“You ever wonder if you’re a bad man?” asks Woody Harrelson’s Martin Hart in a recent episode of HBO’s True Detective.
“No, I don’t wonder, Marty,” answers Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cole, Hart’s pessimistic, philosophically-minded partner. “The world needs bad men. We keep other bad men from the door.”
It’s a rich little exchange, practically encapsulating in two short lines of dialogue the entire thesis of the crime tradition: the evil of the world is heroically contained by men (sometimes women, but it’s usually men) who are tragically ruined by what they see and experience while on the beat, rendered incapable of living in the very communities they’ve sworn to protect. You could easily apply the same insight to detectives from the tradition’s entire history, from Idris Elba’s tortured John Luther to Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison, from the hard-boiled PIs of the Chandler/Hammet era to genre-defining detectives like Sherlock Holmes and Poe’s Dupin. Each, in their own way, are bad people—diseased, infected by their contact with all that society wishes to reject.
But there’s something else embedded in Marty and Rust’s exchange about bad men: the extent to which this show, already one of TV’s best, is obsessed not with the questions that generally dominate police procedurals, but with deeper questions of identity, society, and meaning. True Detective doesn’t care whodunit. It’s more interested in Who am I?
It’s a concern that came powerfully to the fore in last night’s episode. (Which, by the way, I’d be tempted to flag as the best hour of television we’re likely to see in 2014, were it not for the fact that we’ve still got four more episodes of True coming.) It’s evident even in the episode’s title, “Who Goes There,” which the Shakespeare enthusiasts out there may recognize as an echo of the opening line of Hamlet: “Who’s there?”
It’s an especially rich association given that Hamlet was a philosophy-obsessed murder mystery centuries before True Detective made it cool. Like Rust, Hamlet’s a pessimistic guy given to bouts of glorious talk about the difficulty of living in a world seemingly without moorings. All this chatter is fascinating of course, but among many questions that animate the play, one is whether all these words, words, words reveal Hamlet’s identity and answer the question of “Who’s there?”—or whether they merely delay him from “standing and unfolding himself” in decisive action.
In Hamlet’s case, the question is answered eventually—and when it comes to True Detective, after three episodes with a slow burn of crime scenes, evidence, and (fascinating, glorious) talk, Marty and Rust last night answered the question embedded in the episode’s title: “Who Goes There?”
We’ve long known who Marty is, of course—he’s a philanderer, a bad man made worse by the fact that he doesn’t know he’s bad. Marty can’t see himself clearly; that’s why he needs Rust, and also why he hates him. But now, with his wife and daughters gone, he’s got nowhere to hide. Perhaps now, finally, he’ll be able to see himself clearly.
Rust, meanwhile, has been a bit more of an enigma—he’s an intellectual, a self-proclaimed philosophical pessimist who takes a dim view of the delusions of society and self. But where did this outlook come from? Previous episodes have hinted at his past: a dead daughter, a divorce, and a long time working undercover. But it’s only in “Who Goes There” that we finally get a sense of just how bleak Rust’s time undercover must have been. In pursuit of a suspect—the menacing Reginald Ledoux—Rust knows he has to go off-grid, reactivate his old contacts.
It’s a prospect that seems to galvanize him. Watching him prepare for his time undercover—hitting the bottle, doing cocaine, eyeing a cache of weapons hidden in a footlocker—I was struck by the feeling of a person finally revealing himself, standing and unfolding himself at last. At the prospect of going back under, Rust was coming alive. Question: Who’s there? Answer: A guy who doesn’t fear violence or danger, but gets off on it.
The sequence of events after Rust goes under confirms all this. As he infiltrates a biker bar, makes contact with an old contact, does one hit after another, and finally gets caught up in a stash house heist in the projects, you get the sense of a man who’s found his element at last. It all culminates in what will surely be the most daring sequence we see on TV this year—an unbroken 6-minute shot where Rust drags his victim through the projects, evading both cops and criminals as the heist goes horrifically bad.
It’s a terrifying shot—but exhilarating too. And that’s precisely the point. The dizzying sequence brings us into Rust’s mind as he moves with surety and deadly confidence to bring in his prey. He may be a bad man, but he knows who he is. To the question of “Who goes there?”, he’s stood and unfolded himself at last.