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In the first three episodes, True Detective has been about the mental state of its two leads. While they follow leads and gather details about the case, the true subject of the show is how Marty and Rust approach life. Their impasses are so divergent they’re hilarious – the viral tumblr only scratches the surface – and it’s been darkly fascinating to see just how Nic Pizzolatto uses the procedural form for character development. But action, not conservation, is the narrative force of the fourth episode. It’s much more ambitious, visually, and feels like the release from three hours of build-up. Still, this is only the halfway point.

There is an APB out on Reggie Ledoux, the chief suspect in the case, but Rust and Marty are still a long way from finding him. In one way, this is insanely frustrating: episode three builds to a haunting image of Ledoux and Marty/Rust hint at the violent complexity of a shoot-out. Pizzolatto is not done with the search yet, however, which means that Ledoux remains a menacing force. We learn a little bit more about him from in an interview with Charlie Lange, Ledoux’s former cellmate and the victim’s ex-wife. The scene abandons “good cop/ bad cop” theatrics and instead embraces the idea that maybe Charlie has reserves of decency in him. He still cares about Dora, damn it, even though he’s mixed in a world of criminals and violence. This is indirect foreshadowing for what happens to Marty: his ex-mistress spills the beans to his wife, so she packs bags for him and leaves the house.

It must be frustrating for Harrelson that Marty is the more conventional character, yet his scenes where he’s reeling from the loss of Maggie have power. He thrashes impotently, he barks into the telephone, and he sobs over booze. It’s startling because Marty lacks the basic self-awareness he’s made a mistake; even when he’s bargaining with Maggie, he seems like his giving lip service more than anything else. The sub-plot culminates with Rust and Maggie talking at a diner: Rust understands where Marty is coming from – they’ve looked into the same gaping maw – and Maggie thinks Rust’s empathy for Marty is just another cop rationalization. There is deep irony here: Marty has done such a good job of shielding Maggie from the realities of his job that he’s lost desire for his wife, which cost him his marriage. This cannot be explained, and Rust responds in kind. He abandons Maggie after her unkind implication about his own marriage. I doubt he cares too much, though, because there’s real danger ahead.

Marty and Rust figure out Ledoux cooks meth for a motorcycle gang in Texas. In a stroke of good luck, Rust knows the leaders from his undercover vice days. He plans to reenter the gang and connect with his contact, who will then lead him to Ledoux. This is no small feat: he has to look strung out, he steals cocaine from an evidence locker, and he goes off the grid.

Let’s pause and consider the last point. One thing that’s fascinated me about True Detective is to what extent the flashbacks are literally what happened, or lies Marty and Rust are feeding their interrogators. Pizzolatto plays with that here: officially Rust takes a leave of absence to see his ailing father, while he see him prepare to go undercover. This implies the flashbacks are not memories, nor are they fabrications. They are objective depictions of the past (for now at least). This leads to some good character development: even though there’s a rift between the two detectives in 2012, there’s unspoken loyalty about the hidden part of the investigation. They’re in the classic prisoner’s dilemma, and they’ve colluded to avoid a Nash equilibrium.

Once Rust rejoins the bicycle gang, the episode begins a speedy descent into hell. Whereas the early episodes unfold with relative order, Rust understands the situation can get worse and fast. He unintentionally emasculates Marty when he relegates him to phone duty: Marty cannot possibly understand the full extent of Rust’s undercover work, so he must stand on the cusp of darkness (Marty tries to enter the member’s only section of the gang headquarters, and he’s rebuffed like an angel venturing down below). Rust quickly snorts more drugs once he meets his contact Ginger, a brute of a man with a shaved head and a long beard. Ginger agrees to take Rust to Ledoux only if Rust acts as a “soldier” for an armed theft in a housing project.

The sequence where the camera follows Rust is flat-out stunning; I don’t think a television set-piece has ever been this ambitious in terms of length or scope. Cary Fukunaga follows Rust but keeps his intentions obscure: he wanders through a home full of black criminals – the racial tension runs high – and he puts a child in the bathtub when he stumbles into his room. This sequence feels hellish. Dialogue is loud but incomprehensible, there’s little light, and the home descends into chaos. It’s a suspenseful, fascinating sequence: we come to trust Rust because the camera follows him so doggedly, and he’s the only beacon when death is practically coming out the walls. I have no idea how Fukunaga shot it: the whole thing looks seamless even as the cameraman (or crane?) climbs over a fence. This is not just showing off. The sequence is about confusion and confidence, violence and mercy.

Rust pistol whips Ginger repeatedly, leading him through the house and toward Marty’s car. He never explains himself, nor does he need to: he’s saving the man’s life, facial trauma notwithstanding, and he obediently follows Rust like a frightened pet. There are no answers after Marty speeds away from Texas, only an aerial shot where the bloody aftermath of a crime we do not fully understand. The world of True Detective is a violent, dirty place. The cops are just the janitors, and sometimes the mess gets the better of them.

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