TIME Television

True Detective: An Existential Murder Mystery

HBO's True Detective is an existential murder mystery

The story of much TV drama lately has been a serial pattern of serial killers. Hannibal, The Following, Dexter–all probing the platinum brains of high-IQ murderers (or, on Bates Motel, murderers-to-be). Questions that were once daring have become rote: Aren’t killers fascinating? Aren’t they ingenious? Isn’t their aesthetic dedication to gore strangely beautiful? (Answers: Not really, Who cares and Ugh, I just ate.)

HBO’s new crime story True Detective (which debuts Jan. 12) in some ways is one more human pelt tacked on that same wall. What distinguishes it is that it’s not about the bodies or the killer (at least, in the four episodes I’ve seen) but about the investigators–and about the soul, morality and God, or the lack thereof.

At the heart of True Detective is one of the oldest setups in crime fiction: odd-couple cops. When a young Louisiana woman’s body is found in 1995 after a murder that involved stylized ritual and pagan imagery, the case falls to investigators Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), who have little in common but their work. Hart is a family man and local who goes along and gets along. Cohle, a loner from Texas, is brilliant and gloomy, a recovering-alcoholic existentialist who considers humans “a tragic misstep in evolution.” Whether the case gets solved is no mystery. We meet Hart and Cohle in 2012, as each is interviewed separately by investigators chasing a possibly related killing, about how they broke the high-profile case, why they fell out with each other in 2002 and what’s become of them since.

Harrelson is understatedly compelling, but HBO really lucked out in signing McConaughey just as he went on a tear in the movies, and he pays off like a slot machine. (True Detective will tell each story in one season, so neither star is committed to the show beyond this year.)

McConaughey is essentially playing two characters: ’95 Cohle is reserved and clean-shaven, intense and serious like an atheist priest; the 2012 model is prickly, gone to seed, wearing a scraggly ‘stache and cracking open Lone Star beers mid-interrogation. McConaughey could do with maybe half as many showy, set-piece monologues about the bleakness of existence. But he earns the spotlight, and creator Nic Pizzolatto, who wrote all eight episodes, has made Cohle a philosophical flatfoot whom Camus could love.

Set in a resolutely Christian corner of Louisiana (not unlike that of reality sitcom Duck Dynasty, late of a gay-trashing controversy), True Detective at times echoes Cohle’s jadedness toward religion. In the first episode, a preacher describes “devil nets,” folk-craft works made from entwined sticks and meant to ward off evil, found at the murder scene. “I always thought it was something for children to do,” he says. “Tell them stories while they’re tying sticks together”–and the camera pointedly closes in on a cross on the wall. Later, we meet the Bible-thumping cousin of the governor, who wants to use the “occult” killing to justify a task force against crimes “with an anti-Christian connotation.”

As it goes on, though, the show also questions whether Cohle’s pessimistic naturalism has left him rudderless, easily broken. Visiting a tent revival with Hart, he argues that any person who needs God to stay moral “is a piece of sh-t.” But what, if anything, keeps Cohle moral? Only his will–a will that, as we see in 2012, has its limits. The investigators grilling him, it soon becomes clear, have their suspicions about his honesty and how he’s changed over the years.

The investigation that makes True Detective special is not criminal but philosophical. It’s asking not just whodunit but also why people do what they do. What makes monsters, what makes decent people–and which is the natural state of humanity? True Detective’s story is bleak but cosmically earnest. In its fevered Louisiana swamp, the devil is hiding. The mystery is: Who’s he hiding in?

This appears in the January 20, 2014 issue of TIME.
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