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).
This is certainly the darkest episode of True Detective and also very likely the best. There are no brutal murders, mutilated corpses, bloody crime scenes. The darkness is inside and when it manifests itself in violence it only goes so far as a fistfight. But when Hart and Cohle pummel each other in a parking lot, their punches land with more force than all the gunfire of five episodes.
We begin with two scenes that could easily be played for righteous catharsis, but are delivered as something else entirely. First, Hart confronts the two young men who were caught having sex with his daughter. He offers them a choice: allow him to beat the shit out of them or go to prison on statutory rape charges. Of course it isn't really a choice at all - he doesn't want his daughter's sex life made public and he would very much like to punish these two himself. It's many fathers' vengeful dream come true, yet this interaction is scored and shot without any sense of deliverance. The following scene contains the biggest surprise: before he can drive off in triumph, Hart vomits all over the parking lot (the same lot in which he and Cohle will fight a far more evenly-matched bout).
The other early scene is much more disturbing; in fact it feels like the closest look we've had at Cohle's heart of darkness. He has certainly talked a lot, maybe too much at times - his early nihilistic tirades played more like set-ups for Hart's double takes. Even in later episodes his purple prose has been enjoyable and not entirely convincing in its negativity. But this is different. He is questioning a young woman (Azure Parsons) whose infants have all died, one after the other. The latest, at least, died under suspicious circumstances - its apnea monitor unplugged for thirty-five minutes. Cohle takes his sweet time before revealing the charts in a dramatic flourish. It is far more important for him to manipulate the suspect, to insinuate himself into her mind, most importantly to get her to trust him and to feel that finally she has found someone who understands her.
And he does understand her. But as soon as she has completed the confession, crying and shaking but feeling like she has finally been purged, her confessor turns to her with the same calm, patient manner he's held throughout the entire session. Only now his words have changed, echoing Hart's early warning to the two boys, which suddenly seems merciful in comparison. "The newspapers are gonna be tough on you," he says evenly. "And prison is very, very hard on people who hurt kids. If you get the opportunity you should kill yourself." She panics, looks into his eyes for reassurance and finds the final, most painful betrayal possible. Sputtering "What? What?" as he stares her down and turns to walk out the door, she is the body kicking frantically at the air as the noose drops and tightens. This may be one of the starkest depictions of pure cruelty I have ever witnessed.
As with the previous perps, there is nothing inherently sympathetic about this woman and yet it's impossible to watch the scene and not feel chilled to the bone by Cohle's demeanor. A later sequence provides an eerie echo when he visits the girl (December Ensminger) whom he rescued from Reggie Ledoux's sex farm/meth lab. She has been catatonic for years. Yet somehow, with the same charisma used to ply weak-minded criminals, Cohle gets her to spout something about a scarred giant who made her watch as he abused her fellow captive. Then she collapses into a fit and Cohle walks away, frustrated by the abrupt halt to this revelation. Taken alone, the scene would suggest nothing too abnormal about a dedicated detective but coupled with the earlier scene, it underscores Cohle's lack of compassion. In his way he is a deeply honorable, even deeply moral, man. But he is COLD. Not because he doesn't feel pain but because he feels it deeply while relentlessly employing it as a weapon.
"Haunted Houses" mostly puts the investigation on hold even as the mystery deepens. As exceptions to this rule, Cohle pokes around old missing-persons cases and attempts to uncover the corruption of Tuttle's enterprises. This leads to two juicy scenes. In the first, the traveling reverend returns as a washed-up drunk, revealing that he uncovered child pornography while working at a Tuttle school. After leaving the school, his ministry was vandalized and harassed. Best of all, in the second scene Tuttle himself finally gets some screentime, verbally jousting with Cohle, whose conspiracy theories and unorthodox working methods are alienating him even further from his colleagues and superiors. Cohle may seem paranoid, but we know he's onto something as he presses the slimy Tuttle. Is the exchange a tad unsubtle with all of Tuttle's right-wing talking points and corporate doublespeak? Perhaps, but I look forward to finding out where this thread will lead. Is it just a red herring? So far at least, True Detective hasn't produced many of those. Every clues appears to lead somewhere.
Despite these tantalizing teases, the episode is mostly dedicated to depicting Hart's and Cohle's epic falling-out. As expected, this involves Hart's marriage - Cohle finally sleeps with Maggie, although that doesn't seem the right phrase for their rough and brief anal intercourse. This is Maggie's vengeance for Hart's renewed infidelity. Unsurprisingly, he's found a new mistress. Surprisingly, though maybe I should have seen it coming, she is the teenage prostitute now fully grown into a comely cell phone sales rep. Her voracious sexual appetite exhausts even the ever-horny Hart. This is an interesting twist that plays almost more like Sopranos-esque fantasy sequence than reality; turns out Cohle's wry "down payment" remark was (pardon the pun) right on the money. This young woman has played her part by breaking up Hart's marriage but given her earlier role, it can't just end there. Her character needs to continue in upcoming episodes. She's very revealing of Hart's character and complexes - call her the Teresa Banks of True Detective.
Even the 2012 investigators sense the importance of sex in Hart's and Cohle's professional breakup, so they bring Maggie in to clear things up. Like her husband and one-time lover before her, she isn't interested in playing their game. (As a side note, the actress has hardly been aged at all for the "seventeen years later" sequences and it's frankly distracting given Woody Harrelson's receding hairline and Matthew McConaughey's debauched appearance). The police need Maggie, as we realize after Hart walks out on them too, effectively ending their role in framing and attempting to contextualize the plot. Their weakness as guides has been fully exposed and now we're ready to explore the mystery without their hollow attempts to guide us.
The final scene reunites Hart and Cohle in 2012 as the latter pulls up next to the former and volunteers to buy him a drink...before immediately reversing the offer, in classic Cohle fashion. As a testament to how wonderfully and expansively the show has established this relationship, the moment feels like a sequel or continuation of a classic duo. We too feel like we've known them for nearly two decades. As Cohle drives off and we follow his truck down the road, the frame remains locked around his rear left headlight. For a few seconds, I though this seemed unusually, and pointlessly, showy for True Detective's style. Until the obvious hit me: this was the headlight broken in the partners' fight ten years earlier, and it still hasn't been fixed. Some wounds never heal - because they don't want to.