'True Detective' Recap: Blaze of Glory

Why tonight's grim, glorious gunfight was exactly what this series needed

true detective woody harrelson matthew mcconaughey hbo
James Bridges
Woody Harrelson, left, and Matthew McConaughey, right, star in HBO's 'True Detective.'
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Wow, that was a tour de fucking force.

Shot as a single uninterrupted six-minute take and spanning an entire neighborhood, True Detective's climactic gunfight was the best TV action sequence since the Blackwater episode of Game of Thrones.

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It showed us something about Matthew McConaughey's Emmy-bait undercover cop Rust Cohle, how for all his fatalism, his first instinct when breaking into houses while armed to the teeth and coked to the gills is to get any innocent bystanders into bathtubs for stray-bullet protection. It presented both groups of criminals – the drug-runners who keep a kid in the stashhouse and the biker gang who keep a human being in a closet – as fundamentally loathsome, while also conveying the idea that that last house full of dudes who run out with guns to confront what they believe to have been a murderous home invasion by uniformed police were perfectly justified. These are tricky political and representational waters to navigate, and the show steered clear of the shoals. And despite the spectacle, the main mechanics of its action were refreshingly down to earth: Much of it was simply spent lugging its angry, wounded biker mastermind through living rooms and backyards, a scramble to stay out of the line of sight and fire of whoever the fuck comes around the next corner with a gun – fake cops, real cops, drug dealers, people defending their homes, whichever. Sure, it was easy to get an audience cheer by having Marty and Rust both show up simultaneously at the rendezvous point, just as planned, but I don't care. That payoff paid off.

And I can't help but feel it's the fruit of the seeds planted last episode in that hard-to-shake final shot of a killer in a gas mask and underwear, striding in slow motion like a monster out of myth. Whatever its limitations and pretensions, however much it's a collection of cop-show clichés with better production values and movie-star leads, True Detective is ultimately a seedy, fun genre picture. How else to process its bookending pair of left turns? First it delivers new information about the killer that simultaneously evokes both Eyes Wide Shut's occult-tinged orgies for the rich and powerful and (via references to the sinister, spectral Yellow King and a frightening realm called Carcosa) the loosely connected fictional universe of supernatural horror stories by author H.P. Lovecraft (and writers he both influenced and was influenced by) known as the Cthulhu Mythos. (Cthulhu, of course, is a gigantic underwater deity worshipped in . . . the Louisiana swamps.)

But True Detective was just getting warmed up. We close – hell, we spend half an episode – with a complete upending of the tone and narrative in which Rust goes undercover. Illegally. Drugged up. With a biker gang. That conducts a drug raid. That devolves into a bloody shootout. Which is the show's first action sequence. Which goes on for minute after minute. Which means, basically, who the hell knows where this thing is gonna go now?

And honestly, True Detective needed that. Don't get it twisted: If you were to deny the pleasures of watching peak-of-their-powers Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey glower and drawl their way through their torn-up cop roles, you'd be as crazy as Rust, and just about as unable to enjoy yourself. And the look of the thing, from Rust's hallucinations to the everyday gorgeousness of the abandoned schools and trailer parks and tent revivals and bayou bars of the real world, is just as undeniable.

The writing? Not so much. When Rust and Marty Hart aren't the focus of attention, True Detective too often feels like the Stock Character Parade: Angry Captain, Hooker with Heart of Gold, Sleazy Televangelist, Disapproving Father-in-Law, Long-Suffering Wife, et cetera, ad nauseam. Even with Rust, whose relentless nihilism stands out for its spectacular bleakness in a sea of TV-drama antiheroes and sad-sacks, his backstory at this point is such a pile of calamities that it's more funny than sad. I mean, the insomniac alcoholic pill-popping perp-murdering hallucinating forcibly-committed divorced bereaved father of a two-year-old whose death he envies also had a dad who was a survivalist? If you had "survivalist dad" in your office pool, congratulations.

And the treatment of Marty's mistress as self-evidently "crazy pussy" was tone-deaf. Who broke into whose home and assaulted whose new significant other again? Depiction is not endorsement, of course – let's get that tattooed on every Wolf of Wall Street critic's forehead – but the show sets us up to agree with Rust's characterization, since after all, Rust knows people. Now, no one's exactly covering themselves in glory here, relationship-wise – Marty's wife mocks the dissolution of Rust's marriage after his daughter died and for once he doesn't have a grim comeback for it; Marty sticks to his "solving problems by being physically invasive" guns and makes a scene at her work. But the idea of a mistress not understanding that's all she's supposed to be good for, besides being sexist, points back to the show's reliance on stock characters. Knowing how Character X will look, sound, and act the second you lay eyes on them is one of True Detective's major vices.

But its virtues are still its virtues. Rust and Cohle's banter is enjoyable, especially when they're pointing out each other's screamingly obvious character flaws: Marty's "You are like the Michael Jordan of being a son of a bitch" is this week's equivalent of last week's bit when Rust responds to Marty's declaration "I try not to be too hard on myself" by saying "That's real big of you." And McConaughey is even better here than he has been so far, transforming from the stiff, brittle intellectual we've seen before into a jittery, coked-up man of action. You get the sense that the shootout actually saved his life rather than risked it, since he needed something to keep him focused. Leaving his "alright alright alright" days behind him (onscreen, at least), McConaughey's now known as an actor who transforms from part to part. In this episode, True Detective gives him the chance to transform within the part. And just like that shootout, it's dizzying to watch.

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