What ‘True Detective’ might have learned from ‘Breaking Bad’
There’s an extraordinary climax to the episode on Sky Atlantic tonight. Will it be the high point of the series starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson?
Following a lead: Matthew McConaughey as Rust Cohle. Photograph: HBO
Spoiler alert: this column discusses details of the current drama True Detective , although no more than in an average film review. It relates specifically to “tonight’s episode” (if you’re watching on Sky Atlantic), “episode 4 ” (if you’re watching via some other means) or “that amazing scene halfway through series one” (if you’re watching in 2016). Also be aware that this column will jump straight into details about a crucial twist in the season -two finale of Breaking Bad . And the ending of T he Truman Show gets thrown in , too, although that has exceeded the s poiler s tatute of l imitations.
They dropped a plane on Walter White at the end of the second season of Breaking Bad . Flashforwards in several episodes had teased some sort of catastrophe. Body bags. A pink teddy bear in the pool. Evidence bags. It also transpired that the writers, led by Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, had been planting subtler clues throughout the series. The meth-cooking teacher calculated that he needed $737,000 to keep his family afloat. The titles of the episodes with flashforwards added up to the sentence “Seven Thirty Seven. Down. Over. ABQ.” It was all there – even if you had to Google it afterwards to put it together.
When, eventually, a Boeing 737 did explode over his house, it was a big reveal, a ta-da moment. It was also a literal representation of the world collapsing around the main character, a “cosmic indictment of Walt’s life choice of late”, as Gilligan explained.
It felt like a bit of a con.
Even if the crash was a grand representation of the butterfly effect set in train by Walt’s decisions, in a show about chemistry it did not feel organic. It had a touch of the ending of The Truman Show , when Truman sails his boat towards a piece of the horizon only to puncture the real boundaries of his fictional world.
The sound of the plane in Breaking Bad was also that of writing going through the gears. You could practically hear the writers high-fiving each other.
Breaking Bad recovered in subsequent seasons, in part because it better handled the complexity of intricate connections and consequences, but the crash was an insistent reminder of a sometimes unsurpassable drama’s occasional flaw: at pivotal moments you could see the strings being pulled.
So why discuss a season finale that aired five years ago? Because the fourth episode of True Detective is shown for the first time in this part of the world, on Sky Atlantic, tonight, and it is one that gives this drama something close to its own plane-crash moment. The difference? It gets it right.
It takes the form of a six-minute tracking shot through a particular event. Although technically accomplished, it could easily have appeared overly constructed, as if the whole series so far had led to this point simply so the film-makers could show off. Instead it is a spectacular release of the pressure that has slowly built up in the preceding episodes – and a reward for its careful construction of character.
Which is not to say that True Detective has been flawless. It must constantly pull against deadweights: the familiar set-up (dead girl, possible serial killer and his complex messages, polar-opposite detectives with terrible personal lives); stock female characters (put-upon wife, unstable mistress, rebellious teen, strippers, prostitute); the windbag philosophising (knowingly acknowledged by Woody Harrelson’s detective Marty Hart in practically every episode) of Rust Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey; the now standard and creepy wish-fulfilment that features beautiful young women jumping on ageing men.
Yet, at the breaking of that tracking shot, when the viewer finally exhales it is proof of how strongly True Detective has squeezed us by the throat. That scene explodes from within rather than, in Breaking Bad ’s case, from above. Its chaos is an outward projection of what’s going on inside Cohle’s head.
It also confirms that this is McConaughey’s show. Cohle is the lead character. The battle in his head must be navigated if we are to get to our destination.
When Breaking Bad dropped the plane, what was meant as a high point was a low for many of its viewers. It wrenched the viewer so abruptly out of expectations that it created an erosion of trust that took a little time to overcome. Still, over the next three seasons Breaking Bad went on a trajectory towards greatness.
True Detective faces an inverse problem. Exactly halfway through its eight-episode season it went for the spectacular and carried it off to acclaim. The second half of this season will go on to reinforce this scene as a turning point. Its greater achievement will be to prove it isn’t the peak.