ON THE CASE
A southern gothic crime drama takes us into a mesmerising, evil world
THE unsettling new HBO series
a show carried irresistibly by a heavy loan of atavistic dread, continued to intrigue and attract new followers even as we approached the final episode last week. And it will continue to do so, as its eight episodes are continually replayed on Foxtel’s Showcase, now the home of HBO. No, the series is not particularly factbased, despite the title, which seems to deliberately hark back to the 1930s era of the detective pulp magazines, where victims were hunted and tortured by sadistic villains full of gothic menace and titillating villainy.
Even so, there has been plenty of both in this mesmerising drama as its central characters — two tormented Louisiana cops — prowl a territory that looks dystopian: a corrupted, degrading Eden that Washington forgot. It’s a landscape of deserted power plants, desolate burned-out churches, highly armed drug-running bikers and isolated communities crawling with religious zealotry; a place where almost nothing or no one is exactly who or what they seem to be.
And is, in many ways — it encompasses many genres — a contemporary western, its investigators spiritual ancestors of the type of gunfighters who settled the frontier but who now wander this exhausted place looking for redemption. Written and created by Nic Pizzolatto (
and directed by Cary Fukunaga ( it follows the way the lives of these two homicide cops collide and entangle during a 17year hunt for a killer, from the original investigation of a bizarre murder in 1995 to the reopening of the case nearly 20 years later.
The drama begins in the present when the detectives, no longer active, give statements about the long-ago murder of a prostitute; then moves back and forth in sometimes dizzying cycles. Killing) Eyre),
True The Jane
stars Woody Harrelson good ol’ boy Martin Hart, a man of unravelling demons, and Oscar-winner Matthew McConaughey as Rust Cohle, who views the world nihilistically as nothing but pain and suffering. There’s also Michelle Monaghan (
as Maggie, Hart’s wife; Kevin Dunn as Major Quesada, the supervising offi-
Detective possible III) Veep)
Mission: Im- ( cer in 1995; and Tory Kittles ( and Michael Potts ( as detectives Papania and Gilbough, the investigators probing Hart and Cohle.
The series turned into a beguiling amalgam of highbrow fiction, thriller, philosophical primer, cutting social commentary and a fine piece of police procedural. At times it’s eerily reminiscent of the novels of James Lee Burke, whose darkly moralistic evocations of crime and punishment in Louisiana also probe the shifting boundaries between the powerful and power-
Sons of Anarchy) The Wire) less, past and present and, especially, good and evil in modern America. Like Burke’s deep south, Pizzolatto’s state of Louisiana is a profoundly decadent world, its dissolution measured by the increasingly visible link between respectability and morally repugnant crime.
Pizzolatto and Fukunaga, who collaborated on all the episodes, have intertwined several emotionally complex narratives that leap between the years, but their overall story drops hints to murky past events before we see their clarification. The enigmatic Cohle, known as the Taxman — unlike the small notepad of other officers, he carries a big ledger — dominates the investigation, susceptible to hallucinations and poetical existentialist musings and likely to explode at any moment.
The series may have started with an investigation by the two cops into the seemingly occult murder of a young woman called Dora Lange but soon they operate without badges in the attempt to seek justice for more than one victim. As we reached the conclusion there seemed to be a secret alliance between the rich and respectable and the criminal underworld and, after a terrible falling out, Cohle and Hart arrived at an accommodation to crack it. As Cohle said at the beginning of this saga: “This kind of thing doesn’t happen in a vacuum.’’ The True Detective is two investigators.
Cohle also got to deliver one of the most brutal lines delivered on a TV cop show: “The newspapers are going to be tough on you, and prison is very, very hard on people who hurt kids. If you get the opportunity, you should kill yourself.” It might have been deserved too in the case of a female three-time child killer but more than anything it demonstrated Cohle’s complete lack of faith in the institutions of law to punish or protect her.
Cohle is unlike the classical fictional detective for whom evil is an abnormal disruption of an essentially benevolent social order caused by a specific set of criminal motives — he has learned, obviously bitterly, that evil is endemic to the running of things. There’s something almost feudal about him, his action-oriented code of honour transcending the existing social order, but his dogged pursuit of the Yellow King case brings emotional damage even as it seeks to make things right.
If you have followed the show closely you probably know about its connection to
a horror story collection by Robert W. Chambers, with Pizzolatto’s script referencing not only the Yellow King but the cursed fictional city of Carcosa (plucked by Chambers from the seminal work of Ambrose Bierce). This collection of stories influenced writers from HP Lovecraft and Raymond Chandler to Robert Heinlein, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman and George RR Martin. Pizzolatto haunts us not only with quotations in Dora Lange’s diary but
The King recurring black star symbols appearing as tattoos and doodles, and talk of ominous black spirals and this unknown place called Carcosa.
If you chase around the internet you go a little crazy as you attempt to decipher the countless, almost Talmudic readings of ontological complexity explaining the relationship between
its anguished characters and the symbols drawn from so-called “weird fiction”.
Pizzolatto is less highbrow, citing in the show’s conception 70s British cop show and “the three Davids” — Chase (
Milch ( Simon ( — along with Michael Mann ( says Faulkner is there as an influence, too, as well as Dashiell Hammett’s in which against the lurid background of a savage and corrupt society the hard-boiled detective stands out as a beacon of disinterested morality.
Others see the series as set in the tradition of southern gothic exemplified by Thomas Harris’s a term Flannery O’Connor said “conjures up an image of gothic monstrosities and the idea of a preoccupation with everything deformed and grotesque’’.
There is what Pizzolatto calls “a significant element of real world horror” in the series but it’s really about what he calls “a locked room — where everyone’s life exists in its own intensity”, and he says inside each locked room there just may be several houses. And nicely enigmatic too, Pizzolatto, who with Fukunaga maintains a running commentary after each episode on the HBO website. They’re as entertaining and as impenetrable as Rust Cohle. But it’s clear they have concocted a narrative that is itself a house full of many different rooms.
And they are the only ones with the keys. Pizzolatto wrote all eight episodes of the first season by himself, locked, he says, in a converted garage, working on the script of more than 500 pages for 2½ to three months.
“The walls were covered with Post-it notes filled with tiny handwriting,” he says. “My office looked like something out of
Fukunaga directed every episode, where normally other directors would have been used — employed 25 directors for its 62 episodes. Their idea was to combine the best of independent cinema with television, a kind of eight-hour movie.
How did it end? You won’t get it from me as Showcase will be repeating the entire series again soon.
All Pizzolatto said is that while he wants to take us to a kind of heart of darkness, an existential one, “it is just as concerned with understanding how people wait out the darkness with strength and hope and love’’. But if you’re desperate to have a taste, the channel is repeating the final four episodes tonight.
True Detective, Sweeney, Sopranos), Wire)
The Silence of the Lambs,
Red The The The Heat).
A Beautiful Mind.”
Saturday, 9.30pm, Showcase
Main picture, Matthew McConaughey, right, with Charles Halford in True Detective; and with Woody Harrelson, above