James Bridges/HBO
February 05, 2014 at 05:00 AM EST

The wasteland noir of True Detective is many things at once — an enthralling murder mystery about history, culture, and heroic character; a tour de force for stars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. But simply and deeply, it is a story about two men telling a story. Rust Cohle (McConaughey) is a hollowed-out cynic who works four days a week and spends the other three drinking himself numb. Martin Hart (Harrelson) is a healthy-living P.I. whose Bible Belt faith and family-man wisdom belie so much bulls—. Both were once detectives — and for seven years, partners — and the tale they have to tell concerns a journey into gravely dark woods, literally and metaphorically. The more they talk, the more we understand who they are and how they came to be. The more they talk, the more we wonder how much of what they’re saying is true.

True Detective, an anthology franchise à la American Horror Story, spins a yarn about classically American hero archetypes badly broken and possibly broken bad by an encounter with horror. Each episode moves back and forth in time — fluidly, sometimes fuzzily — with Cohle and Hart in 2012 giving separate interviews to a pair of cops about a case from 1995 concerning the apparent occult-ritual slaying of a young woman named Dora Lang. The next-gen detectives are investigating a similar new murder. Did Cohle and Hart catch the right guy back in ’95? Might they be involved in the latest homicide? It’s a game of true confessions — or a high-stakes cover-up.

In the course of recapping the Lang case, Cohle and Hart reveal the men they once were. Hart — husband, father, religious, and profoundly flawed — unravels. Cohle — scorched by tragedy, full of cold philosophical pessimism about humanity — gains strength as the case nurtures his bleak biases. Their journey is a backwater Apocalypse Now, a surreal, transformative walkabout through the underworld. The fourth episode, in which the detectives go recklessly rogue for righteousness’ sake, plays like a creation myth for an age of antiheroes. ”The world needs bad men [like us],” Cohle tells Hart. ”We keep the other bad men from the door.”


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Nic Pizzolatto
Mahershala Ali,
Carmen Ejogo
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