The only female presence in the first eight minutes of True Detective is a corpse. This isn’t as damning as it sounds, because the rest of “The Long Bright Dark” goes so far toward establishing the setting inhabited by Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) as a man’s, man’s, man’s world. The stale musk of an outdated masculinity permeates the opening act of HBO’s new crime anthology series: Scenes unfold in precinct bullpens and smoky bars; the living room where Marty drinks himself to sleep one night is decorated with athletics trophies and a mounted fish. As the symbolically named Hart and Cohle recount the possibly ritualistic, vaguely occult killing of Dora Lange, words like “father” and “dick” get tossed around for further emphasis. Nic Pizzolatto’s premiere script sets out to poke, prod, and otherwise examine the rot at the center of a place where the entire homicide squad boasts a Y chromosome.
A few inches removed from that decay are the versions of Marty and Rust that existed in 1995. They’re two very different men assigned to the same task: Identify and apprehend the person who tortured and killed Dora prior to posing her in a tableau straight from the Hannibal school of nightmare imagery. Like that show, and like Sundance’s Rectify—True Detective’s companion in moody meditations on rural atrocities—Pizzolatto’s series is more concerned with the people around its central mystery than the mystery itself. With any luck, that relieves the author from the burden of crafting an airtight whodunit, focusing instead on human factors like Rust’s abundant personal demons and Marty’s dual roles as CID cop and family man. “The Long Bright Dark” suggests as much, waiting until its final moments to reveal that Marty and Rust are being interviewed in the present day because a murder eerily similar to Dora’s has turned up—this despite the fact that the partners supposedly found their man way back when.
As hinted in these sequences, Marty and Rust traveled on opposite trajectories following the dissolution of their working relationship. Detective Hart may have lost some hair, but his suit and the soft fluorescents of his current gig indicate that he’s moved up in the world. Cohle, meanwhile, looks like he’s been to the temple from the end of Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade—and he chose poorly. But what we see from “The Long Bright Dark’s” flashbacks illustrates that he was already heading down this self-destructive path before he shared a squad car with Hart. Rust is as world-weary as they come, ponderous and sleep-deprived, given to voicing the kind of purple inner monologue that might belong to the pulp-magazine gumshoes that paved the way for the character.
But Pizzolatto’s script demonstrates that it’s not going to wallow in the trappings of its genre. In its postmortem of the turn-of-the-21st-century American male’s psyche, True Detective digs especially deep into how this suicidal species interacted with one another. Standing among the shuttered storefronts of a dead mall—where, conveniently, the coroner’s offices are located—Rust starts yapping about how the place is “like somebody’s memory of a town.” Marty’s not buying it: “Stop saying shit like that. It’s unprofessional.”
The real-life connection between McConaughey and Harrelson is synthesized into the uneasy tension that powers “The Long Bright Dark.” Scenes where the partners welcome one another into their homes indicate that they’re just as eager to figure the other out as they are to crack the Lange murder. To its credit, the show has a lock on them already: Hart’s into traditional detective work, gathering hard evidence, canvassing the community, following leads. Cohle’s more cerebral, profiling the people that come into his orbit based on his reading history and the thoughts and observations constantly running through his head. The wheels up there are turning so frequently that he needs to keep a ledger at his side at all times, thus earning his nickname: “The Taxman.” It’s a brooding intellectualism that’s classically male—though the alphas down at the station don’t take to kindly to all that thinkin’.
Rust’s philosopher act would be too much to take if McConaughey wasn’t such a pro himself. Pizzolatto’s dialogue is showy, but the actor’s brittle delivery restores its sense of grit. McConaughey grinds every Camel he lights into Rust’s voice, granting the admitted “realist” enough gravitas to duck hard-boiled cliché. He’s the fascinatingly curdled yin to Harrelson’s more centered yang. Marty is tethered, focused, and it’s refreshing to see the man playing the detective in the role of a guy who hasn’t let all of his screws go loose.
Not that that’s a particularly simple feat in the grim realm of True Detective. “The Long Bright Dark” doesn’t make many concessions to levity, but that’s crucial to grounding the proceedings in Rust’s jaundiced world view. The Lange crime scene suggests to him that there’s something primal in his surroundings. To Rust, we’re all just a bunch of apes masquerading as a civilization with laws, morals, common decency, and other constructs preventing its participants from ripping each other’s faces off. I hesitate to say that the show represents Rust’s POV exclusively—but of the two central cops, he is the first to step out from behind the filter of the testimonial camera. There are plenty of sides to this story, but by way of laying out the cruelty and the ugliness of the show’s world, “The Long Bright Dark” is largely told from Rust’s side. Those present-day scenes and McConaughey’s haggard look within them illuminate a major piece of the True Detective puzzle moving forward. Stare long enough into the paradoxical void of the episode’s title, spend enough time surrounded by the sort of macho drive that suggests control and solutions must be sought at any cost, and it’s easy to forget that man (and mankind) is capable of any good at all.
- Welcome to The A.V. Club’s coverage of True Detective. I’ll be here attempting to decode and demystify the Lange case through the end of February, though Todd VanDerWerff might tap in one week to relieve me from all the grim and the grit and let me do something a little more lighthearted. Perhaps something like Girls (right, lighthearted)—which, along with the upcoming Looking, is due to make HBO’s current Sunday night lineup a combo as intriguingly mismatched as Hart and Cohle.