True Detective: The Terrifying Show I Can’t Stop Watching
True Detective is my new favorite show but it’s so damn disturbing I wish it wasn’t.
It’s the kind of show where one character says something seemingly insightful and in the next moment, another blows that sentiment to bits. And they both make a point. You are often left with your head shaking and unsure.
Of the characters.
Of the truth.
Of what you believe.
Let me be clear: this is not an easy show to watch. Two detectives are tracking a serial killer. Rust Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey) and Marty (played by Woody Harrelson). There are two other detectives following up, over a decade later, when there’s another murder from a supposedly closed case.
You aren’t sure if one of the original detectives is the serial killer or is desperate to solve the case himself. You aren’t sure if the new detectives with an open case are trying to solve a case or part of a conspiracy.
The serial killer’s methods of killing are particularly gruesome. I generally sleep on the couch instead of my bed after watching an episode. It’s creepy enough that downing episodes of Downton Abby and Girls do nothing to clear my mental palette after the show.
And the sculptures of the serial killers, made from dried twigs and branches, are so strongly associated with the psycho and his murders that now all driftwood art is ruined for me.
Still I return to watch.
Will they catch the bad guy? What happened between Rust and Marty? After an entire episode I am left with more questions than answers. Maybe that’s the draw.
In no one scene, episode or character can you get a complete picture of what is going on in the past, present or future. Like life. But unlike real life, there’s open examination of the shadow side of people. There’s pondering of big issues such as the nature of time, life and death, religion and the fourth dimension, during an interrogation.
And also, the grief and regrets of middle-aged men who have lost or are losing family life.
The heavy and dark material is made much easier to watch because the dialogue is incredible, the filming interesting and scenes with Matthew McConaughey in a tank top or something which reveals ripped arms and vulnerable shoulders. It’s not as superficial as eye candy (though there’s that). McConaughey transforms from clean-cut, shell-shocked and disturbingly introspective and antisocial to chain-smoking, beer guzzling haggard man who appears drained of his energy, color and drive but doesn’t stop talking.
It’s difficult to figure out how or why he’s still around and what’s happened to him. You wonder about the time covered as Marty’s partner. You wonder about his married life and the death of his daughter. You wonder about his childhood and relationship with his own parents. All is left mysterious. And relevant. And Marty is a puzzle as well.
Sometimes likable. Usually despicable. Always entertaining.
He’s seemingly less complex than Rust but only at first. Family life is an ideal he embraces but a reality he fails to measure up to or deprive satisfaction from. Rust, the antisocial loner is paradoxically “against” love but seems to more decent in his actual interactions with Marty’s family than Marty does.
It’s hard to know which character you like more or trust less but the ambivalence doesn’t keep you from being drawn into each of their personal lives as well as the case they are working. I spend a long time trying to guess at where the plot is going, feeling highs and lows and finding myself attached to and repulsed by the main characters.
The show reminds me a bit of Rescue Me, not plot wise, but because of the moments of great humor and questionable jokes, the “good” characters who betray and the “bad” ones who have moments of heroism. The chaos, recklessness and self-destructive tendencies of those characters eventually got old but not before several seasons of enjoying striking contradictions.
It too had lots of men in various stages of nakedness which is a refreshing change since it’s usually on the women on TV who are scantily clad.
Shows like True Detectives, Rescue Me and even the Sopranos and In Treatment have excellent dialogue. All have (or had) messy and raw real life dramas, personal lives on the periphery and the backdrop work life (as firefighters, shrinks, detectives and mobsters) strong enough to be a main character. The only major network TV show that has similar elements, that I watch, is the Good Wife.
Cable shows are employing fabulous writers. Some of the most memorable scenes end with a great one liner. For example, Rust is the morose and pathologically antisocial one. Marty is the sociable “family man” who seems happier. Early in the season the Marty character defends his drinking and womanizing as something needed to balance the impact of the job, as though the blowing off the steam is almost a service he performs to keep from bringing the job home. Rust says to Marty, “People incapable of guilt usually have a good time.”
Suddenly, Mr. Happy doesn’t seem so up. And Mr. Morose has an unexpected moral compass as he challenges Marty’s dogged pursuit of his own gratification. Is Rust so miserable because he’s good at the core? Is Marty even truly satisfied? Of course not. But it sneaks up on you. And him.
Rust on the other hand makes other detectives in the office uncomfortable but also you as the viewer as well. He’s self-righteous and dismissive of most of the human race. Despite being smart he is often arrogant. He can come across as Mr. Insightful one minute and disturbed in the next. Is he brilliant, crazy or both?
I don’t think Rust is the killer but I don’t think he’s entirely innocent either. His hunting of the serial killer seems to be some sort of personal quest for redemption related to the death of his young daughter. Of course, that may just be wishful thinking on my part. Who wants to find anything likable or interesting about a killer even if he’s fictional? It’s easier to watch and believe there is some big organized cover up by the police or some overzealous preacher on drugs leading people to murder. That feels more distant. Less intimate. A little less disturbing at least.
Still, I have to close my eyes at the violence.
I don’t mean metaphorically look away, as in denial, but literally. The way in which the bodies of women and children are depicted by the people who make this show makes my stomach turn. That’s probably intentional but it’s frightening. I wonder if men who make shows like this or watch it have any idea of how fear inducing it is for women to watch? We know, in real life, how often women are savagely objectified and violated and threatened.
And as hard as that is to watch, the violence to children is more shocking. It too sends off primal alarms.
There’s violence to men as well, gun shots to the head at close range, that come so fast you can’t avoid them. But so far the violence to men is usually “justified” or something that is made “understandable” because of how horrific they have behaved whereas the bodies of women and children are often littered in the scenery like props. Those are the images that linger too long and evoke fear.
I try to close my eyes to prevent ingesting the violence without missing any of the plot. It’s disquieting but never so much that I don’t return for the next episode. Which is annoying. I’m hooked to a show that makes it hard to fall asleep. I’m not sure what that says about the show or me.
But I’m in it now and have to know who is the killer and what happened to Marty and Rust? To their relationship and their lives. Is Maggie somehow involved? What will happen to the daughter?
And what’s up with the crown of Marty’s daughter going up in the tree? That was the brilliant television because it implied to much without being graphic or disgusting. That crown in the breeze over the heads and in the tree looking like the wooden sculptures…
A clue? A commentary? Chills…