Review: ‘True Detective’ – ‘Haunted Houses’

Senior Television Writer
02.23.14 291 Comments


A review of tonight’s “True Detective” coming up just as soon as I need you to tie my shoes for me…

“You know what it’s like being your partner? Fuck you.” -Hart
“You know, buddy, without me, there is no you.” -Cohle

It’s quite the narrative high-wire act Nic Pizzolatto has been pulling off over this first season of “True Detective.”(*) He’s telling a complicated story that takes place in three different eras over a period of 17 years, told to us in part by a pair (and, starting tonight, trio) of unreliable narrators, that is peppered with deep character analysis, philosophical discussion, literary references and even meta commentary about what it is to be in the audience of a show like this (As Pizzolatto notes in the second link, Rust Cohle’s life is a flat circle to those of us watching it all from our living rooms). And it’s not just any kind of story, but a mystery, which means Pizzolatto has to strategically withhold information from us, giving us just enough to keep things interesting but not so much that we can already figure out who the Yellow King is, what Old Rust’s angle is, where he’s been for the last decade and more. And he’s pulled it off spectacularly well. The conclusion might not work at all, but the five episodes leading up to this one comprised some of the most exciting television I’ve seen in years that didn’t involve Walter White figuring out how to make people explode.

(*) Because people keep asking me two basic questions, let’s hit them here: 1)HBO will almost certainly order another season, but will wait until they have the next set of stars (and possibly the next director, if Cary Fukunaga isn’t up for the workload again) lined up (but that didn’t stop people on Twitter from coming up with their own casting suggestions this week); 2)The “American Horror Story” precedent, plus the reluctance to compete against the final season of “Breaking Bad,” will very likely have “True Detective” competing as a miniseries at Emmy time.

“Haunted Houses,” though, demonstrates some of the pitfalls of the structure Pizzolatto’s using. It’s essentially an hour of filling in the blanks – specifically, what caused the end of Hart’s personal and professional marriages. Between oblique references in the 2012 interviews and what we had learned about Cohle and Hart in 1995, almost everything that happened here was something we could already infer (and, in many cases, we did).

It serves a required plot function, but it’s also clear that Pizzolatto views what happened in 1995 and 2012 as much more important than 2002, a middle act that was dispensed with in an episode and a half, with much of it lacking Old Rust and Old Marty as our tour guides. Take away that element – which adds Rust’s philosophical monologues, Marty’s self-serving ones, and the conflict between present narration and past action – and you have a much more straightforward police narrative for an episode, and one that makes the crime story archetypes Pizzolatto is commenting on feel at times like plain old clichés.

With Old Rust out of the interview room, and Old Marty leaving early, the cops – and the episode – try to compensate by bringing in Old Maggie as a desperation play. It’s the first episode where Michelle Monaghan has enough to do that you understand why she might have taken the job in the first place, but it’s still problematic.

Everyone who watches “True Detective” seems in agreement that the characters who aren’t Rust and Marty are two-dimensional at best; the question has been whether the writing and performances of the two leads has been strong enough that nobody else matters. I’ve trended towards “yes” on that, but mainly because no one else has had enough to do for it to matter. The 2012 cops are plot functionaries (even the little glimpses we’ve gotten of their own partnership dynamic fall along classic Wise Veteran and Young Hothead lines), the women are there to push emotional buttons for the men, the bosses and reverends and other minor characters there to inspire another debate between Cohle and Hart. It’s not a universal view of this world like a “Wire” or a “Deadwood,” but a very deep and specific dive into these two men, using everyone else as mirrors to reflect some aspect of them.

But when you give someone like Maggie a more prominent role in the story, and when you make her this huge pivot point in the partnership and the narrative, then it becomes an issue when she remains this non-character indistinguishable from so many other frustrated, scorned police wives. (In contrast, you can see bits of other cops in Marty and Rust, but you would never confuse them for anyone else.) The scene where Maggie turns femme fatale and seduces Rust to ensure the end of her marriage (and, as collateral damage, the Hart/Cohle team) is a big deal, and yet she remains strangely not a part of it. Even in an episode where she’s given more screen time, where she becomes one of our narrators, this moment feels like it’s ultimately not about her at all, but about Cohle’s reaction in the moment (which is, as always, superbly played by Matthew McConaughey) and then about the explosion that follows from Hart.

And, unsurprisingly, the episode’s two strongest moments, by far, involve our two leads: first the vicious brawl that ends their partnership in 2002, then their roadside reunion in 2012. The former is an impressively ugly piece of screen violence – it doesn’t feel choreographed (even though it obviously was), but like a clumsy explosion between two men who were always destined to end up in a street fight like this – and the latter is exciting simply because it’s such a huge narrative shift for the show. Until now, 2012 existed only as a framing device, a way to reflect on what happened years earlier, and to offer hints about what would come later in the story. Now, it is the story, and we’ll not only get to see the Hart/Cohle partnership again (even if it winds up only lasting for a scene or two, given Marty’s understandable suspicion of Rust), but also move into an endgame that it feels the show is more invested in than this necessary evil of a middle chapter.

Some other thoughts:

* The episode ends with a shot very deliberately focusing on the busted taillight on Cohle’s pickup truck. Is it simply there to remind us that it was damaged when Cohle threw Hart against the truck a decade earlier – a symbol of the broken nature of their partnership? Or is the fact that Rust hasn’t fixed the thing in 10 years supposed to be a clue as to what he’s been up to all this time?

* For the most part, our stop in 2002 felt obligatory, but I was glad to see the return of Reverend Tuttle, not only because he appears to either be the Yellow King or be close to him, but because Jay O. Sanders is so good at showing you Tuttle’s very clear discomfort with Cohle’s questions even as he’s giving such smooth, placid answers to those questions. Very tense.

* Oh, and one fantastic 2002 moment: Cohle secures the Munchausen-by-proxy mom’s confession through his usual gift for faking empathy, and the moment he has the statement, he tells her, “If you get the opportunity, you should kill yourself,” in this completely casual way that twists the knife so much further – like he’s telling her, “Look, I don’t care about you at all anymore, but your life is about to be so terrible that this is probably a better option.” Vicious, but not undeserved, especially given Cohle’s history with dead children.

* I also liked the returns of several other characters from earlier in the story, and the contrast between the hooker who has risen (even if it’s just to a job selling cell phones and a role as Marty’s new mistress) and the preacher who has fallen.

* Cohle and Hart have a new superior officer in 2002, played by Paul Ben-Victor, aka Vondas from “The Wire.” Ben-Victor joins Michael Potts and Clarke Peters as “Wire” alums popping by this show, and of course we’ve had representatives from other HBO dramas like Michael Harney (“Deadwood,” and even once again playing a character named Steve), Shea Whigham (“Boardwalk Empire”) and Kevin Dunn (“Luck”). Is it too much to hope that Ian McShane is the Yellow King? I’ll even accept William Sanderson!

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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