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'True Detective' Recap: Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Partnerships of all kinds fragment in a shaky, schlocky episode

Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in 'True Detective.'
Michele K. Short/HBO
February 23, 2014 10:05 PM ET

Like its lead characters, True Detective does a certain number of things really, really well—and other things really, really poorly. And like them, it can have a hard time knowing which is which.

In tonight's episode, "Haunted Houses," this struggle got the spotlight, and the results weren't pretty. Gone was last week's latticework of complex and compelling narratives regarding the pivotal moment in Rust Cohle and Marty Hart's supposed takedown of a serial killer, the one where it looked like it all went right but in reality it all went horribly wrong. In its place we suddenly had a show about a couple of Neanderthals who were super upset about people having the wrong kind of relations with their wimmenfolk, slugging it out in a police-station parking lot. From its po-faced treatment of Rust and Marty's hard-man personae to its lackluster track record with women characters, the series leaned hard on its weak spots, and the episode couldn't take the weight.

'True Detective' and 60 More Reasons to Love 2014

Let's start with Marty's wife…whastername. Until tonight I couldn't even remember what she was called, referring to her in conversations with friends and colleagues simply as "Marty's wife." ("Who is 'Holly Hart'?" would have been the Final Jeopardy response leading to my humiliating zero-dollar finish, though in fairness to myself, the correct answer of "Maggie" would have been my second guess, Alex.) I'd like to think this says more about the show than it does about me, since after all I'm a fairly attentive viewer – I get paid for this, man, I take notes and everything! No, I don't recall having any problems coming up with "Betty Draper" or "Skyler White" or "Carmela Soprano" or "Catelyn Stark" or "Queen Cersei" six episodes deep into Mad MenBreaking BadThe Sopranos, or Game of Thrones. Those were full-fledged people with lives to live and desires to fulfill outside the context of their respective relationships with Don, Walt, Tony, Ned, or Robert, even when their storylines centered on how difficult it was for them to do such things, given the constraints of their cultures. Maggie's a plot device. By her own admission, Maggie's liaison with Rust took place solely to provoke Marty into doing something, namely leaving their relationship for good.

Which might be well and good – after all, there's plenty of self-destructive and sad behavior to go around on this show. But the way the encounter is presented speaks volumes about the show's lackluster treatment of this character. There's something unseemly, almost comically so, in the contrast of Marty's lengthy affairs with Maggie's single incident of infidelity. When Marty cheats, he's rewarded with torrid fulfillments of his sexual fantasies, presented to us with all the gloriously gratuitous young female flesh that can fit into the frame. Maggie's saddled with one joyless from-behind encounter (as we've learned from Game of Thrones, doggie style is the saddest sexual position) with an obsessive loner incapable of experiencing joy, or lasting longer than 45 seconds. (As if Rust didn't have enough going against him, he's a one-minute man?) And forget pillow talk—so outraged is Rust by her feminine perfidy that he screams at her to get out. Look, buddy, it takes two to tango, or in this case, to rut against a countertop.

And it's not as if the incident even gave Rust and Marty anything that interesting to do. Of all the reasons these two deeply odd characters could have had their mysterious falling-out back in '02, "fistfight at the precinct house because one guy banged the other guy's woman" feels like the result of some kind of scientific study to determine the least interesting option. Yes, there's a wee bit of thematic juice to be wrung from juxtaposing Marty's methodical, upsetting beat-down of the two hapless guys who were arrested for the statutory rape of his teenaged daughter and his inability to similarly white-knight on behalf of his wife when picking on someone his own size. But it's not enough to justify pinning the breakup of the show's fascinating central partnership on the kind of thing you might see at a frat party on a Thursday night. Similarly, the hypocrisy inherent in Marty's oh-so-reluctant relationship with a former child prostitute, given his rage against the guys who got caught with Audrey, is so obvious that it's functionally inert.

It's not that Rust and Marty being angry antiheroes is automatically out of bounds. Obviously, plenty of great TV dramas from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad have made serious hay out of toxic masculinity – that's actually kind of Great TV Drama's thing – and I'm not willing to overreact against this style of storytelling just because for every Mad Men there's an equal and opposite Low Winter Sun. But none of these shows placed their toxic masculine dudes in nearly such a heroic position as two rebel cops fighting to save impoverished women and children from a murderer who might well be the leading edge of a conspiracy of rich monsters. Doing so neuters a lot of the critique of this archetype you'd otherwise be getting when your leading man is a mob boss or a meth kingpin or a venal ad man, or even a more openly corrupt cop. (Yes, Marty and Rust have both murdered suspects, but those murders are treated as fundamentally understandable. Which is part of the problem, I guess!) Whatever their faults, they're The Good Guys. When Rust screams at Maggie for defiling the sacred partner-partner bond, when Rust and Marty take it outside, True Detective demands we take this seriously. That demand is fundamentally unreasonable.

Is any of this the end of the world for this show? I doubt it. There's plenty to be said for the increasingly frightening hunt for clues Rust is on, for example – the image of a dead boy calling to his mentally deteriorating mother from beneath the waters of the bayou is chilling, and the repetition of "His face! His face! His face!" by the killers' traumatized survivor is genuine nightmare material. One thing this show isadmirably adept at: Making sure that no matter how creepy-cool the serial-killer stuff gets, the debilitating grief of the survivors is kept front and center. (Twin Peaks, in many ways True Detective's most direct ancestor, always did the same.) It can be a blackly hilarious show despite, or because of, this seriousness of purpose, as Rust's advice to the Münchausen-by-proxy murderer mom ("If you get the opportunity you should kill yourself") made clear.

And there are promising signs for the season's final lap, too: the deepening sense that the killings truly do involve an insurmountably powerful conspiracy; the Boardwalk Empire and The Wire refugees who keep popping up throughout the supporting cast; the getting-the-band-back-together reunion between Marty and Rust teased in that final scene; "the man with the scars…the giant." These elements are all worth coming back for next week. Keep in mind that this story will be over forever in just two more episodes – it's basically an eight-hour movie, which means that individual weak links matter more than a strong overall experience. In the meantime, "more strong, less weak" ought to be a critical prescription so uncontroversial that even Marty and Rust could agree on it.

Last week: Spin the Black Circle

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