On Sunday night, the internet seemed to light up with rapturous reactions to the most recent episode of True Detective. I understand some of the admiration for the technical skill required to pull off the long tracking shot that ended the episode, as Detective Rust Cohle, who was participating in a robbery of a stash house, tried to get himself and a potential snitch out of a housing project after the robbery went sour. As my friend James Poniewozik wrote at Time, “The tracking shot, which took us from his entering the project house to his bloody, frenzied escape, tied us to his point-of-view. We ran along a tightrope with him, as he helped a child hide in a bathtub, chanted ‘thirty seconds’ mantra-like while the job dissolved into chaos, scrambled through the project to evade both the outlaws and the cops.”
But the episode, and particularly that section of it, felt sour to me, a profound let-down of what I’ve thought was True Detective’s actual potential. Because while that tracking shot may have captured Matthew McConaughey’s typically fine acting, I’m honestly surprised that viewers didn’t react more strongly to everything else it was capturing: a superbly generic showdown between two of television’s most overused criminal tropes, a black gang from the projects with access to surprisingly sophisticated weaponry, and a tweaked-out gang of white guys with luxurious facial hair. I’ve loved True Detective at the moments when it distinguishes itself from years and years of mediocre attempts to knock off what made Tony Soprano great. But during that sequence, True Detective seemed just as bland and lazy as the rest of the wannabes.
At the Television Critics Association Press Tour in January, I asked series creator Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Fukunaga, who is directing all of the episodes in the first installment of the anthology, how they were steering clear of the sorts of regional stereotypes that can so easily creep into television that’s set in rural areas, or that involves poor people and people of faith. Their response was a rousing defense of regional specificity in television.
“The original screenplay was actually based in the Ozarks,” Fukunaga explained. “And that was actually one of the first things that drew me to it, were the landscapes that Nic described there. And when we eventually transferred it to Louisiana because of the realities of production, he went to work in earnest to translate the story and bring some of those themes over…But when I was out there scouting, I’d see all these Vietnamese joints people eat at. The chemical refinery places were everywhere. You couldn’t escape them, all along the I 10 corridor. So just those all became part of the larger fabric that we created as a backdrop.”
Pizzolatto said that these sorts of details were particularly important to him because of his own upbringing.
“I think how you speak about people in these sorts of straits and how you discuss belief systems, I think, is important,” he told me. “And I had a personal relationship to it all because these are the areas of the country where I grew up.”
Through the first three episodes of the show, True Detective’s visuals, if not always its dialogue, seemed responsive to those standards. Fukunaga’s created arresting vistas of chemical refineries rising up along lonely roads like outposts of Mordor. Pizzolatto’s detectives, who seem more like meat and potatoes kind of guys, stop at banh mi joints for lunch, and talk to the relatives of victims who are living with damaged nerves from working with chemicals. They talk hurricanes past. And when Hart and Cohle tracked down a revival meeting in search of a possible suspect, they found not a bunch of ignorant rednecks hiding a sociopath, but a modest community tending to a man who’d been terribly maimed in prison. It would have been nice to see their investigations leading towards some sort of particular Southern Gothic, but a girl can live on atmosphere alone at least for a while when it comes to entertaining television.
But in this episode, rather than exploring the obvious connection between Reggie’s tattoo and the painting on Dora Lange’s back, True Detective decided to indulge Rust’s desire to revisit his out-of-control past, and Marty’s desire, driven by Maggie’s defenestration of him from their marital home, to get messed up with him. And the way they went out of control was decidedly cliche, even if it was a nice little critique of the idea that under cover police work is clean or easy.
True Detective did very little to build out the actual specific culture of the Iron Crusaders, the motorcycle gang Rust was undercover with in Texas. Are they, as the name might suggest, neo-Nazis or neo-Confederates? Why are they so comfortable letting him back in on a heist? How far does their meth empire extend? In a world where we have Sons of Anarchy and Breaking Bad, drug-dealing motorcycle clubs are no longer a novelty. And my eyes started revolving particularly fast in my head when I saw the utterly generic Black Gang Based In A Housing Project that the bikers planned to rob. I’m not sure it qualifies as an official dog whistle to show us utterly anonymous black men with military-grade weapons, but that trope is surely in contention for official inclusion in the category.
We literally learn nothing about the projects, the gang operating out of it, the people who live around them, the scale of the drug operation, or the bikers’ relationship to it. And that’s because for True Detective’s purposes, none of these things matter. They’re disposable elements of the story, and they’re in service to the show’s fascination with the interior of Rust Cohle’s head, which seems to be eclipsing its fascination with rural Louisiana. It would have been nice to see True Detective, a show that has the slyness and intellectual specificity to name-drop Carcosa and The King In Yellow, attempt to clear a higher bar with regard to its villains, and to try to use the sequence to do something more than remind us, yet again, that Rust Cohle isn’t quite right.
It’s worth contrasting this sequence with the less technically-flashy undercover-operation-gone-wrong in the first season of The Wire. In that story, Detective Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) is pretending to be the girlfriend of a strip club owner named Orlando (Clayton LeBouef), who was planning a buy from the Barksdale drug organization. As they headed towards the buy, the scene built a sense of menace as Kima, who was relaying the location of their car, got confused by the street signs that drug gangs and neighborhood children had deliberately removed or rearranged. It was a detail that said a great deal about the extent to which the Baltimore Police Department and other city services had effectively withdrawn from certain neighborhoods as if they were conquered territory, and the low regard in which the residents of those neighborhoods held the police and other government agencies. And it had terrible consequences when Kima and Orlando were shot, and her fellow detectives got lost trying to find her, compounding the risk to her from her injuries, and their sense of helplessness and failure to live up to their responsibilities.
The sequence in The Wire isn’t as fancy as the one in True Detective. It’s edited, rather than continuous. It uses some slightly cheesy effects, including a night-vision image from a police helicopter. But even though it may not be captured in a tracking shot, Kima’s shooting tracks with what was emerging as extremely special about The Wire. True Detective would be wise to remember that it’s not just how you deploy your lens, but what you put in front of it that counts.