Editor’s Note: The following has minor spoilers, but my analysis focuses primarily on the aesthetics of one scene and how it pertains to character, not so much plot. But If you’re NOT interested in the show, then please read on. I hope to at least spark some minimal interest. All images are used for educational purposes, of course.
True Detective’s 4th episode “Who Goes There” opens with us staring at a the center of a green, steel cell door, spying through the sliding slot at a distressed man rocking a Macklemore haircut and Walter White goatee. He remains the viewer’s focal point until Detective Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) enters both frames, peeking out through the crosshatched glass like he can feel our gaze. Most will leave this mise-en-abyme, a fancy French word denoting an image that contains a smaller copy of itself, unnoticed. But more on this later. The real notable bit in “Who Goes There”, which is getting praised throughout the press, is the final 6 minutes of the episode: An action packed, high tension, single continuous shot. In these 6 minutes, True Detective showcases its ability to masterfully intertwine narrative elements, film aesthetics, and thematic concerns in a prolonged technical feat guided by liminality.
WHO GOES THERE
Doors. There are a lot of fucking doors in this episode. Actually, I’m 98% sure the filmmakers have a door fetish. But doors are an important motif this episode and in the whole series in general. In True Detective, doors function as liminal spaces, transitional barriers that represent an in-between. Before someones cries “he’s reading into this way too much,” consider that the episode title, “Who Goes There,” is an idiom most often used in situations where an unidentified person is attempting to pass through one space into another. Within the 6 minute long take, doors play a prominent role with Cohle moving through 4 doors proper or opening and closing 3. We could overlook this as a consequence of the setting, but keep in mind this is a highly choreographed and planned scene. Moreover, at least 3 seemingly intentional instances create a pattern and a pattern is certainly worth taking note of in such a meticulously crafted series. And just for kicks remember that Cohle ends the scene with the opening of a car door, and entering an entirely new space. These liminal spaces serve as mis-en-scene clues, pointing us to consider the larger mystery in this episode and what roles the extended sequence play. Clues in True Detective aren’t simply diegetic objects found at the scene of the crime or enigmatic spiral symbols relevant to the plot, but are embedded into the shots. The cinematography is self-referencing and weaves parallels among the show’s thematic and narrative concerns.
The long take and the episode itself stands as a doorway between the events of the last three episodes and what is to come, evoking the above demonic image of the nearly naked man donning a gas mask and machete. The 6 minutes of transitioning deeper into chaos and closer to Cohle’s twisted past as an undercover agent mimic the metamorphosis that the episode as a whole creates for the series. These movements through barriers also represent a transition for Cohle as a character. Note that Cohle is the first to willfully move through that door at the beginning of the sequence. The locked door which he opens in the stash house when everything turns into a hell-on-earth leads to a completely different space aesthetically, contrasting the dim and shadowy stash house lighting against a streetlamp drowning a green lawn in murky gold. This juxtaposition of space is without a doubt intentional, as again this is a highly orchestrated scene with the DP (director of photography for those of you with dirty minds) setting up lighting with extra care. This switch from the cramp closed space of the stash house to the open battlefield outside suggests that the death and violence that Cohle is now complicit with marks a place of no return for the character. The turbulent mess that occurs within the invaded home is the opening of Pandora’s box that, for Cohle, won’t be easily closed again.
Dat Sequence Shot
True Detective’s most brilliant and difficult aesthetic gesture isn’t simply stylistic, but used to convey a character change that involves us all. The plan-séquence or sequence shot (a single shot, uninterrupted by editing) has been given special attention mostly because it’s fucking hard to pull off. To honor this, I’m using the former, more bourgeoisie, term because this team of filmmakers deserve it. Plan-séquence differentiates itself from its conjoined sister, the extended take, by being a sophisticated form of the extended take, usually involving complex camera movement and a lot of diegetic activity. True Detective certainly isn’t the first show to do it, but I can’t stress enough how impressive this shot is logistically. I’ve been fortunate enough to work on a few small film productions and as the shot played out, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much pressure was on and how difficult this was for DP Cary Fukunaga and every other person involved in production. Just a simple 30 second shot can take an hour depending on 100 different factors. So why go through all the trouble? Sure, part of the allure is because it’s fucking cool and who wouldn’t wanted to pull something like that off for bragging rights alone, but what if it’s tied into the narrative and themes? Naturally, our answer is found with Nietzsche:
He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee (aphorism 146).
Neitzche’s now cliche quote works well here in illuminating the plan-séquence’s relevance to Cohle and the show’s higher order preoccupations. Cohle’s ominous and mysterious past has been touched upon indirectly through the customary broody monologues. As soon as he gets on that boat and moves into the unlit swamp, or “abyss,” the viewer is being taken into the sordid underworld to actually experience the nature of this past. From this point on, True Detective launches the viewer without a belay into a hellish chasm. Rust does coke, meth, and drinks without a hint of reluctance. He doesn’t bat an eyelash when he hears the yells of a victim from an adjacent closet. How could he? It’s all part of the act, a role he mastered years ago serving as a Narc. Recall the head biker bigot asking him if it “was all an act.” Cohle behaves with an uncomfortable comfort in this situation. Rust’s “philosophically pessimistic” attitude (“It’s all one ghetto, man, giant gutter in outer space”) becomes justified in this drug and blood filled void. Human nature is at it’s worst from the swamp all the way through the plan-séquence. Cohle has been here and for the most part the viewer has no real reference point for criminal catastrophe. Rust tells Hart: “People out here [in society, sheltered from the “abyss”], it’s like they don’t even know the outside world exists. Might as well be living on the fucking Moon.” Cohle has spent too much time with these “monsters,” gazing for way too long into that abyss. He’s been tainted, caught in mid-transformation between man and monster. The human side of him showing when his first concern upon entering the stash house is moving innocent bystanders out of harm’s way, a boy in this case.
One of the primary questions being asked here reworks the adage “who watches the watchmen” into who protects those who are meant to protect society? How easily can the human heart be corrupted? How can you combat a seemingly bottomless source of toxic and contagious human evil and not allow it to infect society? “Who Goes There” let’s us sit with these questions about Cohle and humanity within the show before literally pulling us up out of the “abyss.” I told you that there are clues in the cinematography and I’ll make good on that claim. The episode and plan-séquence ends with an inspired crane shot. Fukunaga lifts the viewer’s gaze out of the “abyss,” raising us back to the surface, alienated from the battlegrounds and perceptive immediacy of the chaos. The screenshot below is the final shot from the episode, allowing us all take in the happenings of True Detective from the comfort of our home or as Cohle would say, “the fucking moon.”
Creator and writer, Nic Pizzolatto, has stated that True Detective is meant to utilize the detective police procedural to investigate the human character. He has certainly fulfilled that promise. Mise-en-abyme translates “to put in the center of.” The narrative, characters, and especially cinematography have placed “humanity” center stage. The episode beings with a felon front and center, but he’s just a red herring. Cohle’s visage soon dominates the frame within the frame. Frames are important because they emphasize selection, a visual point of interest. “Who Goes There” starts with a tight frame and ends with a long series of frames funneling our character and the viewer’s gaze through a physical representation of a psychological transmutation. This focus on a single subject of interest, a single clue, and selection are meant to bring our attention to Cohle. Rust as the man in the cell, imprisoned, but also as a representative of ourselves. In this way, “Who Goes There” and True Detective are the smaller copies of the much larger human image.
The Plan-séquence in Question:
A Final Note: I may go back to this series depending on time and if its worth said time. There’s a lot to say about this series. This series is especially conducive to a conversation about cinema aesthetic and techniques, an emphasis that should be made to take advantage of the rich cinematic vocabulary and knowledge that is so often overlooked when the discussing the things we watch.