A review of tonight's "True Detective" coming up just as soon as I'm the Michael Jordan of being a son of a bitch...
To this point, it's been clear that "True Detective" prioritizes the stories of Rust Cohle and Marty Hart well above the story of the case they're investigating. That becomes more clear than ever in "Who Goes There," which takes a pretty sharp detour away from the investigation so Rust can relive his undercover narco days with the biker gang that's protecting Reggie Ladoux. It's technically part of the investigation, in that it appears to be the only way to find Ladoux, but the whole thing feels much more like a flashback to his reckless days in Texas than it does the next piece of the arc.
That said, it was also some riveting stuff, and the episode as a whole was a reminder that "True Detective" is as impressive for the way it looks as for the performances of the leads and the words they say.
The big showpiece sequence, of course, is the long tracking shot — it lasts a shade under six minutes — that follows Rust through the stash house and then during his elaborate escape to Marty's car with a prisoner in tow. There have been longer and perhaps more elaborate tracking shots in TV history — Chris Carter once directed an "X-Files" episode ("Triangle") where each act was presented as an 11-minute continuous take — but in this case it adds a whole new level of intensity to the nightmarish scenario where Rust is a cop pretending to be a crook stuck aiding crooks posing as cops.(*) It's not a case of showiness for its own sake — the sequence is so harrowing that I actually didn't notice the lack of visible edits until I watched it a second time — but rather putting us in the mindset of Cohle, just moving from place to place, trying to keep a horrible situation from getting even worse, and then just looking for a damn way out.
(*) As bad as the situation gets, it's interesting that "True Detective" is more comfortable describing truly horrific acts — like Rust's description of what the drug cartel would do to torture and kill people — than in showing them. Because we're getting Cohle's POV on the robbery gone wrong, we only get brief, oblique glimpses of situations with the potential to get far worse after he leaves.
UPDATE: Here's director Cary Fukunaga explaining how they pulled off the shot — and that it actually was a single take, even though there are spots where they could have cheated.
But beyond that one sequence, "Who Goes There" is an impressive visual example of what's been a gorgeous series to date. The plot is already constructed in a puzzle box fashion, as all the characters in 2012 know more than we do(**), and as we're given information and certain events out of order, and it's lovely to see the visuals presented the same way at times. Check out the sequence where Cohle steals the drugs from the evidence locker (scored evocatively to "Are You Alright?" by Lucinda Williams): you get all the necessary pieces of what Rust is up to, not in chronological order, but in a way that allows you to understand what's happening while also appreciating the fractured way that 2012 Rust is remembering all of this. (It also has an amusing punchline as he whispers that the department should have a better system than the one he exploited.)
(**) Though in the case of this particular off the books operation, we appear to know more than the 2012 cops, who are aware that Rust's story about visiting his father sounds shaky, but probably don't know what he was actually up to during this period.
Or look at the sequence at the rave — featuring an odd, unexpected cameo from Todd Giebenhain from "Raising Hope" as Marty's snitch — and the way it takes on the character of the factory where it's being held, with sparks flying every which way. Both that party and the one at the biker bar are places that a man like Marty Hart has no business being at, other than for his business, and they both suggest the kind of chaotic world that Rust likes to talk about. Even on the muddy DVD rough cut I watched, the imagery in this one was spectacular. (Even a fairly standard shot like the strippers all being lined up in a row as Marty questions the manager was more beautifully composed than all but a handful of what I've watched elsewhere in the last month.)
There's personal progress as well to the story, as Marty pushes Lisa to the point where she decides to blow up his marriage, leading to the inevitable Hart explosion. ("Did I make mistakes?" 2012 Marty shrugs. "Yes.") Now, we've seen some chemistry between Rust and Maggie Hart, which was part of why Marty was so bent out of shape over the lawnmower incident a few weeks ago, and Rust comes to Maggie's rescue when Marty's making a scene at the hospital. But whatever is happening between Marty's partner and his wife only extends so far; Rust really just needs Marty's head in the game, and he alienates Maggie by sharing his philosophy on the pointlessness of long-term monogamy.
We're now halfway through this story, and I genuinely have no idea what to expect in the rest of the season. There have been references to an epic gunfight, which I suppose will come from the attempt to arrest Ladoux (or it could be the botched robbery we just saw), and there's a lot of additional time in the Hart/Cohle partnership that we could potentially see, or we could shift at some point to an arrangement where the bulk of the narrative is in 2012 as we find out what the two younger cops want with Marty and Rust. It's also possible, given the somewhat casual interest in the case at hand, that this won't hang together in the end, but given the quality of an episode like "Who Goes There," I'm not sure I much care.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org