True Detective 1.6 – “Haunted Houses”

This review appeared shortly after the initial premiere of True Detective in early 2014 — slight edits have been made since the original posting.

The status quo changes yet again three-fourths of the way through the first season of True Detective, with the sixth episode providing a relatively muted but still provoking turnaround from last week’s guns-blazing action (“The Secret Fate of All Life“). This is the episode that fills in some gaps and gets us from Point A to Point B — so far, Point A has been a hell of a ride, and the final two episodes of the season will hopefully clear the bar that’s been set so very high. Spoilers follow for the sixth episode “Haunted Houses”.

The rift between Hart and Cohle is explored in full, and we delve into the 2002 events that would serve to alienate the two for the next decade. Michelle Monaghan finally gets some time to shine as Maggie when Hart’s ex-wife (in 2012) is brought in for questioning before Detectives Gilbough and Papania, and much of the episode stems from her recollections. Aside from her mere presence in the interrogation room, “Haunted Houses” offers up a fairly predictable feast of leftovers from earlier in the show — Hart reacts violently to everything and somehow gets laid by an attractive woman without even trying while Cohle does police work by himself, drinks by himself, and gets laid by an attractive woman without even trying (okay, that was new). The revelations were predictable mostly in the sense that they were inevitable, and any fears that True Detective is slipping into rote procedural territory can be swept aside — “Haunted Houses” was straightforward, yes, but it managed to clear the stage for the final two episodes.

On the murder investigation front, Cohle dives back into his system of seeking someone out in the middle of nowhere and questioning the heck out of them until they get pissed off. Notably, he pays a visit to former-Reverend Tuttle, who has been glimpsed and mentioned too many times to not be a prime suspect. Tuttle (the underrated Jay O. Sanders) is definitely a smart cookie, and according to Cohle the fact that he gets pissed off all but proves that Cohle is on to something. Gilbough and Papania claim that Cohle was simply “hot for Tuttle”, and they actually seem to be correct about that one — there’s a fair bit of confirmation bias occurring around the character of Billy Lee Tuttle, for Cohle and for us viewers. I suspect there’s something much more sinister afoot, and that even if Tuttle is involved he’s playing second fiddle to the true The Yellow King(s).

I keep returning to the theme of being “touched by darkness”, that seemingly unavoidable thing that dooms people like Cohle and Hart no matter if or how they fight it. Cohle, especially, seems desperate to keep himself aligned with the “good”, to keep evil in a dark hole where it belongs. Sometimes this is easy for him, as when he coaxes a swift confession out of a broken, abusive mother and then makes sure she stays down, coldly suggesting that she kill herself at the first available opportunity. But sometimes he can’t help himself, and his face after the brief tryst (I mean really brief) with Maggie shows a fear that he may have let himself slip into the dark side without even realizing it. Their encounter was another thing we say coming a mile away, the tension between the two of them and the tension between Rust and Marty practically begging for it from the first episode. “Haunted Houses” featured a fair amount of sex, something that seems to have sent a lot of reviewers over the edge…more on that in a second.

It’s hard — okay, impossible — to label the main characters in True Detective as “good” or “bad”, at least at this stage in the game. Much is based on perception, and “Haunted Houses” played with that idea brilliantly — Maggie says she “knew Cohle as a good man”, and from what we’ve seen of their interactions, this is the truth…and yet Cohle’s prescription of suicide to the helpless would-be mother doesn’t seem like it’s coming from a good heart. Beth’s perception of Hart, likewise, is that he’s a good man…and meanwhile we primarily see an adulterous, hypocritical jerk. Even Maggie, who had been Mother of the Year entering last night’s episode, shows her dark side in the most recent hour. Poor Gilbough and Papania aren’t having very good luck with truthful interviewees these days.

And changing perceptions have always been at the heart of this season. Among the many things the show is doing “right” is the floating of multiple theories simultaneously — Cohle is either the hero or he’s the murderer, Hart is either a terrible father or he’s a terrible father who happens to also be a murderer. Little images keep these possibilities afloat, and a good example in “Haunted Houses” is Martin Hart’s gun. Marty’s gun made two significant appearances in this episode, first when he leaves it behind before heading outside the police station to attack Rust. He wants to hurt Rust, he hates his guts, and any punches he throws aren’t going to be enough (“This isn’t over!”)…and yet he leaves his gun behind. The second time we see his firearm is in the closing moments of the episode, as he heads to meet Rust for a drink after years apart. Notably, he’s not only bringing it along this time but double-checking that the thing is loaded. This could just show a mistrust of his former partner, which, based on what he’s just been subjected to by Gilbough and Papania, is pretty understandable. But again, True Detective offers a more sinister reading – what if Marty needs to get rid of Cohle in order to cover his tracks? I’m not at all subscribing to the Marty Is The Yellow King Because His Hair Is Blonde theory, but I do appreciate the juggling of all of these theories, keeping them alive this late in the game.

Now, unlike a lot of other reviewers, I’m not seeing a weakness in True Detective based in the portrayal of women. Yes, women are treated poorly and drawn awfully thin throughout the show, but isn’t that a part of the point? I can understand being put off by nudity, but those who say the show is glamorizing that nudity or taking ill advantage of the female form based solely on all of the transparent asses floating through the opening credits aren’t reading deeply enough into what’s actually happening. The sex scene between Hart and Beth is uncomfortable precisely because of their previous relationship — where she was an underage prostitute and Hart voiced disapproval — and the fact that she crops up again so many years later is purposefully contrived to further highlight how endlessly misogynistic Hart really is. Reviewers claim “macho bullshit” and “bro sensibilities”, and seeing Hart sit at home hours after his infidelity, chomping on pasta, blissfully unaware of how much of the hurt and chaos around him is his fault, I certainly agree — but that’s because it’s very clearly international, and part of the point.

Granted, that point needs an ending, closure of some kind, for it to ultimately hold any weight. The final two episodes of True Detective promise greatness, and for the first time since the first episode I truly have no idea what to expect — both Hart and Cohle have left the interrogation room and the flashback scenes feel pretty wrapped up. Will 2012 be the main stage now, or are there major events from the past that are still unrevealed?

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