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The fourth episode of HBO’s True Detective could have been titled “Women and Children.” The opening scene, an interrogation of the prisoner Charlie Laing, flags our heroes’ separate preoccupations. When Laing refers to his “wife” the late Dora, Marty corrects him: “ Ex-wife.” Slightly later, Rust is shown absorbing the news that their suspect has made occult sacrifices of “ kids—women and children.” This checklist of priorities sets up the later scene with Maggie, in which Rust finally produces positive terms for his view of human relations: “Kids are the only thing that matter, Maggie. They’re the only reason for this whole man-woman drama. . . It’s not supposed to work, except to make kids.”

Rust’s credo sounds pro-procreation—strikingly, since Rust has been known to use generative terms to couch his nihilism (“Human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution”). Perhaps Rust is merely mindful of what is owed to those souls who have been compelled by their elders to animate, as he has said, “this meat.” Perhaps he is a mite confused.

The actual title of the episode is “Who Goes There?”—announcing identity as a theme, but identity as implicated in entrances and exits, crossings-over. The episode attenuates all sorts of binaries: drunk and sober, business and personal, plain clothes and undercover, true and false identity.

The framing binary, perhaps, is business and personal. A cop partnership is always odd, a working relationship that partakes of some of the features of friendship. As Marty says in this episode, the Hart-Cohle partnership has introduced all sorts of “tensions” into the Hart family, notably with the lawnmower incident of episode three.

Both Marty and Rust, however, are willing to compartmentalize their personal and professional lives—or to believe that they can do so. One notes the professional respect Marty exhibits toward Rust; he consistently distinguishes Rust’s exasperating personal qualities (“As arrogant as he could be—”) from his professional abilities (“—he was right”). Rust, in consequence, can make an effective appeal to Marty in the register of “business, not personal.” Intervening in Marty’s dustup at the hospital, Rust assents to his partner’s warning that this marital matter is “none of your business”: “It’s none of my business, but I need your head in the game.” Rust’s business is not personal. In the ensuing scenes, he tries to keep aloof from the Harts’ personal lives by repeating this line—“It’s none of my business”—three times.

The separate spheres, however, will overlap. Marty, cast out from his home, comes to bunk at Rust’s apartment—though who is Felix in this scenario and who is Oscar, one is at a loss to say. Most ominously, Rust requests “personal time” away from work in order to undertake his undercover odyssey among the Iron Crusaders. This misappropriation of the “personal” signals neatly that Rust’s professional identity—itself now a very vexed condition, as he pursues his lawman’s work by being among criminals and like them (“When in Rome,” he says to his mark Ginger), and by lying to his department and stealing drugs from the evidence room—is not immaculately distinct from his personal identity.

So the culminating cross-over is of course Rust’s crossing into altered states—his going both undercover (from plain clothes) and under the influence (from sobriety). Rust is a method actor, and the drugs he takes in order to get into character point up the threats to identity that attend his immersive mimetic discipline: after snorting a certain number of lines of cocaine, he would be indistinguishable, as a medical matter, from a crackhead. Hence the evocative cogency of the six-minute tracking shot. Viewers will hold their breath—in other words, will not come up for air—as Rust immerses himself in his role.

A note on mirrors. Rust describes to Marty the Iron Crusaders’ torture ritual, which a decorous paraphrase might render as a literal “defacement,” performed before a mirror. As he is prepping for his undercover work, Rust is seen in profile before a small mirror, looking intently at himself as he becomes what he is not; slightly later, Marty stands before the same mirror and wonders aloud why it distorts his face. In “Who Goes There?,” no one can declare himself who does not recognize himself.

When Rust goes undercover among criminals disguising themselves as cops, we have gone through the looking-glass. When Marty asks Rust for an “honest read” on Maggie, the read he gets is dishonest—but it’s what he gets for soliciting an “honest read” from a man who is strung out on cocaine preparatory to his impersonation of a violent criminal. There is no “honest read” in this episode, no “straight man” in this television partnership, perhaps no true detective in the series.

Julia Yost is a Ph.D candidate in English at Yale University.

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