Cary Joji Fukunaga.
I wanted to lead with that name, because when we talk about True Detective, we don’t say it enough. We say “Matthew McConaughey” and we say “Woody Harrelson” and we say “Nic Pizzolatto,” and we’re not wrong. In fact, we’re really, really right. But we’ve been looking at three sides of a square and mistaking it for a triangle. We’ve seen the unity, the duality and the trinity, and maybe that was the most we could hope to consider in three episodes. Because, really, who’s ever heard of a quaternity? Who looks at a dense forest full of massive trunks and crawling vines and leafy canopies, and says, “man, that soil must be fertile as hell”? Who watches great actors enlivened by great writing and wastes a thought on the director? Not us. Not yet.
Hey, True Detectiveconnoisseurs: It’s time to start asking the right fucking questions.
His name is Cary Joji Fukunaga.
And you’ve caught me exaggerating. Plenty of us are hip to Fukunaga, as evidenced by the appreciation for the show’s landscape, and how it functions as its own character: stark, beautiful, foreboding. Over the first three episodes, he made the cane fields and the bayous breathe. He made Rust Cohle blaze in a drab interview room, and he wrung jealousy and melancholy and dissolution from a dance hall. He woke up the ghosts in an overgrown church, and turned the coastal refineries into a city. Like any director, he was the spark, the current and the engine itself.
But it hasn’t felt like an official acknowledgement until now. If we came away from the first three episodes praising Pizzolatto and McConaughey and Harrelson, “Who Goes There” was a striking showcase for Fukunaga. We’ve been hearing for two weeks now that the show’s contemplative manner would shift to something with a faster pace, and baby, they weren’t lying. While the lingering memory of the “Long Bright Dark” was Cohle’s “questions” line that I stole above, and “Seeing Things” brought us his poetic “mainlining the truth” monologue alongside the painting on the church wall, and “The Locked Room” left us with the terror of monsters at the end of our dreams, last night broke the pattern. Because when the credits ran, I was still sweating out the excess adrenaline from an action sequence that, no hyperbole, was unprecedented in television.
We’ve seen it in film, though. The long tracking shot, combined with the narrow escapes and the frantic panning and the whiz of bullets and the chaotic horror of spontaneous violence, was pure Children of Men. Alfonso Cuaron’s unmistakable stamp was everywhere, but it was Cuaron transformed, not copied. It was Cuaron translated into a new medium, with a noted shift in tone, and in service to the charisma of a character who still, after four hours, cannot be held by a still frame. We’ve only just reached the halfway point of the season, but my well of ways to praise the spectacular execution on True Detective has nearly run dry. I’m a fallow field, slashed and burned. And now, when I want to say it with the fever and hysteria to match Cohle’s escape from the projects, all I can make my fingers type as I turn into a small speck on the adjectival plateau is, “wow…this tingles.”
It starts in a jail cell, this episode, where Charlie Lange gives up the name of Tyrone Weems, the man who “might could tell you where he’s at.” The “he” is Reggie Ledoux, the main suspect in the ritual killing of Charlie’s ex-wife, Dora, along with at least one other woman he’d poisoned with meth and LSD. Ledoux and Charlie had been cellmates, and Charlie had shown him photos of Dora in a move he could never have known would guarantee her death. But when he asks Cohle, as the interview ends, whether he played a part in her death, there’s no mercy in his response. “It probably had something to do with it,” he says, deadpan, stating the obvious in a manner calculated to land hard.
But it’s not mere existential coldness driving Cohle; in the latest moment of brilliant dialogue, he reminds Hart that Lange’s first reaction wasn’t guilt over his role in Dora’s death, but self-concern about whether the detectives would vouch for him with the parole board. And so? “So fuck him.” Cohle can be a downer, but in Pizzolatto’s hands, he’s a downer with subtlety.
But some things in life are not subtle. Like when you cheat on your wife, break down your new girlfriend’s door in a fit of jealousy, and watch her blow up your whole world in retaliation by listing your infidelities in front of your wife and children. That’s what befalls Hart in the form of Lisa, and his weakness for “something wild” costs him a family. His wife leaves, and after he drunkenly confronts her in the hospital, he winds up in a bar with Cohle, trying to coax some sympathy. The clichés “barking up the wrong tree” and “blood from a stone” may have been invented for this moment, though, and after Hart bemoans his partner’s chilly bedside manner, McConaughey drops the line of the episode: “Being stupid is different from calling in sick, and this is a bar, not a fucking bedside.”
But Hart isn’t too distraught to do his job, and he gets to Weems, who tells him that Ledoux is cooking for a biker gang called the Iron Crusaders in East Texas. It turns out Cohle had ties to them from his four-year stint as a deep-cover narco (a tour of duty most cops undertake for a maximum of 11 months), and as Hart moves into the upstairs of his apartment, they hatch a plan to get one of the Crusaders alone and extract Ledoux’s location. Needless to say, they’re not going by the book.
For the first time in “Who Goes There”—the first significant time, anyway—we also see Cohle lie. Twice. The first one is easy to miss. He meets up with Maggie at a diner at Hart’s behest, and if he fails as a crying shoulder, he fails worse as an ambassador of repaired relationships. In typical (and hilarious, when you think about it) Cohle fashion, his idea of mending fences is to suggest to Maggie that only children matter, and that when it comes to love between men and women, “it’s not supposed to work.” He encourages her to see Hart’s adultery as an expression of weakness and his own demons, she accuses him of ducking under rationalizations, and both leave angry.
But stories are defined by what people want, and Cohle’s motivations are simple; he needs Hart’s help to nab Ledoux, and he recognizes that Hart will be useless unless he can see a light at the end of this tunnel. So Cohle tells him that he can envision the marriage resuming in a matter of months, though he knows it’s beyond salvage. Hart almost sees through the manipulation, but he’s so eager to believe that he convinces himself.
The second lie is more obvious, and comes back in 2012, when the new detectives question the aged, alcoholic Cohle on his leave of absence. The purported reason was his father’s leukemia (“he had some strange ideas,” says Cohle of his old man, and if Rustin Cohle says your ideas are strange…). The real reason, of course, was to run the off-the-books Ledoux operation without interference from real cops. The fact that he still lies about this fact 17 years later is a sign that there’s some self-preservation left in Cohle, despite his sepulchral worldview.
It all builds to a biker bar, where Cohle re-integrates himself with a crew run by a racist named Ginger. Turns out, Ginger and his boys have a really bad idea; invade the projects, steal drugs and cash from a stash house, get out. Cohle predicts Mogadishu, and Mogadishu is what ensues, but he has to play ball—and consume a small mountain of coke on the way—for a chance at Ledoux. They use fake cop uniforms to get into the house, but that lie is effective for about a minute before things go south. And though the danger is all too real, south is exactly where Cohle needed it to go. A phone call to Hart with a destination and an ETA of 90 seconds sets off the shrill cacophony and hollow thunder of the closing salvo, which you cannot feel if you do not see.
So see it. Feel it. And remember the name that completes the square.