Monday, March 10, 2014

The Poison Creosote: "True Detective," Season 1

The greatness of True Detective, HBO's crime anthology series that just wrapped its first season last night, begins with its theme song. "Far from Any Road," by alternative Americana band The Handsome Family, is a haunting murder ballad that takes cues from gothic fiction and Southwestern folk music. In the first lines, singer Brett Sparks, in a low baritone, bellows, "her looming shadow grows / hidden in the branches of the poison creosote." Creosote is a flowering bush that grows in the American Southwest, can be used as a medicinal herb (though this is not recommended), and, as it grows older (30-90 years), often sees its "crown" split into a new, genetically-identical bush. The "King Clone," a creosote ring in the Mojave Desert, is estimated to be at least 11,700 years old. The creosote bloom is yellow.

To diehard fans of the show, those few facts about the creosote plant automatically conjure up images of "the Yellow King" and musings about time and space. But more on that later.

When Nic Pizzolatto's show debuted in January, it seemed like a fairly standard crime drama that was only separated from other prestige crime shows by its starry cast. Pizzolatto, who also wrote every episode of the first season, established early on that True Detective would be different from Nordic noir adaptations such as The Killing and The Bridge in that each season would tell a completely different story, using different actors each time (this is similar to the strategy that American Horror Story uses). The first episode, "The Long Bright Dark," establishes the premise: detectives Rustin "Rust" Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) are called in by the Louisiana State Police to give their accounts of a 1995 murder case they worked after a copycat murder appears in the present day (a hurricane destroyed most of the case files from 1995). Through flashbacks we see how the following 17 years unfold for the two men, from Marty's domestic troubles with his wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan) to Rust's mysterious disappearances and obsession with the case.

More after the jump. *SPOILERS BELOW*

If there's one word that can really describe True Detective, it's "sprawling." The timeline of 17 years presents the evolution of Marty and Rust; or, rather, their semi-lack of evolution. Rust is clearly facing a psychic break at the beginning of the case, but it does take a toll on him. His obsessive drive and determination, on top of his hallucinations, makes him a prime suspect for the copycat murders on the surface, but the flashbacks reveal that he is a man driven by his own definitions of right and wrong, of justice and crime. Marty, on the other hand, prides himself in being a good cop and a "family man," doting on his wife and children. However, he's involved with various affairs over the years, proving nearly incapable of viewing women as anything but objects. This aspect of the show has drawn criticisms for being misogynistic, though director Cary Joji Fukunaga (Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre) - who directed all eight episodes of the season - does a great job at distancing the audience from Marty, holding him up for pity and disgust, not heroism. Though the final episode, "Form and Void," gives the two men as close to a heroic ending as the show can afford, there's still an ambiguity about whether or not they've been redeemed. Vindicated, certainly, but "redeemed" is much more questionable.

The show is sprawling in its visual language as well. More than anything, Fukunaga makes terrific use of the Louisiana landscape (filmed on location). The haunting stretches of bayou, peppered with steel-grey refineries billowing white smoke into the sky, are the perfect backdrop for this kind of story, evocative of the area's history of occult activity without ever directly referencing any voodoo inspirations. Moreover, Fukunaga stages scenes inventively, keeping the show visually engaging with the power of suggestion. The high point, visually, is the now-famous six-minute long-take that closed the series' fourth episode, "Who Goes There." The single take follows Rust as he (undercover) assists a biker game score a major heist in a project housing development, and using an unbroken shot, it depicts the chaos that unfolds after the job goes wrong. It's a remarkable piece of visual storytelling, and is a perfect encapsulation of how confident Fukunaga and the show are in their visuals.

It's also a show of sprawling thematic content. Pizzolatto demonstrates his ambitions by constantly shifting the style of the narrative, moving from one idea to another that keeps the show invigorating. The deposition-flashback structure is used for the first four episodes, allowing Marty to give a version of events that paints him in a sympathetic light while Rust espouses several rambling monologues about the nature of good and evil and time being a flat circle (an idea derived from Friedrich Nietzsche). However, the fifth episode pulls the rug out from under this structure, playfully subverting and exploiting the concept of unreliable narrators and how both are men are reshaping the past to fit their fantasies. From there, it transitions to a fairly straightforward story, as the men reunite to reopen the case for themselves and finally find the culprit.

Similarly, the show draws heavily from the traditions of "weird fiction," particularly Robert W. Chambers' short-story collection The King in Yellow. Weird fiction is a genre in which the supernatural affects the actions of the story, but almost in indirect ways, as the horror of these stories is derived from more existential fears. In Chambers' case, "The King in Yellow" is a play that appears in several of his stories; anyone who reads the play is driven mad by the truths it exposes. Throughout the show's eight episodes, "The King in Yellow" is referenced directly and indirectly, as are other Chambers motifs such as the land of Carcosa (as the name of the central cult). In many ways, True Detective itself is a work of weird fiction, telling the story of two men who stare into the darkness and see the monsters that lurk within it but can't avert their gaze. But the show also presents this case as Marty and Rust's "The King in Yellow": they keep reading, keep pursuing horrific truths, and as a result their lives are irreparably altered. There are touches of the supernatural, but for the most part they're all in Rust's head (maybe?). All of this works to create a creepy, otherworldly atmosphere that helps elevate the show beyond a conventional cop drama.

Who knows what True Detective will bring next season. Pizzolatto has left the door open for any number of possibilities, and he could just as easily present a new story that is in no way like this first season. Ultimately, this first season was a stunner: anchored by two phenomenal performances from McConaughey and Harrelson and narrative and visual boldness from Pizzolatto and Fukunaga, respectively, the show was like nothing else on television. If anything, the first season should be remembered as a terrifically moody work about two men who stare into the abyss and are forever changed by what stares back.

Season grade: A

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