True Detective is afraid of itself

The latest Best Series Ever™ has come out of HBO, and it’s True Detective. An eight-part miniseries chronicling a sprawling 17 year murder investigation in rural Louisiana, and now that it’s concluded, it is possible to escape the interminable episode-by-episode breakdown mix of half-understanding and conjecture and analyse the series as a single entity. And as a whole True Detective just doesn’t work; the arse had really fallen out of proceedings by the time the disappointing and cliché-ridden finale slouched into view. It was clear what killed True Detective, a bizarre fear of its own success.

It begins with perhaps the greatest opening title sequence of any show. Brilliantly evocative, understated, textured and mature; and nice to see an actual title sequence and not just the title, a-la Sherlock or Breaking Bad. I’m prone to binge-watching television, rather than week-by-week episodically, and True Detective was no different, I watched the first three episodes together, and became convinced that by the end it would override Generation Kill as my Favourite Show Of All Time™; but those final five episodes bled out everything I loved about the show, leaving only an above-average episode of CSI.

True Detective soars with still images, the murdered corpse of a woman, posed, marked, abandoned in a burned-out field. The grimy caffeine-and-paper work of investigative cops. A sedan bumping down a dusty empty road towards a ramshackle hurricane-blown village; all the same, all different. It also triumphed with scripting; the nihilistic literary creation of Rust Cohle could be the single greatest television character of all time. Bleak, laconic and utterly honest. He is paired with Marty Hart, a more conventional wife and kids, game and Budweiser at the weekend kind of cop; but inhabited by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson respectively, Cohle and Hart become more than ‘characters’ and feel like complete people. Cohle seems to rise to the web of occult clues and dead ends that investigation throws up, and in the cutaways to a 2012 interview, seems to be much worse off than the clean cut 17 years older Hart. The show portrays investigation with these characters, in these landscapes, as it is, a maze of dead-ends, half clues, and cul-de-sacs that appear more as a series of flashbulb images in a darkened room than a thread of logic. It isn’t afraid to take its time, moment by moment or as a series. Individual conversational moments, or shots, linger tantalisingly. The world these detectives inhabit is beautifully fleshed out, their relationship believable.

In the much-touted fourth episode is where things begin to go awry. In an ambitious but misplaced point about East Texan biker gangs and a single-shot robbery/gang war cracks the veneer of verisimilitude that had been flawless up to that point. The oppressive heat in which alcoholism, daily evil and occult terror festered evaporated to leave a well-written but brittle crime story, with needless emotional drama. After taking hours to cover days of their work, the series nimbly hops, skips and jumps over the subsequent seventeen years, losing the continuity of character in the process. The series never regained its form, leaving many of the threads untied, in an unsatisfying way, and devolving to type at the end. For a series imbued with such originality of character, of script, of location and pacing, to devolve into a Silence of the Lambs haunted house section, where the villain is an incestuous scarred redneck was deeply disappointing. A meaningless coda even goes so far as to demolish the character of Rust Cohle, and have the two walk off, buddy cop style. Stopping just short of having them walk away from an explosion in slow motion.

The first three episodes of True Detective are deep, immersive, powerful and confined. Taught and tense like McConaughey’s Rust Cohle. Watch them, and just imagine a better conclusion to the series than the one we were given.

Written under duress by Steven.

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