The fourth episode of True Detective will forever be known as "the one with the six-minute tracking shot," and why wouldn't it be? It is logistically impressive: the sort of thing you notice and appreciate even if you're a more casual moviegoer who doesn't normally fixate on composition, shot duration, and other cinematic style choices. It's of a piece with True Detective's fiendishly elaborate construction. The entire show is conceived as one gigantic geographically dispersed, time-shifting puzzle, with shots answering other shots that in turn seem to pose questions to shots that haven't appeared onscreen yet.
The overall effect suggests that the past is continually in conversation with the present — a notion that's made official whenever a past action is commented upon by a present-tense character during those office-bound interview scenes, and we hear the dialogue as voice-over before the show cuts to the speaker's face. And because every episode of True Detective is written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (Jane Eyre, Sin Nombre), it has a stylistic cohesiveness that a lot of series, even great ones, lack. That makes you sit up and take notice whenever it departs from whatever norms it has established. That blowout tracking shot at the end of last night’s episode was so striking not just because it was awesome, but because it was the first such shot in the show's run.
But I think it's important to put that tracking shot in a larger context, and talk about what makes it work dramatically, as opposed to what makes it merely "awesome."
It's a mistake to praise the shot simply for existing, for a couple of reasons. TV directors, whose work tends to be devalued generally, stage moments just as complex fairly often and critics don't pat them on the backs for it. In fact, the attention paid to this one instance makes me inclined to devalue the shot just a little bit. It suggests a certain "Look at me, ma!" obviousness deployed in service of getting TV critics who don't normally pay attention to style to notice it here. It's a showstopper in the literal sense. While impressive in every department (camera acrobatics, choreography, lighting), that tense climactic sequence took me out of a drama that had otherwise been totally immersive.
That's not entirely a bad thing — I'll get to why in a moment — but it might prove to be problematic, unless True Detective builds on it in an interesting way in future episodes.
Second, this is far from the first elaborate tracking shot that's been done within the context of a TV drama. In fact, E.R. and other John Wells–produced series used to do ones that were just as long and elaborate in the nineties and early aughts. Some were as long as the justly celebrated "keep it going" shots in films by Martin Scorsese, Brian DePalma, and Alfonso Cuarón: three minutes, four, five. There have been, and continue to be, other examples of great, long tracking shots. Scandal has done some great ones in the last few years, and Treme used to do them regularly (traveling from character to character for as long as two or three minutes, to visually drive home the idea that ultimately everyone is connected). The best long tracking shots are so elegantly executed that the single-take approach affects you subliminally, so that you come away thinking not, "Wow, that was all done with no cuts," but something more like, "Wow, that was emotionally affecting for some reason," or "How clever of them to save that last big reveal for the very end of the scene," after which you go back and watch the scene again and realize what, exactly, you were looking at.
On the opposite end of the subtlety spectrum, you've got tracking shots like the ones in the X-Files episode "Triangle," one of the most ambitiously directed (by creator Chris Carter) episodes of series TV I've ever watched. The plot unfolded, à la True Detective, in two different time frames: 1939 and 1998. Carter, who also wrote the episode, staged the past- and present-tense versions of his heroes Scully and Mulder so that they seemed to be eerily in sync, at times even passing each other like ghosts in the same haunted house. As I wrote at the time, "The greatest minute of TV this year is the scene where Mulder runs down a hallway of the ocean liner with the 1939 Scully in tow while in 1998, the real Scully walks down the same hallway looking for Mulder. Thanks to the wonders of split-screen — i.e., two square images placed side-by-side — Mulder and the 1939 Scully turn a corner at the same time that our Scully turns it. The two parties seem to pass each other...In a single stunning image, Carter collapses time, space and identity — and makes a funny joke, too. It's the shot of the year."
There's nothing in the True Detective shot that's as conceptually rich as what Carter did in "Triangle," but the showiness of it is very effective in its own right, because it departs from the meticulous puzzle-piece construction of the rest of the initial four episodes. The intensity and controlled wildness of the sequence — which follows Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and a gang of bigoted white bikers as they try to rob black drug dealers in a housing project, then escape before they all get killed—feels like a long-delayed eruption of deeply buried madness. In the rest of this episode and most of episode three, we've been watching Cohle contrive, very carefully, to "lose it," as if willing himself to re-become the deep-cover agent he'd been several years earlier, at the expense of his family and anything resembling a stable, "normal" life. The filmmakers paved the way for this shot by showing Cohle leaving the biker bar on a boat and disappearing into darkness, as if he were Captain Willard going upriver to find and kill Colonel Kurtz. Will True Detective continue to follow this chain of association? If so, don't be surprised if the series gets crazier and crazier and crazier as it goes along, until it disintegrates.