True Detective Season 1, Episode 3: Losing My Religion

Detectives Cohle and Hart's investigation leads them into darker territory while the show's writing dives into the existential complexities of religion and identity.

Continuing its virtuosic blend of character study and plot development, the third episode of True Detective, titled “The Locked Room,” is the series’ most riveting yet.

Episode two left us wondering what happened at the revival church in the middle of nowhere, where Cohle and Hart found a torched shell of a building with grotesque graffiti, mirroring the gruesome scene that opened the season. Further investigation led them to the tent revival of Minister Joel Thierot (Shea Whigham). The detectives gather some more information from two young women who saw her around the revival, who say she was seen speaking with a “tall man” who had a strange face, with “skin shiny around his jaw.” Hart deduces that they are seeking a man with burn scars. After Rust spends many insomnia-fueled nights digging through old murder files, they begin to interrogate suspects.

After a few dead ends, another “you gents better figure this out soon” talk with the boss, and some more time spent pounding the pavement, the detectives come across their most promising lead yet: Reggie Ledoux. Reggie’s girlfriend was supposedly killed in the flooding that followed Hurricane Andrew, but photos of her body tell Cohle otherwise - especially that mysterious spiral symbol on her back. 

Sure enough, Ledoux has skipped parole after serving time for his involvement with a drug lab that produced meth and LSD - drugs that both victims had in their systems at the time of death. Ledoux is also a sex criminal and was cellmates with Dora Lange’s husband. When the episode concludes, we are left with an eerie image of the “monster at the end of it”: a man leaving a rural shack in nothing but tighty-whities (or, is that a mankini of some kind?) and a gas mask, carrying a meat cleaver. Monster indeed.

We have seen more of Cohle’s dark side in the series so far, but in this episode both men’s manipulative characteristics are evenly matched. 

Hart’s slow burning violence, which we saw erupt briefly in his conversation with Cohle in the locker room, ignites like a roman candle in this episode. While out on a double date at a bar, Hart spots his mistress Lisa with another man. He confronts her in a stupidly open way at the bar, and Lisa makes it clear (twice now that we’ve seen, and no doubt in other situations as well) that she is looking to settle down and Hart is not the man she wants to do it with. 

After a roaring bender, Hart ends up at Lisa’s apartment late at night and proceeds to violently assault her date. Then, as quickly as his fuse was ignited, it is extinguished. Claiming “I’m not a psycho,” Hart simply walks away. 

At home, while trying to justify his distance from his wife and his children, one of whom is has been making disturbingly sexual drawings at school, he breaks down and claims “I’m all fucked up.”

I’m having a hard time discerning Hart’s motivations. Is he honestly concerned with his own alcoholism, violence and double life? Or is he simply manipulating Maggie (consciously or unconsciously) into staying with him while he continues to violate her trust? I speculate that there is a piece of Hart’s past or psyche we still have yet to see - the reason for his “fucked up” behavior.

I can’t help but wonder about the violently sexual imagery we’ve seen from his daughter in her drawings, her conversations with her sister, and that gang rape scene that she staged with her dolls. Could Hart have something to do with that? Is it just her accidental proximity to the nature of his work? Or something worse?

The mystery of Rust Cohle deepened in this episode, when we were given a window into his dark existential convictions. Through another series of long, infinitely intelligent, captivating monologues during his 2012 on-camera interviews with detectives Gilbough and Papania, we see Cohle’s strong, uncompromising opposition to religious belief. No review summary of mine could do justice to Pizzolatto’s ingenious writing or McConaughey’s delivery, so I invite you to go seek them out yourself for the full mind-bending experience.

Caught up in a whirlwind of philosophical thoughts on humanity, death, parenting and good vs. evil, I’m left wondering if any other television show in recent memory has spoken so soberly and articulately about the foundations of atheism or existentialism. 

There have been plenty of shows with religious themes (7th Heaven, Joan of Arcadia, Big Love) and even more that have explored themes of religion and spirituality (Lost, House, Supernatural, South Park). And sure, there have been plenty of atheist characters on great television shows; some of my favorites include Captain Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly, Lindsay Weir from Freaks & Geeks and, currently, Alicia Florrick from The Good Wife

There is plenty to be said both for and against such a vehement atheism, and for and against organized religion’s effect on the human experience. It’s a complex issue, but one that I’m fairly certain has not been explored with such implications in a story about death and human nature - at least not on television. Writers have floored us with their controversial speeches before - of course Aaron Sorkin comes to mind - but Pizzolatto’s has an exceptional knack for cerebral storytelling. Each new episode of this show has felt like a great shot of bourbon whiskey: it takes concentration to swallow and burns a little going down, but has a sharply sweet aftertaste, leaving me feeling a little bit tipsy and longing for more.


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