As True Detective moves into its second act, its central mystery has come into focus, and it is not who killed the girl in the opening, but what went down between Cohle and Hart to end their partnership. The guys are still investigating the murder, but the case is not progressing as a typical drawing-room type mystery. Rust spends sleepless nights working the case, but he’s not puzzling over the creepy stick figures, or the cryptic symbol on the back of the corpse. Those are the type of mysterious, distinctive “clues” we are accustomed to watching TV detectives follow from plot point to plot point like bread crumbs. But in TD, those most outlandish aspects of the crime things are largely ignored while the detectives pore over other unsolved deaths looking for a connection and doggedly, methodically try to find anyone who knew the victim well. This is probably more realistic, but that doesn’t mean it’s more interesting to watch necessarily. But as I mentioned last week, the limited series nature of this show makes this intriguing rather than frustrating to me. On a network or ongoing series I’d probably view this with a skeptical eye and assume that they were reaching for “new” mysteries to distract us and put off having to resolve the show’s primary dramatic engine as long as possible.
But the murder is not show’s primary dramatic engine, the relationships are. While I enjoy a well-crafted mystery as much as the next chap, this has been a deliberate commitment on the show’s part from the start (and interview segments have promised that we’re on our way to at least a gunfight and arrest, which makes it easier). Just look at what it calls itself. How many serial killer movies/shows – Kiss The Girls, The Bone Collector, The Following, even good ones like Seven or Psycho – have names that reference the killer or his M.O.? But this show is all about the detectives, as the title bears out. So we aren’t getting any creepy glimpses of the killer at work in his occult lair, or sequences showing him stalking or abducting another victim, to provide a “ticking clock” sort of suspense as to whether the heroes will piece things together in time to save the next girl. There’s nothing wrong with such plots or devices (it worked pretty well for Silence Of The Lambs), but this show is simply not a thriller in its heart. It’s a character study and philosophical rumination, and so how much you like it will probably depend on how seriously you are able to take large doses of McConaughey’s despairing sage schtick.
That schtick wearing its thinnest so far in “The Locked Room”. His circular statement, featured so prominently in the promos for the show, about Bad Men being needed to “keep the other Bad Men from the door,” is sophomoric in a way that I was hoping the show would acknowledge, but I’m not sure it realizes how corny it sounds. And the episode-ending monologue that leads up to “and like a lot of dreams…there’s a monster at the end of it…” is going for portentous, but I can’t get over the weird assumptions underlying it. Is this an accepted fact about dreams? Does everyone else tend to have Godzilla step on the school at the end of the “test you didn’t study for” dream? Or have sex dreams where Alison Brie morphs into a Swamp Thing right as you finish? Maybe I’m the strange one here, but when I have a straight-up, classical nightmare, the monster is usually there the whole time, not just popping up for a cameo at the end.
But even if Cohle is starting to wear on me a bit (and it’s not like he didn’t tell the detectives he does this to people in the last episode), Woody Harrelson proved perfectly capable of carrying the episode. Hart is unraveling very quickly, as his insecurities about women are sabotaging both his marriage and his extramarital fling. Yes, there is a ritualistic murder to deal with, and a looming occult task force to fend off, but he is ultimately more concerned that his partner had the presumption to mow his lawn. Of course, these things all feed into each other. If Rust and the task force weren’t literally and metaphorically threatening to usurp his mowing duties, would he be so crazed with jealousy as to assault his girlfriend’s date?
Maybe he would. He’s feeling beset from all sides, right from the opening at the revival tent. Cohle has some predictably, amusingly pessimistic things to say about religion, and Hart can’t help but get riled even though he knows his partner well enough by now to expect it. His objection doesn’t seem to arise from any genuine religious conviction, but rather an instinctual defense of tradition and order, concepts which Rust dismisses out of hand. But maintaining surfaces, be it a lawn or a vague Christian identity, is important to Marty. He’s not comfortable with what he might find if he looked inward (hence the Bad Men question), so he ties up as much of his self-worth as he can manage in maintaining appearances. And he doesn’t like his partner because he’s given up on pretending he’s anything but a burned out shell of a man.
The episode ends on a strange sort of cliffhanger. We’ve been told the detectives are heading for a firearm fracas in the woods, and we close on an ominous shot of a machete-wielding, half-naked man in a gas mask. There is not any suspense about our heroes coming out alive, but a feeling of dread pervades the sequence nonetheless. These guys may have survived what’s coming, but it sure doesn’t look like Rust made it through intact. And while Marty seemed to have it pretty together in 2012, what we’re seeing in 1995 gives plenty of cause to distrust his surfaces. It’s odd, because “The Locked Room” may not be a traditionally suspenseful pot-boiler (like a Breaking Bad), or a wildly entertaining hour of television (as I would call, say, any given episode of Justified or Sherlock), but I do want to keep going with it. To see, if not what happens next, then what lies a little deeper within these disturbed characters.
Prior recaps can be found in here.