There is something exceptional going on with True Detective that goes beyond the ambitious narrative structure, the all-star pairing of lead actors (Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey) and the kind of direction that can make you want to freeze frame your PVR and hang a single shot on your wall as a mantle-piece-worthy visual art item. The HBO original series is also doing something clever with genre.
True Detective is exploring horror – a notoriously difficult genre in serialized television – through the familiar ground of a buddy cop story. It’s H.P. Lovecraft framed through the window of an all Bunk and McNulty version of The Wire: exploring ideas of faith, madness, brutality and obsessive self-destruction read with the cop-speak language that TV has made us experts in through decades of crime dramas and police procedurals.
I am bringing this up because instead of starting off where it left us dangling two weeks ago, with a half-naked machete maniac in a gas mask on the verge of being trounced by the FBI in a foreshadowed Vietnam War of a confrontation, True Detective‘s fourth episode “Who Goes There” brings us back to Charlie Lange in a lonely cell being interrogated by our flawed heroes. Mining for information on their new suspect, Reggie Ledoux, Rust (McConaughey) and Marty (Harrelson) find out that Charlie’s old cellmate is a cooker of drugs and was first introduced to Dora’s image when Lange showed him a picture while serving time. Lange also brings up a familiar occult detail in the case: Ledoux would talk frequently of a “Yellow King” from “Carcosa.”
This is not only a direct call back to the second episode in which we see those terms all over the drug induced scrawlings of the late Dora, but an incredibly specific (and rather obscure) reference to H.P. Lovecraft. The detail is Lovecraft to the core, right down to the Yellow King’s sign: the spiral found on Dora, the rest of the victims and according to Charlie in this episode, tattooed on Ledoux himself.
After the interrogation ends, with Rust heavily implying that Charlie’s prison picture sharing is the reason for Dora’s grisly death, we are treated to an exploration of the personal stakes at risk in the 1995 investigation. After a courthouse encounter with his understandably furious mistress Lisa, “Who Goes There” follows Marty as his family falls apart. He and Rust follow a lead on a name (Tyrone) that can point them in the direction to Ledoux, and after ending up at the house of an abandoned mother and the stripclub where this guy’s girlfriend works, Marty ends up at home drunk and disheveled only to find a suitcase with an note on it.
Lisa came there in person to tell Maggie about Marty’s infidelities. The family is gone. He gets brickwalled when trying to get a hold of her to slather on a bit of his old phony self-pity routine, not even getting her on the phone. It painful to see, not because Marty is sympathetic (he rarely is, especially in regards to his family), but because of what he is holding inside. Before he tried Maggie, he called up Lisa and threatened her with a terrifying “I’ll skullfuck you, You Bitch!”
This scene on the phone shows us that the stakes aren’t really that different between Marty and Rust, at least when it comes to us viewers. These guys have scary things inside of them, and since we already know Marty loses his family (or at least his wife), he has one more hole in the barrel, hemorrhaging gasoline, waiting for a spark to land in the right place before he goes berserk and does things we would rather not think cops can do. I want to like Marty, but this episode shows us that even though he still has his job in 2012, he and Rust have held on to some big, illegal secrets from the alt-rock days of their partnership.
Drinking and driving (literally at the same time!) Marty follows Tyrone’s from the stripclub to a rave, where he ambushes the small time scumbag mid-piss and gets the name of Ledoux’s one client: a bike club by the name Iron Crusaders. Rust knows this gang, we find out as the message is relayed to him over the phone. And then narration gets unreliable in the bayou.
The 2012 Rust tells detectives Gilbough and Papania that at about this point in the story (and it’s been 14 years so… he’s not so sharp about it) he thinks he went on leave.
In 1995 we see Marty in the hospital where Maggie works pleading with her to reconsider leaving his sorry ass, but – as she constantly reminds him – everything she had to say was in the letter. He gets the self-pity defense engine going (dad’s recent death, etc), but the hospital tries to vomit Marty out with the application of its mall cops.
In contrast to this, Rust’s personal demons are coming out too. Alone in his undershirt, overtop of a mysterious red locker, it looks like the Iron Crusaders have really left an impression on the guy. The container is filled with an arsenal of an assault rifle, a large handgun, two grenades and an unopened bottle of Jameson’s. Unlike Marty’s threats of skullfucking, Rust’s monster looks like a pragmatic warmachine. He breaks the seal on the bottle with a click and takes a drink from his past. It’s a testament to McConaughey’s sublime performance in this role that he conveys these personal stakes without words. It’s also more excellent writing from Nic Pizzolatto who keeps proving that the less said, the more told.
Rust pulls Marty out of hot water at the hospital and the two move in together as detective roommates (which is a hypothetical sitcom I would watch as religiously as this show, if anyone at HBO is reading). Under the pretense of taking a leave of absence to pay a visit to his leukemia stricken father, Rust gets ready to go back undercover, but off-the-record this time. He used to be in deep with the Crusaders and just needs some really good cocaine to hatch his plan with Marty.
Rust steals the cocaine from the evidence room after announcing his leave (“We really should have a better system for this.”) and the plan goes underway. Under his old alias Crash, Rust infiltrates his old rat nest, trying to strike a deal between a made up cartel and the Iron Crusaders: primo coke for meth cooked by Ledoux. All the while Marty is waiting outside the biker bar hangout, playing backup with an old timey cellular phone.
In order to get this deal working, Rust needs to help his biker brethren in a raid on rival drug dealers, doing a lot of drugs along the way. As much as we saw what Marty holds inside his clenched jaw earlier in the episode, we really get a good view of Rust’s inner monster as he does line after line of cocaine and then assumes the role of enforcer on the GTA-esque biker mission.
The entire time this is happening, it’s implied that this will be the Rust storyline for some time, since the 2012 investigators are only now grilling Marty on aspect of the leave of absence that don’t quite hold up. That’s why it is so exciting when the plan goes south mid-mission and Rust is forced into a masterpiece of action choreography.
In a single shot, Rust attempts to abduct the biker that was going to cut the deal. Moving through various houses in the subdivision at siege, calling Marty for a rendezvous, hiding from police, losing his captive, dispatching two gang members, retrieving his captive, climbing over a fence and finally escaping into the back seat of Marty’s now arrived car (not necessarily in that order): the shot was the most ambitious piece of film making I have ever seen made for the small screen. I would say that Cary Fukunaga is going to have trouble topping that one this season, but with the track record being set with this show, I’m worried I would be eating my words by the end of True Detective’s year.
Beauty of the shot aside, what we are left with is horror. Two men who are falling from their places of relative stability, to whom being shot in the head doesn’t count as high stakes and who are emboldened by being on the side of the law, drive away with a man who has information vital to their only objective. I worry for the safety of the unconscious piece of shit biker. That is how scary our heroes are becoming (and how effective this show’s tension management is).
H.P. Lovecraft is popularly referred to as the master of horror. His most famous stories are narrated after the terrible events have already happened, in some unaccounted for blind spot of history. The characters of his genre-bending tales usually interact with terrible unknowns that force them to look inward at the horrors inside of themselves which are inevitably released when they realize their true nature. Cue violence on par with Rust’s face-flaying cartel anecdote.
True Detective’s main duo are on an unrecorded journey now: their own historical blind spot. We know they are hiding things from the eyes of the law and we’ve seen the monsters they have inside. There are two kinds of show that True Detective can turn out to be: the kind where there are heroes or the kind where there aren’t. After this fourth entry in the series I’m starting to bet on the later.