This review appeared shortly after the initial premiere of True Detective in early 2014 — slight edits have been made since the original posting.
After a strong, stimulating pilot episode last week, True Detective returned with a second episode that further steeped us in the characters of Rust Cohle and Martin Hart. Headway is made on the murder investigation, but True Detective continues to emphasize the characters over the plot. Spoilers follow for the second episode “Seeing Things”.
Last week, the 1995 murder of Dora Lange brought State Police Detectives Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Hart (Woody Harrelson) together for the investigation while their disproportionate attitudes kept them distanced outside of work. A connection was made between the Lange murder and the shady disappearance of the young Fontenot girl years earlier, but other than that very few pieces of the puzzle can be placed by the young detectives. The pilot episode also introduced a part of the story unfolding seventeen years after the Dora Lange murder, and in 2012 Cohle and Hart are seemingly estranged, definitely changed from the men they used to be, but somehow definitely still the same.
In “Seeing Things”, Woody Harrelson’s Hart is nowhere near as saintly as we perceived him to be in the opening hour. As suspected since his hurriedly awkward greeting toward Lisa Tragnetti (who seems to be a D.A. assistant, played by Alexandra Daddario) at the police station in the first episode, Hart is indeed carrying on an affair — or, as he puts it to the two 2012 detectives, “decompressing” for “the good of the family”. Right. Between Daddario and Michelle Monaghan (as Hart’s wife Maggie), Martin Hart may be the luckiest Woody Harrelson character in the history of Woody Harrelson characters.
Great as Hart is — and, levity aside, Harrelson’s character portrayal is indeed superb — McConaughey continues to chew scenery as Rust Cohle. We knew last week that he was one strange dude, spouting desolate notions on the weariness of mankind, proposing mass extinctions, and in general making Camus look like a romantic hoper. Strange, yes — but in the context of a television show, this misery is actually refreshing. I can’t think of any other television characters — much less a main protagonist — who have such an outlook. Cohle’s attitude isn’t altogether unfounded, as he’s been through rough times with his family and with his profession — and, in fact, it’s in the balance between these two parts of each man’s life, family and profession, that “Seeing Things” finds deep thematic footing.
To that end, the question of character is the same for Hart and Cohle, despite their vast differences. Yes, Hart is unfaithful to his wife and, yes, he lies through his teeth about it and then insults her as a way out of the conversation. He assails Cohle for an off-color remark but then can’t help laughing when Cohle lays out his nosy appraisals on someone else. Hart has plenty of faults – but I believe that deep down he’s a good man, especially when watching a scene like the one in the whore ranch where he stands up for a girl much too young to be a prostitute. I’m not sure if I can say the same for Cohle just yet, though, and although we’ve already seen a few layers peeled away from Cohle’s brooding silences, there’s doubtless something still lurking beneath the surface. Both Hart and Cohle are clearly invested in the 1995 case, likely due in no small part to their own young daughters and the realization of the fleeting time to spend with them. But by 2012 something has gone terribly awry, with Cohle at least, and the Dora Lange case has more to do with it than Hart may realize.
The case itself is still a mystery, and at this point we can do little more than gather the breadcrumbs. The Reverend Tuttle and his cousin the Louisiana Governor were mentioned again, as was the deceased’s ex-husband Charlie Lange. The detectives also come across Dora Lange’s diary full of fantastical writings and fevered recollections of “The Yellow King”, something mentioned in passing by Charlie Lange last week. And an ominous photo in Dora’s mother’s home catches the camera’s eye when Hart and Cohle interview Mrs. Lange — though it’s a brief shot, the photo appears to show a young girl standing among a group of men on horseback wearing large masks (where I come from, we call this “conspicuous”). Finally, Hart and Cohle are led to a burned church where they find a painting on the wall of a naked woman with antlers, which is the pose Dora Lange was arranged in at her death. Of all the evidence gathered so far, this final scene of “Seeing Things” is the most ominous — Cohle says earlier that the killing “has scope”, and he seems to be right.
As Cohle and Hart approach the burned church, a flock of birds starts and rises out above the lowlying water. They form a perfect globe, then a spiral not unlike the symbol painted on Dora Lange’s back, and then they disperse. Cohle sees this and knows it must be a hallucination, and so do we — nothing in the world of True Detective is that perfect, that sacred.