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 two-week hiatus, True Detective roared back last night with one of the most intense episodes of television you’re likely to find. Major developments in the Dora Lange case in 1995 and a twist in the recounting of that case in 2012 were highlights — but an unbroken, heart-in-your-throat tracking shot of the eruption of a street battle brought the HBO series to a whole new level. Spoilers follow for the fourth episode “Who Goes There”.
When we left Cohle and Hart two weeks ago (read the review here), the fourth hour seemed set up for greatness. A gun battle alluded to during the interviews of 2012, along with the arrival of one Reggie Ledoux, promised both action and developments in the Dora Lange case. Both were needed, as the Lange case had been stewing at a low boil for a few weeks and the closest we’d come to an action sequence was a brief tussle between Cohle and Hart in the locker room. And we did indeed receive both — but what we got wasn’t at all what was expected.
First, the detectives return to incarcerated Charlie Lange, ex-husband of the deceased and former cellmate of suspect Ledoux, and it turns out that the inmate knows a lot more about the case than he revealed in the pilot episode. But back then we had nothing to go off of besides the body of the deceased, and neither did the detectives — recall Rust’s advice to “start asking the right f*cking questions” and take into account Marty’s words this week about “the detective’s curse…the solution was right under my nose, but I was paying attention to the wrong clues.” Even now, Charlie Lange isn’t sure about the information he’s providing, linking Ledoux to the spiral symbol and The Yellow King of Dora Lange’s diary.
Hart’s family life subsequently implodes, bringing him far away from the depiction the faithful husband we saw at the start of the series. Harrelson’s face upon reading the letter from his wife is priceless — we never see the note, but we can assume what it says even before Hart calls his pissed-off lover and proceeds to piss her off even more. Part of Hart envies the detached life of Rust Cohle, free of obligations to family and bonds of marriage, and so his response is to “shortchange” — as his wife would say — these obligations and basically follow his carnal instincts. When both lover and wife refuse to take such shortchanging, it’s clear that Martin Hart could never live like Rust Cohle because he cares too much. After a tantrum at the hospital he leaves after saying “I love you, Maggie. I won’t give up.” Despite his infidelity, it’s hard not to believe him.
Cohle, meanwhile, remains a delicious problem that resists solving. The things that make Cohle unique are the things that frustrate his partner and excite us viewers — I mentioned a few weeks ago that I couldn’t think of any television characters quite like Cohle, but now I think that such a statement does injustice to the true revelation of his protagonist. In an otherwise sea of “antiheroes”, Cohle is something else. His outlook is dark as blackest night, which we’ve seen in spades up until now, but his obsessive drive within his “work” further separates him from the go-through-the-motions Hart. These things are easy enough to pin down as differences in the depiction of the two central characters, to the point where they threaten to become cliched foils of each other…but that never happens. Instead, as everyone must have suspected, we see that there’s more to both men that meets the eye.
The outright lie told in the 2012 interviews may be a small one, regarding “time off” that Cohle took to visit his ailing father — the inquisitive 2012 detectives know that this is a lie, as the death of Cohle’s father was recorded years earlier. Hart seems to back this lie up, albeit with less flair and adornment than Cohle can muster. We see what actually ensues in 1995 (more on that in a second), that the men were actually undercover, off-the-record on an unsanctioned mission, and so perhaps the lie is simply a part of their story that has been maintained. True Detective seems too large for that, though, and it seems like a monumental event that a shred of false truth should find a way into the interviews (which now seem more like interrogations). If one thread comes undone here, they all threaten to come undone — so who knows how much of what we’ve heard from Cohle and Hart seventeen years after the Lange case is actually true.
Now: that ending! The tension in the back half of “Who Goes There” was nearly unbearable at times. The biker bar of the Iron Crusaders is very clearly a rough place — again, the kind of place that Cohle can handle and Hart only thinks he can handle. There’s gun-to-the-head tension throughout this scene, as Cohle weasels his way into an old confidence to extract information regarding the whereabouts of Reggie Ledoux. It becomes clear that he’ll have to add by subtracting, get to his destination by way of a slight detour, which, unfortunately, means taking part in an ill-conceived raid on a storehouse in a drug-dealing neighborhood. Cohle knows the plan is dumb and destined to fail, but he can’t break his cover to fix it. He’s trapped, along for the ride, and as soon as they enter that storehouse we are too.
Director Cary Joji Fukunaga and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw deserve applause here for an unbroken six-minute shot of the botched raid. We first get the entire house room by room as Cohle clears them all, shoring up his likability in our hearts when he protects a young boy from stray bullets. The camera then closes tight on him while simultaneously panning between two rooms — the claustrophobia as Cohle tries to desperately keep everything from exploding is almost unbearable. Finally we cross the entire neighborhood, tramping through the homes of strangers, hiding in the bushes, jumping fences — I’m a sucker for a good long tracking shot, and this all-encompassing trip is just not something you see on TV. Ever.
And so the first real action sequence of True Detective is impressive, to say the least. Once again, next week seems set up — but if we should come to expect anything from this series, it’s the unexpected. Entering the fifth hour means we cross the halfway point in the eight-episode season, and the second half will likely include more action and definitely include more drama. If the first half is any indication, the end of True Detective is not to be missed.