5 Things We Learned From 'True Detective'

Now that the first season's finale is behind us, here's a few takeaways from the Matthew McConaughey HBO series

Woody Harrelson true detective
Lacey Terrell/HBO
Woody Harrelson as Marty Hart on 'True Detective.'
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1. The McConnaissance has officially hit its peak.
It's now belaboring the obvious to state that Matthew McConaughey has morphed into one of the most interesting actors working today — an unpredictable phenomenon that we can carbon-date back to 2011 and his Rockford Files-esque turn in The Lincoln Lawyer. His career-resurgence modus operandi was simple: kiss off the typical leading-man roles that were slowly suffocating him and go moody (Mud), dowdy (Bernie), psycho-ugly (Killer Joe), or campy, where-are-my-bongos batshit-crazy (The Paperboy). Where once his two modes were open-shirted or altogether shirtless, McConaughey started to explore how far he could take things to the outer limits, performing jujitsu on his sex-symbol image with Magic Mike and scaling his beefcake physique down to scary, beef-jerky emaciation for Dallas Buyers Club. (As for his motormouthed cameo in The Wolf of Wall Street, the whole sequence now seems like a dry run for the glorious cosmic slop of his Oscar acceptance speech.)

Read Our Q&A With 'True Detective's' Matthew McConaughey
But with True Detective, McConaughey has not only delivered what's arguably his best work; he's crafted a performance that's both drawn from and built on all of these previous McConnaissance highs. His Rustin Cohle circa '95 is a portrait of detachment and PTSD, and worlds away from his old party-boy persona without feeling like he's just playing a stock straight-and-narrow hero (see A Time to Kill). His "narco wild-ass" persona Crash feels like the entire chilling Killer Joe experience without the fried-chicken excess. Cohle '12  combines the thousand-yard-stare mysticism of Mike's alpha stripper with Club's single-minded fatalism. Even better, he makes the whole thing feel rock-solid and of a single piece. There's great acting all over this show, especially Woody Harrelson and Michelle Monaghan, who finally makes good on the promise she showed in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. But this is McConaughey's show. Oscar win or not, it really feels like the last three years of tightwire walks have all been adding up to this.

2. Cary Fukanaga is no longer a director to be taken for granted.
Next to McConaughey, the one name most associated with True Detective is Nic Pizzolatto, a novelist and occasional TV writer (The Killing) who acts as the series showrunner. He's the true auteur of the show — but you can't discount the contributions of the man behind the camera for every one of the first season's episodes. Thanks to his Sundance-coronated 2009 feature debut Sin Nombre, filmmaker Cary Fukanaga demonstrated a knack for complementing immersive-journalistic storytelling with impressive chops. His sophomore film, an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (2011), then proved he was no one-trick indie-cinema pony.

But Fukunaga's work here elevates him into an entirely different class of director. Yes, there's the famous six-minute shot in episode four ("Who Goes There?") that had everyone in a tizzy, but that showstopper is an exception that proves the rule: He's a helmer who understands how to use restraint, atmosphere, pacing and the power of a well-framed composition to both push forward and enhance the storytelling. That, and his work with actors here is first-rate. Pizzolatto is the voice of True Detective. Fukunaga, however, gives form to that voice in a singularly wondrous, controlled manner. You step away from this show thinking that he has the potential to be one of the greats.

3. The British model of the limited-episode season works equally well on these shores.
Thanks to the success of American Horror Story, we already knew that modern audiences were warming to the concept of anthology shows, and the guessing game as to who might be the next pair of cops to go down Pizzolatto's rabbit holes has already begun in earnest. But when it was announced that the show would play out over just eight episodes, there were pockets of preshow cybermurmuring that wondered if the story might not have been substantial enough for a standard 13-episode run, or if the fact that it would only run for slightly over half the number of a typical season's episode allotment suggested a lack of faith from the show's cable-channel patron. Clearly, neither of those complaints are being put forth now. (Though what's up with the lack of renewal announcement yet, HBO?)

Instead, Pizzolatto and co. apparently adhered to the British model, in which a season (or to use the parlance, "series" as in "Series 2 of a show") is usually relegated to a scant four, or six, or eight episodes — with a Christmas special thrown in if it's really good — and then boom, that's it. Looking back, it's now hard to think of True Detective being stretched out to 13 or 22 episodes; this is a story meant to be told in compacted form, one which allows for a high density rate of information and tangents yet still favors the forward momentum of the mystery. (It also still managed to find time for a bum episode as well.) Plenty of shows have done wonders with longer runs. But the shorter run helped this self-contained pulp fiction sustain a level of concentrated storytelling that played in the show's favor while slicing away narrative fat. In the long run, less may very well have allowed the show to be more.

4. Throw in cryptic references to a book of short stories over a century old, some weird-fiction authors and an ancient city, and you will stir up some choice Internet chatter.
Whodunnits by their very nature inspire viewers to channel their inner detectives: You scour the scene for clues, size up potential suspects, sift through mountains of information looking for that moment when you realize, Of course! It was Colonel Mustard, in the drawing room, with the lead pipe! True Detective started dropping in very, very subtle hints that there may be more embedded in this story of two cops on one very fucked-up case.

But a spiral motif here or Nietzschean rap about time being a flat circle there isn't usually enough to stir up the white-noise networks. Once the Yellow King and Carcosa started getting namedropped, however…Holy Cthulu, it was off to the nutty-theory races. As we now know, the former refers back to The King in Yellow, Robert W. Chambers' 1895 collection of short stories that's named after a play designed to drive people insane. (The show has now made the book a bestseller on Amazon.) Carcosa is a mythical city mentioned in Ambrose Bierce's story "An Inhabitant of Carcosa"; Pizzolatto soon started mentioning the weird-fiction anthology "A Season in Carcosa," as well as cult authors like Laird Barron and Thomas Ligotti, in interviews.

At this point, the show was no longer producing armchair Sherlocks. It had started turning viewers meta-detectives and metaphysical explorers, giving people license to discuss outrageous theories on Reddit and beyond. No deep end was too deep to jump into. It could be aliens, or supernatural forces, or Satan. The Yellow King is Rustin Cohle. The Yellow King is Marty Hart. The Yellow King is Tuttle, the head of the ministries connected to the missing children. The Yellow King is that dude who served you coffee at the bodega down the street. The Yellow King is you. (Guilty until proven innocent, people.) Until Pizzolatto started pooh-poohing the speculation and all was revealed on last night's finale, True Detective actively encouraged people to go as far out as they wanted to and read anything they wanted into the showrunner's pet writers and obscure reading lists. The show was part of the pop-cultural conversation before that. After the Yellow King became a bona fide character even in absentia, the conversation itself almost eclipsed the show. (In terms of theories, the one below is our personal favorite.)

5. Everything always becomes 1,000 times creepier and more symbolic of moral degeneracy when it's on a VHS videotape.
Always.