Ben Stanley embarks on a True Detective pilgrimage, visiting the most famous Louisiana sites from the first season.
Pensive but mystically lucid, Rust Cohle looks up from a half-empty Lone Star, and considers his answer. Two detectives stare him down in a cigarette smoke-filled New Orleans cop station room.
They’ve been bailing up Rust – everyone’s favourite burnout philosopher-detective – for hours; convinced he’s involved in a series of murders that link back to when he was on the force two decades before.
It’s a scene that weaves a constant thread through the first glorious season of True Detective. In this particular episode, Rust – Matt McConaughey at the dawn of the McConaissance – was meant to address a question about the death of meth cook Reggie Ledoux. But our bleak hero – who’d be a real bummer to invite to a backyard barbie – never wastes an opportunity to opine the futility of human existence:
“They saw in that last nano-second, what they were,” he says, talking about a murder victim’s last moments.
“That you, yourself, this whole big drama – really, it was never anything but a jury-rig of presumption and dumb will – and you could just let go.”
“Finally having to know that you didn’t have to hold on so tight. To realize that all your life – all your love, all your hate, all your memory, all your pain – it was all the same thing.”
“It was all the same dream; a dream that you had inside a locked room.”
About five weeks ago, I cupped my hands together and stared deep into Rust’s locked room. The lights were off, and the door was bolted shut. Empty. I wasn’t peering into a sobering metaphor for humanity, though. Or, maybe I was: this was a prawn fisherman’s bar, closed on an early Monday afternoon, in Bayou Gauche, Louisiana.
The Fisherman’s Wharf – Doumain’s Domain as it was known in True Detective S1 – was also the home of Rust; the place where he lived and worked as he solved the mystery of the Yellow King.
Two years ago here, the cameras were rolling. There, in front of me, was the table where he and his partner Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) planned their interrogation of crooked cop Steve Geraci. There was the bar Rust leaned against and told Maggie – Marty’s long-suffering ex-wife – to leave because she was “classing the place up.”
Oh, baby. Here I was outside a shitty closed bar in the bayous, in heaven.
I first watched Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective last year in the series of cheap interstate motels in the northern United States. I remember watching the season’s last two episodes, where its three timelines combine for the final showdown with the Yellow King, in a Minneapolis motel.
As a cop car did slow laps of the car park every half an hour or so outside, I drank Jameson’s and tried to feel a bit like Rust myself; dark, deep and resistant.
That mindset was mostly escapism, but the truth was that TD1 had really put the hook in me. I found myself watching the series over and over again since, re-living every little moment of Pizzolatto’s magnus opus.
Why did it all shake my tree so much?
TD1 was American story-telling at its finest; a Southern Gothic tale that Faulkner would be proud of. It had deeply flawed characters who balance a sense of nobility with a desperation that thumps like a bad hangover, a gritty but clear purpose – and imagery so well textured, by director Cary Fukunaga, that you could almost smell the stench of the swamps, abandoned churches and stale beer.
The Rust Cohle approach to life became my approach to life, over time. It was sorta cool, but clearly, it’s important to get this sort of thing out of your system after a while.
A visit to Rust’s bar, and a few other spots, would be the dunk of cold water I needed, I figured. That came last month when I was on a sibling road trip across the Southern States with my sister. With great generosity and patience, she agreed to accommodate my TD1 obsession.
The show was made around New Orleans, where Pizzolatto grew up and received tax credits for filming, making pilgrimage visits easy enough with a rental car from the Big Easy.
Our first visit was to the infamous Dora Lange tree, located an hour west of NOLA, coming in from Texas. Lange was the first murder victim Rust and Marty would discover; her naked body decorated with occult symbols and antlers. Dark.
The drive to the tree from the I-10 is like a tour through TD1’s beautiful cinematic opening credits. Across the Mississippi, past freeways, tank farms, oil industry mega pipes, Baptist churches and a sea of cornfields. I was buzzing out.
The tree itself is impossible to reach on foot, now. Located on a private corn plantation, the owners have gated off the road to it, meaning you can drive in a distance and squint. “That’s it there,” I told my sister, guessing which one it was.
She wasn’t really into it. I knew the excursions were going to be hard work for her.
Rust’s bar, a location Pizzolatto called a “bar at the end of America”, came a couple of days later. The prawn boats along the bayous were cool and as was the bizarre symmetry of a catholic church on the turnoff down Bayou Gauche Rd, but I’ll admit the locked bar door was a shame.
There was a cold Lone Star in the fridge just feet before me that I’d never get to drink. No new Facebook profile shot, either.
The final visit was to Carcosa, where Rust and Marty finally cornered the Yellow King; True Detective’s crescendo “take off your mask!” moment.
Carcosa, actually an old army fort called Fort Macomb, was built to protect New Orleans more than two hundred years ago, and is impossible to venture into now, due to council restrictions.
Located about an hour to the east of New Orleans, visitors have to pass through the crumbling suburb of Willow Brook, – with roads untouched since Hurricane Katrina – and an abandoned, flooded Six Flags amusement park, which crocodiles are said to inhabit.
A view from the road is all this Rust wannabe could get, but that would satisfy me. There’s only so much time I want to spend tracking down “green-eared spaghetti monsters” to be fair.
Driving between the few ‘tourist’ spots from the show, you pick up the true genius of True Detective. I thought of driving through the small weird town of Armant, just five minutes east of the Lange tree, on the way to New Orleans. It was a place where you know the poor stayed poor, from the shops and houses down the main drag.
Here families would live out their lives shopping at Family Dollar stores, eating at Piggly Wiggly and bowing beneath the shadows of big Baptist churches, generation after generation. Armant fills me with an immense sadness thinking back now, but also a heightened understanding for what really pains the South.
More than just two detectives solving murder cases, TD1 paints its setting for what it is: a place bubbling with potential, but haunted and torn apart by ghosts, racial rip tides, and deep-seated Christian hypocrisy.
A land where change exists often as an excuse not to. This is what Pizzolatto picked up on, in TD1, and will always stand tall.
The day after going to Rust’s bar and Carcosa, I was in Pensacola, Florida; not a Lone Star in sight.
That night, to lighten the mood and put some distance between Rust and myself, I watched some of the UK version of The Office. Though David Brent would describe himself as a “friend first, boss second [and] probably an entertainer third”, there was a bit of philosopher to him too.
Channeling pop singer Des’ree in one memorable episode, Brent sung that people “we’re living, living in a crazy maze.”
In many ways, it’s a philosophy that lines up with Rust. And if there’s any place that would be the manifestation of his “locked room”, it’s probably a paper merchant’s office in Slough.
Rust and Brent? Man, I needed to get some sleep.
This content, like all television coverage we do at The Spinoff, is brought you thanks to the excellent folk people at Lightbox. Do us and yourself a favour by clicking here to start a FREE 30 day trial of this truly wonderful service.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.