With the upcoming third season of True Detective premiering later this month on HBO, we’re taking a look back at the first two seasons. Today we have our full review of the first season of True Detective.
As we mentioned in our rundown of the first episode of season 1, the series came to HBO at a time where it was in a bit of a lull for content. Game of Thrones was picking up steam but wasn’t quite the powerhouse it would be known as today, and the pay cable channel hadn’t had a MAJOR hit series in a few years. True Detective gave HBO a much–needed boost by offering a dark, gritty, and enthralling crime drama that is honestly one of the best seasons of television ever produced. The series was created by Nic Pizzolatto (The Killing), who would go on to write the entire first season with Cary Joji Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation) directing every episode of season 1. The singular vision and voice helped make the season something incredibly unique and strong and is a large part of why it succeeded.
Another significant factor towards the success of the first season was the casting of Matthew McConaughey as Rustin “Rust” Cohle and Woody Harrelson as Martin “Marty” Hart, two state homicide detectives in Louisiana. In a way, the two actors played parts that were a bit against type. McConaughey can easily play the southern detective with a wife and kids who knows how to play by the book, and Harrelson could easily play the eccentric and philosophical detective who constantly muses on the human condition. But having McConaughey play Rust and Harrelson play Marty adds a different weight to these characters and lets the actors stretch their talents and truly show their range.
While there have been plenty of discussions on the role of Rust, his character arc, and the performance of McConaughey in the role, Harrelson does an amazing job as well. Throughout the season, Harrelson shows us a character that we frequently change our opinion on. Rust is obviously someone that will at times do something unexpected because that’s who his character is, but Marty will do the unexpected because he’s somebody who has been ripped apart by what he’s experienced.
Marty explains at one point that his infidelity to his wife is his ability to wipe off the disgusting things he experiences from work—his way of clearing his slate so that he doesn’t bring the darkness home. And I honestly believe that’s true. At his core, Marty is a good person, but he constantly makes mistakes and takes the wrong path because he doesn’t know how to cope with the world he’s surrounded by. The dark things that he does are the result of him constantly be entrenched in a dark world—a world where women and children are tortured and mutilated, where parents kill their kids, and men use their power to destroy others in ways that no good person would ever think of. Marty is a complex character, but he’s a complex character that we know, just turned up to 11. Other crime dramas would show this type of character watered down, but True Detective doesn’t water down anything.
The core story of True Detective is the murder of Dora Lange, a young woman who is found in a praying pose with antlers tied to her head and marks from being tortured before her death. Rust quickly realizes that this has to be the work of someone who has done this before and will do it again. They discover that multiple missing persons cases from recent years are tied to the case and that there is a something larger going on here. Rust and Marty eventually are led to Reggie Ledoux, who is part of the extensive web surrounding the murders. They believe him to be their killer, and when Marty finds two kids on Ledoux’s compound, one dead and the other in a catatonic state, he kills Ledoux and his partner. From 1995 to 2002 they believe they solved the case and it’s all over.
Then in 2002 Rust is helping interrogate a suspect and they mention that Rust and Marty never caught the real killer. The man mentions “the yellow king,” a detail never released to the public. When the man is killed in his prison cell, Rust continues investigating what he believes to be a larger conspiracy with ties to the powerful Tuttle family. After speaking with reverend Billy Lee Tuttle and slightly revealing his cards to the reverend, he gets suspended. During that time, Marty, who had cheated on his wife Maggie in ’95, begins another affair. Maggie finds out and gets Rust to have sex with her while he’s drunk. When Marty finds out, they fight and Rust quits the job.
Ten years later, Rust shows up again in Louisiana and begins looking into the case again. He breaks into Reverend Tuttle’s houses looking for ties to the case. He finds a video of a satanic ritual where one of the missing girls they were investigating was raped and tortured. This leads him to continue investigating the case and working to bring justice to all the victims once and for all. When another body shows up, a pair of current state homicide detectives begin interviewing Rust and Marty and asking about the case. Rust tries to lead them down the right path, but they seem to think Rust is responsible for all of it.
Rust ends up showing the video to Marty to get him to help in finishing the investigation. In the end, they find that the killer is Errol William Childress, a relative to the now deceased Reverend Tuttle and his brother, Senator Edward Tuttle. After arriving to Childress’ home they end up chasing him through an elaborate labyrinth of trees and tunnels, meeting him in a final confrontation. Rust is stabbed in the gut, Marty is hit with an axe, and in the end, Rust shoots Childress in the head to save Marty. The two survive the experience, and Childress is posthumously charged with the deaths of every victim they found and investigated over the years.
The story is intense and gripping. It’s a complicated web that is weaved in a way that constantly keeps you on the edge of your seat. And while there are clues left here and there throughout the season, you’re still unsure of everything until the end. There’s a bit of bittersweetness to the end of the season as well. These characters are so masterfully written, and their performances are the kind that should be studied and remembered for years. I’d be willing to watch multiple seasons of a series with these characters if possible. But having the single season storyline helps make it something that can be treasured and keep it from being tainted.
The first season of True Detective is a reminder of how excellent television can truly be. There are few films or TV shows that are as good as that first season of True Detective. And while the show does seem to be missing something when it focuses more on the 2012 storyline and pulls out of the flashbacks to 1995, it’s still phenomenal. There isn’t a single aspect of the show that isn’t noteworthy. From the cinematography, directing, production design, writing, acting, music, it’s all top-level work. This is the type of material people dream of making. It’s the type of show that redefines what television can be. And I honestly believe that if not for the dip in quality for the second season, True Detective would still be talked about regularly in discussions about great television.
You can catch the entire first season of True Detective through your HBO provider.