True Detective Season 1

This post does not have spoilers about True Detective Season 1

When Season 3 started recently, I found myself thinking about what exactly it was about True Detective season 1 that I liked so much. This post is a look into what’s great about that season.

The Plot

A murder mystery in Louisiana that is being investigated by two very different detectives: Rust and Marty. Marty is every man’s man; he has a family, two daughters and some mistakes in his character. He mingles with people well and has a good rapport with the people he works with.

Rust is single, he has a mysterious past and no one really knows what he did before coming here. He waxes philosophical almost all the time. Most of the people that Rust works with don’t really like him and are unsettled by him. Early on in the series, we are shown how Rust has insomnia and works through the night a lot of days. He is also an excellent detective with an uncanny ability to look through people and situations. One of his most iconic quotes: “I’ve never been in a room more than 5 minutes and not known whether they did it or not. How long does it take you?”

The original murder mystery happens in 1995. The two men are being interviewed in the current time (~2012) about this mystery because something similar has apparently happened. The series unwinds the complete story of the murder mystery, how the two men went about investigating that back in ‘95 and it’s connection to the mystery at hand.

That’s the story. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the story when you look at it. The way it is shot and told is extremely well-done. Although, the story sometimes alternates between the present, the past (‘95) and the more recent past (2002), I have never felt disoriented about what is going on. Every single tool that is useful in telling the viewer about the different times is used effectively and constantly: the lighting, clothes, the characters’ ages, the characters’ traits and how they change over time. That’s one of the reasons I like this show: Despite having a complex plot, the viewer is never disoriented or disconnected from the characters. We know exactly what is going on, all the time

Next: Rustin Cohle. Rust is the central character in the series. In some ways, the murder might be the central theme of the show, but Rust is the driver. He decides where the show goes, he decides the mood of the show. His quotes are legendary;

If you have ever seen an impressive character on screen, you know that they are always charismatic, strong, and have powers that other characters on screen don’t. Rust has all of this. He is stronger than Marty, he can read people and never really has to think too much about it. All of these things make him less and less relatable; he’s depicted to possess super-human abilities. But there’s a raw human quality to him: From the beginning, his insomnia, his addiction, his inability to engage socially, some of his traits clearly show how lonely and tired he is. He talks a lot about existence and it’s usefulness and how “consciousness was a mis-step in evolution”; you wonder if he’s talking about all this because he can’t find the point of his own existence. Marty recounts this when he says to him, “When you talk like that, you sound panicked”.

Rust is one of the most well-written, well-directed and well-acted characters in the “investigator” demographic. Another detective I like is Carrie Mathison from Homeland. She has a lot of the same qualities; minus the existential talk. And, while Carrie is dealing with stakes that are as high as saving thousands of people, Rust is working on stopping someone who is hurting a few people. This smaller focus makes him more human.

The final dimension to Rust’s character comes from the way people in the show look at him. They are in the same world and were purposefully written to react to him the way they do. That gives us the unique perspective of what the writers wanted Rust to be seen as. Here, one of Maggie’s quotes is very helpful, “Rust knew exactly who he was and there was no talking him out of it”. She finds Rust to be someone who knows who he is, who is done figuring out the purpose of his existence. What’s remarkable is that, Marty, who has spent a lot more time with Rust doesn’t actually believe that. A superficial look at Rust might lead us to believe that he has it all figured out (like Maggie believes), but we know that when Rust talks about himself and from his actions, he is far from that point of stability and security. There is a duality about him: superficially, he is a super-hero: he is strong, intelligent, good at his job. Get to know him a little better, and you realize that he has existential thoughts, his life revolves around his job, he has trouble figuring out his social purpose. “We are the bad men who keep other bad men from coming to the door”