The big cosmic joke that True Detective is playing involves turning anyone who’s watching the show too closely into Rustin Cohle. This is an idea that’s fundamental to Robert W. Chambers’ The King In Yellow: The play-within-the-book is alleged to induce madness in anyone who reads it. In much the same way, True Detective is the kind of show that consumes the active viewer, be they a critic who’s picking up Easter eggs or just a fan who’s passing the time between episodes by jokingly “casting” season two. I felt this on a profound level while watching “Haunted Houses,” which isn’t the first season’s best episode, but still managed to sink its hooks in me with the placement of one conspicuous corporate trademark:
Reverend Theriot is drinking his lunch from a John Deere mug! Do you know what the John Deere logo is? It’s a yellow stag—yellow like that guy who runs Carcosa, stag like the male of the Cervidae family whose antlers play into the ritual murders of True Detective’s elusive killer.
Do you know what this means? It means the first season of True Detective takes place in a rural area where many of the residents would be patrons and supporters of Deere & Company, one of the world’s most successful manufacturers of agricultural machinery. But also maybe that the once-good reverend is The Yellow King! But then he hands the mug to Rust, so maybe not!
That’s another part of the joke: There’s all this evidence to piece through, all of these clues planted along the way, but they don’t mean shit until the show tells us so. And True Detective demonstrates little willingness to do so. Obsessing is for Rustin Cohle and the real-life people tracking his movements. The show that surrounds Rust and is watched by those people—that show would rather move on to the next thing. This is a story that may eventually reward such preoccupations, but for the time being, it would rather portray them as hazardous and unhelpful.
This is a show that’s skeptical of confirmation bias. We form these hypotheses—Rust thinks Tuttle is responsible for the death of Dora Lange and many others; True Detective is leaving a trail of breadcrumbs only the most observant will pick up—and all the necessary supporting evidence starts coming out of the woodwork. As one True Detective episode title puts it, we start “Seeing Things.” There’s also a yellow stripe in the curtains at Theriot’s place. The tie that Tuttle is wearing when he meets with Rust is a sunshiny shade. There’s a suspicious amount of Apollo 11 imagery in The Shining. Flag on the moon: How did it get there?
It all starts piling up, but as “The Secret Fate Of All Life” illustrated, there’s a price to pay for being able to suss all of this out. Marty calls it “the detective’s curse,” and he’s got it oh so bad in “Haunted Houses.” Because while Rust is tuning his dial to the covert radio broadcasts of the universe, old habits and poisonous masculinity get a hold of Detective Hart all over again. “Haunted Houses” is a fascinating Marty episode, laying out the series of events that will lead to the reunion that ends the episode. Stick around these guys long enough, and you’ll pick up their patterns even if they don’t: When Maggie heads down to laundry room to find that Marty came home (purposely undetected) and proceeded to wash only the clothes he was wearing, alarm bells go off. This has happened before, and it will happen again.
Marty lives by hard evidence and he dies by hard evidence, though he detonates his marriage on nothing but Maggie’s word. The thing is, he knows Maggie can’t be lying—she’s always been honest, so she’s not bluffing when she tells him she slept with Rust. No matter that it was humiliating and pleasureless for both parties (Maggie says it was the type of experience she hadn’t had since the girls were born—but that doesn’t mean she enjoyed it), because the damage is done. And Marty deserves it. “Haunted Houses” is an opportunity for Woody Harrelson to root around in his character’s pig sty of a personality, and he does so marvelously in that living-room sequence. Stomping all over his wife and his daughters, he commandeers the TV and gives 2014 an early frontrunner for “The year’s most unappetizing image of someone eating” when he tucks in to some leftover pasta. He looks vulgar and indulgent in his recliner, a jag-off nobleman luxuriating in the spoils of his kingdom, like some kind of… king? (NO. Not yet, at least.)
The sleaze stands alone in that scene, an important show of the growing distance between the Harts. Tonight’s episode does a spectacular job of isolating its adversarial characters within the frame, heightening the impact of whenever they come together. That’s true of Marty and Maggie, and it’s true of Marty and Rust. When Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey are blocked together in “Haunted Houses,” it’s an event, marked by the shock of the characters suddenly intruding on one another. (Think of the jolt that Marty adds with his “Jesus Christ” when he’s shown standing between Rust and Charmaine in the interrogation scene.) Adam Arkapaw’s handling the most dangerous camera on TV, and it demonstrates its versatility in “Haunted Houses”: The threat of horror-movie slow zooms on Ledoux-victim Kelly and a cuckolded Marty; the Sturm und Drang as the camera trails Marty and Maggie after the dining-room confession; the way Arkapaw swings with every blow in the knock-down, drag-out that ends the Hart-Cohle partnership. “Haunted House” makes slow dissolution look absolutely electric.
I’m less enamored of some of the events taking place within True Detective’s murky atmosphere of gender politics. While playing up the wretchedness of Marty and Rust’s behavior, “Haunted Houses” alternately objectifies women who’ve previously played the damsel in distress for the detectives—though you could argue that Maggie and Beth are doing that to themselves (which can be its own line of problematic thinking). There’s some sense that they’re being granted agency in these situations, but there’s also the feel that True Detective is in a great big rush to get Michelle Monaghan and Lili Simmons out of their clothes. (Though, if we’re viewing True Detective through the pulp lens, what’s the problem with a little luridness? It’s not like the camera picks up McConaughey’s and then searches the set for something more wholesome.)
But that sort of tawdriness, and the way the Rust-Maggie sex scene is so starkly de-eroticized, speaks to something larger within “Haunted Houses” and True Detective as a whole: This show wants its viewers to confront our attraction to the truly unattractive. #TrueDetectiveSeason2 was fun, but it also felt like an opportunity to inject some lightheartedness into a grim undertaking. “Haunted Houses” is an ugly piece of TV, but it’s captivating and spellbinding in its ugliness. (And, in the elegance of the filmmaking and the delicateness of Nic Pizzolatto’s plotting, genuinely alluring.) It’s ugly like a trainwreck, beautiful like a Renaissance fresco depicting Hell. The last thing the camera holds on in the episode is the brake light Marty breaks when his body hits the back of Rust’s truck. It’s a symbol of their fallout, of wounds that haven’t healed—but still could. But it’s also red, same as the body of Rust’s truck and same as that femme-fatale ensemble Maggie wears to the darkest bar on the bayou. Red isn’t just a color of lust—it’s also a color of warning. So maybe Marty’s right to make sure his revolver’s loaded—and maybe you’re right to start re-watching the first six episodes of True Detective in search for anything else that might be red. Just don’t be disappointed if nothing comes of either.
- Reggie Ledoux may have told us we’re in Carcosa now, but there’s isn’t much of the supernatural in “Haunted Houses,” beyond the symbolic title. (Are the houses haunted by the memory of the people that used to live there, of the children that disappeared? Or are they haunted by Rust’s dogged pursuit of “the truth.”) Still, the school where Rust interviews Tuttle is a quietly surreal setting, what with the students on Segways and the neon cross hanging between the reverend and the cop.
- Improbably True Detective theory corner: Rust is a vampire, hence those crosses protecting Tuttle from him. It’s also why he stops short of touching the cross on the burned church in “Seeing Things” and why he’s hung a cross in the apartment—that one keeps him on his toes.
- Even Maggie’s been working on her Rust impression: “I said something about forgiveness, and he said that there was no such thing as forgiveness—that people just have short memories.”