True Detective: The Locked Room

Fox on Episode 3 of True Detective.

“If the common good’s gotta make up fairy tales then it’s not good for anybody”. This line from Rust opens this newest episode of True Detective and it makes too much sense coming out of his mouth. It sums up not only his character but this series’ worldview. Very early on this show set itself as a series that would portray a world where mankind is the ruination of ….well…..mankind. And hearing Rust’s take on a congregation of hysterical worshippers seems inevitable. He refers to religion as a “language virus” that attacks pathways in the brain and dulls critical thinking. Again it’s not a new viewpoint on television and it's not a surprising to find it here. What is a surprise is on a series that seems to have set Rust up as the smarter of the two titular detectives, we watch his partner Marty shut him up with a great retort. “For a guy who sees no point in existence you sure fret about it a lot.” This line is gold. It's a critique and neat summary of every cop show ever made. And it’s the perfect way to start an episode. 

The third episode of True Detective settles into a more familiar HBO format. The story continues to unfold but as the first couple of episodes have pointed out, this series is a slow burner. The network has made a career out of this type of series but where True Detective has the advantage is in the mystery stringing this season along. That mystery keeps viewers going. Or at least it’s supposed to. AMC’s The Killing had three separate seasons to try and convince cable viewers that a good mystery was enough to keep people watching. And after achieving the near impossible feat of being canceled twice it became clear that a good mystery alone may not be enough for a cop drama. True Detective knows this and whether or not they used The Killing’s failure as a set of anti-guidelines, they have made sure to strengthen their defenses in the area where The Killing faltered in almost every episode: characterization. 

Point of fact, True Detective spends the majority of its running time on building its characters rather than on the central mystery. The writers do give us clues but rather than all of them focusing on the mystery at hand, they instead grant us sporadic glimpses into Hart and Cohle’s doomed partnership and they are all great. They make the show even more fun to watch. We already know their partnership is circling the drain and so you’d think the small details wouldn’t matter. But writer Nic Pizzolatto manages to make these tiny moments great both in quality and scope. He’s walking a really fine line that even a brilliant series like Breaking Bad bobbled in its weaker moments. But so far he’s only impressed me with his vignettes about two people who’ve been forced to work together and simply don’t gel. 

“The Locked Room” is an episode that really turns up the tension on Rust and Marty. Or rather from Marty toward Rust. Marty still carries himself like Walter White in the sense that everything he does (even the bad stuff) is 'for his family'. When he and Rust have disagreements, and almost all the serious ones happen when they aren’t working, the result is a growing resentment Marty feels toward Rust. It’s a touch comical to watch Marty grow increasingly furious at Rust’s personal life choices while Rust is so out of the social loop that he doesn’t even seem to notice. And the resentment is quietly compounded when Rust starts helping out Marty’s wife around the house. His wife (played by the always wonderful Michelle Monaghan) is only appreciative and immediately turns on Marty for never being around. You can’t help but relate Marty to the castrated suspect the two detective interview and clear early on in the episode. The nice thing is that Marty isn’t clearly the bad guy of the relationship. It's incredibly easy as a viewer to see his predicament. He’s built a so-called perfect life for himself and while his frustrations compile over it, he’s forced to watch Rust walk boldly through a life in shambles (by Marty’s standards) firmly believing none of it is even worth it. And all the while we get to watch beer cans pile up around present day Rust as his words get darker and darker. The road these two characters take to get them to present is still even more interesting than the murder that’s brought them together in the first place. 

What “The Locked Room” does this week is assures us that we really can’t rely on either of our leads. We already know full well that Rust is rapidly heading down the rabbit hole, but what we learn in this chapter is that Marty is truly and utterly full of shit. He preaches love and affection for his family and spends almost this entire episode working to destroy it. What’s even better is our present day version of him promises the interviewing detectives that while all that was going on he was totally stable and his love never wavered. Rarely do we get such a great presentation of an unreliable narrator. There’s quite a bit of focus on religion in this episode starting from the title and burning faintly through the backgrounds and set pieces of most scenes. And why not? Humanity’s take on religion lines up perfectly with Marty and Rust as people. Their own religious views mirror their personalities as well and the whole thing has a nice wrapped with a bow quality about it. Marty does his job to fight for order and against chaos while Rust revels in the idea that without that chaos they lose humanity’s one and final tie to the natural world. The episode closes with an incredible monologue by Rust where he brings the title fully into play. I won't bore you with the details. Rest assured I had goose bumps for the duration. And just when I thought it was over, the episode ends with one of the greatest freeze frames I’ve ever seen. Get me the next episode. Now.

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