True Detective Season 1, Episode 2: Good Cop, Bad Cop.

As the investigation into Dora Lange's ritualistic murder continues, detectives Cohle and Hart's true colors begin to reveal themselves.

In its second episode, True Detective continued to show its philosophical roots and showcase its writer’s talent for characterization.

Effective and engaging character study is not an easy feat to pull off. Constant exposition and personal narrative can make a show feel stagnant. We want action! Adventure! Escape!

But in the realm of truly stimulating character exploration, Nic Pizzolatto succeeds. Large chunks of True Detective’s’ second hour were composed of single take monologues that pulled us deep down under the skin and into the minds of the show’s two main characters. If the pilot was somewhat bewilderingly dark, then the second episode pulled us even further down the rabbit hole, fleshing out many of the quirks and neuroses that define its protagonists.

We learned that Hart, who we heretofore believed to be a pretty straight-ahead family man (especially compared to Cohle’s atheist loner persona), cheats on his wife “for the good of the family.” Infidelity, for Hart, is “for your wife and kids, too.”

“You’ve got to take your release where you find it - or where it finds you.”

Yuck. I walked away from this episode finding Hart quite a selfish schmuck. His contemptible nature comes across most in his fight with his wife, Maggie, toward the end of the episode. She expresses unhappiness, something not all too surprising coming from a mother of two and wife to a homicide detective. Hart responds by accusing her of having “a penchant for self-pity” and says he needs her “to be strong, so that I can do my job.” Of course, it’s fine to have needs. But who’s the one cheating here? Of course, we don’t know much about Maggie yet.

Far more unusual is Cohle’s history, which we discover through a series of bucolic yet soul-crushing monologues, brilliantly enacted by the remarkable powerhouse that is Matthew McConaughey. Set against the imagery of Hart’s quintessential but flawed family life, Cohle’s singularity of focus - as twisted as his history is - seems almost preferable.

In the pilot, we learned that Cohle’s daughter died. This week we delved deeper into that story, through a drifting three minute monologue in which Cohle recounts the details of his life leading up to his work on the Dora Lange case.

His daughter was hit by a car while riding her tricycle. The heartbreak destroyed his marriage and gave him an inclination toward danger. He came to his first wall when he “emptied a nine into a crankhead for injecting his infant daughter with crystal.”

“He was trying to purify her.”

He kept his job by becoming an undercover drug informant - a position he kept for four years. During that time, he became addicted to drugs. He continued to deal with what he called “chemical flashbacks” well into his work with Hart, but said that sometimes he felt he was “mainlining the secret truth of the universe.” His instincts certainly have helped the pair several times already in working the Dora Lange case.

In February 1993, Cohle killed three cartel members and was committed at North Shore Psychiatric Hospital for four months, after which he asked to be placed on a homicide case. He was partnered with Hart in Louisiana.

Of course, in any crime drama, our view of the characters colors our understanding of their handling of the case. But if Pizzolatto decided to make this short series 90% about the protagonists’ psyches and 10% about the case itself, I’d be one happy viewer. So far, watching True Detective has been more like reading a novel than watching a crime drama.

Novelistic television programming has existed for over a decade. Along with True Detective, I’m concurrently watching The Sopranos for the first time. David Chase’s landmark series is arguably one of the greatest novelistic shows in television history. While I’m thoroughly enjoying the character development of Tony and Carmella especially, as far as I can tell, Chase did not drill as deep or as forcefully into the true nature of his characters as Pizzolatto has already.

Maybe it’s because Chase knew he had more than eight episodes to play with, and Pizzolatto just has to move faster in the character development process to give us a real understanding before we say goodbye to these characters in just six more weeks.

Or maybe it’s because, as I said in the pilot review, Pizzolatto is a literary guy first and foremost. Nothing tells more about a character than anonymously observing their honest words and especially their internal monologue. True Detective relies almost exclusively on inner monologue and recollection narrative, which allows for a depth of character that I personally have not seen in another show.

True Detective’s greatest strength so far is the compelling way in which it weaves psychology with philosophy, tying in religion and all manner of sin, yet doesn’t definitively answer any of its own questions. Remember - we don’t even really know what these on-camera interviews are for. Hart alluded this week to a “throwdown in the woods” and speculated that the interviewers were “on to something new.”

As the series continues to evolve, I’m looking forward to finding answers to those questions, to descending deeper into the dark underbellies of these characters and their motives, and to discovering the reason behind the show’s cryptic tagline: exactly how is man the cruelest animal?

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