This essay is part of Episodes, a monthly column in which senior contributor Valerie Ettenhofer digs into the singular chapters of television that make the medium great. This entry revisits the most talked-about episode of the most talked-about show of 2014: True Detective.
In the winter of 2014, I couldn’t stop dreaming about tree branches and dead bodies, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. This was when True Detective first haunted the airwaves of HBO. With its heavy, Southern Gothic atmosphere and undercurrent of preternatural evil, the series hooked its claws into the world’s collective consciousness and didn’t let go.
In retrospect, True Detective Season 1 served as a prestige drama borderland within the cable landscape. On one side lay the countless great American series that came before, few of which held such a relentlessly bleak artistic vision. After True Detective, single-season and anthology crime dramas became de rigueur, but the familiar structure quickly grew stale. That first season of True Detective itself was so massive, so culturally overwhelming, that it wouldn’t be surprising if it was worse than we remembered. Upon rewatch, though, I find the opposite is true.
The first season of True Detective flows like water through the Louisiana backwoods it calls home. It’s a show full of hazy, hallucinatory images that bleed into one another. Birds, taking to the sky in an unreal spiral formation. A woman’s naked corpse, bowing against a tree, with antlers shackled to its head. These moments are hard to shake. In its first season, True Detective balances on the knife’s edge between neo-noir and surreal folk horror. It’s a slow burn until it’s not, and the tilt into full-blown chaos comes right at the halfway point.
The episode “Who Goes There?” opens in 1995, with detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) interrogating a man named Charlie Lang (Brad Carter). Charlie’s ex-wife, Dora, is the victim whose murder led the detectives to suspect an active serial killer. Like most scenes written by series creator Nic Pizzolatto, this is intense. Lang is distraught over Dora’s death, screaming and thrashing around in his handcuffs. Rust isn’t having it. “Hey, Charlie,” he says evenly. “We’re not gonna give you the Oscar no matter how hard you try.”
McConaughey’s performance as Rust is singular and captivating. Even in this scene, as the detective stands calmly in the corner of a room, his self-possessed quiet is riveting. His shirt is rumpled, and he holds a file folder in front of himself like a shy schoolkid. He doesn’t meet Lang’s eyes when he delivers a line that sounds like a death sentence. “I might’ve got her killed?” Lang asks, an unbearable edge of desperation in his voice when he hears his ex-cellmate could be the killer. “You probably had something to do with it,” Rust answers coolly. Rust is a black hole of nihilism wearing a person-suit that’s only half-convincing.
Marty implies as much to Rust when the two are back in their car. He’s uncomfortable, not with Rust’s apparent lack of humanity, but with the way it presents as emotional detachment. Marty himself isn’t particularly humane. He’s impulsive, violent, and narcissistic, tendencies that cause his mistress (Alexandra Daddario) to disclose their relationship to his wife (Michelle Monaghan) just a few scenes later.
There’s a stink of corruption hovering over True Detective that makes it a perfect noir for the modern-day. The church and government are corrupt, sure, but so are our main characters. Daddario’s Lisa calls out Marty for being a part of a culture of chauvinism. “All of you think it’s okay to treat your wives, treat women–” she yells, before cutting herself off during a furious phone call. “You’re fucking liars and bullies and this is what you get.” It’s unclear whether she means men or cops, but Pizzolatto certainly shows no love for the latter.
What makes a true detective? Maybe it’s aggro, alpha male attitudes like Marty’s. Maybe it’s a blanket disregard for the humanity of women, except for the ones who have died and can be avenged without being knowable enough to judge. Rust may not embody the abysmal statistics about police violence as clearly as Marty, but he’s not unaffected by his work. In the episode after this one, Rust explains a distrust of institutions that feels more prescient now than it did in 2014. “F*ck, I don’t wanna know anything anymore,” he says. “This is a world where nothing is solved.”
Marty is an open book, but until this point, his partner’s backstory is a patchwork of disturbing allusions to a previous career undercover. When the detectives get a line on the suspect they’re looking for, Rust goes into a near-manic state in preparation for something big. Before we’re clued in, the scene cuts to 2012, where a burned-out, ponytail-wearing version of Rust retells this part of the story. He claims, with little detail, that he took time off work to see his sick father.
True Detective employs one of the most effective frame narratives of its kind. This is in part because it eventually becomes the main narrative, but also because our protagonists frequently expose themselves as unreliable narrators. Back in 1995, we see that Rust wasn’t actually preparing to visit his dad, but to go undercover once more with a biker gang called the Iron Crusaders.
It quickly becomes clear that the Rust Cohle we’ve seen so far was in a sort of battery saver mode. Now that he’s off the polices’ radar, he’s fully flipped on for the first time, and it’s harrowing. Marty watches as Rust transforms back into the persona he lived in for four years. He injects himself with ink and cayenne pepper, reveals a secret cache of weapons, and steals kilos of coke from the police evidence locker. He also casually tells Marty a story about a cartel that would peel peoples’ faces off and make them watch in the mirror.
It would all be hilariously over-the-top if McConaughey didn’t play it with such captivating intensity. By the time they’re ready to hit the road, Rust’s eyes are red-rimmed, he’s sweating, and he’s noticeably scruffier. The person-suit is folded up in the back of the closet; he’s running on pure instinct now.
The two head to a bar, where Marty is told to stay in the car. Rust heads into a secret back area, where he meets up with a wild-eyed, bearded man named Ginger (Joseph Sikora). Rust identifies himself as “Crash” and comes up with a satisfying story to explain his absence. Ginger plays it cool but soon subjects Rust to rapid-fire tests of faith. He makes the man snort something harsh off his hand. The world as we see it becomes a little more off-kilter. Rust staggers and stares. Then he takes a pull on his cigarette so hard it’s as if he wants to breathe in the ashes. In a deeply convoluted plan, he agrees to help Ginger with an unrelated robbery in order to get to a conversation that could lead to a line on their suspect.
Director Cary Joji Fukunaga already had a Jane Eyre adaptation under his belt when he started True Detective, but it’s still safe to call the sequence that ends “Who Goes There?” a career-maker. This episode would earn Fukunaga and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw an Emmy apiece, and it’s easy to see why.
As Rust’s night gets hazier, the camerawork begins to mimic his state of mind. He goes with Ginger to a smokey trailer, where he smokes something else. The camera slows down. In a contextless shot, someone holds a massive gun, and it feels like a dream. There’s pounding and screaming from the other room, and we learn it’s the cries of a captured rival gang member named Tiger (Jon Eyez).
Every time True Detective starts to seem realistic, it takes a turn into the surreal. It does so here when an unnamed man enigmatically tells Rust to “scoop out the soft brains inside the skull.” These late-night scenes are perfectly impressionistic. At times they’re slow, the camera wrapping around Rust like some tendril. Other times, they’re jarring, like a moment of lucidity during a bad high. By the time Rust, Ginger, and his guys head out to commit a robbery, with Tiger as their bait, the night has spiraled into incoherence.
Then comes the final sequence. In a six-minute-long shot, Fukunaga and Arkapaw capture the chaos of Rust’s robbery gone wrong. The crew bursts into a trailer in a Black neighborhood. The scene is disorienting by design. While everyone is screaming and pulling guns, Rust looks through the back rooms. He finds a kid and makes him hide in the bathtub. It would be a moment of surprising mercy if Rust weren’t accidentally waving his gun at the kid as he spoke. Rust takes up a post in the doorway between two rooms. As the tension around him builds, he repeats his original plan like a mantra. He’s expressionless and even-keeled, making his home in this dark moment.
“Thirty seconds in and out, thirty seconds in and out,” he says again and again. It doesn’t do anything. A brick is thrown, and then a punch is thrown, and Rust yells a warning not to shoot, right as a shot rings out. We see in the background that one of Ginger’s crew members killed one of Tiger’s. From here on out, all hell breaks loose. There’s a ringing in Rust’s ears as he finally abandons his cover and grabs Ginger, beating him into submission. He gets to a phone and delivers a crossroads and a time — 90 seconds — to someone on the other end.
There’s technical artistry in this sequence that, all these years later, I can’t even begin to explain. The camera possesses the dynamism of a handheld, yet when the men climb over a fence, it floats above them with ease. Short perspective shifts distract viewers, giving each actor an impossibly brief chance to scramble to their next mark. The sequence also features make-up quick changes, tons of stunts, and dozens of actors. Nearly every moving part works perfectly. Casual viewers may not realize they’re watching a single take, but the momentum would be palpable and exhilarating for anyone. There’s ambitious filmmaking, and then there’s the last scene of “Who Goes There?”
Rust slithers through backyards and hides in bushes as a police helicopter roars overhead. Finally, he makes it to the road, where a car skids to a stop and backs up. It’s Marty, playing the role of a getaway driver. Rust shoves Ginger into the backseat, and with the magic of the long take finally broken, the episode comes to a close.
True Detective Season 1 doesn’t simply still hold up. It’s as transporting as ever, a nightmarish cinematic dusk that goes on and on. Dip back into an episode like this one, and before you know it, you’ll find yourself caught in the series’ brilliant cosmic slipstream all over again.
Related Topics: Episodes