “There’s nothing new about a cop story on TV.”
Then something like Rust’s hallucinations creep in, and True Detective reminds you that this is a distinct cop story. Nothing is exceptional about the big-picture stuff on this show—it’s all in the details: the performances, the thematic dissections, the hypnotic depictions of the Louisiana landscape. If it’s unexplored territory and unspoiled nature you want from True Detective, you’re going to get it—along with a lot of questions about who the two men at the center of the series are.
In the time after he and Marty closed the Lange case, Rust had a lot of opportunity for self-reflection. It’s already been noted that he was off the grid for most of the ’00s; he emerged from that time in the woods as a man who knows who he is. In effect, he’d investigated and solved the biggest mystery of his career, and as he tells Lutz and Papania, “there’s a victory in that.” The solution lies somewhere in the divergence between past Rust and present-day Rust, another stunning facet of McConaughey’s top-of-his game performance. When Cohle and Hart are out investigating the Lange murder, there’s an unsettling absence of variety in Rust’s expressions—his wry, withered-husk-of-Wooderson smirks are reserved for Tory Kittles and Michael Potts. Even when he’s busting the balls of the “occult” task force, the Rust of 1995 keeps a straight face and an even temper. That’s why it’s so shocking when he uses a toolbox as an interrogation device or flinches when his vice-squad PTSD kicks in: That’s all that ever changes in his stone-faced flashback countenance.
There’s an impression that this version of Rust is wearing a mask, playing at the steely vision of a cop who hasn’t seen all the traumatic shit Rust has seen. But he’s not the only guy in disguise: Marty puts on a father-of-the-year mantle, but “Seeing Things” pokes plenty of holes in that getup. Part of that is wrapped up in the kind of hard evidence that Marty makes the cornerstone of his police work, as the suggestion that he has a thing going on with Lisa from the courthouse is made abundantly, nakedly explicit. (For anyone keeping track, True Detective made it roughly 75 minutes without living, breathing T&A, a remarkable show of restraint among the current crop of HBO hour-longs.)
Here’s the thing about Marty, whom “Seeing Things” colors in to a larger degree than “The Long Bright Dark”: He’s full of self-justifying nonsense. At this point, that makes him the less-interesting of True Detective’s two leads, if only because it’s the same sort of self-justification we’ve witnessed from Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Walter White, the holy trinity of male TV antiheroes. He even borrows a page from the Walter White handbook when he suggests his philandering is “for the good of the family.” (But notice there’s no mention of the family in the present-day scenes.) There’s a bit of the “Vocational Irony Narrative” (so named by fellow critic Dan Fienberg) in there as well, since the idea is that Marty’s skills as a detective have overtaken his ability to deduce problems in his personal life. He claims to be doing all of this for his wife and daughters, characters whom Woody Harrelson rarely interacts with; in Audrey and Maisie’s big scene tonight, they’re floating in a canoe all by their lonesome, a veritable moat separating them and their father.
“Seeing Things” wraps a tense tangent around Rust’s apparent heightened sense of smell, but it’s already evident that he’s the partner with the stronger olfactory abilities, because Marty can’t detect his own bullshit. He steps right into it in the scenes where the episode temporarily turns into a kitchen-sink drama, voicing wrongheaded expectations about life that are just as bad as the “back in my day” earful he gets from his father-in-law. I think this is where Rust and the general tone of this opening True Detective season come most in handy. As a show about Marty Hart, True Detective would be another watered-down antihero drama, a Ray Donovan for biding your time until Ray Donovan comes back. But Rust provides the type of foil that pale imitators to the Soprano/Draper/White throne often lack, a broken man who’s given all the way into his malfunction and actually uses that malfunction as his way of keeping up appearances. He’s the male antihero who’s not making apologies for himself. And as overplayed as that basic type is in 2014, at least Matthew McConaughey and Nic Pizzolatto have fashioned a new, hypnotic spin on it.
And that’s a praise-worthy element of True Detective’s setting, too. This isn’t a changing world in which the former rulers are trying to hold onto their remaining sense of control. That battle was lost long ago, and something wild, something untamable has taken hold in this fictional Louisiana. At least two hurricanes—Rita and Andrew—have been name-checked as signposts in the show’s timeline, both times in reference to man-made objects they destroyed. (Hurricane Rita wiped out some of the files on the Lange case; Hurricane Andrew destroyed Dora’s school.) All that, and the biggest storm of all, Katrina, still hasn’t come up yet.
Nature comes back to claim what was made human, and sometimes humans return to nature: The trailer-park brothel that Dora once called home is depicted as one part refugee camp, one part Amazonian sanctuary. In light of this season’s fixation on tokens, symbols, and codes of masculinity, it’s important to note that nature is traditionally personified as female. For all his talk about family, the closest thing to a loving, supportive, generous group of people depicted in “Seeing Things” is that band of prostitutes hiding out in the wilderness. Compare the way the madam of the place acts in the interest of the women in her care, whereas all of Marty’s protective impulses are grounded in self-preservation and his own opinions. “She don’t look like a woman to me,” he says regarding Lili Simmons’ Beth, the emphasis in Harrelson’s reading betraying the character’s true priority. This from the guy who invited Rust over for dinner because his family needs to know the person who could save his life one day.
Television history is full of characters who hold the same job as Marty and Rust; the medium’s more recent history if full of men who behave like Marty. But what’s making True Detective exceptional programming is in the way the program doesn’t indulge their masks or their disguises, instead getting right to the point of depicting the animals within.
- One method of differentiating the show’s twin time periods that probably helped True Detective to afford its A-list talent: Era-appropriate Lone Star Beer labels.
- The show’s music supervision is also going a long way toward establishing True Detective’s hazy, humid milieu with gospel recordings and swampy classic-rock sides. The over-the-credits music this week comes courtesy of The 13th Floor Elevators—though the distinctive electric-jug playing of Tommy Hall probably gave that away, didn’t it?