I couldn’t sleep last night. Perhaps it was the booze throwing off my sleep patterns (although I would have expected a alcoholic oblivion, and waking not refreshed, rather than not sleeping at all). I was tired, but couldn’t sleep, even as the muscles in my head tightened around me like a huge claw. At around 3a.m. I gave up all pretence of trying to get any rest, and went and watched most of the first season of True Detective, before finally getting to sleep around 6, only to be woken an hour later when my wife called. So it would be a reasonable inference from this that I didn’t get to go running this morning.
I was sort of aware of True Detective this year, although it wasn’t available to watch in Singapore (we don’t subscribe to any TV channels, and it’s not on the Singaporean iTunes store) so I didn’t know anything about it. I’d heard it was good though, so last Thursday I used my UK credit card to buy it from the UK iTunes store, intending to ration myself to one episode per night.
I watched two episodes back to back, then two more on Friday night, three this morning, and the last one when I finally got out of bed at 1p.m. today. I suppose it’s good that there’s only eight episodes in the season.
In some ways, it’s a fairly standard set up. There are two detectives, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, who are partnered up and don’t get along. Woody plays Marty, the good ol’ boy and family man, while McConaughey’s character, Rust Cohle, is the cynical nihilist. Hilarity, etc ensues.
It’s not as standard as all that. Marty turns out to not be such a great husband (again, a fairly standard trope) and Rust is perhaps not such a nihilist as he first seems. The crime they are investigating is an occult murder in the farmlands on the coast of Louisiana, back in 1995. As the series starts, we watch somebody carrying things under cover of darkness; it was only when I rewatched this (I watched half the first episode on a plane on the way back from London last week, which is what convinced me to pay for this) that I realised it was the murderer moving things into position.
For most of True Detective, there’s no action. Marty and Rust are being interviewed about the case, from a police station office in 2012. The scenes cut between Marty and Rust talking to the camera (kept separate from one another) with the history as it played out. Various things are hinted at that are gradually revealed in the retrospective scenes, or omitted entirely from Rust’s and Marty’s testimonies. Thus it’s a very slow moving drama, although that means when we do hit action, it feels that much more intense.
The music is terrific; a very foreboding blend of blues from the bayou, both modern and (at least to my ears) ancient. Likewise the central mystery of why the murder(s) have been committed is wrapped around Lovecraftian horror like The King In Yellow (a mythical play that drives anyone who reads it insane), although the more pagan aspects of the killings feel less like Lovecraft’s etiolated, squamous and rugose thoughts. What’s more like Lovecraft in spirit is Rust’s character, picturing the universe as a dark, hostile place where humans are much less important than they think they are.
So, mostly it’s a lot of talking, in quite difficult accents, and maybe that’s worse if you haven’t had any sleep. A few of the episodes are a bit uneven; the seventh episode, in particular, seemed to flag a bit, though that may have been observer bias brought on by my utter fatigue.
Most fiction set in Louisiana finds it mandatory to go to New Orleans; aside from one short scene, True Detective avoids that, instead lingering on the swamps and the levees, and grim housing estates. The whole thing is shot beautifully, even if it’s filled with murders, child prostitution, incest and madness.
Some loose ends are never tied up. Apparently the internet (or some small but noisy fraction of it) was agog with speculation about the identity of the Yellow King, the meanings of the symbols that repeat again and again through the series, that sort of thing. To its credit, True Detective never bothers to tidy everything up: somethings remain mysteries to the very end. And despite the horrible goings-on, it’s thankfully not too explicit about them: there’s no shuddering horror displayed on screen that you have to hide your gaze from.
Whether the payoff is enough at the end or not could be argued. I felt as if the plot was getting too complicated as we reached the end, and the resolution, although optimistic (which helps after watching eight hours of mostly grim darkness) may not match entirely with the tone that’s already established. I’m left wondering who the eponymous True Detective was – perhaps I should have read more things on the internet first.