How the first 10 minutes of True Detective’s opening episode beautifully set-up the the themes for its entire season.
True Detective is not only a masterclass in creating a procedural show, but also one in crafting characters. Although the murder and subsequent hunt for the killer is the story engine which drives the series, we stay hooked because of the characters of Rust and Marty and their developing relationship.
Within the beginning scenes of True Detective are lessons that all aspiring screenwriters and storytellers could do with learning. Your characters have to grow through exposure to adversity and conflict, which comes through them meeting a mirror image of themselves, forcing them to scrutinise who it is they really think they are.
In the opening episode we are introduced to Rust and Marty as the polar opposites of one another in every possible sense. In this writer Nic Pizzolatto makes a promise to us as that these two characters will clash and create the conflict, which will drive True Detective forward.
The opening 1o and a bit minutes are him pulling back on the elastic of a sling shot loaded with a heavy stone. At some point he will let it go and allow the projectile to be flung at its target, creating the chaos that we’ve been dying to see since we were first introduced to Marty and Rust. However, out of the destruction will arise two new individuals who are now better versions of themselves. Change which we love to see characters go through on our screens.
Welcome to ten minute textualism… As ever, be warned, there will be spoilers.
Rust is portrayed as the outsider, a savant who does not belong in the world that he inhabits. He frequently makes reference to his distaste for Louisiana and chides the people who live in the state as backward, theistic luddites. He is a strange contradiction, spiritual, but rejects spiritualism, empathetic, but lacks empathy, silently strong, but also quietly fragile.
Those back at the station have a nickname for him: ‘The Taxman’ because of the large ledger he carts around with him on a case. Rust doesn’t care though. There is no concern for appearances with him. What you see is what you get. And that is a nihilist whose only concern is his work as he has nothing else, shown to us when we are allowed a fleeting glimpse of his bare apartment.
Marty on the other hand is a native to the area and grounds himself within the location of Louisiana, frequently defending it against the remarks his partner makes about the area. He is far more conservative than Rust and makes it known that he is the ‘people person’ of the pairing.
However, he too is full of contradictions which will be made much clearer as the series progresses. Currently though he is all ego. Everything is a façade which he presents to the world. Unlike Rust, he is all surface. Everything matters to Marty, except, it seems, the things that actually matter.
These two could not be any different if they tried to be. Almost the antithesis of one another. As Marty states: “You don’t get to pick your parents and you don’t get to pick your partner”. It looks like these two are never destined to be friends.
At the crime scene their differences are reinforced. Marty is concerned with the physical acts of the crime that took place. Merely the details that he can see on the surface. Whereas Rust wishes to examine the motives and psychology of the killer. This is heightened by the way the pair document the crime scene. Marty haphazardly takes pictures at eye level, almost bored of the routine – gathering only fractured evidence. Whereas Rust kneels next to the body of the young woman and draws it in great detail, examining each part of the crime scene to create a larger picture than Marty is able to see.
There are also other, more subtle, differences that the two exhibit. Marty chews tobacco, Rust smokes cigarettes, Marty insists that they can discover what has occurred through procedural channels, whereas Rust believes that they need to find the answer in book learning – an alien concept to Marty.
The interview footage showcases some of the animosity the two seem to have for one another which bubbles under the surface. Marty says of Rust, “He wasn’t big on talking, except when you wanted him to shut up.” Whereas Rust doesn’t have the highest opinion of Marty’s intelligence stating that he had to “explain” something to him as if he were a child.
Structurally the opening 10 minutes also serves both of the men with their respective ‘Calls to Adventure’. These are the moments which will set them off on their journeys of self-discovery so that they can grow as people; casting off their old identities and allowing a better version of themselves to develop past the ego defences that they’ve put in place to shield them from their neurosis.
What is interesting is that their corresponding ‘calls’ are moments which entirely interrupt their assumed identities, taking them entirely outside of their comfort zones and forcing them to ask questions of themselves. Questions which they will need the other’s assistance to help them answer.
Marty’s moment arrives at the station when the interviewer asks him, “What type were you?” referring to what type of police officer he sees himself. His answer is flippant and dismissive. He is obviously uncomfortable with the question. He says he’s, “Just a regular type dude, with a big ass dick.” He is entirely uncertain who he is, still lost in the juvenile ideal of what a cop should be, and slips further behind his façade to avoid answering.
Through the narrative we discover that during the investigation he was engaging in an extra-marital affair, rejecting the transition that he should have made to being a faithful husband and attentive father long ago. Being paired with Rust will be his experience in an adventure world. Bringing him face-to-face with a figure who is far more certain of who he is and refuses to concern himself with what others think of him.
Throughout the series Rust will challenge Marty to grow as a person by invading his home life, challenging him to accept that his family is the actual site of his power – one that he is in the process of taking for granted through his selfish and secretive actions.
Rust’s own call to adventure comes when he is invited to dinner by Marty. He must confront the death of his daughter and the life that he could have had as a happy family man. Initially, he is a reluctant hero, resisting the growth that has been offered to him by arriving at the meal drunk, and is seemingly thankful when he is given the opportunity to leave as quickly as possible when Marty organizes for someone to remove him from the situation.
However, he stays the course and begins to try and navigate his way through the uncertainties of family life; beginning the long road of pulling himself out of his self-enforced hermit like lifestyle, where cynicism and violence punctuates every aspect of his existence.
The mirroring of the pair allows for them to see the best and the worst in themselves and one another. Marty shows Rust that there is comfort that can be derived through friendship and a connection within a community. Whereas Rust allows Marty to understand that there are greater things in life than the ego driven wants that he strives for.
In the final episode’s closing scene outside the hospital, with the mirroring process complete, the two seem to almost switch places with one another. It is telling that Marty is now able to intently listen to his friend who previously he wished would shut up, and Rust is able to accept the council he receives from Marty; a man whose intelligence in the beginning he did not value highly.
To really show the extent of their transformation, Marty becomes a nihilist of sorts and Rust is now able to be far more optimistic about life as they discuss one of the key themes within True Detective: the battle between light and darkness. (That’s a whole other topic for another day.)
It is also worth noting, when Marty asks Rust if he wants to go back into the hospital to get anything Rust replies, “Anything I left back there I don’t need.” His arm around Marty both as support and an embrace.
So what do you think? Is mirroring important for our characters to develop in a text and are there any other examples that you can think of where this is the case?