True Detective's First Disappointing Episode

Has the show always been this unsubtle? Our roundtable discusses “Haunted Houses,” the sixth installment in HBO's series


Spencer KornhaberChristopher Orr, and Amy Sullivan discuss the latest episode of True Detective.

Orr: Let me be the first (if perhaps not the last) to say it:


You both know how much I love True Detective, but the sixth episode, “Haunted Houses,” was my least favorite to date by a substantial margin. Another one like this, and I may have to reassess my initial gushing over the series.

Where to begin? Let’s try the beginning: Hart visits the lockup and metes out some personal justice on the 19- and 20-year-old boys who were caught having sex with his young daughter. The scene is fine on its own. It’s just that it re-tells us something we already knew—specifically, that Hart is obsessed with female chastity, except on those occasions when he’s the one violating it. We got that from the episode-two encounter with Beth, the underage prostitute, and, later, from his berserker rage at the thought that Lisa, the first young lady with whom we witnessed him cheating on his wife, might indulge in some extracurricular recreation of her own.

Alas, this will not be the last time the episode pummels us with this not-exactly-revelatory revelation.

No, we will be treated to more of Hart’s sexual double standard when, at a moment of extreme vulnerability—he’s buying tampons! how emasculating!—he’s followed into a bar by the pretty young thing from the T-Mobile store next door. It’s Beth(!), no longer quite underage, and she reveres him as a hero, and makes clear that she is oh-so-available to fulfill any needs he may have. (But don’t worry: She’s no longer a hooker.)

I have no problem with the idea of Hart cheating again. But the particulars of this plot twist are laboriously overdetermined. Sleeping with Beth is so reprehensible and hypocritical: She’s not very far from being a statch rape case herself, and Hart had been furious when Cohle presciently suggested that the money he gave her back in episode two was a “down payment.” Yet her come-on is simultaneously engineered to be impossible for Hart to resist: She knows him from his best moment as a cop and reminds him of that better self; she tells him that anyone can see he’s a “good man”; she tosses off some nonsense about how “God gives us these flaws…There’s nothing wrong with the way he made us.” She’s the Rust Cohle of barely legal temptresses.

This is followed by a titillating and entirely unnecessary nude scene—I was about to use the term “sexposition,” but that would imply some narrative purpose. When did writer/creator Nic Pizzolatto bring in Game of Thrones’s 13-year-old script doctor as a co-writer?

But remarkably, that is not the most annoying sexual transgression on offer this week. From the very first episode of the show, the foreshadowing of Maggie hooking up with Cohle has been as heavy and oppressive as the Louisiana heat. Many viewers assumed it would happen; I hoped otherwise. (I generally find sexual tension far more interesting when it doesn’t lead to actual sex.) My hopes seemed vindicated when the Harts’ initial separation was resolved and we’d moved on seven years. But no, we just took a much longer route to an all-too-obvious destination, with Cohle finally mowing Hart’s lawn in the metaphorical sense. And why? Because Maggie comes to his apartment and she’s sad, and needy, and—most of all—manipulative.

So for those keeping score, that’s two main characters (out of two) having wildly inappropriate sex because the ladies in question all but forced them to do so. So unfair! I mean, one of the guys had just bought tampons, for goodness sake. How could he not bang the first pretty girl who said hello?

I also couldn’t help but think back to Hart’s line last week that “infidelity is one kind of sin, but my true failure was inattention.” No, actually, I think it may have been that first one you mentioned.

And don’t even get me started on the bit where Hart is kinda sorta contemplating doing the right thing, but his will is undone when Beth suggests she’d like him to undertake an anatomical exploration that she’s never permitted before. C’mon, True Detective. You’re better than this.

On a somewhat less censorious note, I’m a bit disappointed that the plot continues to move in the direction of Billy Lee Tuttle being the (or at least a) ringmaster of a politico-evangelical conspiracy of satanic murderer-pedophiles. This, too, has been hinted at heavy-handedly from the start, and I’d hoped it was (and still hope it will prove to be) a red herring. As you mentioned last week, Amy, the whole “religious conservatives are really secret sexual sociopaths” is a tedious trope. I will grant, however, that at least so far the apparent connection between religion and sex crimes seems more practical—who else would have access to rural schools?—than theological in nature.

But, again, after doing such an exceptional job of confounding expectations through most of its first five episodes, tonight felt like the night where True Detective did almost everything viewers had seen coming long ago.

Okay, I’m done kvetching. I hope it’s evident that my frustration with this episode is directly proportional to my enthusiasm for the series overall.

On the plus side—and I can’t imagine that this show will ever be without a plus side—I thought tonight’s episode did a nice job of handling the escalating professional tension between Hart and Cohle (“You want me to tie your shoes for you, too?”). Hart is technically the superior in the relationship—higher rank, senior partner, etc.—but this episode showed neatly that he’s become little more than Cohle’s go-between with the rest of the force, a glorified secretary. And it was nice to see Shea Whigham again as (former) preacher Joel Theriot. I’m not a follower of Boardwalk Empire, but Whigham seems to be showing up in all the best places lately, from American Hustle (as con man/target Carl Elway) to The Wolf of Wall Street (as the captain of Jordan Belfort’s ill-fated yacht).

This episode had an unusual number of echoes scattered throughout its scenes as well: both of the women prowling for love in bars (Beth and Maggie) order dirty martinis; not long after Cohle has told Hart “you’re nobody without me, there is no you,” the latter asks Maggie what she’s looking at and she replies “nothing”; and in the course of chewing out Cohle and Hart, their new boss refers to the latter as a “human tampon.”

My favorite scene in the episode by far, however, was Cohle’s interrogation of the apparent child-murdering young mother, the Munchausen-by-proxy case. His concluding advice to the woman—“If you get the opportunity, you should kill yourself”—was magnificently chilling and unexpected. It’s the first time in a while that the show in general, and Cohle’s character in particular, has had that feel of indelible creepiness.

One of the elements of True Detective that’s most surprised me is how different each episode has felt since the first three. When I initially wrote about the series, I suggested that the decision to have all eight episodes directed by a single director—the estimable Cary Joji Fukunaga—would enable the show to feel more cohesive. Instead, it seems to be fragmenting before our eyes, episode to episode. This is not a complaint, incidentally (and I know that in your book, Spencer, this is primarily a good thing), but it’s not at all what I anticipated.

Also, were people really sending one another selfies in 2002? And the Reverend Tuttle’s college must have been an awfully early adopter of the Segway, no? (And related: Is it just a coincidence that an early nickname for the Segway prototype was “Ginger”?)

In any case, despite my complaints about this episode, I remain optimistic about the series overall. In part, this is due to my trust in Pizzolatto and Fukunaga. But more even than that, episode six has now tripped two of the more obvious narrative landmines that were laying around—Hart’s sexual recidivism, and Maggie and Cohle getting it on. Now, we can move forward and address some more intriguing questions. I’m awfully curious, for instance, about how that beer between the 2012 Cohle and Hart is going to go…

What did you guys think? Am I being too hard on this episode?

Kornhaber: In a way, Chris, you’ve been too kind on this episode. Because you missed the most laughable part of it: the devil figurine on Beth’s dresser, which the camera cuts to multiple times during that interminable screw scene. Get it? Marty’s sinning!

About that scene: You asked when, exactly, Pizzolatto brought a seventh-grader into the writer’s room. I’ve suspected the lil fella’s been there all along. Or at least since episode two, when Lisa cuffed Marty to the bed and Fukunaga’s lens lavished a more-than-strictly-necessary level of attention onto her features. (One funny/unsettling byproduct of that attention: Alexandra Daddario's reply to learning that President Obama has watched the show.)

To my eye, True Detective has always been a bit unsubtle, indulgent, and distractingly macho. Getting into the series has not meant discarding those criticisms per se. It’s meant trusting that the very features that make it snoozy one moment and snicker-inducing the next—and, of course, very compelling from time to time (that “kill yourself” line comes to mind)—are part of Pizzolatto’s grand plan. 

The showrunner has said that he is deliberately using tropes from pulpy cop fiction to foreground a bigger, more cosmic tale. The female objectification, the brutal and hypocritical family-man cop, the burgeoning death-cult conspiracy, the station chief asking an overachieving insubordinate to hand in his badge: Pizzolatto knows we’ve seen these things millions of times before. The real mystery, I think we’re meant to ask, is why we keep seeing them.

After all, by now it’s clear that the show’s not really a whodunit. It feels like we’ve spent more time at the Hart household than at crime scenes. The only truly memorable plot twist in six episodes was the detectives’ big lie last week. But even that doesn’t shake the theory of the case hinted at in the pilot, the one that says Dora Lange was among many victims of a creepy crew with ties to drugs and religion. The message-board dissertations pegging blame on Cohle, Marty, or the Vietnamese sandwich shop guy are great fun, but Pizzolatto has said he’s not trying to trick us.

So if we’re going to find satisfaction in True Detective, I bet it’s not going to be from the storyline itself. It’s going to be from what everything around the storyline adds up to.

The developments of the past hour basically amount to a string of recriminations: Marty against the boys who got with his daughter, Maggie against Marty (via Cohle) for cheating on her, and Marty against Cohle for sleeping with Maggie. The vengeance in each case stems from angst over some wrong that just can’t be righted. Seducing your husband’s partner won’t undo the awful things he’s done. Clobbering your partner won’t change the fact that he had sex with your wife. But in all cases, these were emotional responses—a way to gain a momentary sense of control in the face of insurmountable powerlessness. 

This dynamic, I think, creates the endless cycle of human experience Cohle’s been droning on about. And it probably motivates the dark deeds of the drug-taking, religious, murderous cabal that Cohle’s hunting. And it also explains Marty’s character—think back to the very first episode, when he repeatedly insists Cohle shut up about the emptiness of existence.

Those characters are all fighting darkness by inflicting pain on others—“transference of fear and self-loathing,” as Cohle terms the idea of faith in the second episode. Cohle, though, isn’t doing that: He reviles recrimination schemes. Think about when Maggie comes over. He’s reluctant to have sex with her, but he gives into what sounds like an offer of companionship—“you can’t live like this.” But after the deed is done, she makes it clear that she’d just approached him to get back at Marty. That’s when he flips out and tells her to leave his house. 

Cohle, of course, is screwed up in his own way. In the Robert W. Chambers mythos that the show constantly references, the King in Yellow is a stage production containing such awful truths that anyone who experiences it goes insane. This episode’s screaming psych-ward girl certainly seems like she’s watched the play. But in his loopiness and inability to form relationships, so, too, does Cohle. After all, his harrowing experiences undercover altered his perceptions to the point of hallucinations. To really face the abyss, the show seems to be saying, is court madness.

In other words, the fears you voiced last week, Amy, are coming to pass. True Detective is indeed turning out to be “a freshman dorm-style rumination about life and meaning and evil.” I think I’m OK with that—freshman year ruled, and this show never fully worked for me as a mystery or a character study. But Maggie Hart might call me a crude man who thinks he’s clever. Marty Hart might say “that last part, pure gibberish.” Your diagnosis?

Sullivan: You clearly enjoyed freshman year more than I did, Spencer, and not just because I spent it at a tiny college in the middle of nowhere. But I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to a show that explored the “endless cycle of human experience.” That was one of the most compelling and heartbreaking aspects of The Wire—individuals may change for the better or worse, they might experience small victories or defeats, but at the end of the day, the big picture remained the same. I have some impatience with that kind of thinking, but I can applaud when it’s pulled off artfully.

Much of our best television in recent years has played off this idea, in fact—think Breaking Bad or Mad Men or even Justified. The reason I suspect it won’t work as well on True Detective, if this truly is where Pizzolatto is going, is that it’s very hard to pull off over the span of a short series while jumping around in time. I’m not trying to be unfair by comparing shows that enjoyed five, six, seven seasons with True Detective’s eight episodes. But with the exception of Mad Men, the shows’ stories have mostly unfolded over a short period. Several of Justified’s seasons have taken place over the course of just two or three weeks. Breaking Bad, as we all know, followed Walter White at an almost glacial pace until it jumped ahead near the very end of the series. And it can’t be a coincidence that other term-limited series like Top of the Lake and Broadchurch have also told their stories over short timeframes and saved their ambition for other aspects of the show.

What this has allowed those other shows to do is more subtly explore characters and families and experiences. Call it the Short Story Rule. Some of the best short stories follow just a day or moment in a character’s life, and with that snapshot tell you everything you need to know about a character. So on television, Walter White becomes a drug lord, yes, and that’s dramatic—but what’s fascinating is that he’s always been the person who could have made that transformation. And the aspects of his character that trip him up in the world of meth cooking and dealing have been there all along as well.

In jumping between 1995, 2002, and 2012 (not to mention limiting itself to eight episodes before it reboots with a new story and new characters next season), True Detective has to be more obvious. There’s too much going on—even for those who complained about the slower pace of earlier episodes—to work in these themes organically. Hart has issues with sex and fidelity and protecting the virtue of young women. And OH MY GOSH, his daughter makes obscene doodles in elementary school and has grown into a promiscuous teenager! The revival preacher is looking to convert souls and get followers to see the light. But wouldn’t you know it, by 2002, he’s a disillusioned drunk because he can’t handle the fact that religious leaders can also be sinners. (Something he already knew in 1995, by the way.)

I don’t think True Detective’s time-switching format had to be a problem. I kind of like it, and think it’s a big reason why the show is so much better than the average procedural. But then I wish Pizzolatto would stick more to the story and the characters and leave the philosophizing for, well, you know. Take that line you both referenced in which Rust told the baby-killing mom to off herself. Where did that come from? That’s why I’m not sure you’re right, Spencer, when you describe Cohle as loopy and unable to form relationships. He’s a guy whose daughter was killed, who lost his marriage because of it, and in his grief plunged himself into undercover work so harrowing that it would mess with the most normal of people. I still want to learn more about him, and about Hart, for that matter.

Now I fear I’m sounding like a freshman TV and film major, so I need to stop. As you say, Chris, at least now that they’ve dealt with some of the most obvious landmines—their big estrangement was because of a fight over a girl? Seriously??—maybe True Detective can deal with more interesting matters in the final two episodes. Like why Rust felt the need to grow that godawful ponytail and facial hair.