HBO’s True Detective got off to a strong, pitch black noir start last week. All sorts of things were rotten in the State of Louisiana, and there were no signs of any lights at the end of any tunnels, not even at 17 years later vantage point where our (anti?) heroes are revisiting the Dora Lange case. Needless to say, a lot was hanging in the balance of episode 2 – which, as we all know, was going to be the deciding factor in terms of where all this meticulous pacing and character development was going to. And, it delivers.
This one, this one is all about getting to know people. And the things they are willing to do to escape from their own skin.
The opening finds Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Harrelson) visiting Dora’s Mother and informing the (crazy, backwards, religious/delusional) woman her daughter is dead. The house is exactly what you’d expect it to be, the woman is falling apart, and there are talks of “why wouldn’t a Father bathe his own child?” and photos of KKK sprinkled throughout. No wonder this poor girl ended up pumped with hallucinogenics – escaping all that would drive the sanest person over the edge. In fact, Hart and Cohle are on edge having barely spent a few minutes in there. Up next come the chat with friends (who are drunk and sad-eyed), the ex-husband (who is in jail and crazy-eyed) and the picture of a sad little, lost, church going girl working on some bunny ranch by the Spanish lake starts to form.
In the meantime, Cohle is slowly opening up to both the detective interviewing him in 2012 and his partner in 1995. We learn about his loss a little more, we learn about the drastic decisions he made to keep his mind off his loss and we slowly, but certainly start understanding why there is very little hope for Rust Cohle to make it out of this show unscathed, just like there was very little hope for Dora Lange to not be a victim even for a single day in her life.
The pressure (to save/avenge/make things right) is on. Dealing with stress is paramount: Cohle is trying to get some sleep (and the only way he can do that is by scoring some Quaaludes from a prostitute) and Hart is, well, “making it his responsibility not to bring the work stress home”, setting the scene for an affair which is simmering under the surface of his family-man existence. Making things worse is the fact that a task-force dealing with “crimes with Anti-Christian overtones” has been assigned to check in on them and these two are not men who respond well to being checked up on.
So, with the time running out, and Cohle’s notion of this being a serial killer really taking root, the two set off to find the whereabouts of Lange’s last few days, starting with that Spanish lake bunny ranch. Cohle has, up until this point, been a more peaceful, almost meditative presence of the pair, but en route to the bunny ranch, the show allows us a glimpse into a darker, more volatile side of him – a side that, one senses, may come out more and more often as the story progresses, and a side that may be his downfall.
At the ranch, which is as hillbilly and heartbreaking as the next thing on the show (Hart, shoving a bill into an underage girl’s hand saying “Do something else” is as Fatherly of a moment as any we’ve seen him in), the two emerge with Lange’s diary and a mention of “The Yellow King” and this “church” everyone keeps mentioning Dora was going to.
Louisiana, as a setting, at that moment, becomes almost the third lead. The skies, the roads, the swamp land surrounding our pair, almost as a quick sand of sorts, is as important to the mood created as the hallucinations Cohle is experiencing or the anguish Hart is trying to supress. When to two arrive at a burnt down church, the crows circling it like mosquitos, the image is so strong, so visually unsettling, that the interviewing detectives of 2012 have to ask Cohle “Were you hallucinating on the job?” and when Cohle responds “No, I always knew what was real and what wasn’t” we know things are about to get (pardon my French) truly fucked up.
So as they enter the “building” and walk towards the swamp behind it, you know that it is not the things in front of them they should be worried about, it is the things they can’t see. And of course, a mural, eerily reminiscent of Dora Lange’s murder staging, antler crowns and all, is hidden in plain sight. Nowhere is safe, not even (or, should we say, ESPECIALLY) not the God’s home.
Having said that: I watched episode 1 three times, and watched episode 2 twice, and the show while seemingly straightforward (and moving at a decently well paced speed for something with 8 episodes, implying that there are many twisty detours to come) is so richly layered in imagery and visual metaphor it almost warrants a second recap of pure conspiracy theory. From Dora mentioning “strange is the night where black stars rise” which formed a perfect bookmark cue to the black star tattoo rising from her friend’s neck, to Hart’s babygirls playing with sets of Barbie dolls in tragic car accidents (something that is bound to touch close to Cohle’s home), every single scene, it seems, means a little (a lot?) more than it shows.
So, while you sit in your chair chomping at the bit for episode 3, use that as a mental playground-unlike most shows, this is one that truly does reward repeat viewings. Just don’t blame me if you find yourself not being able to get any sleep.