There is a darkness on the Louisiana bayou. Women and children disappear, leaving jagged stick sculptures behind. Lives are ruined, souls are devoured. And to make it stop, Detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart walk to the edge of sanity and beyond.
True Detective's tagline is "Man is the cruelest animal." And the series may be television's cruelest show.
The HBO program, which in its first season boasts longtime movie star Woody Harrelson and newly minted Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey, is a brooding work of prickly horror. The title stems from the pulp crime fiction of the early 20th century, particularly the periodical True Detective. (HBO says that each season will feature a new plot with new characters and actors.) For at least this first season, the plot is also steeped in weird, spiritual terror.
For Rust and Marty, the case began as a simple murder investigation. It was triggered by the death of a prostitute found positioned as if praying to a tree, her head crowned with deer antlers. But then they uncover what could be a truly horrific cult—one that ritualistically demands the rape and murder of women and children—and a grand cover-up by politicians, police and even the clergy. We learn about child molestations at church camps and demons in masks. We hear references to the Yellow King and a green-eared "spaghetti monster." We drown in the darkest recesses of the flawed mortal soul. And because much of the story is told in flashback, we see the toll it has taken on the spirits of our protagonists as well.
If viewers think they can turn to a couple of heroes in Rust and Marty, they are robbed of that too. Yes, the detectives want to bring these monsters to justice. And yet they, in their own way, are beasts as well—victims and servants of their own uncontrolled hungers and predilections. Both drink constantly. Rust does copious amounts of drugs. Marty—a man who claims to adhere to law and morality—has an affair. Rust has sex with Marty's wife. They're willing to torture and kill to bring the 17-year-old case to a close. And the nihilistic Rust believes it may be the last thing of value he ever does, suggesting that once they're done, he'll kill himself.
Series creator and scriptwriter Nic Pizzolatto says the unremitting darkness of True Detective hides slivers of light. Of self-destructive Rust, Pizzolatto tells The Wall Street Journal that "He's too passionate, too acutely sensitive, and he cares too much to be labeled a successful nihilist. And in his monologues, don't we detect a whiff of desperation akin to someone who protests too much?" And though True Detective seems determined to drag itself and its audience into a world of nightmares, he cautions that the show's "agenda" will not be clear until the final episode.
But as well-constructed as this series may be, and as many cards as it chooses to hold close, it's hard to believe that any payoff could be worth this twisted and terrible ride.
In one episode, Marty tells Rust why he left the police force. During a case, he discovered that a disturbed mother had tried to dry off her infant in a microwave oven. We watch as he opens the oven and stares, aghast. Sick.
"I didn't want to look at anything like that anymore," he says.
We might well say the same thing.
"After You're Gone"
Marty watches a videotape of a young girl who is blindfolded and tied down by the cult disciples. The implication is that she's raped. He and Rust interview a cross-dressing male hooker in a gay bar (where we see homosexual couples kiss). He recounts how he was molested at a church camp when he was a child—an act probably linked to an occult ceremony. (Someone who seems to know something about such ceremonies fondly touches drawings of eerie stick constructions and mysteriously says, "Death is not the end. Rejoice.")
Rust seems suicidal. And we hear about other acts of violence. Guns are pointed. Rust threatens to torture somebody with a car battery and jumper cables.
Rust steals evidence. He and Marty drink beer and whiskey. Rust smokes and admits to Marty that he spent most of the last decade "stoned and drunk." (He now works as a bartender.) We hear the f-word more than 20 times, the s-word at least eight. Also: "p‑‑‑," "h‑‑‑" and "a‑‑." Jesus' name is abused three or four times, and God's is paired with "d‑‑n" about the same. Crude references are made to oral sex.