Theme and plot analysis are contained in blockquotes throughout the recap.
The premiere-season opening sequence (long as hell, like all HBO shows) shows silhouettes of our two stars (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson), often superimposed with a landscape or building that an American viewer might associate with a rural area. We also see non-celebrity people an American viewer might associate with the South or a rural area, also superimposed with buildings or objects. Other people seen in the opening credits include a praying white man whom we’ll see later, the wife of one of the detectives, and nameless, often half-obscured women or parts of women who are naked, their bodies paired with images like truck stops, playground slides, and spiky heels. Other imagery includes fire, water, churches, and the Christian cross.
The opening sequence is rather straightforward. The accompanying song, “Far From Any Road” by The Handsome Family, is the right blend of American Folk and Gothic to match the show’s tone. The imagery leverages common stereotypes of the rural South—small towns, fiery religiousness, bayous, truckers in baseball caps sitting in bars, female strippers, etc. Much of it implies a sort of other-worldliness. The imagery of women both directly exploits (from an entertainment perspective) and implies exploitation (from a story perspective).
The first scene is brief. A lone figure carries something through a field at night. The person ignites some sort of artistically arranged kindling. Then we see fire on the horizon and the dark reflection of a creek in the foreground.
An interview is being recorded on May 1st, 2012 with former detective Marty Hart. Off-screen voices ask Marty about his former partner. Marty’s comments suggest he would’ve preferred partnering with someone else. He thinks he’s there to talk about the Dora Lange case, but the off-screen voices urge him to talk about Rust first.
The off-screen voices are Detective Gilbough (Michael Potts) and Detective Papania (Tory Kittles). It takes a while for the camera to show them, which pushes our attention solely onto Marty and his facial expressions. But don’t ignore the disembodied voices or their agenda. That said, it’s pretty telling that the director decided not to give Gilbough and Papania’s black actors any initial screen time, especially considering the lack of well-formed characters of color throughout the series.
We switch to another recorded interview with the edgy “Tax Man” himself (the nickname referred to the ledger he carried). The recording date is five days before Marty’s interview. In contrast to present-day Marty’s clean-shaven, short-haired, suit-wearing appearance, present-day Rust is long-haired, mustached, and in casual clothing. Rust lights a cigarette despite Gilbough and Papania asking him not to and launches into the story of his third case as Marty’s partner: “a 419″ (dead human body) in the cane fields outside Erath.
It’s clearly conveyed throughout the 2012 thread that present-day Rust has not fared well in the interim years. Marty seems to be getting along fine. Seems to be, at least.
It’s January 3rd, 1995—Rust’s daughter’s birthday, in fact. Rust and Marty arrive at the scene where a young white woman is tied into a head-down prayer pose, her kneeling body pointed toward the trunk of a tree. She wears a crown of foliage and deer antlers. On her back is a swirl of blue paint. Rust records the woman’s injuries as well as other clues, such as various small structures made out of sticks. Present-day Rust says good note-taking is important.
Present-day Marty talks about the different types of detectives, whether good or bad at their jobs. He describes himself as a “regular-type dude with a big-ass dick”. He always refers to detective types with male pronouns, saying that the authority that comes with law enforcement (and its attendant, necessary vigilance) can be like a “father’s burden”. He thinks of himself as “steady”. Two weeks into being partnered with Rust, he saw the sparsely furnished apartment in which Rust lived. Present-day Marty says, “Past a certain age, a man without a family can be a bad thing.”
Early on and consistently, we see the kind of man Marty is as well as the kind of man he thinks he is. Clearly, he sees law enforcement as a man’s job, which tells us his perceptions (his entire worldview, as it turns out) are traditionally gendered. Take special note his “man-without-a-family” comment and keep it in your head for later in the season.
Present-day Rust describes the killer as a “meta-psychotic”, and he says smugly that he had to explain the term to Marty. Young Rust lays out his theory for young Marty, who is obviously not reading the same criminology books as Rust. Rust says the woman was likely a prostitute. Marty warns Rust not to prejudice himself by jumping to conclusions. Rust is certain this murder wasn’t the killer’s first because it’s “too specific”.
Still at the crime scene, Marty gets Rust to agree to come to his home for dinner. Marty greets coroner Gordon DiCillo (Davi Jay) while present-day Rust explains in voice-over that the prospect of being in the company of Marty’s wife and two daughters as well as it being Rust’s daughter’s birthday put him in an awful headspace. He shows up to Marty’s home drunk.
It may be clear to some viewers already (if not now, then certainly by the end of the episode) that Rust’s daughter has passed away.
The show cuts to young Rust and Marty in their car. Rust makes dark comments about Erath’s isolation. Marty asks why Rust has a cross in his apartment if he’s not Christian. Rust admits he uses it to meditate on Jesus in the garden before his crucifixion. Marty gets Rust to describe his beliefs.
“I consider myself a realist, all right, but in philosophical terms, I’m what’s called a pessimist,” Rust says. Marty isn’t well-versed on the academic language of philosophy, so Rust clarifies. “I believe human consciousness was a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law.” Marty interjects, saying how “awful” that notion is.
“We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self,” Rust continues, “this accretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody when, in fact, everybody’s nobody.” Marty interjects again, warning Rust not to make his beliefs widely known. Rust plows on, “I think the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.”
I’m no philosopher, so we’ll reference an interview over at Vulture.com with Paul J. Ennis, “who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from University College Dublin”. Ennis describes realism “in the classical sense” as “seeing the world in a very blunt, cynical manner”, but he cautions that realism can take varying definitions, which is why pessimism offers some clarity. Ennis says Rust’s pessimism manifests as 1) “suspicion toward institutions”, 2) a “fundamental mistrust of all discourse of hope”, and 3) “hypocrisy as the norm”. Rust describes life as a “raw deal” for those, as Ennis says, who are “being crushed by various forms of power, which is often sustained by moral hypocrisy”. As we watch each episode, I’ll try to point out specific portrayals using one of those three categories.
As for the rest of Rust’s ruminations, which smack heavily of nihilism, especially the anti-natalist variety, these thoughts go hand-in-hand with his pessimism. Ennis hesitates to assign a “true” definition to nihilism because “nihilists are actually pretty hands-off as writers”, but anti-natalist refers to “the old maxim of ‘better to have never been born.‘” The interviewer, Matt Patches, mentions that the show creator Pizzolatto was “quick to refute the notion that Rust is a pure nihilist” because of a glimmer of compassion in some of Rust’s characterization, to which Ennis says, “a nihilist could find drive, if not meaning, from undermining those with power”.
Rust’s illusion-of-self comments distill “the arguments of some contemporary neuroscientists” who question the existence of free will over hard-wired instinct, that perhaps our entire neurological system, in order to sustain itself, gives us the illusion of having made a conscious decision when, in fact, our unconscious processes have already made the decision before our consciousness is aware of it. Hence, we are not our consciousness, but merely creatures of instinct. Ergo, “everybody’s nobody."
When Marty insists that “nobody around here thinks that way—I don’t think that way”, he represents the Everyman who is uncomfortable with the thought that “life is a trap, a dream, or a program”.
Marty asks how Rust gets out of bed with that outlook. Rust attributes his existence to his programming and the lack of the kind of constitution it takes to commit suicide. He comments on the bad taste the Erath area puts on his tongue: “aluminum, ash…like you can smell the psycho-sphere”. He spots a roadside billboard promising a reward for information regarding the person who killed “Stacy Gerhart”.
Rust and Marty get back to Louisiana State CID (Criminal Investigation Division) headquarters. The other detectives clearly don’t like Rust. They call him the “Tax Man” within earshot and snidely insinuate that he’s “IA” (Internal Affairs). Marty is meeting with their boss, Major Ken Quesada (Kevin Dunn). Quesada asks about Rust, and Marty’s assessment of Rust is fair. In the main room, the other detectives are callously discussing some details of the case, wondering what the antlers were for, and Rust asserts it was a crown.
(pessimism, hypocrisy as the norm) The social dynamic between Rust and the other detectives versus Marty and the other detectives is both a purposeful and a natural outcome—purposeful in that it’s included to characterize our two stars, and natural in that the other detectives dislike Rust because he doesn’t conform to the social norms (the moral hypocrisy) that maintains their power and gives them comfort. These detectives are far more welcoming and inclusive of Marty because Marty, like them, is “a classic moral hypocrite albeit precisely the type of person who keeps society from collapsing”, according to Paul J. Ennis in that same interview at Vulture.com.
Later, Rust heads out by himself, having collected possible leads from Vice. He questions two sex workers (Lucy and Annette) at a truck stop. They don’t have much information, and Rust sends one to get drinks so he can try to buy some drugs off the other. He says he wants downers because he doesn’t sleep.
The next morning, Maggie Hart (Michelle Monaghan) wakes up and finds her husband asleep in a chair in the living room. Marty hurries into work. Rust is already there, having gotten the murder victim’s name off her prints: Dora Kelly Lange. She was arrested previously for solicitation, hasn’t lived at her most recent address in almost a year, and her ex-husband Charlie Lange is currently incarcerated for check fraud. Coroner DiCillo has some initial findings as well. Marty summarizes, “She was drugged, bound, tortured with a knife, strangled, [and] posed out there.” Dora’s body was washed clean. No prints on her or any of the objects found with her.
Outside the coroner’s office, Rust and Marty discuss these new findings. Then Rust drops another bomb on us. “This place is like somebody’s memory of a town, and the memory’s fading. It’s like there was never anything here but jungle.” Marty calls the comment “unprofessional” and asks Rust to stop saying “odd shit,” incorrectly citing Rust’s “psycho-sphere” comment as “smell a psycho’s fear”. Rust replies, “Well, given how long it’s taken for me to reconcile my nature, I can’t figure I’d forego it on your account, Marty.”
Rust’s comment here is important to his characterization, especially compared to Marty’s characterization. Rust knows who he is, but Marty, being an Everyman, operates almost constantly under self-deception and self-delusion. He has, according to Paul J. Ennis, “just soaked up ideas of how to be a man and tries to live according to them (without reflecting on it all too much as he senses where that leads)." Marty’s particular form of self-delusion mainly manifests as misogyny.
We cut to the debriefing of the other homicide detectives as present-day Marty talks in voice-over about what’s he doing now. He has his own business—a security firm specializing in private detective work. Then we find young Marty and Rust back in their car. Rust sees a young girl on the sidewalk. She waves at him. Rust asks Marty if he believes in ghosts. They’re likely in Erath again because we watch them question a couple of people who might have heard something. One older man asks if they’re talking about the “Fontenot girl”, who went missing a few years ago.
They follow this small lead and question a local minister about her. The minister (Clarke Peters) says the Fontenot family used to attend service, but he knows nothing more. He also mentions that someone gutted a cat and nailed it to his church’s front door—twice. The police didn’t help him at all, and he rightly attributes it to his primarily black congregation. Rust shows the minister drawings of the swirl and the lattices. Of the latter, the minister says his aunt taught him how to make them when he was a child. Some people call them “bird traps”, but his aunt called them “devil nets”. He thought it was just a way for adults to keep children busy, to “tell them stories why they tying sticks together”. Just as he says the last, the camera cuts to and slowly zooms in on the church’s cross on the back wall.
(pessimism, suspicion toward institutions) The conflation of telling stories about why you’re tying sticks together and a Christian cross made with two sticks tied together is pretty clear. Rust specifically is the one looking up at the cross, and the suggestion that religion is merely a story to “keep children busy” ties pretty directly to Rust’s mistrust of institutions, like organized religion. We’ll hear Rust’s thoughts about religion in another episode.
Let’s not forget the minister’s comments about the police not investigating the mutilation of animals and the vandalism of his church. I’m not sure why Rust remains silent (a morally hypocritical institution ignoring the needs of a group of people with little to no power seems like it’d be right up his alley), but my best theory is that the minister represents another institution that Rust doesn’t trust.
We can also make the connection at this point that the lattices, like the Christian cross, may be some kind of “holy” symbol.
Rust and Marty go to Sheriff Tate to dig up any files relating to Marie Fontenot’s five-year-old missing-persons report, but the file is marked as “report made in error.” The sheriff five years ago was Ted Childress. Current Sheriff Tate says the girl was with her birth father and her mother had a record, including solicitation. The mother initially disagreed with Marie living with her father, but changed her mind and ran off with her boyfriend, all according to Tate. Marty asks about a separate complaint in which a young girl says she was chased through the woods by a “green-eared spaghetti monster”. We see a police artist’s sketch. The sheriff wryly says, “You want to call an APB on that, you go right ahead.”
Present-day Rust wants to leave the interview to get some beer. Gilbough and Papania repeatedly deny him, even when he tells them to go get it instead. He says he starts drinking at noon on his days off, and that they “don’t get to interrupt that”. He blows a bill at them, and we finally see the two detectives questioning him. Both detectives are black, and Gilbough is clearly closer to Rust’s age than the other is. Papania leaves with the money.
After a brief scene in which Major Quesada gives a press conference about Dora Lange, we see Rust and Marty interview Charlie Lange, Dora’s incarcerated ex-husband. He doesn’t know her current whereabouts or activities, but confirms she had substance-abuse habits. He explains they dropped out of school at the same time and got married way too fast. “You know how it is—you want a wife, but only half the time.” Marty half-smiles and nods.
(misogyny) Marty smiling and nodding implies that he agrees with Charlie about only enjoying marriage “half the time”, likely the half where a wife pleases her husband rather than the half where she might be allowed to be a whole person with her own needs.
Rust and Marty know that Dora called Charlie not long ago, and Charlie says he eventually got Dora to call him (through her friend Carla) about money she owed him. He recounts that Dora said she was “going to become a nun” and that “she met a king”. He asks what Dora did, and the detectives reveal that she was murdered. Charlie is stunned.
(Chambers reference) Here we come to the first bonafide reference to Robert W. Chambers’ 1895 book of short stories, The King in Yellow, which refers to a “fictional play with the same title which recurs as a motif through some of the [ten] stories." The fictional play is mentioned in four of the stories, wherein it “induces despair or madness in those who read it”. Only excerpts from Act I of the play are written out in Chambers’ short stories, and they introduce references to a place named Carcosa (the name taken from Ambrose Bierce) as well as the wearing of masks (possibly the influence of Edgar Allen Poe’s ”The Masque of the Red Death”).
Present-day Rust asks Papania and Gilbough if they want the whole story of the Dora Lange case. They do on account of the files being ruined by Hurricane Rita. Rust asks if they want his story due to a recent, similar murder near Lake Charles. He suggests they give him a look at what they have so far, but they say they’d rather hear about Dora first.
Present-day Marty is asked about the night Rust turned up drunk for dinner at Marty’s home. Young Marty admonishes a drunk Rust outside his home. He asks Rust to make an effort at conversation for a short time before having someone named Chris take Rust home. At dinner, Maggie tries to make small talk. After a couple of minutes, Marty leaves the table to take a page from Chris. While Marty’s gone, Maggie learns that Rust was once married and that his only child has passed away.
Marty returns to the table. He tells Rust to take a phone call from Chris in order to give him an excuse to be driven back home, so it’s Rust’s turn to leave the table. Having learned Rust’s major trauma, Maggie asks Marty about Rust. Marty obliviously says, “He could be a good detective. He’s running on this thing, but…[he’s] uppity.” Maggie is surprised at Marty’s judgement of Rust’s character. When Rust comes back, he does not taken the out Marty provided to leave. Rust makes an effort at nicer conversation.
Deconstructing the interactions between Maggie and Rust can be tricky, but it basically boils down to Maggie having a much easier time “getting” Rust than Marty does, perhaps because she doesn’t labor under as much self-deception as Marty, so she reacts sardonically to Marty’s “uppity” comment.
Gilbough and Papania ask about a falling out between Rust and Marty in 2002. Marty insists the falling out had nothing to do with the Dora Lange case. He wonders why he’s talking about the dinner incident when they wanted to talk about the Lange case. The detectives deflect, saying they heard Rust was an “ace case man” whose process they’d like to understand. Marty doesn’t buy their excuse, but lets it slide.
Young Rust and Marty are in State CID Homicide Division headquarters, getting some updates on past associates and neighbors of Dora’s from the other detectives. Rust smells alcohol on Favre and says, “You guys canvas the bars pretty good today?” Geraci uses some uninteresting expletives. Rust slaps him. After another expletive, Geraci and Favre leave.
(pessimism, hypocrisy as the norm) We know present-day Rust drinks heavily, that 1995 Rust fell off the wagon at least once, and that 1995 Rust was willing to buy illegal drugs, so he’s not imposing a moral judgment on Geraci for drinking. Rust drinks to cope with his bleak understanding of the world, but Favre and Geraci drink as a perk—they get away with drinking on the job because the power structure won’t punish them for it. This moral hypocrisy irritates Rust, which is why he calls them out on it.
Lutz and Demma refocus the conversation on the Dora Lange case. As far I can tell from context, they start talking about Marie Fontenot without any hint of transitioning to talking about someone else. Even more confusingly, Lutz’s “AP [Wire] guy, Ray Fontenot”, says that “her” uncle is Danny Fontenot, an old LSU pitcher.
So does Lutz just happen to know some relation (Ray) to the uncle (Danny) of Marie Fontenot? This bit of dialogue is not written clearly enough for even someone like me, with captions and pause/rewind options, to easily follow their conversation.
Major Quesada enters and introduces Rust and Marty to Reverend Tuttle (Jay O. Sanders). Tuttle says he and “Eddie” have been talking about how riled up people are over the Dora Lange case. Commander Speece (Don Yesso) informs them about a task force being formed based on the anti-Christian aspect of the case. Rust is irritated by this development and by the first-name relationship Tuttle has with “Eddie”, who he learns is Edwin Tuttle, the state governor and Reverend Tuttle’s first cousin. After Tuttle, Speece, and Quesada leave, a young white woman shows up to see Marty in order to walk him through some depositions. They go somewhere private “to talk”.
(pessimism, suspicion toward institutions) Paul J. Ennis touches upon this scene in his interview with Matt Patches, specifically when talking about Rust’s form of nihilism. Rust’s “barely concealed contempt for Reverand [sic.] Tuttle (and his intuition that he is a moral hypocrite)” conveys that he both suspects and condemns the reasons behind forming a task force.
It’s heavily implied that Marty is going to have sex with the woman. Rust watches Marty disappear into a room with her.
Rust and Marty go visit Danny Fontenot, who is ill. A woman who seems to be Danny’s wife is taking care of him and does all of the talking because Danny is unable to speak. Frustratingly, despite her many lines, I don’t think her character has a name. IMDb incorrectly credits her actress, Wanetah Walmsley, as “Marie Fontenot." Was the missing girl named after this woman? I kind of doubt it.
Anyway, we learn a man named Len Stroghes was Marie’s birth father. Marty recounts the story they heard—that Marie went to live with Len—but the woman says, “That’s what Debbie said,” the connotation being that Debbie’s account should be taken with a grain of salt. They don’t know Len’s whereabouts, but Debbie is possibly in Las Vegas.
Rust goes outside to look around the Fontenot property where Marie often played. Marty diplomatically asks about Danny’s illness, and the woman says, “All they ever told us was a ‘cerebral event’. Series of strokes, like.” In a small shed in the Fontenot back yard, where Marie would’ve played, Rust finds another of the lattices. The woman helpfully tells us she hasn’t “looked in there since the police first came”.
(Chambers reference) This is just a shot in the dark, but considering the themes most commonly utilized by authors like Chambers (e.g. witnessing things so horrible that the mind cannot cope), Danny’s unexplained “cerebral event” could be connected to Marie’s disappearance.
Present-day Rust teases us with a hint of a “hero shot”. He asks about the new case again. The detectives bring him a photo of the Lake Charles victim, who is suspended by ropes beneath some kind of train trestle, her arms out and a similar crown on her head as Dora Lange. Papania starts in on a line of questioning about Rust being “off the grid” for eight years and showing up again in 2010. Gilbough cuts him off, but Rust interrupts Gilbough with “How could it be him…if we already caught him in ’95?” Rust challenges them to “start asking the right fucking questions”.
Some quick wrap-up. We learn that something major happens (the “hero shot” comment), that they caught someone in ’95, and that they must have messed up because a new victim has been found. However, very attentive viewers (or those re-watching the show) will notice that Papania is jumping the gun, over-eager to ask Rust about his whereabouts the last decade as well as his part (over Marty’s) in solving the ’95 case. Gilbough, being more patient and in possession of a better poker face, tries to cut Papania off. We can safely assume that they strongly suspect Rust is the killer.
See you again for Episode 2: Seeing Things.