The following is a viewing diary I wrote as I watched the show for the first time, pausing after each episode to collect my thoughts. As such, it is spoiler-free for upcoming episodes (although the comments section may not be).
As it happens, just yesterday I started reading an anthology of mystery stories. In the introduction, author Tony Hillerman writes about the change in mystery-writing over the course of a century, from when the primary purpose was solving an intellectual puzzle to when the story's purpose became, in Dorothy Sayers' phrase, "literature of expression." By way of example, Hillerman cites one of the last stories in the anthology:
"Now, skip ahead to 1998 and 'Poachers.' In Tom Franklin's story the puzzle matters hardly at all. Here you meet real people - three orphaned and brutish brothers who live as predators in the wet woods of the Gulf Coast south, the old widower who loves them, and the sheriff who pitied them all. Who killed two of these brutal boys and blinded the third? You never really know. If you care, you can take your pick. In any case, the muddy river, the endless rain, the half-wild hunting dogs, are more important than the plot."True Detective, set not far afield (nor in time) in 1995 Louisiana, is also thick with atmosphere: in this case skeezey truck-stop dives, ragged rural shantytowns, and yawning, ominous fields. One field is burnt out in the opening, transformed into a staging ground for the ritual murder which launches this story. Det. Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) mutters, "I get a bad taste in my mouth out here. Aluminum. Ash. Like you can smell the psychosphere." As a description of ugliness, it's quite beautiful - and there is something attractive and evocative to True Detective's squalid setting. The romance of the gritty has been part of the texture of mysteries since (at least) the pulp days of the 1930s, which Hillerman celebrates as the turning point for mystery's concern with mood over puzzle.
Yet a question remains. If character and setting matter more than plot, why include a mystery in these stories at all? Hillerman himself concedes, "I'd guess that approximately half of the audience for mysteries today still prefers the puzzle to the novel." I might amend that slightly because I don't think it's just a matter of division between readers/viewers but within the individuals themselves. Personally, when reading or watching a mystery, I find myself caught between those two poles - hungering to move forward and sinking into the moment, needing to know and enjoying not knowing, relishing the colorful characters and striking locales as signposts on the way to greater wisdom while simultaneously appreciating the investigative apparatus as an excuse to savor people and places.
There is a pleasurable tension at the heart of mysteries because they appeal to contrary impulses at the same time. And if True Detective begins with atmosphere, it does not neglect the appeal of the puzzle. In fact it is structured quite cleverly to layer mystery upon mystery, even investigation upon investigation. The events of the central investigation are framed by another, nearly two decades later, in which two latter-day detectives (Michael Potts and Tory Kittles) question our two heroes (Cohle is now a grizzled alcoholic while Woody Harrelson's Det. Marty Hart is balding and still-solid). Initially this just seems like a convenient narrative device, heightening the mood by placing the investigation in the past (no cell phones, for example).
But soon Cohle and Hart - and we, as well - suspect something is afoot. The questions often have more to do with the detectives themselves, especially Cohle, suggesting that perhaps they are the ones under investigation. Indeed, we are amused to see Hart himself ask the interrogators why they seem more concerned with what his ex-partner brought to dinner seventeen years ago than with the details of the murder case. Here the tension between puzzle and atmosphere becomes explicit and ironically it is the (mostly) faceless official/present-day detectives who ensure that the more colorful main characters feed us personal tidbits in addition to forensic details.
At the end of the episode Cohle needles the present-day detectives. Another victim has been killed - found naked in nature, strung up, surrounded by occult symbols and crowned with stag's horns, just like the first victim. Cohle asks rhetorically, "How could it be him if we already caught him in '95?" before adding, "Start asking the right fucking questions." The mystery deepens at the very first moment we learn it has already been "solved."
I am entering True Detective thankfully blind. I only know a few details going in - that there is someone called "The Yellow King" (a "king" is mentioned briefly in one scene, but no color yet), that the investigation does not focus much on the victim (Amanda Rose Batz) but rather on larger social entanglements, and that for unknown reasons many people find the conclusion disappointing (which somehow only intrigues me more). I did pass through the room once when my roommate was watching Cohle rant about religion. But the abrasive and arrogant side of his personality is already well-established from the beginning of this episode. (His relationship with Hart, in classic odd-couple fashion, is one of the episode's most enjoyable conceits; some of Hart's exasperated retorts had me laughing out loud).
Otherwise I only know what this episode has told me... That Cohle and Hart had a nasty falling-out in 2002 (what I'm wondering is, how did they make it that long?). That there seems to be some connection between the murder of the prostitute and the disappearance of a little girl several years earlier. That the governor['s brother - ed] (Jay O. Sanders), an oily preacher-man who speaks of "anti-Christian crime" is already clashing with Cohle; he'll no doubt reappear, and probably be implicated in a larger shadowy conspiracy. That Cohle has trouble sleeping and meditates on Gethsemane. That he has flashes of insight and intuition that are leading him further than conventional methods could. That "this place is like someone's memory of a town and the memory's fading. It's like there was never anything here but jungle."
Which details are important? Which don't matter? Which add to the puzzle and which tell us to forget the puzzle, because the bigger questions never have easy answers, to be filed away in the bowels of bureaucracy? "I never sleep," Cohle tells us, while Hart shoots him a didn't-I-just-tell-you-to-shut-the-fuck-up glare. "I just dream."
I look forward to dreaming with these two detectives for many hours to come...