TRUE DETECTIVE: “Haunted Houses”

If you’d been wondering what all the fuss was about and jumped on board True Detective this week, you must be pretty confused and disappointed.

A man’s game charges a man’s price. Take that away from this, if nothing else.

–Marty

Dang it Marty, you big dumb idiot.

So, okay, I was definitely wrong about what caused the 2002 rift between these two men. I am obviously a terrible detective, and didn’t see the answer that’s been right in front of me for weeks. Rust and Marty had been at each others’ throats for a while — what with Rust going off on his own little adventures, re-opening old cases and bothering people while Marty fumes and fills out paperwork — but it all came to a head in the least surprising way possible: Rust had to go and mow Marty’s lawn, in a matter of speaking.

He didn’t really want to. Maggie basically forced herself on him. Her calculated revenge plot worked out exactly as she planned, single-handedly destroying Marty’s personal life and his professional credibility. As Marty and Rust take swings at each other in the parking lot (well, Marty does most of the swinging; Rust has a tendency to put his hands up in the face of conflict like some kind of messianic figure), this mis-matched partnership ends pretty much the only way it could, sprawled on the asphalt, covered in blood.

Let’s back up. Or, should I say, let’s kill our forward momentum and fill in blanks on the least interesting third of the timeline, because that’s what the show does this week.

It’s critical, when discussing True Detective, that we don’t spend too much time chasing rabbit trails. We all learned our lesson with LOST (a show I still defend, even its troubled final season) that not all of the “clues” are actually clues to anything. With the internet aflame with discussions of Carcosa and the Yellow King, the odds are quite high that we are not building to any kind of supernatural, weirdo ending; this show has been — has always been — about two men, and every other character (drawn with varying degrees of thinness) are simply mirrors to be held up to the images of Rustin Cohle and Marty Hart.

This includes Maggie Hart, who until now has had very little to do besides look pretty or stern (or prettily stern) — but this week, she is finally given a sense of agency and takes her story into her own hands. Of course, it’s not really about her, it’s about hurting the three-timing Marty, but it’s at least something. Her odd chemistry with Rust has been intriguing to observe since the beginning, and when she is brought in to provide “perspective” in 2012 (though, come on, everyone knows she was involved) she describes Rust as a man of integrity, because “he knows exactly who he is, and there’s no talking him out of it.” It’s an obvious contrast with the wishy-washy moral hypocrisy of her husband — and to see her finally, suddenly act on Rust’s inescapable magnetism should not have been a surprise. The only surprise was how quickly Rust gave into her, before (boiling over with guilt and anger at being used) dumping her out of his house.

It’s no more than Marty deserves, for reconnecting with that prostitute-turned-T Mobile salesgirl that he gave (as Rust described it) a charitable “down payment” to way back in ’95. She comes on to him spewing a lesser, dorm-room breed of Rust’s existentialist philosophizing, which for some reason actually works on Marty. A tell-tale laundry load and a couple cell phone pics later, and Maggie is clued in to his betrayal. Again.

Marty wants to be the “good guy,” but more importantly he wants to be seen as a “good guy.” He believes knocking the lights out of the 18-year-olds who fooled around with his daughter, instead of filing charges, is the honorable and just way to go. This episode is actually bracketed with scenes of Marty punching dudes, and in both cases Marty himself is the one most to blame. The smartest thing he does this whole hour is leave his gun at the desk before stepping out to confront Rust. But his bursts of violence (hey, let’s revisit his abrupt execution of Reggie Ledoux, which was again done for moral reasons) ultimately leave him rattled and shell-shocked; he has to stop to vomit out of his car after his lock-up visit at the beginning of the episode, and gains nothing after fighting Rust save salvaging a teeny, tiny, pointless shred of his own dignity. Even here, Rust continues to come across as the hero, before disappearing into the wind for an entire decade.

It’s important to note that Rust is hardly a beacon of humanity, himself. To him, everything is black, a slow walk down an ever-darkening path with nothing satisfying at the end of it. His obsession with the job, and solving the mysteries, makes him an cold, unlovable figure. After drawing a confession out of a woman who murdered her children, he recommends that if she gets the opportunity, she should just kill herself. His visit with the young girl he rescued in 1995 brings him a new clue, but triggers a massive breakdown in the girl, and he is unmoved by it. He’s not interested in empathy or compassion; he describes the world as he sees it, and believes he’s the smartest man in the room. When he tells Marty “without me, there is no you,” he’s telling the truth, and it’s a truth that Marty — in all his inadequacies — can’t bear. More importantly, Rust believes he’s the only one that can solve the re-opened (if only to him) Lange case, willing to sacrifice any and all relationships and go off the grid for as long as necessary. When he straight-up quits, it’s just a formality. Rust was never really on the team. He’s a team of one.

So to hear Gilbough and Papania share their theory — that Rust is easily crazy enough to be a killer, and all they have to do is put together the right pieces of evidence — that’s a perfectly understandable interpretation. But they know Rust as an idea, a construct, the Rust that chose to present himself to them. They don’t know Rust the man, not like Marty and Maggie do. That’s why they defend him, even Marty — even after all that happened. There may not have ever been a true friendship between Rust and Marty, but there was respect.

Not everything about True Detective is working, though there have been more than enough brilliant sequences to justify its existence. The details of Rust’s investigation are still frustratingly vague (though the old “We lost those files in a flood/fire” line is kind of a dead giveaway, Reverend Tuttle), the series’s decidedly macho viewpoint is frustrating some, and (as I wrote at the top of the recap) anyone hoping for a mind-blowing/fantastical conclusion to the story is setting themselves up for disappointment. But with the narrative focus squarely on these two men, I’m much more interested in what happens to and between them than the case they’re working on. And, I’m assuming/hoping, that will prove to be the more interesting reveal.

That’s why, when the 2012 story leaves the detectives’ station for the first time, and the older, bedraggled Rust (not only still driving the same truck, but having never bothered to fix that brake light that he threw Marty into in ’02) stands outside Marty’s window and offers to buy him a beer, it’s impossible not to get a small thrill. With everything Marty has heard, he can’t trust Rust — not yet — so yes, he’ll load his revolver just in case, but the look in his eyes is that of a kid who’s eager to hear a story. And Rust should have a great one.

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