True Detective episode 4 review: Who Goes There

This week's True Detective is a masterclass in direction. Here's Michael's review...

This review contains spoilers.

1.4 Who Goes There

American TV is generally collaborative in nature. Most shows, whether a 20-odd episode network piece or a 12 part cable drama, are the product of a collective pool of talent with several writers and directors contributing to the whole. One of the striking things about True Detective is how it eschews this model in favour of a tighter team. Nic Pizzolatto wrote every single episode of this first season and Cary Joji Fukunaga directed them. It would be experiment enough if they were seasoned TV professionals; that they are both relative novices invites accusations of recklessness. 

Or at least it would if the result hadn’t paid off so spectacularly. Every episode of True Detective has so far exceeded its predecessor in terms of quality and, as we reach the half-way point, we’re given an hour of TV that must certainly rank amongst the year’s very best. Whatever the year. 

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The episode is undoubtedly Fukunaga’s. The writing remains top notch, the performances first rate (and not just from the two leads) but the whole episode is a feat of technical mastery that would sit proudly among the work of even veteran directors. He’s tight when he needs to be, expansive when a wider view is required and creative while in full support of Pizzolatto’s material. There might be an unusually short list of writers and directors on the show’s credits, but the two that are there have clearly forged an excellent partnership. 

Structurally speaking, Who Goes There is an episode-long case in point. It begins at close quarters, physically (Charlie Lange’s squalid cell, his er, ‘locked room’) and emotionally (Lisa’s unavoidable presence in the courtroom) before steadily expanding with a climax that is destined to become the series’ chief means of attracting new viewers. Admit it, you’ve already told several friends about it. 

None of this is showboating. Fukunaga’s work is has a sharp narrative and character focus. We’ve established that the show is concerned with the contents of its protagonists’ heads. The cell scene is appropriately claustrophobic, the better for getting a real jump out of Hart’s sudden yell and for making the slamming of the door even more severe when Cohle deliberately leaves Lange locked up with his own guilt. He has his reasons, but if he was subjected to the profiling he habitually runs on other people, it might just have something to do with his need for other people to suffer the way he has. 

The generous sharing of suffering is a recurrent theme. The close, almost invasive shots of Hart’s angry and desperate phone calls after he comes home to discover that Lisa had thrown an emotional grenade into her former lover’s family life render inescapable both his pain and his steadfast reluctance to admit his own colossal complicity in the destruction. The content of his conversations reveal that he remains utterly convinced that Lisa, the ‘whore’, has torn his family apart rather than him, the philanderer. Lisa’s visit may be seen as a gentler return of Hart’s own invasive assault on her private life, but the tragedy is that this detective is too wrapped up to understand. This inability to see that ‘the solution is right in front of his nose’ means that his attempts to reconnect are doomed to failure. His visit to the hospital is too typically aggressive, his sending of Cohle to sound Maggie out too procedural. Either way, he’s more cop than man. Not his silence when the concerned doctor tells him that while he may be State Police, he’s not acting in that capacity now. When he asks his partner that his reassurances are an ‘honest read’, while Cohle is planning Operation: Iron Crusaders, it’s difficult not to see the connection with Cohle’s dismissal of Charlie Lange ‘his first concern was for his end’.

We can be sure that Cohle noticed. He’s a details man and when he suggests that they deal with the situation by concentrating on the case at hand, there’s a motive ulterior to the simple one of keeping Hart busy. The already thin divide between Cohle and Hart’s personal and working lives is stretched to transparency as, once again, the search for Dora Lange’s killer becomes less about catching a murderer than about occupying the fizzy, nervous energy of the two detectives. McConaughey’s voice never reaches above his easy growly drawl, his actions remain measured, but there’s a desperation in him. His cache of guns (and, naturally, whiskey) has been prepared with this day in mind,  and while he takes the time to psych himself up everything hints that he wants this; that he’s been waiting to do so for a long time.

The plan is several iterations above ‘audacious’ in the undercover cop playbook, but Cohle’s preparedness and diligence suggest that this was the way he ran things when he was in Texas. True Detective specialises in heralding doom and this week Cohle provides a grim story about what the Texas gangs do to men who cross them. The effect is to enhance the sense of foreboding when Cohle strides into the baddest of bad guy bars with nothing more than his cojones and a natty leather jacket to protect him. It’s a wonderfully realised scene and, while an intense trip to the dark side, never quite badass-for-badass’ sake. The message here is that Cohle, the man who alienates all of his colleagues, whose wife left him and who has no evident friends (even Hart) fits in here seamlessly. It’s ironic that this Texan Mos Eisley, with its codes and managed dress code (‘you still look the part’, says Ginger of the natty jacket), seems to give Cohle more reassuring structure than anywhere else we’ve seen him. If any further clue was required as to the fact that this is Cohle’s territory, note how Hart to be trapped on one side of a peephole door, unable to find out what was happening to his partner, recalling a similar shot into the maddened Lange’s cell at the beginning of the episode. 

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The scene is so intense, so involved in itself that it’s almost impossible to imagine that it’s a mere cul-de-sac, an circuitous attempt to track Reggie Ledoux, who, let’s not forget, is still merely the lead suspect in the case. True Detective is far more about the journey than the destination and when the trip is as exhilarating as this, it’s worth every moment. 

Still, the destination has to be worth the journey too as the Grand Theft Auto: Beaumont climax of this episode makes so abundantly clear. The six minute single take is bravura filmmaking and a masterclass in the control of cast, movement and timing that Fukunaga has confirmed was done straight with no editing suite wizardry to help out. An astonishing sequence, made all the better by the fact that it had been earned. The episode had been building inexorably to this as the detectives followed twin chains of evidence into the case and their own psyches. There was no way out other than to keep going to the end and Rust Cohle, that outlaw from his own past, remained calm and in control. He didn’t just belong there, Rust Cohle thrived

Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, The Locked Room here

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