True Detective Episode Three: The Locked Room

Mason Cross, author of The Killing Season, analyses episode three of HBO’s True Detective.


If our two True Detectives earned the obligatory adjective ‘mismatched’ in the first two episodes, they graduate to full-blown ‘adversarial’ in the third episode, ‘The Locked Room’.

After a couple of weeks of slow burn, the Dora Lange murder investigation picks up some pace here, beginning with Cohle and Hart’s investigation of the nomadic congregation from the burned-out church where they found the mural mirroring the murder scene last week. Of course, this gives Cohle another opportunity to air his grievances against organised religion, much to his partner’s weariness.

After interviewing an impressively sideburned preacher and a castrated sex offender (Cohle, following his interrogation of the latter: ‘He shit himself. Literally.’), they come away with a vague description of a tall man with facial scarring who was seen with Lange.  

It’s interesting that the preacher says ‘children’ of the church painted the mural on the wall. Is he using the word in the paternalistic Christian sense, or is he being literal? If so, maybe this ties in with the disturbingly sexualised pictures Hart discovers his daughter has been drawing later in the episode, following on from last week’s orgy-themed diorama.

Working on the assumption that their killer is no first-timer, Cohle decides to look back over recent murders, looking for similarities. Before he gets that far, he makes the mistake of mowing Hart’s lawn while his wife is home alone (that’s not a euphemism . . . yet). This turns out to be the point where their relationship tips over into open hostility. ‘I like mowing my lawn,’ Hart practically yells as a parting shot.

Naturally, Cohle’s hunch turns up a potential victim from a couple of years before, the clincher being a similar mark on the body as the one they found on Lange. It’s enough for the two to shelve their personal animosity and look into the new lead. They’re given two more days on the case before the anti-Christian task force takes over, but no one believes that’s going to happen, even before this lead turns up a good-looking suspect. ‘You ever been in a gunfight?’ Hart asks his present-day interviewers, whetting our appetite for next week.

And that’s before we see a bizarre machete-wielding, gas mask-wearing weirdo stalking through a field in his briefs. You kind of have to check back in to see where they’re going with that.

One of the greatest and weirdly underrated things about True Detective is the dialogue, which has the snap and inventiveness of the best noir without being clichéd or indulgent. It’s at its best in the interplay between the two leads, and Harrelson and McConaughey are both bringing their A-games to the delivery. Tough as it’ll be to narrow it down to one line each, I thought it would be nice to pick out my favourite examples of their asides each week:

  • Cohle’s nugget of wisdom of the week: ‘Certain linguistic anthropologists think religion is a language virus that rewrites pathways in the brain.’
  • Hart’s exasperated comeback of the week: ‘Can you see Texas up there on your high horse?’

Mason Cross is the author of The Killing Season, published by Orion. The King in Yellow, one of the inspirations behind True Detective, is published by Gollancz and available in ebook now.