TRUE DETECTIVE: “Who Goes There”

At the halfway point of HBO’s Gothic tour-de-force, Rust & Marty set their sights on a suspect, battling demons from without and within.

I mean this is like, what? 17 years ago? You have to understand if my memory hasn’t sharpened in the interim.

–Rust

This is Fellowship of the Screen’s first recap of True Detective, and we were going to wait until it was all over to review the series in full, if not for the mind-blowing stunt it pulled in its final six minutes last night. In order to get to their prime suspect, the hulking, methmaking Reggie Ledoux, Rust has reassumed his deep cover identity (a stretched-out biker named “Crash”) and infiltrated the Iron Crusaders gang in Texas; an old friend, Viking-bearded Ginger, would be willing to let Rust — who he believed to be dead — back into the circle if he’ll help out on a simple drug smash-and-grab in a local housing project.

Of course, on television nothing is ever simple. Rust has already snorted some cocaine from the state evidence locker, given himself some track marks, and faked an illness in his family (claiming some personal time) to get to this point across state lines, so as long as they get in and out in 30 seconds and no one gets hurt, the risk is worth it. At any rate, it’ll be less dangerous than getting caught by the Mexican drug cartel the Crusaders associate with, as Rust describes to Marty in horrifying detail.

And as Marty waits helplessly to hear from Rust (via a special phone that Rust emphatically says must be kept charged — I expected that potentially annoying bomb to go off, but thankfully it didn’t; the phone worked fine), Det. Cohle poses with the others as a Texas cop and raids the project. The moment Rust exits the car, director Cary Fukunaga launches a bravura six-minute, single-take action sequence, following Rust into the house, waiting interminably as tensions boil, out the back door as it all goes wrong, and on a twisting, winding path through yards and over fences, dragging an injured Ginger through the chaos and to the safety of Marty’s truck. They’re chased first by the residents, and then by the real police, in a tightly-choreographed mini-masterpiece of tension. (Here’s how they did it.) Matthew McConaughey, who has been brilliant up to now as the soft-spoken, philosophical, emotionless Cohle, finally gets to a chance to unleash all that pent-up potential energy, subduing assailants with ease and commanding the screen for the entire sequence. Marty and Rust speed away, leaving the neighborhood to consume itself in chaos.

True Detective, with its pitch-black worldview, has managed so far to capture an unsettling tone through four episodes just with descriptions and threats of violence, much of it conveyed by the haunted eyes of Matthew McConaughey. So it’s a relief to learn that this slowest of slow burns is indeed going somewhere, and perhaps somewhere truly exciting — not just in a storytelling sense, but in a heart-pounding, white-knuckled sense. Whatever really happened 17 years ago — as the two (still nameless) present-day detectives are trying to get to the bottom of, as far as we know entirely unaware of this Texas trip — is being doled out slowly, and those drips and drabs of information are fostering some wild fan theories in some corners of the internet. For myself, I’m not sold that the show is building to some kind of big twist. This is first and foremost a character study, letting two actors at the top of their game simply bounce off of each other for eight episodes, and the case itself is in many ways secondary to finding out what makes Cohle and Hart tick.

And while Cohle is a broken, hollowed-out husk of a man becoming less enigmatic by the week (but more sympathetic), Marty Hart has the more straightforward arc, that of a man who has a good thing going and loses it through pride. When a scorned Lisa goes to Maggie and reveals their affair, Marty’s life is essentially destroyed. The same man who was rationalizing his behavior just two weeks ago — about why cheating on his wife is not only an acceptable but necessary thing for someone in his line of work to do — is left an emotional, repentant wreck. McConaughey has the more magnetic character, but Woody Harrelson is matching him pound-for-pound, and it’s erstwhile family man Marty who has been holding down the series’s flawed moral center.

I still feel like Michelle Monaghan’s Maggie has been dreadfully one-note (not her fault), and while the electricity in her scenes with Rust is fascinating, Rust himself has shown to be disinterested in physical contact of any kind — all he wants is Marty’s full attention on the case. His “honest read” is that Marty will he back with his wife in a couple of months, but whether that’s actually true, or he just needs Marty to get his head in the game, only Rust knows. I don’t think even Maggie knows, and at any rate Marty’s marriage problems are the show’s least interesting subplot at the moment. Great for Marty’s development as a character (and knocking him off his very high horse), but not a high priority for the show when there’s devil-worshipping killers, the deep reservoir of Rustin Cohle, and whatever’s going on in the series’s framing device to pull focus.

So while True Detective is starting to hit its stride at the midway point, with impeccable direction and two towering lead performances, it’s really up to creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto to maintain this level of excellence. Serial killer stories are a dime a dozen, and Rust’s musings are fun for tumblogs, but it’s the thematic and character development that will ultimately determine the success of the series. Yet every episode has given us new surprises, and I think we can be optimistic. We even had a couple (a couple!) moments of levity amidst the punishing bleakness, notably: Marty, chatting up a former cellmate of the apparently garrulous Ledoux: “Gotta be tough, living with somebody spoutin’ insane s–t in your ear all day long,” throwing side-eye at Rust. Yes, it would be, Pizzolatto. So let’s make sure it all means something.

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