Tuned In

True Detective Watch: Seeing Things

As our knowledge of Marty and Rust evolves, so does this show.

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JIm Bridges / HBO

Brief spoilers for last night’s True Detective below:

“Sorry, I drift.” –Rust Cohle

“You know the job. You’re looking for narrative.” –Martin Hart

I don’t plan on reviewing every episode of True Detective–having seen four episodes so far, I’m not sure it’s a show that lends itself to episode-by-episode reviewing. But since the premiere got so much attention (and since I’m traveling this week and won’t have much time to blog otherwise), I thought I’d check in on the second episode, “Seeing Things,” and see what Tuned Inlanders are thinking of it so far.

By this point, it seems True Detective is clueing us in as to what kind of mystery story it’s going to be. Only part of it has to do with who did it, what happened, and so forth; we know by now, for instance, that the 1995 murder is going to be solved. (Or, well, somebody is going to go to jail for it.) Another big part of the puzzle is the order in which it reveals information to us, and what that adds to our knowledge not just of the killing, but the men solving it.

For instance, “Seeing Things” returns us to the dinner at Marty’s house, and gives us more information about the reason for his drunken state. In the pilot episode, the show played interestingly with how it revealed information, and to whom: Rust opens up to Marty’s wife about his daughter’s death, but Marty still knows nothing about it. Now Marty learns–and learns that his little girl’s death in a car accident led his marriage to break up. But Marty doesn’t learn (we do, in 2012) that Rust was in a psychiatric hospital after his daughter died. Or that he killed a man for abusing his own daughter. What matters here, it seems, is not only what we know about the story, but what we know about what pieces of the story each character doesn’t know.

So now we and Marty know about that wound Rust carries. But Marty doesn’t know yet–Rust says he later told him, “down the line”–that he was also scarred by an intense stint in undercover drug policing. It was an ugly, ugly time, one that changed the way he looked at the world, not just figuratively but literally: the gimlet-eyed investigator is also given to “visions,” drug flashbacks that distort his perceptions.

Matthew McConaughey makes Rust’s power of insight eerie and powerful; he’s coiled and intent like a snake in a charmer’s basket. (And, as the poor gentlemen he interrogates in the garage learn, he can strike quickly.) Says Marty, “Rust had as sharp an eye for weakness as I’ve ever seen.” Including Marty’s own: as the first episode heavily hinted with Marty’s excusing himself to look at “court documents,” he’s carrying on an affair, and it takes his partner little time to ferret it out. Which in turn begins to reveal that steady, stand-up guy Marty has a volatile side to him.

The family-guy-with-a-secret-life angle is, so far, one of the more familiar, less interesting aspects of the show; it, like the light-bondage sex scene with Marty’s lover, is a standard component of the dark pay-cable drama package. And some other weaknesses are apparent in this second episode: the flatness of the secondary characters (e.g., Marty’s cranky, conservative, these-damn-kids-today father-in-law and “ballbuster” wife) and the heavy-handedness of some of the dialogue (e.g., the argument between Marty and the madam, who delivers an on-the-nose speech about how men despise prostitution because it’s sex they don’t own).

But when the show is strong, it’s transporting. As Rust’s story evolves, so does the show, in a way; it’s highly naturalistic at some moments, then shifts into a mode of quasi-magic realism. Streetlights streak like heavenly bolts; clouds on the horizon take on an apocalyptic glow; the swamp and backwoods seem haunted. “The visions—there were times that I was convinced that I’d lost it,” Rust says. “There were other times I thought I was mainlining the secret truth of the universe,” and that hits home with a striking visual at the end of the episode, when a flock of birds seems to briefly resolve itself into an intelligible pattern before Cohle’s eyes and ours.

Then it’s gone. But we’re starting to get a sense of the kind of metaphysical detective show we’re watching. True Detective is chasing a mystery, of course–more than one–but it’s most fascinating when it’s chasing the Mystery.