Polarizing from episode one, HBO's new series True Detective remains so in episode two, where the serial killer premise fades further into the background, a mere formality in the documentation of the collision and destruction of the two main characters. It's similar to watching a reaction in a supercollider in slow motion, and the cuts from 1995 when they are partners and 2012 where two new detectives question them about the case give us before and after photos of the disaster to come.
In the moody, powerful first episode we are introduced to Detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) as they meet at the crime scene of a ritualistic murder, finding the corpse of a woman bound naked in supplication before a dying tree, with a crown of antlers and a squared-off whirlpool symbol on her back. They are hollow-eyed and the shine of youth has been sanded from their faces, as the job begins to take its weary toll. In the modern scenes, they have been distilled down to their primary essence. Cohle is a haggard spectator at the end of the world party, and Martin hides his basic hope for humanity behind a tight mask of rigid cynical armor.
Editor's Note: This write-up is relatively spoiler-free, but next week, if you're reading after the jump, all bets are off.
We learn more about both men in the second episode, and how they deal with the harrows of the profession. We got a hint of what exactly broke Rust Cohle and his marriage in episode one, and the depth of that scar is revealed here. Martin's past remains mysterious, but we learn that his picture-perfect family is fixing to fade into a washed-out photograph at the bottom of a box in the attic.
One man shows a startly propensity for brutal, unexpected violence, and the other a sentimental duality of lust toward women and the need to protect them, possibly from himself. The cast expands one ring beyond the nucleus, as Pizzolatto draws back to show us the people these men will affect when they finally explode.
The mood and pace remind me of another HBO show that I enjoyed very much, Carnivale. That show's time was cut short, due to its high cost per episode and small audience. I hope True Detective doesn't meet the same fate. It requires more attention than most, and doesn't resort to shiny attractions to keep you there. But as I was drawn into its miasmic atmosphere, I felt the characters become real. It teases your expectations.
There is a scene where two young girls play by a lake, teetering in a canoe. Another show would have them tumble into the water in need of rescue. In True Detective, it is just a little tension in the background of an already tense, dramatic scene, meant to assure us that in this life, tragedy will come soon enough, and we shouldn't sit around waiting for it. Or, as one character says, when an old policeman decries the state of the young, old men keep complaining that the world is ending, but they die and it keeps going on.
Thomas Pluck writes unflinching fiction with heart. He is the author of Blade of Dishonor, an action thriller spanning Shogun-era Japan to WWII, and the editor of Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT, an anthology of crime fiction for charity. You can find him on Twitter as @thomaspluck.