Three episodes in, HBO's True Detective has sucked viewers deep into a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in Matthew McConaughey's best character acting ever. It's dark, sexy, grim, fatalistic, and the most compelling new series on television this season. It has parallel plotlines 17 years apart — with the same characters — two juicy murder mysteries that inform and in turn lead to more mystery; a whodunnit squared.
The story begins in 1995. McConaughey is Rustin Cohle, a former undercover narco cop who became addicted while on the job in Texas. His young daughter was killed in a car wreck, and his marriage died after that, pushing him further off the deep end. Given a final chance to clean up and save his career, he takes a job as a police detective in small-town southern Louisiana. He's partnered with Detective Martin Hart, played by Woody Harrelson, a plain-talking local man with all the trappings of normalcy — pretty young wife, two kids, nice house.
They are assigned to investigate a bizarre, ritual murder of a young woman. (The crime scene reveal in Episode 1 is a chiller.) As they scour the desolate rural back-roads, questioning suspects, following leads, the two men unburden themselves, fill in each other's back-story, and learn they have little in common, except a burning desire to solve the crime.
Cohle is a tortured nihilist, convinced the human race would be better off going extinct. Here's a typical squad car soliloquy: “I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in human evolution. We became too self aware; nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, a secretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody’s nobody.”
Hart is repelled and creeped out. “Keep that kind of talk to yourself,” he says. But Hart has his own demons. We learn he's got a mistress, anger issues, and probably a drinking problem.
But the show's genius — and where Harrelson and, particularly, McConaughey elevate True Detective to another level — is how the writers handle the frequent time-jumps to 2012. We soon learn that, 17 years later, an identical ritual murder to the one in 1995 has occurred, though the first murder was supposedly solved by Hart and Cohle. (We don't learn any of the details; that would spoil the first mystery). We see Hart and Cohle, several times in each episode, in what can best be called “flash forwards,” as they are being questioned, separately, by cops in 2012.
Hart has lost his hair and his marriage, and is running a private security firm. Cohle is a pony-tailed, chain-smoking alcoholic who does menial work to feed his habit. McConaughey inhales this role like a Marlboro, lives it, owns it.
Much of the power of True Detective stems from, well, its weirdness: the bizarre, rural characters — revival preachers, shade tree mechanics, teenage whores, bar hustlers — and the continuing revelations about its two protagonists: Cohle's quaalude habit, his fetishistic, sometimes violent, investigatory techniques; Hart's drinking and womanizing. They're an odd couple, but irresistible.
What happened to the two men in the years between the two murders is yet another mystery to savor, as small details emerge. Did Cohle have an affair with Hart's wife? Maybe. Did either — or both — of these men cover up something 17 years ago, letting a murderer go free, somehow? We don't know.
Like every thing else in True Detective, information comes in small bits, like a jigsaw puzzle scattered over half a county. Once in a while, you find an interesting piece, like that abandoned church with scrawled paintings. Or that weird barn with the freaky totem. Or that Twin Peaks-ish country brothel. But how does it all fit together? I don't know, but I'm going to keep watching.
Sundays, 8 p.m.