By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist February 9, 2014 at 10:00PM
Over the course of three episodes, "True Detective" has been a steadily ratcheting the tension as Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) track down a serial killer that is haunting the surreal South like a monster. Last week's "The Locked Room" concluded with a goosebump-raising closing shot of the wanted, parole-breaking ex-convict Reggie Ledoux as he prowled across some as yet discovered landscape, as the cops tried to find him. He's the man Martin and Rust think is good for a number of murders, and kicking off "Who Goes There," they're on the hunt.
Their first stop is with Dora Lange's ex-husband, Charlie (Brad Carter), and unlike their first conversation with him, this one has results. Charlie used to roll with Reggie, and moreover shared with him some Polaroids Dora had taken for Charlie to look at when he went inside. He showed them to Reggie, whom Charlie admits was bonafide crazy, but he was also bigger than him, so he tolerated his odd ways. And while Charlie has no idea where Reggie is now, he gives them a name of someone who would know: Tyro Weems (Todd Giebenhain). Martin then tracks down Tyro and, at gunpoint, he gives up the crucial bit of information the detectives need: Reggie is cooking meth for a Texan bike gang, Iron Crusaders. And when Rust hears this, you can practically hear the hairs on his neck stand up on end.
As always, the actual case is the gateway for much, much more interesting stuff in the show. Rust is more than familiar with the Iron Crusaders from his former days on the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area force. And fearing that oversight from upper brass could botch the job, he readily volunteers to go "off book," taking a leave from work and going undercover. The usually reserved and taciturn Rust starts coming alive, his eyes nearly dancing when he tells Martin his plan. And while Martin wouldn't ordinarily go along with such an endeavour—even he has his limits—his personal life is in shambles.
After running hot for his mistress Lisa (Alexandra Daddario) in the previous episode, breaking down her door in the middle of the night when he finds out she's with another man, he goes cold here. Running into her after a trial appearance (she works as a court stenographer), she's galled that she didn't get an apology from him, and now, is barely receiving any acknowledgement of her existence. As she makes plain, both ways are disrespectful to her, but Martin in his own aloof way is now moving on. But Lisa is left thrown by his wildly swinging moods, and his indifference to her feelings, so she makes one decisive move that shatters Martin's world—she goes to Maggie (Michelle Monaghan) at their home and reveals everything about the affair. Already on the precipice, Maggie takes their daughters and leaves, with Martin arriving to an empty house and a single note explaining that it's all over. He's furious. But more than that, he's at rock bottom. He tries to confront her at the hospital where she works, but is firmly rebuffed and is nearly thrown out, until Rust comes to collect him. But Martin has one last word for his wife, for now: "I love you hon, I'm not giving up."
For Rust, that's where he needs his partner now—vulnerable. He makes it clear that he doesn't give a shit about Martin's personal problems (to which the partner replies, "You're the Michael Jordan of being a sonofabitch"), and it's likely why he's able to get him to go along with what comes next. (Though Rust does make one visit to Maggie to try and broker some peace, but it doesn't work out). In the present timeline, Martin and Rust both start veering away from the truth in talking to Detective Maynard Gilbough (Michael Potts) and Detective Thomas Papania (Tory Kittles), and with good reason. Rust's dangerous plan involves doctoring up his arms to make them look like they are covered in track marks, accessing his small arsenal of weapons and—in a move he doesn't explicitly fill Martin in on, though his partner is no dummy—stealing primo cocaine from the Evidence Room at the department as a peace offering to the Iron Crusaders. He'll be going to see the gang as a representative of a Mexican cartel who are looking to trade cocaine for meth. But "officially," Rust is going to visit his father, who is dying from leukemia in Alaska, and Martin—even through to the present storyline—backs up the story. Gilbough and Papania have a strong suspicion that there's more going on and, as far as they can tell, Rust's Dad may not have had a disease at all, but they can't prove otherwise. However, there is a very good reason that even seventeen years later, Martin and Rust are still protecting what really happened.
Rust hits the Iron Crusaders hangout and makes his business pitch. The interest is there and the quality of Rust's (stolen) cocaine, which he claims is from the cartel, is impressive. But before his contact will give his word to back the deal, Rust has to do something for him, right then and there—assist a small crew in heading to the projects to rob a stash house. If he does that, the deal is done, and Martin will get the access he needs to the gang's meth cook, Reggie Ledoux. What follows is something that, even in February, will undoubtedly be one of the most thrilling setpieces you'll see on any size screen this year.
With the gang disguised as cops, running high on coke and meth (including Rust) from the first knock on the door at the stash house, what comes next is an astounding, unbroken, six-minute single-shot sequence of a robbery gone horribly, horribly wrong. Rust charges in maintaining some semblance of control as the gang members keep the occupants of the house held at gun point, while one of their rivals retrieves the drugs to hand over. But it's all going a little too slowly. While outside, the tension is rising with the cops (or fake cops) coming onto their turf, and then the one thing Martin pleaded against happening occurs: a gun goes off. It kicks off a nighttime firefight in the ghetto where Iron Crusaders have no backup plan and are hugely outnumbered. Once that shot goes off, Rust goes into survival mode and drags his confused contact by gunpoint outside, brings him to another house and calls a waiting and ready Martin to come and extract them.
With the camera still not cutting away—having followed Rust into the stash house, through all the rooms, back outside, into another home and back outside again as gunshots ring out, bodies fall and men run back and forth looking for cover and trading fire—Rust now has to bring his man through treacherous territory, across a couple of blocks, to rendezvous with Martin. And it's nervy, nailbiting, utterly astonishing stuff. It's hard to know where to throw all the praise here, but we'll start with director Cary Joji Fukunaga, who has now confirmed that he can do whatever the fuck he wants. From the edgy, coming of age tale "Sin Nombre" to the moving romance "Jane Eyre" and now to this, it seems there is nothing he can't do. This entire climactic sequence to "Who Goes There" is Martin Scorsese or Alfonso Cuaron-worthy, an accomplishment of first-rank talent executed near flawlessly. We'll definitely be remembering this come the end of the year.
But a shout out also needs to go to cinematographer Adam Arkapaw. If you've been wondering why "True Detective" has been looking so damn good, it's due to him, and he's one to keep an eye on moving forward. He's quietly built up an incredible résumé, lensing all of Jane Campion's first rate "Top Of The Lake," as well Aussie hits "Animal Kingdom" and "The Snowtown Murders." The guy is damn good, and we really hope people are breaking down his door to work with him, because they should be. In tonight's particular episode, from the eerie, otherwordly rave where Martin tracks down Tyro to the cluttered and claustrophobic atmosphere of the projects at night, aching with menace, Arkapaw is crucial in transmitting a South unlike anything we've seen in a long time, perhaps ever. Combined with Fukunaga, they have brought a texture to the show that is unmistakable and unique.
What else can be said about the finale without dipping into hyberbole? Over the hump and heading into the last four episodes, "True Detective" is running on a high that few shows can claim even well into a few seasons. Of course, it will be all about sticking the landing, but on its own, "Who Goes There" is the best episode of the season so far, hands down. [A]