Thursday, October 6, 2016

Monster Mike Watches TV! True Detective - Season One

There are two things in life I dearly love...  One, of course, is bein' the Alan Trammell of bein' a sunovabitch. The other is "spreading the revolution", whatsoever that might be, any chance I can get - which is why my friends and associates often get unsolicited CDs or DVDs thrust at them with  little to no warning.

So, given the opportunity recently to challenge Monster Mike to exit his comfort zone stage right and take on what is, for my money, the best, most consistently good eight hours of television I've ever seen, I leapt at the opportunity and eagerly passed over to our own luddite grognard the blu-ray for the first season of True Detective.

I suppose I wanted to recreate something of the "bookclub" discussion from the Fuzzy Typewriter podcast's fantastic episode-by-episode discussions of the show when it first came out (sadly evidently no longer available from their archives). Besides the obvious character studies and basic mystery, the themes of the show - religion's role as a cult, systemic violence against girls and women in society, the comfort of nihilism in the face of evil - as well as the techniques of story-telling, narration and foreshadowing through non-linear plotting - all warrant a good deal of rumination and analysis in my book.  After I proposed to Mike that he not only watch the show, but also write out his thoughts and theories on it as he goes along for the blog, he responded with a disappointing "grumble grumble fucking grumble no fucking way grumble grumble Junior Wells".  

However, guilt trips and moping can get one a lot of things in life... 

So with no further ado, I present:  Monster Mike's True Detective!


Once again, Brian has forced a stack of DVDs into my hands with a command to watch them.  I have a hard time watching TV.  I have guilt when I watch TV.  It feels like a waste of time.  I have so many other things to do, and besides, it cuts into my reading.  Reluctantly, I agree, hoping I can just find the Cliff Notes version online and fake my way through this like so many of my college classes.  My torment is to be season one of True Detective.  Rather than give an analytical review full of hindsight at the end of the season, I'm going to just jot down my stream-of-consciousness observations at the end of each episode.  You have been warned.

Episode One - The Long Bright Dark

Okay, I'm watching it with my wife. I'm digging the music for the opening credits.  I guess I can bear an hour of this.

Two Louisiana homicide detectives are being questioned about the particulars of a case long closed. Woody Harrelson plays the role of Martin Hart, and Matthew McConaughey plays Rust Cohle.  The two are partnered up for a case involving the ritualistic murder of a young woman, Dora Lange.  There's an immediate tension between the two - they operate very differently.  Cohle is deeply insightful into human nature and finds a rich symbolism and deeper meaning in things, while Hart is more of a hard-working plodder.  When we get to the crime scene, I can tell this is going to be my kind of story.  The victim is nude, ritually tattooed with what looks like Eldritch symbols, bound, drugged and wearing a crown of antlers on her head.  Clearly, we are in for some shit.

I find the pacing of the storytelling a little hard to get used to. It simmers along at a Louisiana slow burn, with plenty of side plots and tension between the two protagonists.  In addition, it swaps back and forth in a non-Euclidean fashion between the live events of the investigation, and the years-later separate interrogations of the detectives where we gain some insight about what they thought of one another as people and as detectives.  My wife picked up on Hart's infidelity with the first subtle foreshadowing, so I have to consider myself suitably forewarned about her acute powers of observation.

Episode Two - Seeing Things

The investigation grinds along getting seemingly nowhere.  Weird stick voodoo teepees are discovered that match ones found at the crime scene as the detectives trace the last months of the life of Dora Lange.  It turns out that in the final month of her life, she was going to church.  But not nice upper-midwestern Lutheran church with green jello and hot dish, no.  It's some sort of weird bayou church instead and who knows what the hell they get up to.  Hart's infidelity is solidly established and the duo are threatened with having their case turned over to a governor's commission on Satanic activity.  They beg for more time and follow the victim's timeline to her stay at a swamp Bunny Ranch - kind of an all-hooker trailer park. There, they find her diary which contains references to "The Yellow King" and "Carcosa" - references straight out of H.P. Lovecraft that the investigators seem to be unfamiliar with - I thought this was a particularly cool touch.  The diary also leads them to her former church.

The church turns out to be a burned out shell.  As swirling flocks of starlings form occult symbols in the sky, Cohle finds a crude painting of a towering antlered figure painted on one of the interior walls, partially concealed by Spanish moss. Clearly, the screenwriters have a nice feel for how to end on an Oh Shit moment.

Episode Three - The Locked Room

I'm really starting to identify with Rust. He's an extremely Nihilistic, fatalistic atheist who makes some great jabs at the purpose and consequences of religion.  There's a feeling of a definite shift between who is the good guy and who is the bad guy of the investigative team.  At the start, Hart was the straight man saddled with an eccentric and unlikeable partner.   This notion was reinforced by the modern-day scene cuts where Hart is clearly now an older and more senior investigator while Cohle is apparently a part-time swamper and full time drunkard living in a single room behind a sleazy bar.   But the more that present-day Cohle talks, the more you think he's actually spot-on with all his fatalism.   Meanwhile, Hart appears to be a man in the process of losing it all - it's apparent that present-day Hart is now divorced and this is reinforced by the growing chill between him and his wife during the investigation.

Leads turn into more leads and Cohle's guesses turn out to be right.  Their visit to the revival tent that now contains the congregation who formerly worshipped in the burned-out shell reinforces the insignificant differences between truly evangelical Christianity and flat-out Cthulhu occultism.  The episode ends with a sneak preview of their suspect, a "monster" who we get a very uncanny glimpse of running around in his skivvies and what seems to be a gas mask right before the closing credits.  Oh Shit again. 

My favorite moment in this episode is Martin Hart's line: "You don't come here and mow my lawn.  I like to mow my lawn."   Both of these guys have great acting chops.

Episode Four - Who Goes There

Their investigation uncovers a hot lead on the killer.  The former cellmate of Lange's ex-husband is a meth cook.   All the evidence points toward him.  But Rust has to go back into his narcotics cover to get to him through a biker gang.  He works up a plausible cover - he disappeared to Mexico for a few years and has gained contacts there that want to trade meth for cocaine.   He digs up an old contact with the Iron Crusaders who seems willing to deal, but he wants Rust to act as a gunman on robbery they are going to pull against a drug dealer that night. Rust has no choice but to agree.

As one might expect when a bunch of coked-up bikers try to rip off a drug house in a black ghetto, things go south in a hurry.

In many ways, this episode felt like filler.  It was cool and exciting to see Cohle go back into his narco deep cover and immediately get embroiled in some messed up shit, but the real drama was when Martin's wife was notified by Martin's mistress of their affair.  While full of tension and action, it felt to me like this episode didn't really do much to move the story forward.

Ed. Note:  Hey folks, Brian here again.  I just wanted to drop into the discussion to say a few things in defense of Who Goes There.  The main plot does simmer a bit on the back burner while we explore some of Cohle's messed up backstory through a typical "quid pro quo side-quest" that gamer readers should understand all too well.  But if nothing else there were two big meta-moments that made this episode priceless for me:

A)  Harrelson's Hart threatening a bartender for information and, in the process, demanding of the series' author/creator Nic Pizzolatto (in a cameo as the barkeep) "Why do you make me say this sh*t,man?" during the shakedown.

B)  The six+ minute single-take tracking shot of the raid in the projects which (nearly) closes out the episode - an astounding feat of filmmaking by any stretch of the imagination.

Alright... back to Monster Mike.

Episode Five - The Secret Fate of All Life

Loads of cool twists in this episode.  The legendary gunfight at the meth lab turned out to be a fake and both detectives had to live with looking like heroes for what was in truth a brutal act of murder.  But the real fun starts when we confirm that they didn't, in fact, get their man and the police detectives doing the interviewing suspect Rust Cohle of the crimes.  I'm glad they aren't trying to carry the interview scenes through the whole series.  I think McConaughey got the most mileage he could out of chewing the scenery with cigarettes and beer cans as props.  These scenes absolutely burn, but after five episodes, it was starting to feel like he was running out of things to do with his hands.

In the historical timeline, we jump forward several years after the "closure" of the case with Rust and Martin working successfully as promoted detectives.   While interviewing a murderer, Rust discovers that they did not, in fact, get the right man.   We also see Martin's home life painfully patched back together after the affair with his adorable daughters growing up and getting into trouble of their own.

At the end of this episode, my wife said, "I have absolutely no idea what the hell just happened, or what's going to happen next."  My own hunch is that this is just the twist between Act I and Act II.   Somewhere around episode 10 we will get the second twist and find out that Martin is actually the killer. Time is a flat circle.

Actually, the more I think about this idea, the more I like it. I think we're going to see a number of episodes where, in the present-day timeline, Martin works with the two detectives conducting the interviews to build a case against Rust Cohle.  Rust was confronted with evidence that he was near the scene at the time of later murders.  However, I believe this is a red herring of sorts.  My guess is that what is really happening here is that Rust has continued investigating the Yellow King and is getting close.  Episodes two through five dropped some hints that Martin's kids may be suffering from some sort of sexual abuse - They were playing with dolls and made a ring of clothed men around a prone, naked woman. Later, one of his daughters was caught making highly sexualized drawings at too young of an age.  And in their teen years, they both turn out to be troubled messes.   In each of these cases, Martin deals with the situation the best he is able, but is he actually covering something up?   Or perhaps it's his wife?  Is that also why Martin, after discovering the kids at the meth lab, rushed out to execute the cook?   Was it simple rage against child abuse or was he trying to eliminate a witness that could point the finger at him?  My money is on Martin here.

Episode 6 - Haunted Houses

In the historical timeline, Rust Cohle continues digging into unresolved missing persons cases linked to the Tuttle Foundation schools. He ignores his supervisors order to quit digging up these dead cases and is suspended after bracing the Reverend Tuttle himself.  Marty, who has quit drinking and has generally cleaned up his act for about seven years to mend the broken trust with his wife finally falls off the wagon and ends up in a bar hooking up with a formerly underage prostitute from the Bunny Ranch in Episode 2. Eventually, Martin's wife finds evidence of this affair and in revenge, executes the world's fastest seduction of Rust. And then confronts Martin with it. Needless to say, Martin and Rust have a falling out over this, which terminates in a fistfight in the police station parking lot.

In the present day timeline, everyone is lying to the two interviewing investigators including Martin's ex-wife. The episode ends with Rust flagging down Martin on the highway to talk in the present day. However, it's unclear whether this occurs before or after their interviews with the detectives.

Like Episode 4, this one does little to advance the storyline of the mystery itself, focusing more on the relationships between Martin, Rust, and Martin's wife. However, at the end of this episode, I remain convinced that Rust can't possibly be the culprit. Also, I actually checked the DVD case and saw that the series is only 8 episodes long, so the second mind-blowing twist cannot be far away.

Episode 7 - After You've Gone

Okay, now we're cooking with gas. The second twist is that despite their troubles in the past, Martin agrees to continue investigating with Rust Cohle in the present timeline after their interviews. Everything from this point forward is in the present-day timeline and plays like a test on how well you were paying attention in the previous six episodes. Rust opens up his storage unit and shows Martin the evidence he has collected, up to and including a completely damning VHS tape. This links up child abductions that were later covered up as "filed in error" by higher-ups in the state police, and a broader conspiracy that goes right up to a prominent state senator.

We learn that Martin had actually quit the state police a few years back and has been a rather unsuccessful private investigator since then. But he still has the contacts to pull old case files. There is a lot of good investigative work in tracing down the big man with the scarred face, but it's Martin, rather than Rust, who has the key flash of insight about "green ears".

The episode closes with the interviewing officers asking directions of a man who does mowing on public spaces for the parish. The same guy that Rust talked to back in episode three or something who was mowing the lawn of the abandoned Pelican Island school. And you see the scars on his face and his huge stature and realize it's him.  He's the Yellow King.

My daughter screams with indignation at the thought of being denied the final episode for another night, and we decide to plunge straight into it.

Episode 8 - Form and Void

Martin and Rust have found their guy and find where he lives. We see some of the domestic scene. He's got dad chained to the bed in a back shed. He's doing creepy sex things with his half-sister. The whole place is a psycho nightmare. And then Martin and Rust show up.  Martin gets into the house and subdues the half-wit half-sister and calls for backup from the state investigators. Rust goes into Carcosa itself - a madhouse warren of creepy shit overgrown in vegetation.   The guy has seems to have weird superpowers and seems to be throwing his voice at Rust, calling him things like "young acolyte."  Holy shit.  I am delighted to realize that I have been suckered.   I thought this was going to be some grubby investigative procedural drama, and it turns into some full-blown messed-up Call of Cthulhu shit.

We get to the room with the vaulted dome and an oculus open to the sky. There is literally a stick-man with tattered yellow rags. My wife and daughter are screaming.

Mind blown. 

Well, they get the guy but the cover-up keeps covering up. Martin and Rust are both hospitalized and have some great cathartic moments at the end. You can see that their futures are going to be about recovery from the trauma. Both of them show signs of significant SAN loss.

"What the f*** was that? What was that?" my wife and daughter keep asking as the credits roll. 

I shrug. "I dunno. Just some crap Brian asked me to watch."

So, yeah. A+ on this stuff. Great writing, great acting, and creepy as clowns.


The Chippewa Valley Geek - bringing families together!


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