True Detective Season 1, Episode 4: Layers of Deception

Reaching the halfway point of the first season, the characters are progressing as usual. But in this episode, the plot thickens.

For the first time since its premiere, True Detective has given us an episode that is more plot-driven than character-driven - but that doesn’t mean it’s lost its allure.

Episode four finds Rust Cohle and Marty Hart still hot on the trail of Reggie Ledoux, the suspect in the murder of Dora Lange. Lange’s ex-husband, Charlie, shared a prison cell with Ledoux. His interrogation leads the detectives to Tyrone Weems, a mutual friend, who tells them that since Ledoux skipped parole, he has stopped dealing drugs. Instead he is using his superb chemistry skills Heisenberg-style to cook for a distributer out of east Texas: the Iron Crusaders.

Cohle, who we have learned through his well-spun and revealing monologues was undercover for four years with the DEA, knows the leadership of the Iron Crusaders. He decides to go back undercover and engage with them, and to use them to get to Reggie Ledoux.

Visiting the gang at their headquarters outside of Beaumont, Texas, Cohle meets with a high-ranking gang member known only as “Ginger.” He concocts a simple but believable story about how, after taking three bullets in the side in a DEA shootout (he has the scars to prove it), he escaped below the border and has since been laying low, working security for a group in San Miguel. He says that now, his bosses in Mexico want to broker a profitable deal for all with Ginger’s gang, trading methamphetamine for cocaine to circumvent the more powerful Mexican cartels.

Ginger, though hesitant and always preserving the image of an upper hand in the conversation, buys Cohle’s tale and says he’s in - that is, if Cohle will help him with one thing. Together with other members of the Iron Crusaders, in a brilliantly crafted and exciting action scene, they raid the stash house of a rival Black gang.

The episode’s most notable moment comes when Cohle tells the two detectives interviewing him in 2012 that he took a leave of absence after they found the suspect. As far as we can tell, he does not tell them a single detail about the night of the raid. It is the first disconnect that we’ve seen between the narrative as told by the flashbacks to 1995 and the narrative as told on camera in the present-day interviews. Within that detail lies the first hints at an answer to a question I’ve been asking since the beginning: why are Hart and Cohle being interviewed about this case 17 years after its closing? 

Indeed, we are now coming to understand that Rust and Cohle were not entirely upfront with their superiors when the case was being investigated, and they’re not willing (for some as-yet-unknown reason) to be entirely up front now. Their actions are good detective work - true detective work, if you will - but there seems to be some element that does not comply with the old adage of “the end justifies the means.” 

We see all kinds of rule-bending policing on television (ever seen The Wire?), but I suspect there is something more sinister here. Cohle continues to lie, 17 years later, when he has nothing to lose. The statute of limitations has probably passed on any minor transgressions he could have committed, like going undercover without telling his boss. At this point, the truth would not likely earn him any repercussions - that is, unless it isn’t something minor.

The strength of this episode is in its ability to create subtle intimacies in ordinary scenes. Throughout episode four, Pizzolatto and Fukunaga are able to highlight the in-between moments. In between dialogue, in between plot development and action, there are moments of subtle character development and opportunities to illuminate the larger picture. It’s like lighting a match or swinging a flashlight in a large, dark room. In that split second before your eyes are drawn to the locus of the light, the whole room is brightened and you get a fuller picture of your surroundings.

For example, when Cohle meets with Maggie at a diner to broker a different kind of deal (one between a feuding couple instead of feuding drug dealers), their conversation ends abruptly and he storms out to his car. The camera captures Maggie through the diner window, looking angry and conflicted. Then, in a brilliant shift of focus, the camera moves out to catch the reflection of Cohle getting into his truck, with Maggie’s silhouette still visible through the glass. The camera catches both characters’ emotions at once, and fills the space between them with meaning.

In another moment, during the stash house raid, Cohle is dragging a wounded Ginger down a block to meet Hart, who will be waiting as their getaway driver. Cohle and Ginger cut around the far side of a house, and instead of following them, the camera shifts to catch a rival gang member entering the house. We follow him through the front door to witness the chaos within, with gang members wielding machine guns and frantically trying to organize.In this subtle, momentary shift, we see the other side, and we understand the big picture implications a little bit better.

Many of the drug scenes and details in this episode’s arc felt very Breaking Bad. A ruthless master meth cook, selling to one distributer and running from detectives obsessed with his downfall. In tense moments, I felt that same uncertainty that creeped up my throat during early meetings between Walter White and Gus Fring.

But unlike Breaking Bad, which (while certainly engaging) often erred on the side of accessibility, one of the things I’ve loved about this show so far is its willingness to alienate. The tight, cerebral style of Pizzlatto’s dialogue and especially those long monologues he writes for McConaughey, as I’ve said before, has made watching this show much more like reading a challenging novel than watching television. It’s not a story that I’m being told; it’s a story that I’m engaging with, using both my brain and my emotions. 

I’ll keep up my broken record: True Detective is unlike anything that has come before it. It’s got me duct taped to a chair so I can’t move an inch. I’ll just keep staring at the mirror it’s holding up for all of us, hoping to make it out alive.

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