Last night marked the end of the first half of the first season of HBO’s True Detective. For those loving the show, “Who Goes There” represented a major turning point, the moment the series left the well-worn path of investigation and discovery and elevated to a stranger, more action-packed plain. “Elevated” is, of course, just a fancy word for getting high, and last night marked the spot True Detective stopped gazing up at Rust’s hallucinogenic vapor trails and started snorting them.
For those immune to the show’s moody, macho charms, the episode probably did little to move the needle — a needle that was only injecting a mix of ink and cayenne, anyway. As I’ve made clear (and won’t belabor again), I’m very much in this latter camp. “Who Goes There” was the last of the episodes I had a chance to see before writing my preview of the series, and while I admired the Night of the Hunter S. Thompson gonzo anarchy of the final 15 minutes, it didn’t bring me back onboard. To be honest, it pushed me further away. Wild leaps are fantastic, but not when you haven’t built a solid foundation to land on when you inevitably come back down. (For what it’s worth, I’ve also written at length about how, personal taste and content aside, True Detective represents something truly exciting for the future of TV storytelling and the industry as a whole.)
But just because I’m not loving something doesn’t mean I’m not interested to see what happens next. Here are six questions for the second half of Rust and Marty’s Excellent Adventure.
1. Does the Dora Lange Case Matter at All?
One of the things that immediately put me off True Detective’s pilot was the specter of yet another woman-mutilating, antler-deploying serial killer. It’s a trope that has become to TV in the 2010s what wisecracking children were to the ’80s and white people in coffee shops were to the ’90s. But four episodes in, are we any closer to discovering who killed Dora? Or why? And, more important, do we even care? Much to my surprise, True Detective seems to be about as interested in serial killers as I am.
Instead, it’s now clear that Detectives Hart and Cohle caught the Lange case the same way a bull catches a matador’s cape: It was something to get their blood up, to get them moving, to make them vulnerable. The twists and turns since the pilot have been intentional, a chance to get the two mismatched leads in confined spaces with each other and to get them talking. Remember, we’re watching the story unfold at two speeds: the steady clip of the present tense and the syrupy sprawl of memory. The specifics of this case don’t seem to matter much. All that matters is the effect they have on Hart and Cohle.
We had our first inkling of this two weeks ago, in the truly unsettling final image of the third episode: a glimpse of Reggie Ledoux in tighty-whities and a swinging gas mask, like Heisenberg crossed with a Space Jockey. We’ve yet to actually meet this supposed super-villain, and though I’m sure he’s on his way, his arrival at this point seems almost irrelevant. All the talk about his magic cooking abilities, his “Yellow King,” and the Southern killing fields sounds intentionally nonsensical, a horror-movie distraction from the evil that’s right in front of our noses. He’s the ur–bad man lurking behind the door, the one fellow bad men Hart and Cohle are desperate to keep out. What our protagonists revealed last night, to the audience if not yet to themselves, is that they haven’t zoomed out far enough on their personal morality maps. As it turns out, they’ve been pushing so hard to keep Reggie Ledoux out, they never stopped to notice they’re no longer in.
“Who Goes There” went through the looking glass and never once looked back. It was an hour that made the series title seem like an ironic joke: Hart went vigilante to track down Ledoux’s known, dreadlocked accomplice. And then Cohle went HAM to get … well, what exactly? Let’s accept that the only way to Ledoux was through the Iron Crusaders. Let’s even accept that Cohle’s previous connection with the dread bikers might even come in handy. But a two-week infiltration involving stolen (and sniffed) coke, fake track marks, a footlocker full of heavy artillery, and a botched hit on a stash house in the projects? All to nab a redhead who probably could have been grabbed another way? Regardless of what you thought of all this, let’s at least agree it wasn’t the most efficient way to catch, let alone stop, a serial killer. Which is totally fine! We now know that True Detective is about the cops, not the case. Which brings us to our next point.
2. There’s a Reason It’s Called True Detective and Not True Detectives, Right?
The first three episodes of the show suggested a seesawing anti-buddy non-comedy about a bullshit artist who hides behind family and a lunatic who hides behind bullshit. Now it seems the show is fixated solely on the latter. Rust Cohle is single-handedly driving the plot forward in the past and is clearly the target — either as suspect or source — in the present day as well. It’s hard to have a problem with this. Matthew McConaughey’s performance is truly remarkable. In the ’90s he’s all pinched stillness, a rubber band wrapped tight around a razor blade. (“We’re not gonna give you the Oscar no matter how hard you try,” he drawls to Charlie. But they are gonna give it to him.) That version of Rust Cohle keeps everything inside because he believes he’s in control. The 2012 Rust has let everything go because he knows for certain he’s not.
Rust isn’t just rising. Our old pal Martin is sinking. Lisa detonating his marriage hasn’t made him a nihilist like his partner, but it has left him awfully susceptible to doing suspect things, like going off book in a neo-Nazi biker bar and staring at Magic Eye paintings. When I initially dinged True Detective for being humorless, I probably was giving short shrift to Woody Harrelson’s salty swagger. But as much as I enjoy lines like “You’re the Michael Jordan of being a son of a bitch,” I’m starting to wish Hart were able to hit back at Cohle with something other than jokes. It’s one thing to set Rust Cohle apart from the rest of the world: He’s done stuff that can’t be undone, seen things that shouldn’t be seen. (The worst of those things, we learn, involved duct tape, a knife, and a mirror.) But with Hart in free fall, it’s clear that writer Nic Pizzolatto doesn’t think Cohle is loopy — he thinks he’s awesome. I’d prefer a show that offered more than halfhearted resistance to Rust Cohle’s whiskey-courageous speechifying. But more and more it’s clear that wherever this show is heading, he’s the one in the driver’s seat. Unless …
3. Will Detectives Gilbough and Papania Ever Do Anything Other Than Raise Their Eyebrows?
In case you don’t know who I’m talking about, Gilbough and Papania are the African American cops in the present day, the ones interviewing the middle-aged shells of Hart and Cohle. So far, I’d rank their importance to the story slightly above Marty’s wife and slightly below Marty’s lawn mower. I’d love to see them step up, speak out, maybe challenge Cohle’s suffocating monologues or recontextualize them. If they stay silent, we really might need Reggie Ledoux after all. Or at least some of his magic moonshine.
4. What’s “True”?
Last night was the first time we saw events in the past play out quite differently from the way they were being spun in the present: Rust never went to take care of his father in Alaska. (He was shoveling snow, but not the sort that tends to pile up in Juneau.) It’ll be interesting to see if this rupture will increase or if, at some point, the unavoidable reality of the present will finally take precedence over faulty memory and selective storytelling.
But what I found far more interesting was the way last night’s episode picked at the idea of “truth” like a scab. I laughed the other week at Rust’s monologue about “the dream of being a person,” but “Who Goes There” backed up the bluster: Everyone on this show wears responsibility and identity like an ill-fitting suit. Hart finally lost the family he’d spent the better part of three episodes pushing away because, as he admits to Cohle, “I like something wild, I always did.” Ginger’s Aryan Brotherhood put on stolen cop uniforms to do their dirt. And, given the chance, Rust Cohle drowned the Taxman’s meticulousness in a pint bottle of Jameson — the one he kept under the bed in case of emergency, right next to the rest of his killing machines.
It was pure addict behavior, the way Cohle went from point A to point Pluto in the time it took for Marty to hang up the pay phone. The plan Rust came up with to infiltrate the Iron Crusaders didn’t sound like the rational strategizing of a genius. It sounded like fetishization, the way a junkie takes a perverse pride in being immaculate, in lining up his works just so, even as his life devolves into chaos. But I don’t think Rust is addicted to the booze or the powder in a traditional sense. It seemed to me he’s addicted to being “Crash,” the devil-may-care drug runner who started as the fake identity and then quickly became the real one, what Ginger called “the outlaw life.” It’s probably why present-day Rust has allowed himself to be a full-blown, if rule-abiding, alcoholic. It’s healthier for him to let the devil sleep on the couch than to try to lock him in the basement.
As the Lucinda Williams montage started and the episode’s final act began, it was fascinating to see how easy it was for Rust to pull the rip cord on his own life. And yet I couldn’t help but be slightly frustrated with this, too. Despite McConaughey’s layered performance, Rust is a pill to be around: a self-righteous, soliloquizing black hole. Why, then, is Crash not much better? I was hoping McConaughey might allow Rust to show a hint of a smile as he took his first knife bump in the evidence locker, a sense of ecstatic release as he gave in to the drugs and violence and general insanity of the final gun battle. But it turns out Crash is just as regimented as Rust; even zooted on angel dust and Coors, he’s never any less severe. He’s the sort of guy who doesn’t break bad; he barely bends. It’s a disappointing choice, one that renders the already unknowable Rust positively opaque.
Even so, that was some fascinating, unexpected filmmaking by Cary Joji Fukunaga at the end there, with the Wu-Tang playing, the bullets flying, and the sweeping glare of the helicopter spotlight. It was like Training Day reimagined as a zombie flick. A cool tracking shot can buy you lot of goodwill.
5. Can It Get Worse for the Women of True Detective?
Well, when they’re not transforming into crazed revenge harpies, being dismissed as “crazy pussy,” or getting casually schooled in the finer points of this nutty “man-woman drama” we call life, they get saddled with lines like “You think your betrayal is removed by its interruption?” In other words: Yes. Antlers were only the beginning.
6. Did True Detective Just Yada-Yada the Best Part?
I’m not talking about Rust making waves in Chalmette to let Ginger know he was still alive or Tyrone Weems slowly counting out the remaining numbers between four and 100. I’m talking about Martin Hart and Rust Cohle: wacky roommates! How could the greatest potential sitcom of all time be brushed aside in a single montage? I demand an entire hour of the two of them trying to figure out the coffee maker, weighing baking soda for counterfeit coke, and injecting each other with household spices. Is it too much to ask for one classic mid-’90s night in which Rust and Marty eat Andy Capp’s Hot Fries, do pull-ups, and watch 120 Minutes while waiting for the 1 a.m. SportCenter with Rich and Stu to start? I definitely don’t know where True Detective is going. Considering the leaps in style and sanity it took last night, I don’t think anything we’ve seen even counts as prologue. But I do know where it could have been. Opportunity missed!