Martin Hart: You think, you wonder, ever, you're a bad man?
Rust Cohle: No, I don't wonder. Marty. World needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.
True Detective is an American drama series premiering on HBO created by Nic Pizzolatto. It has been confirmed that the series will be an anthology, with each season focusing on a different case with a different set of detectives.The first season, which premiered on January 12, 2014, is directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga and set in Louisiana. It stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as a pair of detectives investigating a gruesome ritualistic murder with occult overtones in 1995. Seventeen years later, the two are interviewed by two detectives (Michael Potts and Tory Kittles) who suspect they're Working the Same Case and that a Serial Killer is involved. Using the interviews as a Framing Device, the series jumps around periods from 1995 to 2012 to show not only the progress of the investigation, but how it affected the personal and professional lives of the detectives, and how it drove them to a falling out.
Mrs. Lange: Why wouldn't a father bathe his own child?
Beth, Dora Lange's friend, has a similar situation with her Evil Uncle.
The Alcoholic: Cohle is a relapsing-remitting. He's mostly sober in 1995, though he briefly falls off the wagon in the first episode. In 2012, he's drunk by noon and demands the interviewing detectives bring him a six-pack if they want him to keep talking. He also chugs a bottle of cough syrup while driving on the way to interview a CI and seems to buy barbiturates from her after the interview is over.
The Alleged Car: Rustin still drives the same red pickup he had in 1995. In 2012, it's revealed that he never even repaired the tail light that was damaged in his fight with Hart in 2005.
Spirals. They're drawn on the murder victims, which helps link the murders together. When a perpetrator is revealed he's mowing the lawn in a spiral.
The Devil traps, appearing at scenes associated with the murders.
Black stars appear in Dora Lange's diary, as a tattoo on her acquaintance's arm, and are mentioned by Ledoux. In one scene, asterisks frame Cohle.
Horns are also a recurring theme. The first case involves a murdered woman with horns placed on her head. At a place of interest, they find a painting of a naked woman with horns. Ginger the biker has a chest tattoo of horns curving up to the sides of his neck.
Circles are a recurring metaphor, though rarely visually displayed. Cohle in particular talks about cycles repeating themselves and people moving in circles. Marty's marriage cycle of fighting and then reconciling is visually described when he rollerskates in a ring with his family. As his kids go to take "one more lap around," Marty begins to reconcile with Maggie and start the cycle over again.
Beneath the Mask: A subtle example with Hart. On the surface he presents himself as a laid-back, easygoing family man who bears the responsibility of his job. Underneath, he's a philandering husband, a bad father, a bit of a drunk, and has rage issues.
Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Beneath Hart's laid-back Good Ol' Boy facade, he cheats on his wife and is dealing with psychological issues. Contrast with Cohle who doesn't bother with a facade and is utterly upfront with all his flaws.
Blatant Lies: Cohle and Hart insist that Cohle took personal time in 1995 to visit his ailing father, to cover for his brief trip to Texas and their involvement in the Beaumont shootout.
Bratty Teenage Daughter: Appropriately for this show, a dark variant on the trope, as Marty's older daughter is dressing as a goth and having sex with two guys at a time after the Time Skip to 2002.
Brick Joke: As they leave the Bunny Ranch, Marty gives $100 to Beth, one of the Ranch's underage girls, to try and get her out of prostitution. Rust quips that Marty's putting down "a down payment" on the girl, which raises Marty's ire. Seven years later, Marty's having an affair with Beth.
Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Cohle - darkly pessimistic, a misanthrope who sleeps under a crucifix (despite being non-religious) and with a tendency to philosophize at random, is explicitly identified as a good detective.
Chekhov's Gunman: The Green-Eared Spaghetti Monster discussed early in the show and the Lawnmower Man who gives some exposition in episode 3 turn out to be the same man as well as one of the primary killers in the conspiracy.
Hart: Stop saying shit like that, it's unprofessional.
Cowboy Cop: Cohle pays scant regard to police protocol or procedure and engages in his own investigations, which doesn't sit well with his partner or superiors.
Crazy Jealous Guy: Hart. When he sees his mistress, Lisa, going home with another man, he breaks down her door and terrorizes him. He promises to skull-fuck Lisa for personally telling Hart's wife about their affair in retaliation for Hart's breaking-and-entering. After his wife leaves him, Hart begs her to give him another chance at the hospital where she works and has to be held back by security, leaving only when prompted by Cohle regarding their case.
Creator Cameo: Nic Pizzolatto plays a bartender in "Who Goes There".
Creepy Child: one of the girls that Hart and Cohle saved is like that as of 2002 and is said to be only getting worse.
Cthulhu Mythos: The diary of Dora Lange mentions "the Yellow King" and "Carcosa" from Robert W. Chambers' "The King in Yellow". By Episode 5, the killer is known in-universe as The Yellow King.
The Cynic: Cohle. Unlike most examples, it isn't played as him being simply grumpy or downbeat but having genuine existential despair about life and humanity and shows what a wreck he is.
Cynicism Catalyst: Happened prior to the opening of the series, but the death of Cohle's daughter seems to qualify.
Audrey's macabre display of her toys and the grouping of Rust's tin men (which he makes throughout the interview) lead up to the videotape in Episode Seven, which is the first display of the Yellow King cult's ritual.
Audrey's pictures include one man, penis out, groping a woman. He appears to wear a mask. It's later revealed that the ritualistic slayings involve masked perpetrators.
Two more visual clues leading to the videotape: the first appearance of Ledoux at the end of Episode Three, animal-like in his underwear, and gas mask and the picture of Dora Lange during Courir de Mardi Gras.
Framing Device: The detectives interviewing Hart, Cohle and Maggie separately 17 years after the case was investigated.
Friend to All Children: Marty's problems with his own daughter aside, he's really sensitive about seeing violence against kids. That's what made him execute Ledoux on the spot and eventually, quit the force entirely.
Gas Mask Mooks: The first we see of Ledoux is a long shot of him striding through a field wearing nothing but underpants and a gas mask, giving him a freakish and bestial appearance. It later becomes clear that he's dressed this way because he's a meth cook.
Genre Savvy: Maggie, when being interviewed by Papania and Gilbough, says that after being married to a cop for so long she's aware of the tricks used in interviews, and tells them to just get straight to the point.
Good Scars, Evil Scars: Ledeux's surviving victim mentions a third perpetrator, whom she describes as a giant with scars.
Gory Discretion Shot: Mostly averted, but when Marty looks at the tape of a girl surrounded by men in animal masks closing in on her, we only see (and hear) his reaction. Also serves as Nothing Is Scarier.
Hallucinations: Cohle has these in episode 2, seeing blurring lights on the highway, a weirdly neon-pink wave that spreads across the cloudscape and a flock of birds forming the symbols on Dora Lange's body. He explains that it's a side-effect of a number of drugs he was taking while undercover.
Hollywood Satanism: A possible in-universe example. Many of the detectives, the media and the public believe the murder is occult-related, although Cohle suspects it may be a sex murder. In the first episode, there is serious talk of setting up a task force to investigation crimes with "anti-Christian connotations".
Sheriff: Those symbols, they're Satanic. I saw a 40/40 about it.
Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Jan—sort of. She is looking after the whores on her little bunny ranch. Of course, she also has no problem with underage girls whoring themselves out.
How We Got Here: The two detectives narrate the story leading up to the present.
At around the end of episode 6, the story catches up with the present, after which the story is told more or less in a linear progression (with the exception of the odd flashback).
In episode 3 ("The Locked Room"), 2012 Hart natters on about the importance of family, while 1995 Hart bursts into his mistress's apartment and beats her date up.
Hart is just full of this really. He justifies his affair with a courthouse employee essentially as letting off steam and states that it is ultimately "for the good of the family." He is saying this in 2012 with a left hand entirely devoid of a wedding ring.
Hart continually calls out Cohle for his perpetual angst, but indulges in it just as much himself where his family life is concerned. Even in the car, which he designated an angst-free zone after Cohle's first misanthropic rant. Cohle points out that the difference between him and Hart is that Cohle isn't in denial about who he is.
Both men use self-deception to bury their problems — Hart hides his dysfunction under a veneer of civility and boundaries, and Cohle tries to convince himself that he knows the "truth," which is that nothing matters and he doesn't care, to erase the truth of the pain he feels because he does care. Obsessively. His speech may frequently refer to nihilistic/existential philosophies, but all his actions are to fight against the abyss. The real nihilists are the murderers he's pursuing.
Indy Ploy: The entirety of Cohle's escape from the ghetto in Beaumont, TX was pretty much improvised. Whatever plan he had in mind to capture Ginger, it was useless the moment one of the bikers shot a hostage.
Rust: What is this, some kind of hillbilly bunny ranch?
Madame: Excuse me, you might wanna talk to Sheriff Bilson before you start tossin' accusations around.
Rust: Nah, I got nothing against hillbillies.
Jade-Colored Glasses: Cohle has such a prominent pair that it's almost a deconstruction because it shows what a psychological wreck a person becomes by wearing them.
Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Cohle comes across as abrasive and is extremely cynical about humanity in general, but when he shows up drunk to dinner with Hart's family, he genuinely apologizes. Also, even though Marty tries to arrange an alibi for him to leave gracefully, Rust stays because he finds that he actually enjoys spending time with Marty's family, more than he thought he would.
Karma Houdini: Ginger gets dumped in a ditch by Cohle, but otherwise escapes all punishment for his drug stash invasion and general scumbaggery.
Killer Cop: Cohle and Hart straight-up execute Ledoux and his crony after discovering the extent of their crimes.
Knight in Sour Armor: Cohle often preaches about the futility of humanity, but nonetheless works as a detective to, as he says, "bear witness".
Ludicrous Gibs: What happens when Reggie Ledoux's meth-cooking partner steps on a land mine.
Rustin Cohle. Hart and Cohle's surnames are homophones for Heart and Coal.
Also, Ginger, referring to his hair color.
Errol Childers is revealed to be an abuser and killer or children.
The Mole: Cohle was one for four years while working for a DEA task force in Texas. Undercover cops are supposed to be pulled out after 11 months, but Cohle kept going because the DEA was essentially using his self-destructive behavior to further their own ends and could do so with impunity because of a previous shooting that would otherwise have put Cohle in jail or, at the very least, off the force.
Mysterious Past: Cohle. He grew up with a 'Nam vet turned survivalist father in Alaska, his daughter fell into a coma after a car accident and later died, his marriage fell apart, he went undercover for an extensive drug operation that turned him into an addict, was in a shooting, and spent time in a mental institution all before coming to Louisiana to work the Dora Lange case.
Never My Fault: Hart is prone to this, variously blaming his family, job, a midlife crisis, his father's death and even Cohle for his affair.
No Social Skills: Subverted. Cohle is stoic and generally abrasive to other people. However, it becomes clear that Cohle is perfectly able to be social when he wants to be. He's an outstanding interviewer and can also adopt realistic personalities while undercover. When he's not playing a part, however, he simply chooses not to be sociable.
Cohle also seems to act normal and happy with Laurie, the woman Maggie set him with. It's cover so people don't know he's still working on the Dora Lange case.
Nothing Is Scarier: What happened to the girl on the tape in episode 7? We only get Marty's horrified reaction to it. Cohle, who plasters his walls with pictures of corpses, faces a wall rather than see it again even in his peripheral vision.
Off The Wagon: Cohle, who identifies himself as a recovering alcoholic, shows up to dinner with Hart's family drunk. By 2012, he's fully relapsed.
The Oner: A really impressive 6-minute sequence shot in "Who Goes There". It features Cohle undercover in a crapsack neighborhood during a riot as he takes a suspect through numerous shootouts and obstacles, all in a true Oner. This article explains exactly what went into shooting the scene.
Red Oni, Blue Oni: One of the basic difference between Hart and Cohle, particularly in 1995. Martin Hart is red, being an impulsive womanizer with rage issues. Rustin Cohle is the blue oni, with a stoic and stiff personality. In the present, they've both moved closer to the center, showing how much the case has changed them.
Refuge in Audacity: Ginger's plan to rob the stash house in the ghetto is incredibly audacious. To wit, he dresses himself and two other guys in cop uniforms (keep in mind they are still bearded, tatooted 1%ers), rolls into ghetto, takes few black guys hostage and proceeds to rob the gang. It would have worked, even though gangbangers were fooled only for a moment, but one of the bikers shot the hostage, prompting people outside to retaliate.
Revenge: Maggie gets revenge on her husband by having sex with his partner.
Room Full of Crazy: There are a few of them. Most prominently, Cohle has one. His apartment is nearly devoid of furniture, and he does nothing there all day but drink and stare at an increasingly disturbing assortment of crime scene photos and eventually relics associated with the murders. The only thing missing is the writing on the walls.
Straw Nihilist: Cohle spends a lot of time talking about how humanity is evil and life is pointless. Hart lampshades how annoying his nihilist rants are.
Take This Job And Shove It: After a fistfight with Hart in the parking lot of headquarters, while Cohle was on suspension, Rusty decides he's had enough of it and quits.
Tattooed Crook: All of the criminals in the show are covered in tattoos, some with meaningful designs. Cohle also sports a tattoo on his forearm that is probably a result of four years spent undercover as crooks.
Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: Cohle and Hart don't particularly care for each other right from the start, but have to work together because they're partners. Even after a violent falling out, however, they reunite and pursue the main case out of shared revulsion for the crimes.
That One Case: Cohle is convinced that the 1995 murder case is still unfinished. He continues working it long past its closure, believing that there are additional perpetrators to be found and that the crimes are still ongoing.
Time Skip: Besides the time skip that occurs every time the show cuts back to the Framing Device, the show leaps forward seven years from 1995, when the Dora Lange case was closed, to 2002, when Rust started investigating it again.
Too Dumb to Live: the Iron Crusaders, a group of racist hick-bikers who go into a black neighborhood dressed as cops (even with their long hair and beards), break into a house, loudly abuse the people in the house, shoot one of them, and proceed to get the shit killed out of them.
Torture Cellar: Reggie Ledoux has one, where he tortures kids. Hart's immediate reaction after seeing it is to the execute him.
Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Hart's grade-school aged daughters have a disturbing fixation with sex, posing their dolls in positions that resemble a gang-rape, and one of the daughters getting in trouble at school for drawing people having sex in her notebook. It foreshadows 2002, when the older of the two is picked up by Sheriffs about to have a three way with two adults in a pickup truck.
Turn In Your Badge: Invoked by Leroy Salter for Rust, briefly before he quits for good, following the latter's Cowboy Cop antics and reopening of old cases.
Unreliable Narrator: We're occasionally shown things that contradict the narration of the two detectives. It's where the "True" part of True Detective comes from.
Cohle and Hart state that they took some time off while Cohle tended to his sick father, when in reality Cohle went undercover in a biker gang and participated in a robbery. The interviewing detectives realize that the cover story is fake.
That gunfight with Reggie Ledoux that Hart and Cohle have been referencing for a few episodes? It never happened. Hart shot a handcuffed Ledoux when he found the kids he had locked up, and he and Cohle managed to spin it into a promotion for both of them.
Verbal Tic: Hart is prone to making a "psst" sound when being dismissive of something. Cohle sometimes absently clicks his tongue, especially in the 2012 timeframe. He's also a lot more "groovy" and overall McConaughey-sounding by this point, though he does occasionally talk this way in 1995 as well.
"The Secret Fate of All Life". Hart and Cohle track down Reggie Ledoux, and Hart snaps and executes him after discovering two children in a Torture Cellar, provoking the two of them into a cover-up. Papania and Gilbough accuse Cohle of the 2012 murder and a few others. And then there's the school...
"After You've Gone", the penultimate episode. There is a group of men involved in the murders, including many higher-ups. There are possibly dozens of victims, many children. And it's strongly implied that the Lawnmower Man from Episode 3 is the Spaghetti Monster.
At the end of the first episode, the 2012 detectives present Cohle with a new crime scene that has similarities to the Dora Lang murder.
Cohle: How can it be him, if we already caught him in '95?
Followed up shortly afterwards with another one that implies 2012 Cohle knows a lot more than he's letting on:
Cohle: Maybe you'd better start asking the right fucking questions.
In the second episode, when investigating Dora Lange's former lodgings, they find her diary and read from it:
Cohle: (Reading the diary) I closed my eyes and saw the King in Yellow moving through the forest.
In Episode 5, when Cohle interrogates a man accused of two murders during a robbery-gone-bad. The man claims to have information about the Dora Lange case, which Cohle dismisses as bargaining for a plea, until he utters the following line. It's not just the line, but the fact that Cohle goes apeshit over it"
At the end of episode seven, the penultimate episode of the first season, we finally get a revelation of whom the real killer is, combined with a Wham Shot:
Lawnmower Man: (as the camera pans out and the lighting changes, revealing his scars) My family's been here a long time.
Working the Same Case: The reason the present-day detectives claim to be interviewing Hart and Cohle. However, they eventually reveal that Cohle is the suspect they're after. Also, in the first episode, the detectives suspect a missing girl, Marie Fontenot, may be a victim of the same killer.