With the names Cohle and Hart, they ought to be a songwriting team, but as played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in the HBO show True Detective, they’re police investigating a strange homicide at the edge of the seething Louisiana swamps. A nude prostitute has been found tied to a tree with a pair of antlers affixed to her head, and by the time the second episode is over, the crime has the usual sexual and religious implications, not to mention a growing relationship to the disappearances of other young women in the area. As they pursue the case, the team isn’t exactly making sweet music together: Haunted by the death of a young daughter and the marriage that subsequently fell apart, McConaughey’s Rust Cohle is the bureau’s outsider whom the other men distrust, a tightly wound nihilist trying not to take another drink and without an especially persuasive explanation for why he wears a crucifix. Harrelson’s Martin Hart is the veteran whose marriage is crumbling because he spends his hours with another woman when he’s not at work; trying to put the best face on things, he reasons, “You don’t pick your parents and you don’t pick your partner.” Hart has never seen anything like this killing or this killer—but then, when was the last time you watched a cop show where the cop said, “Oh yeah, this looks just like any other old murder”?
In the past two decades the serial killer story has become a genre if not an industry unto itself. We can’t seem to get enough of these creeps, which says something a little creepy about us, if you think about it; the chain of bizarre and gruesome massacres, as random as they are ritualized, has been a phenomenon since Jack the Ripper caught the public’s imagination in the 1880s by slaughtering at least five women in Whitechapel, London. Serial killers have stalked popular culture since silent pictures like Pandora’s Box and The Lodger. Thirty years later the latter’s director, Alfred Hitchcock, took the serial killer out of the shadows and set him in the shower with us in Psycho, throwing in a mother complex for good measure; another 30 years after that, the serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs was irresistible enough to steal the movie from everyone outside the glass box that contained him. While they’ve run rampant in films from Seven to the torture porn of Hostel, lately serial killers have taken over whole TV series, with a charmer like Dexter seizing for himself the spotlight of protagonist rather than antagonist. These people haven’t just been in our showers but in our heads.
The nature of the serial killer genre is that it has to keep upping its own stakes to remain compelling, with the carnage growing ever more appalling and the mayhem aspiring to greater degrees of a weirdness that’s bound to exhaust itself sooner or later. The cops of True Detective may not have seen anything like their case before, but we have. Though it wasn’t a hit on its release, David Fincher’s best movie, 2007’s Zodiac, recognized that with Hannibal Lecter, the endless fascination with cannibals and rippers and mama’s boys isn’t so endless and eventually reaches a point of diminishing returns; in contrast with the likes of Dexter, Zodiac is less about the killer and more about those who become obsessed with him. To this end writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga acknowledge that even the maniac trussing up his victims like forest wildlife in True Detective is finally less interesting than the true detectives themselves. By intent or accident, they’ve crossbred the serial killer subspecies of popular entertainment with another so-familiar-it’s-a-cliché trope: the buddy cops, whose ’80s quintessential pairing was Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon. When True Detective opens, the two cops are separately recounting the case from the perspective of nearly two decades later, during which something has happened that shattered whatever bond they had.
The series’ one masterstroke is that while the hot-and-cold partnership of Hart and Cohle is a variation on the Gibson-Glover dynamic, the roles have been cast against type. Publicly self-designated stoner and barely abashed nut job Harrelson, with his penchant for larger-than-life freakery in pictures from Natural Born Killers to Seven Psychopaths, plays the relatively stable half of the duo, if you don’t count the sideline sexcapades when he likes to be handcuffed, while McConaughey, once destined for romantic leads, continues the recent career detour that’s entailed playing a hit man turned on by fried chicken in Killer Joe, a onetime male stripper running his own club in Magic Mike, and the HIV-ravaged loser-crusader of last year’s Dallas Buyers Club. Harrelson and McConaughey haven’t swapped personalities so much as they’ve recast them in new pathological contexts. McConaughey in particular has turned into one of those actors who gets more interesting the less he says and who succeeds, in a way you wouldn’t have expected a decade back, at conveying layers of complexity; by the time we’re less than halfway through the series, as True Detective’s villain strides onscreen swinging a machete and wearing tattoos, a gas mask, and not much else, we’re no longer as certain that he’s the craziest person in any scene that has McConaughey. Both cops are unhinged by the girls they’ve fathered or lost and the women they do or don’t know how to love—McConaughey so immersed in soul-killing grief that he can’t be around a family or look at a woman he’s dancing with, the womanizing Harrelson getting self-righteous with underage hookers in whom he sees his daughters. This makes notable the lack of a single significant female figure, including the murder victim and Michelle Monaghan as Harrelson’s beleaguered wife.
Of course the fine and frayed line between the sane and the insane, the serial killer and the serial enforcer, those who preserve the social order and those who violate it, is as familiar as the rest of True Detective. Long the Cadillac of cable networks, HBO places a premium on its bodywork along with the most fabulous-looking chauffeur it can get behind the wheel, which is to say it’s become defined by its production values and high-end casts and crews; notwithstanding True Blood, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, and even Treme, HBO hasn’t run a brilliantly written series since The Wire went off the air six years ago. Similarly True Detective is a triumph of visceral virtues, material handled with smarts and impeccable competence as delivered by the leads and the show’s actual star, the Louisiana landscape that lends itself to the hallucinations of McConaughey’s cop protesting a little too often and fervently that God and the Devil don’t exist. God isn’t putting up an argument. Maybe He’s watching another channel, waiting for the new season of Mad Men. En route from Whitechapel by way of the Bates Motel, the Devil is another matter, scything down the tall grasses of the bayou and anything that gets in his way, unless he’s really the guy in McConaughey’s mirror staring back.