True Detective (2014): A Man Without a Family

Our Take Two column offers second opinions and alternative angles on films and TV series reviewed elsewhere on Motion State. See below for our original reviews of True Detective.

“Past a certain age,” advises Marty Hart, “a man without a family can be a bad thing.” This is 2012 Hart, slightly overweight Hart, reelin’-in-the-years Hart. This is the Hart that’s about to recount the majority of the events of True Detective‘s first season, the 1995 Dora Lange case that the retired detective has long since considered closed. This is also the version of Martin Hart that no longer has a family — he’s cheated on his wife repeatedly, notably in 1995 and again in 2002, and so she and the kids have long since left. After seventeen years he’s still the same person, though, as it’s very Hart-like that he should describe himself with such accuracy without even meaning to do so.

Family is a major theme at the center of True Detective‘s rookie year, and Hart’s judgement begins to reveal why. He approaches his family with more or less the same mentality he applies to his job as State Police Detective: it’s duty. His is the American nuclear family, traditional in the way that would make social conservatives nod in approval, with working father, aproned mother, two daughters, a front lawn, a white picket fence. To Marty this is very much a patriarchal nuclear family, which casts him as father in the primary role of moral authority, social privilege, property control, etc. Though our perception of this slowly erodes over the course of the eight-episode season, Marty, years later in 2012, refuses to believe anything else to be the case.

In this, again, he’s just doing his duty. He says he has a passion for his job, but time and again we see him going through the motions and following the protocol that his partner Rust so often disregards. Hart’s the same with his family: he says, explicitly, that he loves his wife and would never lie to her. His actions prove otherwise. He maintains the façade out of that sense of obligation — social obligation, not moral — because he perceives any man without a family to be a bad thing. In the fourth episode “Who Goes There” Hart tells Gilbough and Papania of his hunt for Reggie Ledoux by saying, “I wanted every member of that family I could find. Turns out? There wasn’t anyone. You realize how rare that is in Louisiana?”

He’s revealed here that the social setting has much to do with the popular sense of family function, and even Gilbough and Papania display behavior supporting that claim. They interrogate three people — Rust, Marty and Marty’s wife Maggie — and sit them in three different places. Rust, the guy they suspect might be a credible threat in the ongoing investigation, is farthest from the door with the detectives blocking the way; Marty, there simply to provide background information, sits on the adjoining side of the table; and Maggie sits immediately next to the door, which is wide open for the first time, while the detectives sit where Rust was initially. The descending threat levels as deemed by Gilbough and Papania show that they, too, subscribe to the assumption that Maggie is simply the detective’s wife (to which Maggie notes “not anymore”). Little do they realize that the lies Maggie spins are arguably as significant as those told by Rust and Marty.

It’s no mistake that Audrey, the older and more rebellious of the Hart daughters, turns out the way she does. The older generation of a family unit sets the example for the younger generation, and by the time the third episode “The Locked Room” rolls around both Hart daughters have at the very least an awareness that Daddy did something bad. In 2002 Audrey is caught in a car with two boys “in states of undress”, which prompts Marty to flip. He might be thinking where does she get this shit? while meanwhile we’re thinking Marty, Marty, Marty. He corners the boys in their jail cell and proposes to give them a beating: “a man’s game charges a man’s price.” The game, to Marty, is sex, which might be considered by those aforementioned traditional conservatives as only acceptable in a nuclear-type union. Thus do his hypocritical ideologies about sex and manhood seep into his family life, into his fatherhood, into the values he passes down whether he wants to or not.

True Detective (2014)
True Detective (2014)

So if family is the principal institution for the socialization of children, then who better to rage against the mere concept of a family than Rust Cohle? Hart’s statement in “The Long Bright Dark” — “past a certain age, a man without a family can be a bad thing” — might fit as a description for himself, but he’s actually talking about the 1995 version of Rust. Hart visits Rust’s apartment and finds it barren, white, and silent; Hart returns home to his girls playing with dolls and his wife nagging him about being home more often. We learn soon that Rust had a wife and a little daughter, too, but that the daughter was killed. “Marriage didn’t last long after that,” he says.

Family to Rust obviously isn’t taken in the metaphorical sense of community or humanism, nor is it a socially-prescribed civic duty as it is to Hart; for Rust, it’s a curse. The social structure of the family is as evident to Rust as it is to his partner, but the blind adherence to that preordained structure is tantamount to living death as far as he’s concerned. And more than that: if we boil down the hours of monologuing Rust Cohle gives us throughout True Detective we might be left with the belief that life itself is a curse, and by extension becoming a father means forcing that curse upon a true innocent. He sees that not as a natural cycle but as a confining one, an endlessly repeating cycle, a flat circle. Embedding’s disabled on the clip below (perfection’s always that extra step, innit?) so just click on the little YouTube logo in the bottom right-hand corner:

In a sense both Rust and Marty are trapped by society (which can essentially be considered synonymous with “family”, as the latter is the primary unit of the former, especially the conjugal or nuclear variety). Marty doesn’t want to do his duty (he wants to have flings with younger, sexier women) but he feels he has to; Rust doesn’t want to be cursed with daily life (he wants to “tie it off”) but he feels he has to. But both Marty and Rust find some kind of compromise by the end of the first season, as they finally track the elusive Yellow King to the depths of Carcosa.

True Detective (2014)
True Detective (2014)

That long-sought child murderer is revealed to be Errol Childress, who heralds himself in no accidental manner by announcing his own little society: “My family’s been here for a long, long time.” In the finale “Form and Void” we see the Childress home and the members of that family — Errol himself, Betty Childress, and “Daddy”. Betty is a probable sister or cousin of Errol, as the pair speak about extended family that they clearly share. But theirs is also an incestuous, sexual relationship, made clear in one of the show’s more disturbing scenes of intimacy. “Daddy”, meanwhile, is a mostly-unseen figure strapped to a cot in a shed in the backyard. Errol keeps him there, brings him water, comments casually on the flies collecting on him. It’s not clear whether “Daddy” is dead or not, or if he’s truly Errol’s father, but the implications are clear: the Childress family is a different kind of family.

It’s worth noting that any deviation from a family composed of a breadwinner father, a homemaker mother, and their biological children might technically be considered “nontraditional”, a term employed here without judgement — that’s just the technical phrase. It’s also worth noting, then, that nontraditional families make up the majority of American households today. The Childress home is obviously more (ahem) unconventional than the term “nontraditional” might suggest, but the point is that family values are passed down regardless of what the internal model looks like. Errol’s father might be Ted Childress, former Sheriff on the Marie Fontenot case, and his grandfather might be the Reverend Sam Tuttle. The family that’s been around “for a long, long time” has also been raising Errol, and it’s too simplistic to assume that Errol is the one that broke the mold; molding is exactly how Errol came about. Maybe his father wasn’t as bad as the son, but he influenced him all the same. One might go so far as to say that even if he was born as Errol, he was raised as the Yellow King.

And this is what Marty, bound by duty, and Rust, bound by curse, come up against seventeen years after discovering the body of Dora Lange. In Apocalypse Now (which we mentioned in our initial review of “The Locked Room”) Willard finally comes face-to-face with Kurtz and sees the extreme of man, sees the truth that Kurtz has seen, sees “the horror”. The transformation that comes about in both Marty and Rust is a direct result of their encounter in Carcosa, their brush with horror, and though they hurtle towards it as Willard does, they ultimately recoil from it. Marty is hatcheted in the chest and wakes up to Maggie and his daughters, now young women, standing in his hospital room. He says he’s happy to see them, and then he weeps uncontrollably. Maybe he’s happy to be alive, but that moment holds more for Marty: it holds guilt for the way he’s treated his wife and his daughters, who come to see him after surviving that horror after all these years. It holds realization of what he passes down. It holds realization, maybe, that he’s been brushing up against horror for a long time, before he ever stepped foot in Carcosa.

Rust, likewise, steps bravely away from his personal ethos as well. He had admitted to Gilbough and Papania that “sometimes I think I’m just not good for people, you know, that it’s not good for them to be around me.” We might have believed him, as his contagious despairing infected relationship after relationship, as he told a child-killer “if you get the chance, you should kill yourself”, as he proposed extinction of the entire race. No, Rust isn’t good for people — but people need Rust. If we do dare take the concept of family in the metaphorical sense of community, of humanism, of global family, we might shudder at the inevitable connectedness that would suggest with the likes of Errol. Rust feels that connectedness in “Form and Void” as he describes experiencing his deceased daughter after Carcosa, and in that Rust finds a new place for himself within a larger family. “World needs bad men,” he tells Marty, “we keep the other bad men from the door.”

See below for all of our True Detective reviews from the first season, and stay tuned for reviews of the second season episodes as they air.

1.1 — “The Long Bright Dark

1.2 — “Seeing Things

1.3 — “The Locked Room

1.4 — “Who Goes There

1.5 — “The Secret Fate of All Life

1.6 — “Haunted Houses

1.7 — “After You’ve Gone

1.8 — “Form and Void

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