With the new Season of True Detective hitting HBO at the end of January, we’re taking a look back at the series thus far. Today we start with Season 1, Episode 1, “The Long Bright Dark.”
True Detective was a major player for HBO that in some ways came out of nowhere and helped the cable giant become a powerhouse again. Game of Thrones had already been on for three seasons, and was becoming a major event show, but HBO didn’t have any other major drama at the time. And honestly, the landscape of television had changed so much that even regular cable channels had material that was on par or better than what HBO had to offer. True Detective helped bring in more viewers and gave HBO more power to expand and has been on a nearly nonstop winning streak since.
The show was conceived by writer Nic Pizzolatto (The Killing), with every episode of season 1 written by Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation). The first season would take place in Louisiana and follow a pair of Louisiana State Police homicide detectives as they tried to track down and stop a serial killer. Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson were cast as the two detectives in the self contained story for season one. With Michelle Monaghan, Michael Potts, and Tory Kittles cast in supporting roles. With 5 Primetime Emmy nominations and one win for Fukunaga’s directing, the series was a hit for audiences and critics alike.
The first episode begins with images of the killer placing the body of Dora Lange at the base of a tree and burning the surrounding field around January 3rd of 1995. We then meet Rustin “Rust” Cohle and Matin “Marty” Hart, the two detectives on the case, in 2012. They’re being interviewed by two detectives in the Louisiana State Criminal Investigations Division, and being asked about the Lange case. In 2012 Rust is a worn down, long haired, messy older man, while Marty is a suit wearing, private investigator running his own security firm.
While the detectives in 2012 ask Rust and Marty about the case, it’s clear throughout that they want to know about the two older detectives, especially Rust. They say that they lost all the files from the Lange case in Hurricane Rita, and need their expertise. But it’s clear there’s something more going on here. As Rust explains the details of the case Marty’s comments and questioning lean more into Rust, and in the process we learn able the men behind the case as much as the case itself.
In 1995, Marty is a husband and father of two girls. He seems to love being a detective, and plays things by the book. He’s smart, and knows what he’s doing. Rust is a new transfer from Texas. He’s worked narcotics division and robbery squad. He was married and had a daughter who passed, which tore apart his marriage. He lives alone, in a nearly bare apartment, with a mattress on the floor, piles of books along the walls, and a cross hanging on the wall. Not for religious purposes, but for “meditative purposes.” He explains to Hart that he meditates over the idea of allowing one’s own crucifixion, and in the same conversation explains that he’s essentially a pessimist who believes human consciousness was a misstep. He’s different from Marty, and Marty doesn’t know how to take it at first. But he quickly realizes that despite his colleagues thinking he’s insane, and calling him “tax man” because he carries a ledger with him in which he takes notes and makes drawings, Rust is a great detective.
The case is only slightly opened in the first episode. They find the body of Dora Lange, which has been posed at the base of a tree to be kneeling as if in prayer, with a crown made of antlers around her head. Her body has cuts on it from being tortured, there’s a spiral marking on her, and LSD and meth are found in her system. There are sculptures made of branches that a local priest explains are called “Devil’s Nets,” and are meant to help keep the devil away. They discover that Dora was a prostitute and learn from her incarcerated ex-husband that she had issues with drugs and alcohol. He states that when they spoke last she seemed to be high and was talking of becoming a nun after having met a king.
As they begin looking for more information and clues, they discover two interesting cases surrounding young girls in the area. One was a report from the previous December where a young girl said she was chased through the woods by a green eared spaghetti-faced monster. The second is a missing girl by the name of Marie Fontenot, who went missing 5 years before. Her mother reported her missing before disappearing, and it was believed her father may have taken her.
Rust ends up following up on the Fontenot case and they discover that she has an uncle that lives nearby, Danny Fontenot. When they go to Danny’s home they discover that he is disabled and cared for by his wife. As Marty speaks with her about Marie, Rust heads out back and finds a small Devil’s Nest in the chicken coup behind the house.
Marty begins to become suspicious of the reasoning behind the detectives’ questioning, especially considering how much they lean into questions about Rust. As they talk to Rust, he requests that they give him beer, because it’s his off day and he starts drinking at noon on his off days. As they continue, he asks them about the body they found at Lake Charles. They finally show him the picture of the body they discovered. A woman in a crown similar to Dora Lange, strung up in the trees in a crucifixion-like pose. There’s details that are similar to the Lange case that were never revealed to the public. Details that don’t make sense as we get the final exchange between Rust and the detectives.
“How could it be him, if we already caught him in ‘95. How indeed detectives?”
“I figured you’d be the one to know.”
“Then start asking the right fucking questions.”
The biggest highlight of the pilot has to be the performances of Harrelson and McConaughey. From the start you get these characters, and their interactions make you want to see as much of them as possible. It’s something that continues throughout the season and is one of the strongest aspects of the show. The two of them make these characters work extremely well, and the show would be nothing without them.
The other major highlight of the show is how it plays with the mystery surrounding the investigation. It’s obvious there’s going to be a lot here. And with those final lines by Rust, we know that this case, which was supposedly solved in ’95, is far from over. And possibly for reasons beyond his control. There’s just enough information here to get us interested. And mixed with the performances by Harrelson and McConaughey it’s hard not to get hooked immediately.
The first season of True Detective is currently available on HBO Now, HBO Go, and HBO on Demand. Check back with us tomorrow when we dive into the second episode of True Detective Season 1, “Seeing Things.”