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).
Hart is now a hot mess. About halfway through this episode, his family has left him, he's threatened to "skull-fuck" his mistress, security has nearly ejected him from his wife's workplace, and he spends the rest of his time wandering around in an alcoholic daze and dirty wife-beater, threatening suspects at a rave while off-duty. Hart even moves in with his partner and oddly it's Cohle who is the more anchored of the two (this in an episode where Cohle lies to his superiors, steals police evidence, gets high, and participates in a deadly raid with a biker gang).
"Who Goes There" closes with a bang: an apparent four-minute, fifty-three second unbroken shot in which Cohle enters a house with the bikers (dressed as cops), moves through several rooms, steals drugs from a hidden panel in the wall, engages in a shootout, kidnaps his old buddy Ginger (Joseph Sikora), runs through other houses and across lawns as a full battle erupts, bypasses the cops arriving on the scene (if they see Cohle, who is supposed to be on leave, he's toast), loses Ginger, gets him back, fights several residents, calls Hart and eventually makes the rendezvous with him, leaping into his getaway car just in time. Phew! It's a technical tour-de-force (even if a few moments may mask cuts - for example, the helicopter spotlight flashing in the lens). Some of the behavior, particularly Ginger's, seem a bit questionable or convenient for the staging but still, it's expertly choreographed, convincingly chaotic and so dramatically absorbing that we may not even notice the visual flamboyance at first.
Saving the big fireworks for the end, the rest of the episode feels rather more conventional. Indeed, even as the characters lose their grip and slip away from standard police practice, the plotting and style of True Detective veer closer to standard cop-show narrative/aesthetic. The milieu is less rural than vaguely urban and the tempo turns away from the slow-burn intensity of early episodes, favoring a grittier, more in-your-face propulsion. The hunt for Reggie Ledoux is on, but I was misled by the end of the previous episode: while we may have glimpsed his cult/Meth compound, the characters themselves are still a long way from finding him.
An early scene with Dora's skeezy jailbird ex (Brad Carter) info-dumps us with more explicit clues: Reggie was linked to Satanic cults (apparently attended by wealthy elites) as well as the strange "Yellow King" we've been hearing about. And the prisoner also confirms that Reggie saw Dora's picture. But that's all we get of the distinctive True Detective mythology for now. The rest of the episode emphasizes Cohle's preparation to go off-the-grid, as the disintegrating and increasingly pathetic Hart draws closer to his partner. This is the most self-contained standalone episode so far, reminding us that True Detective is a TV show, not simply a long-form movie.
I always have mixed feelings about these episodes in my favorite shows, enjoying them for what they are but missing the bigger picture/forward momentum provided by early or late-arc episodes. Nonetheless, this whole story is only nine episodes (or so I thought - ed.) and the Ginger mission is absorbing and relevant to the case, so the filler factor is not too distracting. The biggest plot revelation may actually be that both Cohle and Hart are lying to the 2012 investigators (who by now seem like real characters with their own strong - if uncertain - agenda). There have been earlier clues but unless I missed something, nothing was so blatant as the partners' fib about Cohle visiting his father in Alaska (when he was actually snorting coke and creating needle tracks on his arm, preparing to go rogue-undercover). The detectives' reasons for hiding these facts are clear enough but we wonder if they aren't also hiding even bigger secrets, certainly from their own investigators, likewise from us (so far), perhaps even from one another.
Along the way to the grand climax there are plenty of memorable moments, most notably Cohle's nonchalant anecdote about a Mexican cartel's lurid, graphic punishment of traitors. As for the bikers, Ginger is one of the most striking characters we've met; not so much his scripted actions (he's easily overcome by Cohle) but his piercing eyes and knotted beard establish a vivid screen presence. I hope they use him well; it would be a shame if he's just reduced to sniveling informant so quickly. Viewing Sikora's face on the DVD menu I thought for a moment that he would be playing the much-dreaded Reggie. But no, the fearsome-looking Ginger is just one more step on our path to the dragon's lair...