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True Detective: The Locked Room

“A dream you had, inside a locked room, that you were a person. And like a lot of dreams, there’s a monster at the end of it.”

As this series continues to balance procedural progress with what may well be the longest interrogation ever, it introduces a variety of philosophical problems into the mix via the excellent device of Cohle’s inebriation. That the show couches these ontological conundrums in the reality of its characters only makes the result more impressive.

In a place like rural Louisiana, in which everyone for about a thousand miles is “some kind of religious” (as Hart said last week), questioning religion is questioning reality. Cohle sees faith as illusion caused by a language virus that changes neural pathways and alters perceptions of reality. Religion makes believers unable to see the inherent illusion of reality. Yet Cohle never reconciles those ideas with his own misperceptions. With synesthesia, he experiences reality off-kilter: colors have tastes, sounds might have an accompanying vision.

Does his synesthesia signify his heightened perception, or his willingness to acknowledge the delusion of that implicit grandeur? He admits that he’s great as a “box man” and knows if a suspect is guilty or innocent within ten minutes. But he’s also terrible at cards. And Hart might be right: Cohle might suffer from an illusion of his own certainty, even his own certainty about the illusory nature of reality.

However, this isn't a story of reality; it is a story of detection, albeit it one with a nesting-doll series of narratives. The flashbacks to 1995 that form the bulk of each episode frequently contain mini-narratives of their own as people explain what they know about what happened. On top of that, there is the narrative of inquisition in 2012. I think we can safely assume that what we see of 1995 is what happened: we are not getting the same scene told twice, and told differently. So the “flashbacks” aren’t from the perspective of the characters; the 2012 interrogation narrative is a frame to contextualize the 1995 events.

I mention all that only to establish that, in an episode about illusion, almost everything is called into question. Yet I think we can trust what we see, even if we know better than to trust what we hear. Cohle may or may not be correct about the existence or non-existence of what others would consider to be stable facts, but the story itself contains some reliability—at least in what we see of 1995.

What we see of 2012 is another question. The obvious implication, since the first episode, has been that the two 2012 detectives believe Cohle has something to do with the new murder(s). But how good are they at being “box men”? Is Cohle interrogating them, playing them, sizing up their beliefs and trying to shake those beliefs? He told the 1995 B&E guy with the unfortunate masturbation issue exactly what he wanted to hear to get a result. Is he doing the same thing in 2012, or is this the unvarnished truth as he understands it? One way to think through those questions with a concrete example: is he making the beer cans into crosses to reflect his own state of mind, or to unbalance his interrogators?

To Cohle, religion is an attempt to position the preacher/God as an authority figure who makes the general awfulness of existence palatable and bearable. If someone is watching, someone cares, and we will be rewarded by that carer. Cohle is capable of playing God, or at least playing preacher, in the interrogation room. And he sees death as a welcome gift, wanted by victims who finally realize the unvarnished truth of their own useless lives. Does that mean he has killed? Or that he is toying with the 2012 detectives in stating what appear to be excellent motives for murder?

I could go on, but I’ll stop by noting that these are fun philosophical puzzles (who doesn’t question reality now and again?), fun narrative puzzles (who is reliable?) and fun detective puzzles (who did what?), but the funnest part of it all is the way that True Detective situates all of these questions in the characters. The characters make us think about the puzzles within the plot and outside the plot. That’s delightful. The plot mimics the structure, right down the monster at the end of this episode.

Narrative puzzles and the nature of reality aside, the other big illusion in this episode is how Hart thinks of himself on the more mundane level of love and marriage. Cohle may talk a good game, but Hart is living the lie both in 1995 and in 2012. His delusions about the ability to love two women (with what desired result?) led to a frightening outburst: he pushed that poor man into a closet door with such force that the door broke. Hart's violence is not surprising. His righteousness, however, is troubling. (I also wonder how much of that he told to the interrogators, but that gets back to the question of narrative unreliability, and I promised you I’d stop.)

Both Cohle and Hart struggle with ethics in this episode. As the preacher tells us, compassion is ethical. Sober, Hart worries he is a bad man. Cohle responds that he knows he is a bad man, and his job is to “keep the [other] bad men from the door.” The man who is so certain of illusion has his own character fixed firmly in his mind; the man who seems certain of his own character is beginning to question how he may be deluding himself.

It’s the novelistic elegance of those larger questions that makes this show so wonderful for me, on top of the literary-yet-realistic dialogue. As each character spoke, both in 1995 and in 2012, I couldn’t help but think how out of place their words would seem on a show like Lost, which at least pretended to deal with philosophical puzzles but was often reduced to lines about going back into the jungle. On True Detective, both Hart and Cohle wax thoughtful, but that is appropriate for their situations both back then and today. The way they do so makes this dialogue as rich as anything else on TV.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


  1. Early on, probably around episode 2, I made up my mind that the real story was the one set in 1995. It wasn't until episode 4 that we're show just how unreliable (so far) both Cohle and Hart's answers are while being interrogated.

    There's one co-worker of mine with whom I discuss this show with (we're the only people at work who watch this show). She mentioned something after this specific episode aired. About how Cohle's monologues concerning religion were brutal but no less true.

    This show's dialogue is certainly attention-grabbing.

    IMHO, Hart's apparent self-delusion in 2012 is a front or a deflective move. Just in the same way that Cohle's tin can men can be read as unnerving or disturbing (in light of the stick figures found around the corpses).

  2. Fantastic review, Josie! I had the same thought about 1995 being the factual story, but 2012 maybe not so much. Interestingly, I find myself "believing" Hart's version more than Cohle's.

    Cohle's smoking, drinking, and long discourses seem to be some kind of game to me. As he himself said, he knows how to play it. Hart, on the other hand, just strikes me as someone who is tired and bored with it all. He can't be bothered to play the game.

  3. Cohle's philosophy is at once completely fascinating and incredibly depressing.

    I think the problem I'm having with the show is Hart. I just…hate him. I hate him. He has no redeeming characteristics and whenever he's being a self righteous dick (which is usually) I want to jump into the TV and slap him across the face. His speech to his wife was so manipulative and false I just…ugh. He's a spoiled little boy who thinks he always gets everything he wants.

    Points to Michelle Monaghan. I love how she's not going full on weepy he done me wrong or full on empowered woman who couldn't care less about her unfaithful husband. The truth is always somewhere in between.

  4. Rewatch comment: I love the last scene of this episode, with the creepy music rising over the monster in a gas mask. But it's also the first scene (aside from the first seconds of the entire series) that we get from the perspective of an omniscient narrator, and I think that's a bit disconcerting.

    Does that shot of the "monster" represent what the 2012 detectives are thinking of? Is it just a narrative clue to let us know we will get to the monster at the end of this story? The switch from one perspective to another is a bit jagged.


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