Withholding information must be one of the most challenging aspects of cultivating a mystery like the one at the center of True Detective’s first season. Handled honestly and without condescension to the audience, something like the end of Rust and Marty’s working relationship can draw a viewer deeper into the show’s world, making them more perceptive of the breadcrumbs being dropped along the way. But those breadcrumbs could also end up as a distraction—or more disheartening, a narrative crutch. Some mysteries insist on keeping their secrets, because there’d be no story without them.
True Detective has so far avoided this pitfall, granting character and story prominence over the season-long whodunit. There are times where the show teases viewers with the details of its unknowns—like why the team of Hart and Cohle went kaput—but the tease is never the point. When “The Locked Room” drops a clue, it’s in service of the things that make for compelling television. Marty doesn’t sarcastically refer to Rust as “Mr. Charisma” to make us wonder “What ended this partnership?” That little sobriquet is a step down the path to that split, a feint toward the tension that has to snap eventually.
“The Locked Room” thrives on the growing resentment between its two protagonists—but it’s a resentment that only travels in one direction. Woody Harrelson’s character fancies himself a shining example of old-school masculinity, the American ideal of husband and father, protector and provider. He’s never going to meet Rust halfway on anything because Rust, in his monk-like solitude and tangle of personal philosophies, doesn’t represent a “proper” man in Marty’s eyes. The partners complement each other on the job, but outside of the squad car they don’t mesh—and the strain is beginning to show.
Rust really steps in it this week when he offers some handyman services around the Hart house. It’s all in Harrelson’s voice as Marty takes his partner to task: “You mow my lawn?” It’s classic “a man’s home is his castle” bullshit, and it’s about much more than the garbage bin full of grass clippings. It’s about the people who live in the house at the edge of that lawn, one woman and two girls who Marty regards as little more than symbols of his manhood. He preaches the gospel of family and responsibility, but Maggie and the girls may as well be plaster ornaments, each holding a sign that reads “Martin Hart is a big ol’ slice of virile man.” In an episode where one potential suspect in the Lange case was castrated in prison, Marty’s actions radiate with insecurity.
Once more, I don’t think any of this works without Rust being there to serve as a funhouse mirror distorting and rebutting all that Marty holds near and dear. Marty acts out of a discomfort with the “perfect” life he’s made for himself, whereas Rust acts assured in an existence that’s in shambles from his partner’s POV. Both are men who’ve been broken by certainty: Marty hits self-destruct on a life he tells himself and others is the only proper way to live; Rust withdraws and withers because he’s convinced that life isn’t worth it. Matthew McConaughey ponderously babbles his way through “The Locked Room,” but Rust is getting easier to comprehend as his dialogue grows ever more incomprehensible. (It probably isn’t helping that the number of empty beer cans on the table is increasing.)
Marty is the less compelling of the season’s two leads, but he owns the best True Detective to date. That stems from factors within and without the content of “The Locked Room”: Harrelson turns in a towering performance this week, but Marty is also the dominant narrator of this chapter. Officer Hart’s no more reliable than his shell-shocked former partner, but “The Locked Room” occupies itself with putting the lie to his many contradictions. All this talk about the importance of family, and he’s doing nothing but destroying his own. He doesn’t take Audrey’s school problems seriously, he’s distracted by Lisa during the double date, and then he stays out all night on a liquor-and-jealousy bender. There’s a bit of obvious symbolism in his car crushing a pink bike (not to mention a parallel to Rust’s own sad situation), but the force of that incident is crucial to illustrating the wrecking ball effect Marty is having on his own home life.
Rust would have the better explanation of why family is so fluid in the world of True Detective; it’d probably sound a lot like what Grandpa Crabber (when you don’t name your characters, your characters get named for you, show) offers up during his meeting with Hart and Cohle at the docks. But in line with their conflicting philosophies involving the abstract and the concrete, it’s fitting that Marty should be the one to provide the evidence of how a family falls apart. In the hard-boiled milieu of this story, life is cheap and human connections cheaper: Family members take flight for selfish reasons, leaving the selfless behind to clean up their messes. Marty’s especially touchy this week because he can sense his co-worker being slotted into the husband and father positions he should be occupying himself. (This isn’t to say that Rust himself is selfless, per se, because his MO is faux-noble selfishness.)
Its preference for Marty’s side of the story aside, “The Locked Room” offers some succinct summaries of Rust’s outlook on life: the analogy of the title, the “there’s a monster at the end” soliloquy, his notion about bad men keeping other bad men from the door. That last one’s a basic distinction between his philosophy and Marty’s, though both inform the “certainties” that drive them to behave as they do. Rust accepts that he’s not the dictionary definition of a good person; Marty’s internal tensions are driven by someone else’s sense of right and wrong. The most insurmountable hurdle between the men is religion, and religion is all up in “The Locked Room,” from the opening scenes at the tent revival to that radio dial full of nothing but Christian broadcasts. There’s no greater illustration of Marty’s faith in order and structure—or Rust’s impression that the only true order is chaos. As police officers, they’re sworn to uphold that order that only one of them believes in.
Tonight’s episode gets a lot of mileage out of those colliding viewpoints, but that final freeze frame calls the cops’ bluffs. (Makes sense: Rust tells Gilbough and Papania he isn’t any good at card games.) There is a man out there who’s living without rules, structure, or discipline—it’s the guy stomping around his property in tighty whities and a gas mask. Rust has come across a lot of lowlifes, and he can read a person within 10 minutes of meeting them, but he isn’t as consumed by the darkness as the specter that stalks through the final seconds of “The Locked Room.” Or maybe he is, and True Detective is holding back the truth of the matter for the time being. Secret or no secret, that’s a hell of a way to pull the viewer into the next episode.
- Speaking of the next episode: While HBO opted to juke the Super Bowl by airing Girls and Looking on February 1, True Detective is taking next week off. We’re back on February 9 with “Who Goes There.”
- “The Locked Room” features some of the finest photography of the show so far. Its use of color plays to the strengths of setting a noir in this time period: The pop of light from the photocopier, the reds of Lisa’s apartment, the yellow stage lights at the dancehall, the pink bike. Darkness will not consume everything on True Detective.