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True Detective: Seeing Things

“Sometimes I thought I was mainlining the secret truth of the universe.”

True Detective continues to impress with an episode about how this fallen world can drive us mad, whether that’s the madness of hallucinations and believing there is a secret truth of the universe, or just the madness of believing that deeds and intentions need not always match up.

Two episodes in, I continue to think that the case is not the point. It’s the excuse. An excuse for us to watch two men skirting the edge of their emotional limits. Hart, as we suspected in the pilot episode, finds “comfort” outside of his marriage. He sees that comfort as a way of buttressing his marriage: he exorcises his demons away from home, as it were. However, Hart also sees his marriage as his own buttress, a place for him to find peace and calm. Of course, that leaves his wife as nothing more than a provider whose own emotional needs are untended.

It is a minor matter—just a marriage—in a story of missing children, child prostitutes, and mutilated women, but it’s also the most important matter. How can a person ever return to idle chat about Clinton and dinner when he has to go searching out darkness on a daily basis?

Hart’s struggle is made no easier by his partner, who provides a buttress against absolutely nothing. Our understanding of Cohle’s struggles deepened in this episode, as he revealed the extent of his drug-induced neural damage to the present-day interrogating cops. Director Cary Fukunaga in turn revealed just what that might look like: lights sliding past on the road, the color dripping from the sky, and a coded message in a flock of birds.

I’m fascinated, and wildly impressed, with the beauty of Cohle’s dialogue. He used passive grammatical structures when describing the disintegration of his marriage, only gradually working his way up to “the marriage didn’t survive” (grammatical active, but without a strong sense of agency or ownership of his actions) to more clarity about what happened: he was assigned, his wife left, he was owed favors. The first active step he seems to have taken, in his view of his life’s journey, was demanding a job in homicide. Everything else happened to him.

That’s not to say he’s a passive-aggressive man, though. (More on passive-aggression in a moment.) Rather, Cohle sees himself as divorced from his own life, from reality, and from the “body” of civilization. He wanted to become one with it, but he failed to do so. In 1995, he stared into a tiny mirror on the wall. spied on his neighbors through a peephole in the wall. Now, the happiest part of his life is that there is no one in it to stop him from drinking between shifts. Humanity, as a whole, is as impenetrable to him as the flock of birds he sees fly into a mysterious symbol.

Although Hart’s dialogue is less complicated, it retains the same flair from the pilot episode. I never think of Woody Harrelson as intelligent, and Hart underplays his intelligence. But his cute conversation with his girlfriend about how he doesn’t like her “passive-aggressive” behavior made me smile; it was such an odd phrase to hear out of his mouth. Of course, Hart understands people better than most: he immediately sees the political issues Quesada must navigate, and figures out a way to swim them.

That’s the all-male world of politics, policing, and cheap ties, though. Hart may have less ability at understanding women. After all, he was wrong about the passive-aggressive tendencies of his girlfriend. He had forgotten that she needs to have a life outside of his needs, just as he seems not to realize that about his wife. When the underage prostitute told the detectives that she needed “tips” on how to do her job, Hart didn’t know what she meant. He didn’t realize that desire might be simulated, or that women might develop a bag of techniques for dealing with male interest and male interference. Hart understands that men have needs, but has less awareness that women do, too.

Both men have their blindsides, then. Cohle doesn’t fully own his life or his experience of reality; Hart doesn’t understand 51% of the human population. For all their friction, they may be able to cover one another’s backs, although the present-day interrogation continues to imply that something went wrong. (I can’t wait to hear about the big deal in the woods.)

Perhaps the biggest revelation for the case was the discovery of the burnt-out church and the crude drawing of an antlered woman. For the first time, the detectives have a real lead, the beginnings of what Hart called a “narrative”—and one that moves beyond the quest narrative we’ve gotten so far. Now, we’re discovering what happened, what is happening, and what will happen (between 1995 and 2012) all at once.

That church scene was also beautifully shot. Director Fukunaga and cinematographer Darren Lew did an incredible job of emphasizing the stark duality of the half-burned, half-standing church, and how the discovery of an answer to the questions these men are asking occurs at the intersection of the ruined and the still-standing. Against the flat blue Louisiana sky and the dead gray of the rivers and swamps, the church stands as a symbol of destruction, but also a hint that there may be a secret to the universe, if only these men can hold themselves together long enough to discover it.

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


  1. I did wonder after this week's instalment (episode four) whether you'd like this show enough to start reviewing it. Does this mean you'll be covering the full season? No pressure, but I'll hate you forever if you say no ;)

    Currently, this feels like the best show on TV. It has an ambience like no other, both Woody and Matthew (can't be arsed to spell their surnames, so I'm opting for faux familiarity) are an acting revelation, and the story is truly bizarre. I love that Cohle and Hart are so different. Even where their interests do overlap, their world-views are so different they can hardly connect. Yet it's these differences which are making them such an effective partnership. They compliment each other -- in terms of style, if not verbally -- and it's gratifying to see their relationship developing against a backdrop of crumbling relationships, horrific murders, and seedy surroundings.

    And congratulations for not mentioning the big naked titty elephant in the room. After this episode aired, it's all the internet could talk about.

  2. I'm reviewing the whole season, Paul. Episode 3 goes up tomorrow afternoon, and Episode 4 should be up tomorrow night. That'll catch me up.

    Those breasts just made me feel self-conscious. Really, really self-conscious. I didn't want to write about them. (They were fake, right?)

  3. Great news, Josie. About the reviews, obviously, not about you feeling self-conscious.

    According to the internet, they're not fake -- and remember, the internet is never wrong.

    After watching this episode, I couldn't help but wonder whether the episode title was influenced by the nudity. But that would just be childish, right?

  4. I had to re-watch this episode as I had blocked the elephant in the room. When I got to that particular scene, I laughed. Oh, yeah.

    What struck me this time through the episode was the theme of family. We see a lot of that, don't we. Dora's mom is too ill herself to take care of her daughter, so her daughter ends up badly.

    Cohle, who doesn't even know if his mother is still alive, had a family but watched it die with his daughter. He is not looking for another one. He seems content (if that is the right word) to go through life on his own, with no ties and no one to complain about how much he drinks.

    Hart, as you point out, has a family, but doesn't respect it or his role in it. The family unit is about supporting him, not unlike his father-in-law who doesn't appear to be a very loving person either. I feel for Maggie. She seems to have married a version of her father.

    The best "family" we see in this episode is the group of women at the brothel. They are all looking out for each other, helping each other, supporting each other. Unconventional, yet it works.

    My favorite exchange is that between the madam and Hart. She absolutely nails the issue, probably more than she realizes.

    I'm so pleased you are reviewing this show, Josie. I think it is among the best things on TV right now.

  5. This is definitely one of my top shows on television right now. It is actually the first thing I watch on Sunday nights, despite my very unhealthy Walking Dead obsession (the lack of commercials helps on that front). I'm glad we'll get to discuss the episodes here!

    My favorite aspect of this one was learning more about Cohle's backstory. In general, creators lean towards a "show, not tell" approach in visual mediums, but in this case I found "tell" absolutely riveting (almost more riveting than the "show" approach deployed more recently). Something about seeing the wreck of a man Cohle has become, and hearing the relatively disengaged way he talks about the horrific path that led him there, was just captivating.

    I've got serious doubts about the internet's take on the elephant in the room. Those looked fake to me. Some incredibly fake looking ones crop up in Ep. 4, too. (And given that the hubby and I have recently gotten back to our Spartacus catch up, I feel like I've observed a fairly decent sample size of late. We had a hilarious conversation about it the other night!)

  6. I'm so happy to hear that you're going to be reviewing this show! It's definitely my favourite show on TV right now--the only one I watch live (which is a rarity for me nowadays).

    One of the things I really enjoy seeing is how the Cohle & Hart partnership works. In some ways, they are both very different men and yet they're both broken too.

    I never think of Woody Harrelson as intelligent, and Hart underplays his intelligence.

    Yes! Like almost everyone else who's tuned in, I'm in definite awe of Matthew's acting (Cohle's monologues must be a doozy to memorize. His delivery is flawless). BUT, some reviewers and commenters seem to forget that Hart brings a subtle touch, seemingly mundane, to the investigation. I really doubt that Cohle would have gotten far in the case with someone else.

    Oh, and I do agree with your assertion that weird and twisted as the case might be, this show (or, at least, this season) is somewhat more focused on the detectives that the mystery.

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  8. I don't know how much longer I'm going to be able to watch this show. It's flawlessly constructed, but wow is it dark. It feels so real at one point I had to stop the episode and go outside to convince myself I don't live in rural Louisiana, I don't know any hillbilly prostitutes, and I've never been in a trailer. The world they've created feels so claustrophobic. There's no way for most of the characters to get out of their dismal situations and I just…yeah, not sure how much more I can watch without going completely insane.

    Again I have to commend both Harrelson and McCongahuey. They're both fantastic and playing characters diametrically opposite of their real life personas. I hate Hart so much for what he did and said in this episode. Cheating on his wife is one thing. His lame attempt to justify it to himself is another, but the way he talked to his wife…wow. He's completely convinced his family is there solely for his benefit, like they don't exist for reasons outside of his need to relax and feel loved. I'm not sure it's sexism, it's sort of like he feels that way about everyone, like he's childishly convinced that he is the only real person in the universe and everyone else is simply there for his benefit.

    The unreliable narrator technique has always been a favorite of mine, but I've never seen it used quite like this. Hart tells the 2012 detectives what's going on while we can clearly see he's lying, or if not lying, certainly bending the truth to his liking. It really allows us to see the inner working of Hart's and Cohle's minds. Perception vs. reality, thought vs. truth

  9. Sunbunny, episodes 1-3 set the stage. Episode 4 makes the actors wander around the audience like in some performance art piece. And Episode 5 walks you out of the theater entirely.

  10. Rewatching this, I was reminded of the one flaw in this otherwise spotless episode: the manager of the hillbilly bunny ranch saying "That's a pretty big ask." Did anyone use "ask" as a noun in the 1990s?


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