Brow Beat

Down the True Detective Rabbit Hole Again

Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) thinks you should stop looking in his direction.


David Haglund: This show gets into your head something fierce. About halfway through this episode, called “Haunted Houses,” Rust’s commanding officer chews out his subordinate for bothering people about the long-since-closed Dora Lange case. My eye flashed to the officer’s nameplate: Leroy Salter (played by Paul Ben-Victor, by the way, also known as Vondas from The Wire). Leroy … that derives from French for “the king.” As in the Yellow King? And what could “salter” mean?

Before I could start Googling surname origins, Rust began spouting his theories about a high-reaching murderous conspiracy and, for the first time (in my book, anyway), they sounded like the mad ravings of a paranoid. I recalled that Satan-themed T-shirt on one of the jailed boys who had sex with Marty’s daughter—a shirt that sported a black star or two—and thought about how sometimes the signifiers of devil worship are just for show. The ground beneath me started to shift.

Bring me back from the brink, Willa.

Willa Paskin: Oh, I have a way, but you’re not going to like it: In that scene with Salter, who is the one who, as always, sounds the alarm on Rust Cohle’s ramblings? “Pure gibberish,” Marty Hart says, which in the moment sounds like a pretty fair assessment of Rust’s blather about alligators, swamps, and Tuttles, but could also be construed as Marty shutting Rust down to protect himself. Rust may be talking crazy and Marty may be saying what his boss needs to hear, but from our perspective Rust is On To Something. Why wouldn’t Marty support him, at least privately?

Haglund: “I caught zero logic in all that.” Seriously, though, are you pointing a finger at Marty again? Let’s back up a second and review a few things we learned in this episode. There was, at the very least, a pedophile who worked with Tuttle, according to the preacher Theriot, who’s become a drunk and stopped preaching. Theriot found some pictures of children and passed them on to a deacon—who was later dismissed, though Tuttle, who also reappeared at last, claims embezzlement was the reason. (This episode was full of returns: Beth, the one-time underage prostitute played by Lilli Simmons, also came back, as did “Sign of the Judgment,” the closing song, an older version of which played in Episode 2.) That dismissed deacon? One Austin Farrer (or Farrar, maybe), who happens to share his name (or nearly share it) with a theologian who was friends with C.S. Lewis and is known for a hypothesis about which gospel was written first. (“Serving at a weekday mass with him was said to be a moving experience.”)

Paskin: I am way down that rabbit hole with you, and enjoying myself: I spent about 30 minutes searching the Internet for mentions of alleged Franciscan mystic Telios De Lorca, who Theriot name-checked as “very obscure.” He is, at least, un-Googleable. But this episode was not as heavy on the supernatural as all the speculation about the show has been. Rust made some advances in the case, but primarily this was a Break-Up Episode. Do you find that disappointing? As the theorizing gets so feverish, I wonder if anything other than a cameo from Cthulhu will satisfy people, even though, again and again, the show keeps going back to its regular cop-story beats. Maggie seemed poised to be the reason for Marty and Rust’s falling out the second we saw her and Rust in a room together—and that’s exactly what happened, give or take some emotional complications.

Haglund: Right, and that highlights a key aspect of this series so far: Its twists and turns are heavily foreshadowed and generally end up being exactly the twists and turns you might reasonably expect if you’re paying close enough attention. But what kind of attention? The show’s careful dropping of details encourages you to, for instance, start researching 12th-century mystics—and then that research leaves you wondering whether that possibly invented Franciscan was named “Teleios,” a Greek word meaning “finished, brought to its end, perfect.” You notice that teleios appears 17 times in the New Testament, and think about how Marty and Maggie were married for 17 years and how this show is bookended by murders 17 years apart. Also the life cycle of many periodical cicadas is 17 years long. Am I losing my mind? Should I, as a couple of wise filmmakers once suggested, “accept the mystery”?

Paskin: Probably. But I don’t think accepting the mystery should mean taking every single seemingly significant but maybe useless detail as a sign of the show’s awesome and towering genius. One thing I was really struck by in Maggie’s interrogation scenes was just how much less of a showboat she is than Rust and Marty. “In a former life I used to exhaust myself navigating men who thought they were clever,” she says, while very effectively deflecting Gilbough and Papania’s questions. Thought they were clever! Rust and Marty both clearly think this, and the fact that they are clever doesn’t mean that they (and their show) don’t do an awful lot of unnecessary strutting. Remember, Maggie got a better and quicker read on Rust than Hart, Gilbough, and Papania all put together, and she didn’t make a fuss about it.

Haglund: I liked that scene, and was glad Michelle Monaghan got more to do. I have no idea what an “extra dirty” martini is, but it was a highly appropriate choice. (Beth’s martini was merely dirty, which in hindsight seems a bit coy.) You’re right, of course, that this episode was more about a very human break-up than any supernatural goings-on—and, as noted last week, I’m not expecting any of the apparent black magic to be metaphysically real. Even if Marty knows nothing about the murders, he’s thematically implicated: It looks like the money he gave to Beth was a down payment after all. Of course, just when you start to focus on his failures as a man, a devil figurine shows up in Beth’s bedroom.

Paskin: First things: An extra dirty martini means with extra olive juice. So saltier still. Second things: I don’t know if that devil figurine, “symbolic” as it was, could possibly excuse the long, moany sex scene that came before it, which it’s hard for me to see as anything other than exploitative. Marty obviously made a huge moral error with Beth, but if the show wants us to recognize how toxic his behavior is it needs to go lighter on the titillation. (At the very least, it could linger over Woody Harrelson’s naked tush a few times. Getting tit-for-tat with naked body parts is a loser’s game, but reciprocity is better than nothing.)

I still don’t think that Marty is the Yellow King, but this episode was pretty damning for him, starting with his methodical beatdown of boys just like him and ending with his hands wrapped around Maggie’s throat. (Also, ladies, be warned: If you send your man out to buy three extra-large containers of super-absorbency tampons, he just might let himself start screwing an unbalanced young woman he once felt fatherly towards as recompense.) Marty has always been a get-along guy, a man who is pals with everyone. If these murders are part of a conspiracy or a cult, it’s pretty easy to imagine him going along for some late-night Satanism rather than being a buzzkill.

Haglund: Hmm. Well, what else did we learn about that possible conspiracy? Tuttle has generously supported the State Policeman’s Charity. (Of course he has.) The schools are part of something called the Wellspring program, and “wellspring” means “source,” so, you know. (I’m hoping and guessing that the first Google result is a complete coincidence.)

Paskin: Tuttle’s excuse for not having some files—that they went away in a flood—was the same as Papania and Gilbough’s, though that just might be the Louisiana version of “the dog ate my homework.” And we’re now back on the trail of the man with scars on his face, the big man, thanks to Rust’s visit to the sometimes-catatonic girl he rescued from Reggie Ledoux’s cook house, Kelly Rita.

Haglund: When Kelly began to scream I was as freaked out by this show as I have been to this point, which is saying something. We also saw what may be Rust’s darkest moment yet: his advice for “the Marshland Medea.” “If you get the opportunity, you should kill yourself,” he says. We already knew that this is basically his philosophical position vis-à-vis all human life, but hearing it so practically espoused and narrowly directed is another thing altogether. And in case we weren’t sure that Rust had hit some kind of bottom, he then had sex with his partner’s wife.

Paskin: Rust’s moment with the Marshland Madea, blood on her forehead like Cain, was really, really dark. Some of these stories that the show throws in as extras—the pharmacist-robbing meth-murderer, the guy so broken up he would have confessed to anything—are shiveringly awful. It’s kind of a wonder Rust and Marty aren’t both even more messed up.

As for that scene with Maggie and Rust. It was, as I said, a long time coming, but I think it successfully defied expectations and clichés. It wasn’t sweet. It wasn’t romantic. Maggie went there with a purpose and a plan. When Rust realized why she had done it—because she knew it would end her marriage—and what she was going to do next—tell Marty all about it—he reacted as though she had made him have sex with her. Obviously she had not, but she had puppet-mastered him, however tearfully. In that moment, Maggie was in control, not Marty or Rust. Neither of them took that particularly well.

Haglund: Pizzolatto has said multiple times that his primary interest with this show is in the two main characters, who they are as men, and this episode was probably the best evidence for that so far. The murder mystery unraveled a little bit more, but the main action was emotional and psychological. And Marty and Rust’s reunion at the end was more satisfying, for me at least, on the level of their relationship than for what it suggested about where the investigation goes from here. Though it was satisfying on that front as well.

Paskin: I have so much affection at this point for both Rust and Marty, I was pretty thrilled to see their grizzled mugs getting back together again. And this may just be a leftover from watching thousands of hours of various other lesser procedurals, but has a broken tail-light—like the one on Rust’s truck, seen in the last shot of the episode—ever signified nothing? Maybe there is a Franciscan mystic with something to say about this.

True Detective Lays a Few More Cards on the Table