The best part of every “True Detective” episode is the opening sequence. In some ways, it might be the best part of the whole series. I could watch that intro eight times and get everything I need from its visually compelling series of atmospheric symbols. In fact, I legitimately considered doing just that. I would binge the intro, tell everyone that I had seen the series and see how far I could get just from the information I was given in the opening.
I am dwelling on the intro because I genuinely believe those first 90 seconds deserve high praise. A television intro needs to set the stage for the show you are about to see. Between the somber bluegrass and the almost perverted – not sexually perverted, just disturbingly altered – imagery, “True Detective’s” intro alternates caresses and slaps, delivered in almost equal measure.
I will do my best from this point on to avoid talking about the plot. It is possible you may be the greatest – some might even say the truest – detective and as a result, be able to divide certain plot points from my vague words. Let me boil down my recommendation: “True Detective” should be watched by people who are interested in TV as a storytelling medium and the way we consume TV in the digital age. If that is not you, please do read on.
In some ways, the name “True Detective” almost feels like an intentional misnomer. The show drapes itself atop an “Iron Throne” (of Lies), whispering falsehoods into the ears of both the viewer and its protagonists. The opening, for all its qualities, is an integral part of this deception. The picture it so earnestly paints is not an inaccurate one, but it sets up a plot viewers are never going to see.
Yes, this is a show about a serial killer. Yes, there’s some disturbing imagery. Yes, when the killer is revealed, you’ll be disappointed. Such is the nature of stories built upon a central mystery. But both within the show itself and thematically, the mystery ultimately doesn’t really matter.
At its core, “True Detective” is about good versus evil. This may seem overly reductive for a show almost famous for the scads of thinkpieces it has spawned, but that’s also what the final dialogue exchange is literally about. It is about the struggle both on a larger scale and within the souls of man.
The reason “True Detective” spends a sizable amount of time focusing on the characters is not because they’re using Marty Hart’s (Woody Harrelson) marital troubles or Rust Cohle’s (Matthew McConaughey) self-destructive nihilism to foreshadow some grand conspiracy. Their show is not stingy with its reveals. Every question is answered, but that’s because it all funnels back to a fairly uncomplicated answer.
And it doesn’t appear that way, at least initially. The first time you watch “True Detective,” with its dense intro and symbolistic crime scene, your brain spins all sorts of theories. But none of them are valid.
Good versus evil is so rarely as complicated as we’d like it to be. It is as simple as a man slapping his daughter for talking back. Evil can be multifaceted – like a Satanic cult or cloaked behind a veil of lies, but its core is nefariously simplistic.
Lies are everywhere in “True Detective,” right down to the relationship between the show and its audience. The show initially lies to you about what it really is, before playing its hand somewhere around Episode 4. This isn’t “Silence of the Lambs” drenched in the swamp water of ’90s coastal Louisiana like Episode One would have you believe; it is the story of two very broken men and why they matter in the grand scheme of things.
The second most important example of mistruths in “True Detective” is Cohle and Hart’s perilous journey through a fog of deception. In media, the sleuth is depicted as equal parts human lie detector, forensic analyst and scavenger. But in this version of the deep South, the two police officers spend most of their time pushing back against what feels like a never-ending series of cunning liars.
Much has been made of McConaughey’s performance as the world’s most interesting atheist and this praise does not come without merit. There are certain aspects to his backstory and character that a lesser actor would use as an excuse to phone in the role, but McConaughey imbibes Cohle with a certain amount of wistfulness. When he speaks about humanity’s nature, it almost sounds like he’s picking up on a conversation he’s still having with himself.
Harrelson also does a great job, but halfway through the show, Hart becomes a really unlikable character. You are not supposed to root for him in fairness, but “True Detective” really had to kick Hart around before I was able to look at him with anything less than raw contempt.
The nature of “True Detective” lies in its final reveal: Not the reveal of the killer, but in what the show been trying to say the whole time. Without the ability to discuss that, I feel like a whole review of the show is somewhat muted by nature, but none of that really matters.
You’re going to watch it because everyone you know is watching it. So here’s the recommendation that matters: “True Detective” is atmospheric, compelling and somewhat disappointing. But it’s also tons of fun to discuss.