Dir: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Original Air Date: 26 January 2014
We’ve all done it. We’ve all witnessed a scene in a film or television show that is so captivating, whether due to intensity, humour, horror or disgust, that we rewind and watch it a second time. Perhaps even a third. Just to make sure we saw and heard correctly. That our brain is able to relive the moment that gave it such a thrill only seconds earlier. There are many truly mesmerising moments throughout Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective, but none more so than the finale of s01 e03. In fact, there’s a strong argument that there was no finer scene on television during the whole of 2014. At the very least, it was certainly my favourite. Almost a year on I sat and watched e03 in full, with a group of friends, for the first time since it originally aired. I knew what was coming, but I still wasn’t prepared for just how good it was. In the end, it was even better than I remembered.
“And finally…we arrive at Reginald Ledoux”. And how. By this point Matthew McConaughey’s nihilistic Cohle, after only a few episodes, already has us firmly in his grip. Woody Harrelson’s Hart has been marvellous too of course, but the final moments of e03 are all about Cohle/McConaughey. His in-and-out ramblings whilst being interviewed in 2012 by Papania and Gilbough converge all at once into a frightening, yet powerful monologue, as he compares life and the concept of time to a dream, with death the only true sense of reality, of finality, of relief from the pain that comes with being a person, a victim, a call-it-what-you-will in a locked room that is existence. His talk of staring at pictures of dead girls for fourteen hours before recognising, at the very last second, that moment of relief as they were finally put out of their misery, taken away forever from the torturous lives they led, genuinely gets to you, as it should. It’s a sterling performance from comeback kid McConaughey, who handles the wonderful dialogue of creator/writer Pizzolatto to forge one of those rare occasions in television when you genuinely don’t know what to think, whether to agree or disagree. You just breath, absorb, and wait.
And when the final shot fades in, we get a glimpse of Cohle’s thoughts personified. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s imagery is engrossing throughout as it is, particularly Cohle’s symbolic carving of a “person” out of an empty Lone Star can as he dissects the mind, life and times of a human being, but the intermittent creeping, wide-angle long shot of Ledoux’s homestead, hell encapsulated in the Louisiana outback, is what intrigues the most. As Cohle puts it, it reminds him of his daddy’s version of the jungles of Vietnam. It’s the first time we’ve seen it and suddenly the spine tingles. We know a revelation is coming.
We then leave Cohle in 2012, on his note that, “Like a lot of dreams, there’s a monster at the end of it”, staring into the abyss, remembering, before calmly beginning to create a second “person”, and are met in 1995 by one Reginald Ledoux. His stalking, machete-wielding, elephant-faced appearance is so haunting that it’ll be with me always, as will how I felt the first time I saw it, alone in the dark, eyes probably only a few inches from the screen by that point. Dating back to World War I, there’s something about a gas mask, especially the type our man dons here, that will forever be synonymous with eerie, aggressive anonymity when used in the context of a destructive force. Of something not quite human. Along with the framing and steady wub-wub ascent/heavy beat crescendo of T Bone Burnett’s score, it transforms Ledoux into a truly terrifying figure. The camera keeps its distance enough to make it seem like we’re still trying to keep out of sight, edging closer through the grass, which only makes his halt and turn all the more breathless as, just for a moment, our eyes meet those of the elephant. The decision to end on a still, rather than cutting to black with the apparatus still swinging, sticks in the mind. Inside Cohle’s head Ledoux is forever frozen in time, an everlasting memory of the face of pure evil. In that instance we see it too, and it truly is unforgettable.