Now there's something you don’t see on TV every night.
Reaching this season’s halfway point last night, HBO’s True Detective pulled off an incredibly cinematic and technically remarkable six-minute action sequence at the episode’s end. Seriously, it was on Children of Men’s level, leagues beyond what we’re used to seeing on the small screen. The episode, titled "Who Goes There,” also kicked director Cary Joji Fukunaga and writer/creator Nic Pizzolatto’s gritty and ambitious noir series into an all-new groove, abandoning the previous hours’ stripped-down, cold intimacy in favor of a more grandiose kind of storytelling. It was an hour in which Matthew McConaughey’s enigmatic weirdo Rust Cohle did a ridiculous amount of drugs, Woody Harrelson’s cheating family-man Martin Hart seemed on the verge of spontaneous combustion, and all hell erupted via a firefight between bikers and gangbangers.
Even the show’s haters have to admit—"Who Goes There” was next-level television. It was so special, in fact, that Complex Pop Culture’s resident True Detective watchers immediately had to discuss the episode, and the show so far. Here, deputy editor Justin Monroe, senior staff writer Matt Barone, and contributing writer Frazier Tharpe welcome deputy editor, and, until now, True Detective naysayer, Ross Scarano onto Team Rust while debating the show’s overall merits.
Ross Scarano: Can we talk about how last night True Detective became the cinematic equivalent of Grand Theft Auto? I had a great time, I should add.
Justin Monroe: Please explain.
Ross: The action sequence felt like a GTA mission. Bikers square off against the projects. The helicopters.
Justin: And you finally enjoyed the show?
Ross: Hell yes.
Frazier Tharpe: That tracking shot was insane. I loved it.
Ross: It felt like a totally different show. It was bonkers. Just Rust doing drugs, a fucking weapons case that included a flask of Jameson. I mean, his codename is CRASH. It was bananas.
Frazier: Honestly if I hadn't seen someone on Twitter mention a tracking shot, I wouldn't have noticed there were no cuts. That was some engrossing stuff.
Justin: Well, props to director Cary Joji Fukanaga. That's the brilliance of TV taking film's best directing and acting talent.
Matt: I’m sure there were cuts; those tracking shots usually have one or two neatly hidden cuts, but they hid them so well. And not to get too film nerdy, but the blocking used for that sequence was also brilliant, how Fukunaga framed everything and perfectly placed the camera where everything could be seen clearly. It's crazy to think that we're only done with episode four. How the hell will they top that sequence now? Have McConaughey offer the viewer some coke through the screen, The Ring style?
Frazier: On a technical level, they might not. But there's still so much of the actual case we have to get to. Rich Satanic cultists should be nice and creepy.
Ross: I liked last night's episode because it finally embraced the ridiculousness the show has only be hinting at. Last night, the show wore its artifice on its sleeve by having Rust return to his deep-cover bender. All the ridiculousness that had been previously held back by the psuedo-philosophical car rides, all of it came to the forefront. And I had fun with the show. Because it didn't feel like it so desperately wanted me to take it seriously. Rust doing so many drugs. His codename, like I said, feeling cheesy, but in an awesome way. The fact that a trap house in Texas was playing Wu-Tang Clan—it was all outrageous and wild, carried by the technical prowess of the long take.
Matt: Definitely, I've been on board the whole time but I also felt that last night put the show into a whole different, more adventurous groove. It didn't feel so intimate and constrained by that anymore.
Frazier: Maybe this is just me, but last night was so intense it kind of left me asking what's it all for? We've spent so much time on the characters, which in my opinion, has been so great to watch, I kind of forgot to care about the actual case. It feels like it's been years since they found Dora what’s-her-name with antlers.
Ross: I hear that, Frazier. To me, that's the show in a nutshell. I don't think there's much of an emotional center. Like, the case was an excuse of the philosophizing at first, and now for this detour of an action sequence. You don't care about the woman who was murdered, only that the body was arranged in a specific way.
Matt: Dora Lange, you mean? They wisely reminded us all of her name by bringing back her inmate boyfriend at the beginning of the episode.
Frazier: I was so psyched to see that guy back. He was a standout from the pilot.
Ross: You don't have to worry about the lives of the black men, women, and children compromised in that last action sequence, those people glimpsed in that god's eye helicopter shot. The show isn't asking you to feel very much, I don't think.
Frazier: I think most of the nightmare feel from that sequence came from leaving what was going on outside and around the frame up to the imagination.
Justin: To Ross' point, there had to be a buildup to get to a place where both of the protagonists really look like nut jobs who'd be capable of stringing a dead woman up in ritualistic fashion. It wouldn't have worked had they appeared so unhinged to begin with. Troubled and philosophical, but not completely off he rails.
And yes, I wanted to give a shout out to Brad Carter, who plays Charlie Lange. I love his performance on the show. The accent, his trashy manner, the way that he relates to the cops, his ex, and his cellmate. I believe I mentioned him in our first debate, and every scene with him in prison has been perfect to me.
I think the "caring about" debate is thrown around a bit too much, frankly. Caring deeply for bit characters? Why? The show has to pick its course and stay true to it. It's about the two protagonists, who we see as they were when they first caught the case, and as they are in present day when they may well be murderers. There are characters in every film and TV show that could be explored more.
Matt: And these are all people Rust and Marty are briefly encountering throughout this investigation. They don't need to care about them much beyond how they can help them solve the case, so it seems right that we're meeting these people the same way, just as interesting, colorful characters pushing this story where it needs to go.
To me, this is a show about surface that was initially trying to dress up like something else. But now, four episodes in, I feel pretty confident in saying that it's a show obsessed with the technical. Making TV more cinematic through high-quality camerawork, lighting, acting, etc. But in doing so, I think it's lost one of the strengths of TV: writing. Lots of playwrights and novelists turn to TV because the writer has more control as opposed to film.
Matt: I think the writing, while at times a bit much, has been good so far. Not as amazing as the technical sides, but I'm engrossed in the story and the way the clues and dark facets have been parceled out slowly. And how Rust's troubled backstory has been given out slowly. I can see the argument for some of the dialogue being overdone, but I don't mind any of that when they got Matthew McConaughey to sell every single line. He makes the occasionally overzealous writing work, and makes it all sound more elegant and unnerving than it probably should.
I also think, in all of McConaughey's brilliance, Woody Harrelson is getting a bit shortchanged. He's been equally as great, in a less showy role.
Justin: I’ve liked the writing, even when it was full of philosophy. Not to harp on it, but go back and watch that Lange scene again. That is some great writing. The nuances of how that character speaks, the words he uses.
Ross: McConaughey is so fun to watch. I remember a kind of smash-cut to Rust talking to Hart after he's gone back into character, under cover, and he's bugged out, hair slicked back. It was this amazing transformation. Loved it.
Frazier: McConaughey is definitely the guy that's gonna keep Jon Hamm's Emmy shelf bare this year.
Ross: Woody is showy, but in less interesting ways. Watching dude kick luggage isn't my idea of a good time. Especially not compared to Rust ingesting every sniffable drug known to man.
Matt: He does more than kick luggage in that scene, though. That's just the unnecessary kicker to an otherwise great bit of ready-to-explode acting.
Ross: Is anyone really feeling the Hart marriage subplot? I mean, I understand narratively why it's happening, but it feels rote compared to the magic and dread of the other stuff around it.
Justin: See, I think getting all emotional with Rust would be wrong. The coldness with which he moves through that scene tells me two important things: 1) With all the terrible personal drama swirling around you, you do the job. The job is what keeps you on track. It prevents you from falling apart completely (even though it's ruining you). 2) He seems to have very little emotion, which is key for someone we're to believe could be a sociopath.
Matt: It's less interesting than everything else, yeah, but, again, Woody Harrelson makes me care about it. His performance gives it the weight it needs to keep me engaged.
Frazier: It's pretty rote in the present, but it works for me through 2012 Woody, exposing how much of a bullshitter (and self-deceiver?) this guy is.
Matt: I agree with Justin. If they start giving Rust too much emotion and have him break down and cry or something like that, I'll be pissed. His coldness is what makes him so unique, and what's helping to separate this show from everything else on TV. He's not like many characters we've seen before on TV, much like the technical sides of the show aren't like anything we've seen done before on TV. I'm dying to know how 2012 Rust plays into all of what's happening. Which, again, ties back to the writing and how the story has been pieced out so far. I love how they've been mentioning Reginald Ledoux’s name since the first episode, how they've been hinting at what's to come all along.
Frazier: Oh, wow, I didn't even notice that.
Matt: Well, they mention something to the effect, "You guys want to just get right to the woods and Ledoux, right?" in one of the first episode's interrogation scenes.
Frazier: And "carrying kids out of the woods.”
Matt: The scene with Rust and Marty's wife, in the diner, was great too, in how it confirmed Rust's coldness. He just gets up and leaves once she calls him out on siding with Marty. He doesn't have time for all the emo shit. Just makes a beeline out of there. Doesn't even offer to pay for lunch.
Ross: He leaves because Marty's wife is right and there's nothing he can say.
Matt: And I love that he just does that.
Ross: These are all bad dudes. The show is swimming in a sea of bad dudes.
Matt: That should have been the title: Bad Dudes.
Justin: I like that the show has avoided there being something more between Rust and Hart's wife. They seem to have a connection mostly because she feels bad for these damaged men. And now he's less sympathetic to her because, like her husband, Rust channels his pain into hurtful behavior just as much, only he doesn't do it to a wife and kids (presently, at least—no clue how bad he got with his wife after their kid died).
Bad dudes, indeed. Mostly, you want to tell everyone to steer clear of them. Nothing good will come from spending any time with Rust or Hart. Perhaps even as viewers. We'll have to check back in later and see if the show has transformed us all into philosophical, philandering, maniacs with flared red nostrils and deviated septums. It might.
[GIF via Reddit]