Horror stories are designed to rattle our cages, raise our heartbeat, and inject us with a rush of adrenaline. Oftentimes filmed horror stories do so with horrific imagery, grotesque violence, or the overabundant “jump scare.” Kevin Williamson’s television program The Following, which just began its second season on Fox, is one of many shows that can consider itself a part of the influx of serial killer dramas we now have on television. Without passing qualitative judgment on that show, I think it is safe to say that it aims to scare audiences with overt, lurid tactics that often come hand-in-hand with serial killer material. The serial killer genre is far from new, of course, and our psychological fascination with these individuals who devote their lives to destroying lives is understandable and human.
True Detective is the antithesis of The Following, and the antithesis of most scary stories. There is an argument to be made regarding whether or not this show should be labeled as horror, but there is no doubt in my mind that “The Locked Room” is an extremely scary episode of television. These scares are not the type I described above, though. I became increasingly aware as I watched these 58 minutes unfold that my heartbeat was elevated and I was clutching on to my shirt. The material here is genuinely unsettling on a purely psychological level. The violence, imagery, and shocks are kept to a bare minimum, but the tone and the idea of it all is distinct. It sticks with you.
On a ride to Pelican island, where Rust and Marty think they may have found the final connection that confirms Rust’s theory that they are indeed dealing with a serial killer, Marty says to Rust, “You ever wonder if you’re a bad man?” I made a note earlier in the episode that the major, surface level difference between Rust and Marty (and keep in mind that this show is ultimately a study in men who are opposites yet also the same) is that Rust is fully aware that he is not a good man while Marty lies to himself about this fact. It isn’t often that my notes get directly answered by the text, but that was certainly the case here and Rust’s response to Marty was perfection and may long be remembered as the theme of this season of television. Rust says, “The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.” In this response Rust plainly admits that he knows that both himself and Marty are bad men, but also that their particular type of bad is one that can combat the bad of others (“evil.”)
Much of “The Locked Room” is devoted to our further examination of Rustin’s worldview. In episode 2 we learned about the events that shaped him and thus it is only logical that we now learn how they have shaped him. Rustin is a cynical elitist that is constantly judging others, never allowing even the notion that he is anything other than right. He views the majority of people as “frail” and dumb, and he thinks humanity looks to psychiatry or, more pertinently, organized religion as a crutch to get by. If the drawing in the church at the end of episode 2 wasn’t enough to convince you that religion would be a theme at play here, episode 3 seals the deal. Our detectives find themselves at a revival tent where a minister (played by the great Shea Whigham) sermonizes. As the dots of this case slowly connect and Rust and Marty question the staff of the tent, they pave the way for incredibly rich and thoughtful banter about the meaning of religion and the nature of human existence. Throughout the course of the episode Matthew McConaughey is afforded these incredibly poetic strings of gorgeous language, and I wish I could quote all of them here. They are illuminating because they reveal the window into his soul through thematic non sequitors, and it is the type of character writing that I adore. As Marty points out, Rustin is myopic, obsessive, and incapable of admitting doubt. Rustin says that he doesn’t think men can love because they are constantly faced with the inadequacies of reality. A sobering thought. If only Marty realized how similar he is.
Marty’s relationship drama continues and his overt anger (compared to Rustin’s slow boil) is not going to do him any favors. Marty and Maggie invite Rustin on a setup double date, and while at the saloon (hey, they dance! It’s not all misery and gloom) Marty sees his mistress Lisa on a date. Lisa informs Marty that she’s done with him, but that doesn’t stop Marty from drunkenly barging into her house later that evening and nearly beating up her date. Marty may think that he is honoring some “noble” idea of what it means to be a man, but he is really just as much of a hateful disaster as Rustin. All the while, Maggie calls Rustin to try to determine if Marty is telling the truth about his whereabouts. The subtle relationship that is developing between Maggie and Rustin is fascinating (Rustin mows the lawn); here are two people that find themselves connected because of their unique individual relationships with the same man. Marty does not want Rustin at his house anymore without him there, and the wedge between these two partners grows wider.
Nic Pizzolatto is taking his time unveiling his overall narrative to us. The whodunit, as it were, is a distinct slow boil and the information we have is sparse. The existential character drama is so rich, however, that it is undeniably deliberate and the great conceit of this series. Similarly, director Cary Fukunaga is having such a wonderful time painting this gloomy portrait of Louisiana that it has become a moving hypnotic painting. A subtle score pulses underneath these gorgeous formalistic images of two men urinating in a wide shot or a filthy yet stunning opening establishing shot. We are wrapped around the fingers of these two artists and these two detectives and will go anywhere with them. In 2012 Rustin talks to Detectives Gilbough and Papania (both of whom are still fascinated by Rustin and his techniques as a detective, even as he continues to suck down Lone Star after Lone Star) about the “broader ideas.” About time, death, and futility. He introduces the concept of the locked room that we all have inside of our head that contains “the dream.” Earlier, in Pelican, they find out about a man named Reginald LeDoux. Is he our first legitimate suspect? Is he the man we see in the final frame? Rustin concludes his locked room theory by noting that like many dreams there is a monster waiting for us. The man seen in the finale freeze frame of this imagine is one of the most unsettling (there’s that word again) human/monsters that I have seen.
The great modern television dramas have often dealt with the antihero in the lead (The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, etc.) and while Rustin and Marty are not the villains that Tony Soprano or Walter White were, they are perhaps even more broken and “screwed up” as human beings. This further proves that characters don’t have to be “likable” or “relatable,” but interesting. Easier said then done. I have found myself wondering about the title of the show and how it relates back to our two leads. Rustin and Marty are disasters (false) as human beings, but are they true detectives? Only time will tell.