The following is a viewing diary I wrote as I watched the show for the first time, pausing after each episode to collect my thoughts. As such, it is spoiler-free for upcoming episodes (although the comments section may not be).
The first episode of True Detective left me uncertain whether the show would go for mood and texture or character and plot, but "Seeing Things" definitely emphasizes the latter qualities. It is very investigation-oriented. We learn about the "ranch" where Dora Lange turned tricks before her murder. We also meet her drugged-up, mentally ill mother (Tess Harper) and in an episode full of creepy touches, the picture of Dora as a little girl surrounded by men in Klan regalia is one of the creepiest. (Turns out it's not Klan regalia - ed.) And through Dora's eerie sketchbook/diary we glimpse more details about the "Yellow King" who may have lured her into a pseudo-Christian cult, whose burnt-out church we discover near the end of the episode. This is one of the show's most memorable locales thus far, especially after Cohle's intuition leads to the discovery of a mural on its wall - featuring a naked woman crowned with antlers and crouched in a position similar to Dora's in that field.
If the episode focuses on plot it also continues, even escalates, character exploration. We learn more about Cohle's past - how his daughter died, his history of undercover work and mental illness, and the hallucinations/acid flashbacks he occasionally experiences on the job. But if the first episode emphasizes Cohle's character, with Hart as the straight-man audience surrogate, this time the emphasis shifts subtly toward Hart. His extramarital affair suggests his darker side, but actually the more alarming aspect is his hypocrisy, a trait that continues in the present day. In the 2012 interrogation room, Hart claims that he cheats for (wait for it) his family's sake! Earlier, we might have rolled our eyes at Cohle's relentlessly nihilistic philosophizing and sympathized with Hart's exasperated reactions. But now that sympathy starts to shift: when Cohle and Hart nearly fight in the lockerroom and Cohle calmly threatens the self-righteous Hart, we are inclined to identify with the straight-shooting lone wolf.
Dora Lange even becomes more of a character in this episode (last time I couldn't even remember her name!) although she's still something of a cipher - or as Cohle puts it, "chum in the water." The detectives' best clues arrive when they are willing to immerse themselves in her milieu. A friend, madam, and young prostitute offer fairly humanizing portraits of the dead woman, suggesting that perhaps Dora was (like many other prostitutes) abused. The mother makes a strange comment to the effect of "what father wouldn't bathe his own daughter?" Another hooker (Alyshia Ochse), intrigued by Cohle's strangeness, particularly his disinclination to bed her, gives us insight into the way Dora's world operates although she doesn't seem to know the dead woman herself. Primarily, it's Cohle who who picks up these threads while Hart prefers to go "by the book." He'd rather interview local johns before following up on the pamphlet in Dora's own diary. Hart apparently believes the men who dealt with Dora professionally will provide better leads than the women who understood her, better leads even than Dora herself.
Indeed the episode focuses on Hart's discomfort with women: his desire to control his mistress (Alexandra Daddario) who flips the table by handcuffing him, his impatience with his wife, his disgust with the "bunny ranch," which seems an honorable disgust until the madam (Andrea Frankle) calls him out: "Girls walk this earth all the time screwing for free. What is it about adding business to it makes boys like you can't stand the thought? I'll tell you: it's 'cause suddenly you don't own it the way you thought you did." Of course it's not quite that easy. The madam is running a business, not a charity, and it is the other young girls she's selling, not just herself. Hart's final gesture - offering the (almost absurdly fresh-faced) teenage hooker (Lili Simmons) some cash, and whispering "Do something else" - seems genuine enough, even if Cohle's first flippant response is, "That a down payment?" The "ownership" line in particular strikes a chord, given what else we see in this episode.
But if we're learning that Hart isn't simply a stand-up guy, we're also discovering that he's not just a stick-in-the-mud. In a flash-forward to 2012, Hart offers up stock cliches about his father never speaking about Korea, complaining that back then men didn't complain about their problems. But in '95 we see Hart's more youthful impatience with his father-in-law's very same logic. As the older man grouses about "kids today" and "things getting worse," Hart sharply rebukes him: "You know, throughout history I bet every old man probably said the same thing. And old men die and the world keeps spinning." When the chief gives Cohle a dressing-down, Hart is amused but he nonetheless remains loyal to his partner, requesting more time to solve the case.
And when present-day detectives ask Hart if he wanted to let the investigation go, his expression hardens. Throughout the episode we've witnessed him nearly come to blows with Cohle, distance himself from his partner's more intense sleuthing, and worry about the impact the case has on his family (Hart's daughter even poses Barbie dolls to form an unsettling crime scene). But in this moment, the cop nearly growls, "No. I did not." Something draws Hart to this crime, and to his strange partner, despite himself. I am beginning to suspect that he, as much or maybe more than Cohle, will be revealed as the central character of True Detective, the one who truly discovers himself and his world through this mystery, even if seventeen years later he still can't quite admit to it.
One final note before setting my sights on the next episode. This might be a good time for a list of suspects...except that True Detective doesn't seem to be that sort of mystery. Rather than offer an array of suspicious characters, slowly giving us the clarity to see who done it, True Detective places us on the outset of a path; only by walking all the way down this path will we discover what lies at its end. It has occurred to me that Cohle could be the perp. But I'm not really keen on the show going there - it would feel cheap somehow. Still, there are hints. How reliable is his version of his past? He gets the clue about the ranch from his own questionable interactions with a pill-sharing prostitute, but Hart has the impression the info arrived via old narc contacts. This calls into question Cohle's entire backstory. We understand Cohle is troubled and cynical but his psychic flashes and immersion into the case suggest antisocial behavior as more than a mix of grief and depression. He may not be as dead inside as he likes to claim; instead he might be all-too-alive in unsettling ways.
Most importantly, planting the seeds of doubt in the first place, the contemporary investigators are less interested in Dora Lange than in Rust Cohle. Considering another girl has been murdered, one wonders if they view him as a suspect. But again, making Cohle the killer feels like a parlor game trick (it was...the detective himself! Tricked ya!), begging all sorts of questions about why he's investigating his own crime. Hopefully another, more interesting puzzle is playing out here. I'm guessing we have not yet seen the culprit (although if I had to pinpoint someone, it would be the governor['s brother - ed.] which also feels a bit too easy). And so, on we go, chasing the Yellow King as the sun goes down over an empty church...