May 1, 2020
True Detective Recap: Woody Harrelson, Matthew McConaughey Perhaps Less Upstanding Than They First Seemed
Our first True Detective recap introduced Louisiana homicide cops Rust Cohle (the h is silent in a blatant effort to troll bloggers) and Martin Hart, who caught a case involving a woman’s naked body posed in a field with deer antlers taped to her head and then spent an hour tramping around gathering clues under washed-out skies. In between, they introduced us to the archetypes of a police procedural: mismatched partners, one of whom is haunted by a mysterious and dark past and another who is cruising on his good-ol’-boy attitude that papers over his own secrets, a grouchy commanding officer, smoky bars filled with hookers, an unhappy wife and adorable moppet children, and Robitussin abuse. Okay, that was a new one. The story jumped between 2012, where the two cops separately told their stories to new detectives working a ritual murder case, and 1995 when Cohle and Hart were working together on the murder of Dora Lange, the unfortunate deer-antlered victim.
And now, to the detectiving!
It’s 2012 and Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, who now reminds me of an old hound dog lying on the porch of some backwoods general store, if hound dogs are sometimes suspected of serial ritual murder and more than suspected of drug abuse, is still being interviewed about the Dora Lange case. He ruminates for a moment on women, his daughter, his habit of drinking alone (the tall boys of Lone Star he started last week are still lined up on the table in front of him) before the two cops interviewing him drag him back to talking about the investigation. A moment later we’re back in 1995, watching as Cohle and partner Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) inform Lange’s mother of the young woman’s death. Mom tells the cops her daughter, who was always in trouble, had come by recently and said she had started going to church. A friend of Dora’s mentions it as well when the cops interview her. This church will come back up throughout the episode, the clothesline on which the pieces of the investigation hang for the next hour.
Now it’s time to dive a little more deeply into the lives of both cops with some rumination on the investigation and its slow pace and life in general, first in the car between the thoughtful Cohle and the more down-to-earth Hart, then in voice-overs as the 2012 versions of the detectives tell their stories over shots of themselves in 1995: Cohle waking up alone in his apartment and lighting a smoke before he gets out of bed, Hart and his wife being awakened by their adorable daughters. Cohle tells Hart the story of his toddler daughter’s death – a tricycle, a bend in the road by their house – and his marriage’s end. Bonding! It doesn’t last long.
Hart, in 2012, talks to his interrogators about the psychological costs of the job (or as it is always pronounced in these sorts of shows, The Job) and the ways a man must “decompress” before he can go home to his hot wife and adorable daughters and be a family man, how he needs to find his “release” for the good of the family. This is easily Woody’s best moment of the series so far, this pleading justification to these men that you can imagine his character telling himself on lonely nights of the soul when he is alone in his sad bachelor apartment after his marriage ends (more on that later). We have already seen that part of that decompression involves drinking in a bar and telling dirty stories to co-workers. A moment later we find it also means spending an evening in the apartment of his mistress, Lisa (Alexandra Daddario), a sweet young thang we glimpsed briefly in the pilot. We’re about to glimpse a whole lot more of her.
Hart shows up at Lisa’s apartment with a gift – a set of handcuffs. There is some nudity (boobies! full frontal! – Daddario’s managers must be trying to move her on from those Percy Jackson kiddie adventure movies) and, later, some jealousy from Hart when he questions Lisa about her whereabouts the night before when he called and she did not answer. Out with some girlfriends, she tells him. You’re married and I’m young and have to think about my future, and yeah, it’s more than a touch hypocritical for this guy to one minute tell us she’s nothing but a source of stress release to him and the next get jealous because she’s an actual human who may want to be more than a sex toy available any time he wants. It’s to Harrelson’s credit that we don’t hate Hart yet, but he’s doing nothing to make himself likable.
Meanwhile, Cohle is having acid flashbacks while driving his truck and buying pills off a hooker and getting a clue about Dora: she may have spent some time working on a “ranch” somewhere around the same area where the cops think her church might have been. Hart and Cohle, after a brief confrontation in the police station’s locker room after Hart stumbles in wearing last night’s clothes and Cohle tells him to wash up because “you’ve got some pussy on you,” head down to some bayou to find this hillbilly brothel. This leads to some anger from Hart when they find a teenager, a friend of Dora’s, working there. Exploiting young women for their sexual appeal! Why he never! The friend gives the cops a journal of Dora’s, in which they find a flyer for what might be the church she had supposedly been attending.
Before we get to the church, however, we must go back to 2012 and listen to Cohle tell his interrogators much of his backstory. The acid flashbacks are a remnant of four years deep undercover as a narc in Texas, which led to his killing three members of a cartel and a stretch in a psychiatric hospital. Instead of a psychiatric disability pension, Cohle tells us he wanted to go work homicides, which is how he wound up in Louisiana working murders in between the acid flashbacks and the PTSD, and this seems nuts even for a genre that always has a cop haunted by his past but still on The Job. Foreshadowing, perhaps?
Hart’s marriage isn’t going well, as evidenced by the argument he and his wife get into at her parents’ house and later in their own kitchen. Hart just wants an island of sanity in the crazy ocean he swims in daily and his wife wants a husband, and I’m thinking what a self-absorbed asshole.
Some cops from a state task force show up to step on Hart and Cohle’s toes, which pisses them off, which gives us the obligatory scene of their superior (a major instead of your usual lieutenant and captain) yelling at them about their attitude, the slow pace of the investigation, and how his own superiors are crawling up his ass about it. The major tells Cohle he’s only still working the case because of Hart’s good reputation, which seems weird because Hart has done nothing to indicate he’s a particularly driven detective. But they buy some time to continue investigating the case on their own.
Finally, they find Dora’s church, which turns out to be an abandoned, burned-out ruin in the middle of nowhere. The two detectives clomp through the ruins of what must be a dead end. Or would be, if they do not find on one wall, covered by some moss, a rough painting of a naked woman with her hands bound and deer antlers sprouting out of her head, in almost the exact same pose they found Dora Lange.
A voice-over of Cohle in 2012 telling the other detectives that sometimes he thought his visions meant he was losing it. But other times, he says in his sandpaper rasp, he thought he was “mainlined into the secret truth of the universe.” And on that metaphysical note, we’re left to twiddle our thumbs in anticipation while awaiting next week’s installment.