True Detective (2014 – 2019)

9 min read

Intentions/Purpose

How do I begin? I guess from the beginning is always good… It might be, but, on the other hand, is it as interesting? “As interesting as what?” you may ask. As beginning from a different part of the timeline and building up my narrative non-linearly… Maybe I could start by stating some facts that you know, may know, or potentially would like to know, and leave the non-linear storytelling up to True Detective.

Why does the narrative work in this series, how does the unique character development push the three stories forward? I will walk you through the facts and my interpretations of it over the years, defending or opposing certain accolades and accusations. It is perhaps wishful thinking that my personal reflection, if you have watched the show, will shed some more (or different) light on the way you have interpreted it so far, and if you haven’t, it will urge you to sit down and watch with an open mind. Thus, I will not touch on the plot points or spoil the carefully chosen endings.

This article aims to inform and, hopefully, entertain the reader.

Narrative: An Introduction

If someone walks up to you asking, Have you watched X?, chances are that, if you haven’t, you will ask them back, What’s the story about? You wouldn’t ask What’s the plot about? In Russian Formalism, one encounters two major elements: the fabula and the syuzhet. Fabula refers to the events presented in the story; syuzhet is the plot, the arrangement of those events in the narrative text.

To put it plainly, a film’s log line is the story summarised in a couple of lines. How this story develops and unfolds is the plot. You may have noticed, after watching something with an intricate plot, after everything is said, done, and revealed, there is a natural tendency to piece everything back together in the right chronological order in your mind, so it makes sense and can be understood better.

The intricacy of this kind of storytelling aims at creating an indirect causality pattern. A masterfully told non-linear story constantly raises ambiguity with regard to what the audiences know and the protagonists don’t, what the protagonists know that audiences don’t, and finally, what all of us think we know and what we actually do. The ultimate convolution presents itself the moment you start asking What is happening while being unaware of When it is happening.

True Detective Season 1

Story

In 1995, Detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hard are called in to investigate a young woman’s murder. Evidence points out that she was a victim of a Satanic ritual, and eventually, their investigation leads them to disturbing and inconvenient truths. Years later, in 2012, they are called in again for an interview, separately this time. They are asked questions about the same case. Unbeknownst to us, the two of them have fallen out, and haven’t spoken since 2002. Towards the end of the season, and after their interviews are over, the two men meet again…

Narrative & Character Development

Cohle: “If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward, then, brother, that person is a piece of shit—and I’d like to get as many of them out in the open as possible.”

With themes spanning from Masculinity and Depiction of Women to religion, to philosophical pessimism and more, the first season of True Detective debuted to and averaged over 2 million views per episode, becoming one of the most viewed series of all time (as of 2014). This success also contributed to the disappointment regarding its second season. You may wonder why or how a story such as the above can generate such hype. Well, I guess it is not the story. It is how the story is developed, along with the characters in it.

Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), insightful, charismatic, tough as nails, self-destructive, atheist, pessimist, misanthropist—nihilist even—is obsessed with humanity’s, and as a consequence, morality’s decay. From beginning to end, regardless of technological advancements, modernity, and new comforts throughout the decades, the decay still infects the rotten core of human nature, valuing us less than dogs*it. According to Cohle anyway…

Cohle: “I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution… We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, that accretion of sensory experience and feelings, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody’s nobody… I think the honorable thing for our species to do is to deny our programming. Stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction; one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.”

Hard (Woody Harrelson), devoted detective, caring (but not so devoted) family man, religious, mows his own loan, pushes for the American dream, works hard for his daughters to see a better world. Interestingly though, he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know who he is. What is he to Cohle? The only one who can be his partner. And that is due to more than one reason.

Both Cohle and Hard belong to the highest (humanly) possible detective level. With the first ranking near the top, and the latter closer to the bottom. But one cannot be without the other. Their personalities, idiosyncrasies, and antitheses only reveal how broken both of them are in many different ways, and despite their non-congeniality, their kindred hatred for the world’s status quo unfolds fluently in an unmistakable, whodunit-style narrative.

From 1995 to 2012 and back, the viewer is glued to their seats, craving to find out how things came to be, what Carcosa is and how it is related to the narrative, what happened in 2002, what is it that they know and we don’t, and what is it that they don’t know about each other. Ultimately, we get to the subtexts of corrupted politicians, crooked religious institutions, poverty, crime, prostitution, violence, pedophilia, and the notion that everyone getting away with everything in this world somehow justifies our villainous natures. The terror expands beyond a monster offering human sacrifices.

Favourite Sequences
  • Cohle’s introduction
  • “There is a videotape…”
  • The Infiltration Tracking Shot
  • Entering Carcosa

True Detective Season 3

Story

In 1980, Detectives Wayne “Purple” Hays (Mahershala Ali) and Roland West (Stephen Dorff) are called in to investigate the disappearance of two children. After their findings are proven to be inconclusive, the case is closed, and Hays is demoted. In 1990, West reopens the case and brings him back on the team. New, disturbing, and inconvenient truths are revealed this time around, but the case is closed again. In 2015, towards the end of the season, Old Man Hays and his estranged old partner West, meet again…

Narrative & Character Development

Hays: “One thing I learned, the war? Life happens now. Then later’s now, y’know? It’s never behind you.”

West: “See, I always wondered, all these butt-faced pieces of garbage walkin’ the earth, who’s makin’ ’em? I mean, what kind of Frankenstein monsters are out there copulatin’ to create all these hunk of shit people in the world? Then I walk in this bar, and there’s you two givin’ me the answer I’ve been lookin’ for my whole fuckin’ life.”

Past, present, and future, where the future is the present and the present is the past… the story starts unfolding on November 7, 1980, the day Steve McQueen died.

Following the success of the first season, and avoiding the disappointment of the second, True Detective’s third season takes place not in one but two different full decades, and, as with season 1, only glimpses yet another. This time, despite their differences, the contrast between the two detectives does not revolve so much around their intellectual, political, religious inclinations, and their skill levels, but around the attitude towards race in the United States of the 1980s and 90s. We see how their interracial partnership/friendship/relationship brings results, occasionally by unorthodox means.

Right off the bat, the two children who go missing in 1980 instigate Hays and West into action. The non-linear narrative then takes us to and fro, never giving us the full picture about the crime, and also holding back from us the state of the detectives. From 1980, to 1990, to 2015 and back, the mystery heightens, involving different people and various elements, making the viewer constantly doubt what they know and what they think they know, how on earth did the situation escalate to that level, and what may have caused it. Furthermore, since we live in the present, we go through this journey through Old Man Hays’s eyes, whose remembrances are coloured by dementia, who is trying to come to terms with his fragmented mind.

With no extended, gratifying, existential monologues, the narrative here focuses on the system’s failure, society’s misconceptions, the voluntary and involuntary omission of what is in front of us, and last but not least, the reflections of two young and energetic detectives who have turned old, fragile, and remorseful, but who are still dedicated.

Favourite Sequences
  • The Brett-Woodard Shootout
  • Finding Hoyt
  • Tom Purcell’s Breakdown
  • West “Complimenting” Strangers

True Detective Season 2

Story

Vinci’s city manager is found murdered. Detectives Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), and Officer Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch)—first law enforcement on scene—take charge of the case, all of them with different personal and political agendas in mind. The case spirals out of control when Frank Semyon (an ex-mafioso turned legit casino owner, played by Vince Vaughn), Russians, prostitutes, and corrupted police and politicians are found to be involved.

Narrative & Character Development

Velcoro pays a visit to a kid’s house, the one who bullied his kid. Father and son stand by the door. Velcoro bullies the kid in front of his father, beats the life out of the father in front of his son, grabs the son by the collar, and looks him straight in the eyes: “If you ever bully or hurt anybody again, I’ll come back and butt-fuck your father with your mom’s headless corpse on this goddamn lawn.”

What is it that led to people’s disappointment with season 2? What was it that season 2 failed to achieve? Why were people let down? Indeed, some were even insulted by it. Season 3 was then made as almost a replica of season 1.

The first installment of True Detective is a police drama, bringing a new approach on the franchise. The differences and similarities with season 1 and 3 in terms of character development are not overt. According to the vast majority, there is more than one elephant in the room here, both with respect to narrative and character development. The entirety of season 2 is set in one timeline, and the protagonists are not as philosophical.

Did the second season generate as many quotes as the first? It certainly did not. But neither did season 3, which followed the same recipe. Is it metaphysical? No, but why should it be? Does it focus on two detectives and the differences between them? No, but it focuses on four main characters and their dysfunctional partnership/relationship surrounding their professional duties, society’s misconceptions, common and separate unforeseen enemies, their personal shenanigans, dubious backgrounds, and fears that drive and determine their decisions.

Velcoro is an insightful, disheveled drunkard, who wholeheartedly loves and raises a kid whose father is his ex’s rapist. Bezzerides is a lonely, damaged feminist who takes on the world. Woodrugh is an ex-marine not to be messed with, his closeted homosexuality makes him hate himself more than his foes. And all three of them are top-shelf in what they do! Throw in a conspiracy, high level corruption, and pure decadence, and there really is nothing to doubt this season’s quality.

Favourite Sequences
  • Visiting the Bully
  • Bezzerides in and out of Mansion
  • Midday Shootout
  • Woodrugh’s Solo Mission

Conclusion

The subtexts are not far off from one another. Look closely and you will identify the patterns. I can understand the need for a repetition of the way the first season unfolded, but expecting a different story to be told the same way and somehow yield better results than the original is utopic. Narratives and characters are meant to be explored and developed in different ways. Trial and error is part of the process, it avoids stagnation, and leads to the evolution of storytelling as we know it. It is my humble belief that we shouldn’t be casting stones. What if we took a step back and tried to understand why a story was told in a certain way? Maybe accept the creator’s vision for the story’s setup. And finally, stop expecting, start accepting, stick around for the resolution and then wonder, What if the ending isn’t really the ending at all…

Further Reading

[1] Bordwell, D. (1989) Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema. Harvard University Press.[2] Bordwell, D. (1985).

[2] Narration in the Fiction Film. Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press.

[3] Chambers, R. W. (2004). The Yellow Sign and Other Stories. Call of Cthulhu Fiction.

[4] Cobley, Paul. “Narratology.” The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

[5] Kisak, P. F. Narratology: “The Study of The Narrative” Vol. 1 & 2. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

[6] Steiner, P. (2016). Russian Formalism: A Metapoetics. Cornell University Press.


About the author

Konstantinos got into TV and Film production immediately after school. He has been studying and working in this field ever since. In 2011, he won the Nostimon Imar Award (Best Greek Director Abroad) for his short film Ithaca that he wrote, edited and directed. The following year, he donated his documentary Asperger Syndrome: Myths & Reality to the National Autistic Society in the U.K. Konstantinos lives and works in the U.K. as a freelance Video Editor and Camera Operator for corporate videos, fashion shows, and documentaries. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Film at the University of Nottingham and reviewing films on his own blog.

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