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True Detective, Ep. 1.04: “Who Goes There” technically stunning but narratively inert

True Detective, Ep. 1.04: “Who Goes There” technically stunning but narratively inert
True Detective
True Detective, Season 1, Episode 4: “Who Goes There”
Written by Nic Pizzolatto
Directed by Cary Fukunaga
Airs Sundays at 9pm ET on HBO

Given that I am not your standard True Detective recapper (Ricky D is on The Walking Dead duty this week), it seems worthwhile, now that the first series is half over, to get my cards on the table: True Detective, at least so far, is good TV, not great TV. It’s impeccably directed, shot and performed, but Nic Pizzolatto’s vision of long-form murder mystery storytelling isn’t compelling or original enough on its own to support the series’ ostentatiously gloomy, portentous style.

I make that declaration now, knowing that it’s entirely possible that Pizzolatto and director Fukunaga might have some remarkable tricks up their sleeve; in a dynamic medium, anything is possible. “Who Goes There,” however, feels like a bizarrely timed pit stop. A gorgeous, sometimes tense and thrilling one, but a pit stop nonetheless. Last week’s “The Locked Room” ended with Cohle and Hart speeding off in pursuit of their shiny new suspect Reggie Ledoux, followed by a deeply unsettling set of closing shots evoking both Sasquatch and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That generated a reasonable expectation that the season would now have its foot on the gas, leading to Cohle and Hart getting their 1995 man nice and early, leaving plenty of time to untangle just what it is that’s going on in 2012.  (Bear in mind that we still have seven years of Cohle and Hart’s partnership to account for, as well, not just what’s going on in the show’s present.)

Instead, “Who Goes There” winds up mostly as a vehicle for the kind of rogue-cop shenanigans we’ve seen in a few dozen “gritty” cop flicks and crime series so many times before. As with every other episode of True Detective, it’s all executed with skill and style, but it all feels a bit rote, too. In the last week, Justified‘s Natalie Zea Tweeted that she welcomed Michelle Monaghan to the club for “underwritten ex-wives on otherwise brilliant TV shows.” Again, barring some remarkable twist of fate as it regards Maggie (unlikely, based on what we already know from the 2012 scenes), Zea is right on the money: Monaghan is a great actress whose friction with Harrelson makes all of their scenes lively, but there is absolutely nothing novel or particularly compelling about the dissolution of Hart’s marriage beyond, of course, the performances. More memorable writing would go a long way towards breaking up the familiarity, but the only quotable from “Who Goes There” that really stands out is Hart’s assertion, upon learning that he is not about to provide any comfort in the wake of his life has totally fallen apart, that Cohle is “the Michael Jordan of being a son of a bitch.”

True Detective has a strange habit of going out of its way to show us things it’s already spent an inordinate amount of time telling us about, which dulls the impact of certain developments. Take Ruse Cohle, supernarco, for example. In all of the first three episodes, we’ve heard about about sealed files, stints in psych wards, hallucinations (also depicted), shootings, and tales of general debilitating badassery. Had Pizzolato substituted more of those purplish conversations with allusions or hints rather than laying out Cohle’s professional history like a feast, the version of Cohle that ditches the book and cracks open his go-chest (complete with unopened Jameson mickey and automatic weapons) would have a considerable amount more impact. As it is, especially seeing how awful 2012 Cohle has aged compared to Hart, there’s nothing about what Cohle pulls off in “Who Goes There” that we haven’t already heard Cohle matter-of-factly boast about. Repeatedly.

On the other hand, there’s the six-minute elephant in the room, the unbroken take that captures the attempted housing project heist into which Cohle’s been drafted to prove his worth. No bones to be made: it’s a hugely impressive achievement, and probably the most notable exercise in sustained tension on TV since Southland‘s “Chaos.” With even a little bit of scrutiny, though, it comes to feel as though the entire episode has been structured to make sure we get this bravura sequence, rather than having it feel like an organic development. For some reason, Cohle and Hart can’t just alert their interstate colleagues and bust in to arrest Ledoux’s associate; no, they have to go off the grid, get Cohle very, very stoned,  and relegate Hart to the getaway role while Cohle guns up for a totally unpredictable criminal adventure while being even more stoned on indeterminate substances. (Cohle even notes that a more straightforward approach would have been smarter when he takes his mark hostage on his way out.) Again, it’s an incredible sequence on a technical level, an extremely complicated operation executed with a deft hand, but it can’t entirely obfuscate the fact that the sequence – and the episode as a whole – adds nothing new to our understanding of these characters or the case, nor our wider understanding of what it looks like when cops break bad.