“The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.” -- Cohle
Meaning no disrespect to Woody Harrelson, who is acting his rear end off, but “True Detective” has very quickly become the Matthew McConaughey show.
McConaughey originally read for the role of twisted good ol’ boy Marty Hart, but said he immediately connected with the role of Hart’s brooding partner, Rustin Cohle. He knew then what we’re finding out each week, McConaughey and Cohle were meant for each other.
Cohle is a character show runner Nic Pizzolatto was born to write and McConaughey was born to play. From his existential soliloquies to the haunted eyes, hollow heart and measured gait, what Pozzolatto and McConaughey are doing with Rust Cohle is something special. While the show’s eight-episode arc is likely too short to allow Cohle to become a cultural signpost character, like Tony Soprano or Don Draper, that’s the level of art that’s going on here.
In “The Locked Room” (police slang for an unsolved case, but in this case a direct Cohle reference to the fragile human psyche, a recurring topic for both the detective and the series), it becomes crystal clear that not only does Cohle understand he’s being questioned about the 2012 murder, but that he’s performing for detectives Gilbough and Papania, preaching to them about human nature and police work, even practicing a little iconography for them, turning a fragile aluminum can into an even more fragile human being.
But as Cohle slips between sounding totally insane and absolutely enlightened, we’re left to wonder exactly what is going on in that interrogation room and how much we can trust what we’ve seen about Cohle the cop and Cohle the man and how much is a fairy tale. As as Cohle tells us at the revival tent, “If the common good’s got to make up fairy tales, then it’s not good for anybody.”
As noted previously, one of the great things about this show is the way it takes on cliché directly. So, of course, when it becomes clear that Cohle is developing a bond with Hart’s wife, what does he do? He literally mows Hart’s lawn. Literally. We mean he actually mowed the freakin’ lawn! And somehow, it worked (although you’d imagine the actors involved had a difficult time getting through it with a straight face) because it told us something about Cohle in a very genuine way.
Despite the nihilist bluster, this is a man who had faith once upon a time and who’d like nothing more than to be able mow his lawn while his wife makes sweet tea and his daughters play house. And it’s the knowledge that he’ll never really do that again that’s made him the person he’s become. How can you be happy when your happiness is gone forever? The answer is that you can’t, although you can pretend and go through the motions of being happy again. Cohle has made it clear that he understands that and is not going to play. It’s something his partner already senses. “For a guy who sees no point in existence, you sure fret about it a lot,” Harts tells him at the revival tent. Just as we saw the crucifix and then heard Cohle say he wasn’t a Christian, this week we saw Cohle denounce religion and the preacher and then use the same techniques in his interrogation. It’s very clear that he understands intimately the lifestyle he now decries.
But Cohle knows Hart just as well (theories already abound on the Internet that they’re the same person, but we’re not buying it, that’s just too much M. Night Shaymalan talking). When Hart cautions Cohle about obsessing over the case and bending facts to fit his theories (how many references have we had now to “bending the narrative”?), Cohle fires back. “You’re obsessive, too, just not about your job.” And as we get a further glimpse at Hart’s dark underbelly (manipulating his wife in an argument, attacking his ex-mistress’s new paramour), we know that’s a dead-on assertion.
Enter the corpses. Dozens and dozens of them, in newspaper clippings, in case files, everywhere in Cohle’s life, as he pores through information on old murders looking for the one little detail that someone missed that will make a light bulb go off.
The corpses of those dead girls are a character unto themselves in “The Locked Room,” unable to talk but telling stories none the less. Finally, it’s the spiral tattoo between the shoulder blades of Rianne Olivier that tells Cohle the story he’s been looking for. Rianne was presumed drowned in a flood, but some abdominal wounds and that tattoo tell Cohle a different story. When he sees her system was full of crystal meth and LSD, the similarities to Dora Lange are too many to ignore.
Only hours upon hours of exhaustive, obsessive police work leads the partners to Reggie Ledoux and his meth-making operation. As Cohle neatly ties up his setup for Gilbough and Papania, Ledoux enters the story looking every bit the monster he’s cast as. But step back a second from the frightening visage of the man with the machete in the gas mask and ask yourself something about Cohle. During that insomnia-fueled weekend of corpse after corpse and case after case, was he looking for clues – or an alibi?
More detective work:
+ Speaking of daughters playing, after the reveal this week that the Harts’ oldest daughter got in trouble at school when she was caught with crude sexual drawings, it seems likely she also arranged the dolls in that weird almost-sexual tableau we saw last week. Obviously, those are some scary behaviors for what appears to be a child of 10. What did she see or experience to develop such graphic sexual expressions at such a young age?
+ If you’re keeping score at home, in Episode 1, Cohle plainly said he’s “not a psycho” while in Episode 3, Hart crazily told his mistress and her paramour that he’s “not a maniac.” Riiighhht.
+ Another Shea Whigham sighting! The veteran character actor, best known for playing Eli Thompson in “Boardwalk Empire,” has now appeared in “American Hustle,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “True Detective” (as tent preacher Joel Theriot) in the past three months. That’s a pretty amazing streak.
+ What does it say about the depth of these episodes that we’ve been rambling here for 1,100 words and there is still so much that happened in “The Locked Room” that we haven’t touched on?
+ If we needed any more clues to the marital strife on the horizon for the Harts, the music heard throughout the episode included "Stand By Me" by the Staple Singers, "Does My Ring Burn Your Finger?" by Buddy Miller and "I'm a One Woman Man" by Johnny Horton.
+ Theory update: After re-watching episodes 1 and 2 last week we were 97.5% sure our much-trumpeted theory on the end game here was correct. While nothing in "The Locked Room" disproved our theory, we now are 71.6% certain.