Each episode opens with a haunting title sequence of somber country crooning over disturbing flashes of faces and bodies monstrously fused with scenes of rural sprawl, industrial decay, religious fervor and flames. The skillful direction does a beautiful job of maintaining the show’s dark and gripping atmosphere through quiet moments and the slow revelation of the plot, and has been widely praised for the sprawling, uninterrupted shots that suck the viewer into the occasional and sudden burst of action. But it was the writing that really blew me away. For all the familiar detective show tropes—occult murder, shadowy corruption, an obsessive genius and a string of red herrings—I have never seen a drama that is anything like it. And it’s the writing of Nic Pizzolatto that sets it apart.
The show follows homicide detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart across nearly 20 years in southern Louisiana, as their lives diverge and descend into their various forms of dysfunction. Anyone who’s seen it should not be surprised to learn that Pizzolatto, the show’s creator and sole writer, is also a novelist. His protagonists are motivated by richly defined psychological tensions, and operate as well-balanced foils.
Rust Cohle, played by the talented alien who has taken over Matthew McConaughey, is a man defined by his past, by guilt associated with traumatic loss, and by the fatalistic worldview that has risen out of these. He lives alone, in Spartan squalor, because his life is behind him and he has no intention of building a new one. All he wants is a task. Something to keep him busy. He is essentially egoless, which makes him a talented detective, and a matchless interrogator.
Marty, played by Woody Harrelson, is more sociable, more practically inclined, and ruled by his ego. He is self-justifying, obsessed with his own virility and, while a good detective in his own right, more of a career detective than a man possessed by the task. While Rust sees his life as over, and welcomes the thought of death, Marty lives in denial of mortality, and struggles to reclaim youth at the expense of the life he takes for granted. Oh, right, and they investigate murders together.
As effective a hook as the show’s central mystery no doubt is, it is secondary to the interplay of these rich character psychologies. It is the necessary thread that unites these two seventeen years after the fact, as Rust and others pursue the possibility that the murderer is still at large, and still killing. With all the sex, profanity, and violence that makes this an HBO series, it’s telling that some of the shows most compelling scenes involve nothing more than Rust and Marty exchanging dialogue in a car.
Rust is more potently and intelligently depressive than any other character I’ve seen on TV, and listening to him elaborate his intricate pessimism while Marty recoils is utterly fascinating. Awful as it may sound, I was hooked in the first episode, when Rust refers to the earth as “a giant gutter in outer space,” then tells Marty that “We are things that labor under the delusion of having a self… programmed with the total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody’s nobody.”
Maybe it’s the uncanny delivery, or the way it aligns with the darker aspects of my own worldview, but that made me sit up and take notice. I binge-watched the rest of the series in a weekend, and I was not disappointed. Many questions are left open, apparent answers are still uncertain, but the dark, disturbing whole is endlessly engaging. If you want to check it out for yourself, you can either have an HBO subscription, or watch it illegally—because HBO still thinks it’s viable to make the general public wait months for a legal option.