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True Detective Recap: Wake and Cake

Rust Cohle is a hard man to love. He tells detectives Papania (Tory Kittles) and Gilbough (Michael Potts) this himself over that six pack of Lone Star and Big Hug Mug–cum-ashtray during their 2012 questioning. Even his patient partner, Hart, has grown weary of his sanctimony. Back in ’95, when Cohle accurately sizes up that Hart got “some pussy” that wasn’t his wife’s, he’s quickly thrown against a locker and warned not to say “fuck all” about other peoples’ personal lives.

Ironically, Cohle’s just started to open up about his own past, detailing for Hart during one of their now-signature car rides how his 2-year-old daughter died in a car crash. It’s why he showed up plastered to that family dinner. Or as Cohle sums it up, “I was worried being around that kind of thing.” Some part of this guy has a harder time even uttering vocabulary that relates to love and parenting than he does seeing into the massive scope of a psychopath’s intentions. He gets that whoever killed Dora Lange is acting out a narrative that reaches back further than some hobbyist occult obsession. The proudly displayed images of horse-backed Klansmen in Dora Lange’s parents’ home continue to vivify Erath’s history for Cohle and how it could prove the eventual backdrop for such a brutal, sacrificial killing. And at episode’s end, when the two weary investigators — fresh from a cliche tongue-lashing about stalling leads, ticking clocks and looming task forces courtesy of Major Quesado (just what ethnicity are we supposed to take Kevin Dunn as anyway?) — come upon a spooky bit of graffiti inside the immolated remains of a church where Dora Lange sought refuge, Hart realizes that this loony to his left picks up on more than hallucinations.

It can’t be an easy turn of events for the simmering detective. As we now understand, the only illusion that distinguishes his grip on composure from Cohle’s is an insistence on people and things falling in line and under control to maintain his world view. That goes tenfold for sitting-duck spouse Maggie, who rightly senses that her husband will use any persuasion he can muster — pressures of work, home as sanctuary — to manipulate the mother of his kids into asking fewer questions and accepting an increasingly narrowing, traditional role in each other’s lives. 

A lot of that has to do with guilt over the aforementioned affair with buxom courthouse staffer Lisa (Alexandra Daddario). At one point, after questioning a teen prostitute with intel on Dora Lange, Hart hands her a wad of cash, with the caveat that she use it to better her life. It’s a silly gesture that amounts to spiritual payola, as neatly observed by Cohle when he quips, “Is that a down payment?” The man’s an asshole, but a funny asshole (unless you ask his exasperated Major, who blusters, “You’re a smartass with your mouth shut” after Cohle deadpan raises his hand for permission to speak).

In “Seeing Things,” we get glimpses of this investigative odd couple behaving in strangely similar ways, on occasion even bonding over relative outsider status to their professional superiors or significant others. There’s one terrific scene of Hart emptily boasting over beers to colleagues about a threesome with some college girls. Once his tale’s been told and all the schmucks have had their yucks, there’s an almost still image of Hart turning away with beer in mouth, looking disgusted with how eager he is to please. The kicker of his anecdote has to do with taking a finger in the ass, something he alleges to have mandated during sex ever since. But later that night, he’s the one giving Lisa a rimjob. (Even when investigating assholes, he needs to be at the wheel.) Meanwhile, Cohle kills two birds by plying a hooker for intel on Dora and then purchasing her bottle of ludes, and when she intuits that he could be dangerous, he drolly replies, “I’m police. I can do to terrible things to people with impunity.”

Throughout the episode, and apropos of its title, there’s a running theme about what people mean versus what they say and what they observe as opposed to what they want to acknowledge. At an obligatory Sunday barbecue, even Maggie’s father puts a fine point on the philosophical dilemma as he rattles on with prejudice bout his perceived shortcomings of the modern generation. It also picks up from the pilot’s strongest asset: flashing back between the recent past and even more recent past, forcing us to consider whether people or things really change over time without the benefit of that much time really having elapsed. In that way, it shares a vitality with fellow sort-of period piece The Americans

Although outside of Cohle’s Big Hug Mug at the ’12 case interview and his way of half-heartedly demeaning possible sources into Dora’s death, along with alluded-to stock office dustups, True Detective has already shed nearly any trace of being blackly comic. In fact, apart from the napalm-sky visions Cohle encounters en route to leads on the Dora Lange case, “Seeing Things” is as charred as that torched First Revival Church. But as we head toward chapter three of eight, there’s more to like in its darkening pull. 

Apart from all that:

  • Interesting that Hurricane Andrew is True Detective-circa-’95’s Katrina.
  • After hearing Cohle’s entire, horrific backstory — forced undercover NARC tenures, psych wards, dead toddlers, what have you — it’s fair to say he’s like a snake-bitten Forrest Gump.
  • I’m sure the fine people of Vermillion Parish are not all incestuous pagans.
  • To Cohle, the devil’s nest “was like someone having a conversation.” The mumbo jumbo he and Hart are tag-teaming these poor CID guys with from separate rooms is great to watch, and should create its own rising tension (that younger cop seems to suspect they’re being played).
  • Yeah, “tents usually do” move around. Classic Cohle.
  • The Barbie rendering of Dora’s crime scene was a bit silly, and possibly also cribbed from Durham County?
  • Speaking of similarities, all this whores-n-church business smacks a bit of Ellen May and Justified.
  • I'm going to do my best to feature some of the music in the show each week, since it's so carefully used. Tonight's ep highlighted Vashti Bunyan, 13th Floor Elevators, Steve Earle and John Lee Hooker, among others somewhere on the spectrum between spooky folk, psychedelic and honky-tonk grit. Good stuff.

I’m not really going to speculate too much yet on what’s really going on, but would very much be open to and enjoy hearing your theories. I promise I will continue to dissect the case as truly as I can.

Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO