‘True Detective’ Pilot Recap: “A Man without a Family Can Be a Bad Thing”

From its opening credits to the final shot, the first episode of ‘True Detective’ proves to be the best TV pilot I’ve seen in a long time. HBO’s new anthology series (which will only run eight episodes, then will change both cast and characters in Season 2) comes from the mind of Nic Pizzolatto, whose only previous credit is penning a pair of Season 1 episodes for AMC’s ‘The Killing‘. However, even the quality of that series pales in comparison to what ‘True Detective’ delivers.

The story revolves around two police detectives for the Louisiana Criminal Investigations Division (CID) who, as the pilot gets underway, are called to the scene of a brutal murder. Tied and posed in a kneeling/praying position to a large tree in the middle of nowhere, a young twenty-something prostitute (a fact we discover as the episode unfolds) has been raped, stabbed multiple times in the abdomen, and then ritualistically posed in this final position. Her hands are bound in a praying posture, odd circular symbols have been drawn on her back, and deer antlers have been put on her head. Surrounding her body are odd-looking stick structures, which we’ll learn are “devil traps” – a superstitious way of capturing Satan while you sleep so he can’t get to your soul.

Detective Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) is the more grounded and relatable of the two policemen. He has a wife (Michelle Monaghan), two daughters, and claims to never have seen anything as horrible as this recent murder. The other detective, Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), is much more of a mystery. His former work records with the police are in sealed files, he takes extensive crime scene notes in a huge ledger notebook (earning him the nickname “The Taxman” from his co-workers), and he has some rather unusual ideas about human beings. He tells Martin that he believes that mankind’s biggest curse is that people are self-aware, and thus think they’re more important in the universe than they really are. In Rust’s mind, humans should stop reproducing and make the choice to die off together. Rust doesn’t just see his location in Louisiana as a ghetto; he sees the whole planet Earth as a gutter floating in space.

Needless to say, Rust’s philosophical ramblings start to get on Martin’s nerves. Even then, his wife insists that she meet Martin’s new partner, so Martin tells Rust that he needs to show up for a family dinner. When Rust does, he’s obviously drunk, but manages to pull himself together enough to stick around. While Martin is out of the room, his wife Maggie asks Rust about his family. Rust confesses that he was once married, but had a daughter that died and the marriage didn’t last long after that. Through the course of the episode, we learn that Rust is not only an alcoholic (although he tries to abstain as much as he can), but also hooked on Quaaludes – which is the only thing that helps him sleep. “I don’t sleep. I dream,” Rust tells Martin mysteriously at one point.

The events of the investigation take place in 1995, but ‘True Detective’ also includes a framing story set in 2012, where both Martin and Rust are separately questioned by current detectives of the CID about a new murder. During the interview, we learn that something happened in 2002 that caused Martin to have a fallout out with Rust. Even then, he still shows an incredible amount of respect for Rust’s skill and knowledge as a detective, though he points out his social flaws. Meanwhile, the Rust we see being interviewed in 2012 is much more of a broken man – with long unkempt hair, ragged clothing, and both drinking and smoking habits. One could even deduce that Rust has turned into the kind of human being that he loathed back in 1995.

In the 2012 scenes, it becomes obvious rather quickly that the questioners have become very suspicious of Rust. A new murder has taken place that matches the details of the 1995 crime, despite the fact that Rust and Martin supposedly found the killer back in 1995 (though viewers haven’t been shown how this happens yet). Did they get the wrong man? Is this a copycat killing? Is Rust really the killer… or is Martin? It’s far too early to say, or to say if we’ll even learn the truth of any of this. ‘True Detective’ seems to be a series that is much more about its two main characters than about the investigation they’re involved in. So, if you’re looking for another action or horror show, you’ve come to the wrong show.

What we learn about Rust in the pilot episode is that he’s a very dark character. He lives in a sparse apartment with a mattress on the floor and a stack of crime books (including one on sex crimes and one on serial killers) in the corner. Martin seems much more normal, which – of course – means that he’s got a lot going on under the surface. Viewers find out that he’s probably having an affair with someone at work, and there’s even a hint that it might not be the only person he’s cheated with. In the 2012 scenes, Martin is no longer wearing his wedding ring, and in 1995, Martin’s wife is the only person who makes a real connection with Rust. Will Maggie find out her husband is cheating, find solace with Rust, and that be the 2002 event that breaks the two up? It’s just speculation at this point, but that’s the vibe I got during the pilot.

It’s probably too much of a red herring to buy into the fact that Rust is responsible for either of the murders, but could he have found out it was Martin and let him get away with it? Perhaps because of the guilt he felt over an affair with Martin’s wife, or because he knew it would destroy Martin’s family? And what happened to Rust’s own daughter? Yes, there are a lot of layers to this onion, and I can’t wait for the series to start peeling them back.

I found the premiere to be the most enjoyable pilot episode I’ve seen on television since ‘Lost‘ back in 2004. What did everyone else think?


  1. Fantastic pilot episode. I loved the way that every time McConaughey veered off into his Zen-like philosophical musings, Harrelson would immediately call him on his bullshit.

    Great character work all around. I’m a little concerned that the ritualistic nature of the crime may spin this over-the-top in a way that doesn’t gel with the tone of the show. Hannibal can get away with that, but this series seems more grounded in reality. We’ll see where it goes.

    The pilot was directed by Cary Fukunaga. I didn’t love his adaptation of Jane Eyre with Wasikowska and Fassbender, but the guy’s got a hell of an eye.

    I really like that this is planned to be an anthology with single-season arcs, like American Horror Story. That’s a great format for something like this.

  2. T.J. Kats

    Agree is was an amazing episode. I had very high expectations going in and they were surpassed. I don’t know how they are going to get to the end(beginning) in seven more episodes but I can’t wait to find out.

    • What’s interesting is that I could easily see Harrelson and McConaughey swapping roles. You kind of expect Harrelson to play the spaced-out weirdo.

      I was flipping through channels the other day and came across Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. My god, it’s amazing how McConaughey has turned his career completely around these last couple of years.

      • Yes, but I think there’s a lot more to Martin Hart than meets the eye right now…we’ll see.

        I agree about McConaughey – marriage seems to have changed him…or at least given him a good kick in the ass. I’ve always thought he was a really good actor (go back and look at his work in “Contact”), but for some reason kept going for the easy $$$ instead of the challenging roles. Finally, he seems to be taking on stuff worthy of his talent – I can’t wait to see him in Chris Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR at the end of the year.

  3. NJScorpio

    I scanned this blog post for all the possitive comments about this show (in an attempt to avoid spoilers). I’m very interested now, but it stinks if it’s an HBO show, since I can’t buy current episodes on Amazon Instant Video (or Xbox Video).

    I guess I’ll have to wait for a Blu-Ray release of Season 1 when Season 2 starts 🙁

    • For what it’s worth, there’s not much to spoil so far. The first episode is all about set-up. No big plot twists yet.

      I hear you about HBO. The network’s attempt to keep everything proprietary with HBO GO and away from other providers means that a lot of people will miss their shows.

  4. I love the reverse casting, and these two guys play off of each other perfectly…so far. There were times when Rust’s dialogue was so outrageous that I caught myself commenting out loud and rewinding it just to hear it again, and I mean that in a good way.Although it’s only one episode, so far I haven’t been this pleasantly surprised by a new series since American Horror Story.

  5. Bryan

    I really enjoyed this one quite a bit too. I had heard good things in the reviews, but it definitely supassed my expectations. Really fine acting from both McConaughey and Harrelson. McConaughey has indeed redeemed himself for a lot of crappy chick flicks in the mid stage of his career. And whenever I see Woody Harrelson these days, I still chuckle a little thinking about him back on “Cheers” as the dim-witted bartender. He’s also definitely matured a lot as an actor.

  6. Harrelson has had some rough bumps in his career, but I’m quite surprised to see McConaughey in a television series. Especially since he’s on such a roll for a good three years now. In fact, I think he may score his first Oscar nomination today.

  7. Scott H

    I caught this during HBOs free preview and it really makes me want to get HBO. Really good acting. The way this is shot, the grittiness and all reminds me of the movie Seven

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