Nic Pizzolatto has entertainingly, wickedly and delightfully done what “Lost” attempted but couldn’t pull off: referencing literary and ideological touchstones that have actual bearing on the narrative and characters of the show. But it does mean that any viewer will watch “True Detective” so closely that they may be seeing things that aren’t there. So forgive me if I go down a rabbit hole (or two) tying together thematic threads that may not be there. With Robert W. Chambers‘ 1895 book “The King In Yellow” a clear reference point in “True Detective” (and now a surprise best seller), please indulge me for a moment as I chase down a couple other things that I couldn’t shake after this week’s “Haunted Houses.”
Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) is unable to let go of the growing suspicion he feels about a larger, deadlier conspiracy surrounding the Dora Lange killing, potentially involving Lee Tuttle’s religious organization, and he stops to visit revival tent preacher Joel Theriot (Shea Whigam) whom we last saw in episode three, “The Locked Room.” It’s now 2002 and he’s given up the pulpit for the bottle, but Joel’s got some information that only confirms what Rust already suspects.
Before he started doing the revival meeting thing, Joel used to work for Tuttle’s group where part of his duties were custodial, and one night he accidentally knocked over an ancient volume of letters by the 12th century mystic Teleos de Lorca belonging to a senior minister, only to find images of naked children inside. He brought it to the attention of the higher ups in the church who handled the matter internally, with the matter never pursued any further. But wait, who was Teleos de Lorca? According to Google, he doesn’t exist, but if you search “mystic telos” you stumble across something that can’t be a coincidence (incidentally, teleos is the Greek word for perfection). The word is an offshoot of teleology, which essentially describes any philosophical belief that concludes that nature always moves toward a definitive end. And “mystical telos” puts forth the notion that if evil exists in nature, its presence is part of a divine plan. Perhaps I’ve gone bug eyed in extrapolating and unpacking whatever I can from the show, but “True Detective” has already dipped its toes into philosophy, religion and more, so I can’t help but think that Pizzolatto is throwing a sly nod to the architecture of the show. But whether I’m right or wrong doesn’t really matter, because to Rust, time is a flat circle, and he’s just going to be living this nightmare over and over again.
And certainly in 2002, we’re seeing history repeat itself when it comes to Martin (Woody Harrelson), who is unable to keep it together. Last week’s “The Secret Fate Of All Life” found Martin exploding at his troubled eldest daughter Audrey after she was found in a car with two boys in flagrante. So he kicks off the episode by visiting the two teenage boys in prison, offering to drop the statutory rape charges in exchange for letting him beat the shit out of them. Only one comes willingly out of the cell to receive his punishment, and though the other tries to apologize, he still gets whopped. But Martin isn’t as hard on the inside as he is on the outside, and when returns to his car he has to quickly open the door to vomit. He’s the man who is supposed to keep the devil from the door at home, but with his two daughters now becoming women (notice the volume of tampons he’s purchased), he’s losing even more control on his household (not that he even had it). Not to mention that his partnership with Rust is one that’s also slipping, and he feels a pang of fraudulence about the hero status he’s been given. He needs relief and an outlet. He needs another woman.
So, it’s quite strange when the next woman he winds up bedding is Beth. You’ll have to scroll your memory to recall that she was one of the prostitutes in the second episode, “Seeing Things,” that Rust and Martin talked to as part of their Dora Lange investigation. Ironically, at the time, Martin quipped that the underage girl “don’t look like a woman to me.” Well, she’s very much a woman now and has a quick handle on Martin, because she knows what he needs to hear. “God gave us these flaws … there is nothing with the way He made us,” Beth says. “The universe forgives all.” And that’s quite the sermon for an adulterer to hear. However, nature may forgive, but humans do not.
The most surprising turn of the events in “Haunted Houses” is seeing Maggie (Michelle Monaghan) called in by Detective Maynard Gilbough (Michael Potts) and Detective Thomas Papania (Tory Kittles) to give them “perspective” and try and fill them in on her history with both Martin and Rust, and why their partnership and her marriage fell apart. Like those two men, she dances around the truth of what happened in 2002, while also sharing Rust’s belief about forgiveness: “There is no such thing as forgiveness, people just have short memories.” However, for Maggie, her memory isn’t short enough to forgive Martin’s indiscretions this time around, after once again picking up the scent he’s been sleeping around. Clumsily washing his jeans as other laundry sits nearby waiting to be done, and even worse, leaving sexts from Beth on his phone, Maggie is long past the point of trying to fix things and instead tries to serve Martin a plate of revenge. She hits a bar, looking to hook up with a random man, when she hatches a far more devastating plan.
“You really kind of discover ultimately how cunning and devastating she is and both of the men truly make the mistake of underestimating her,” Monaghan told us last week, and she’s not kidding. Eager to level the playing field with Martin, she heads to Rust’s house in tears, weeping about her marriage, accusing him of knowing about her husband’s extramarital dalliances. But through the whole scene she’s manipulating the ultimate manipulator and eventually they are fucking over the kitchen counter. It ends as briefly as it begins, with the completion of intent more important than the act and it’s like cold water on Rust’s face who realizes in anger he was merely a vessel for her scheme. It’s another straw on his breaking back in 2002, of what Rust believes is becoming a poisoned world.
As Martin notes, it was the Charmaine Boudreau case—aka the Marshland Medea—where the strain in his relationship began with Rust, who is already cracking under mental pressure. After once again utilizing his interview prowess to get the woman to admit to killing her young babies, and write a full confession, he gives the troubled Charmaine one bit of advice before leaving the interrogation room, about what she should do before heading to prison, where inmates are not fond of child murderers: “If you see the opportunity, you should kill yourself.” Rust is disgusted by Charmaine, but her evil is a mere drop in the ocean to what he thinks is still out there and he’s eager to continue his unauthorized investigations, casually handing off data entry to Martin, who doesn’t like being treated as a secretary. This leads to a verbal dust-up, with Rust once again not so subtly holding Martin to account for breaking the bonds of his marriage, before wearily concluding, “You, these people, this place … you’ll eat your fucking young as long as you have something to salute.”
With Martin settling into old routines and bad habits, Rust continues his poking his nose where he’s not supposed to, and goes to visit Kelly, the surviving child of the pair that were rescued from Reggie Ledoux’s compound. She’s now institutionalized, suffering from regressive catatonia, meaning she’s both emotionally fracturable and largely non-communicative, but Rust is going to try anyway to get some information from her. “The man with the scars, he was the worst,” Kelly reveals, adding. “The giant.” As we’ve known, “the tall man” and someone with facial scars have been two the clues when it comes the identity of the killer. The memories continue to come forth haltingly from Kelly, who reveals that the man made her watch whatever horrors were done to the deceased Billy, and before she can say any more she bursts into a fit of screaming, shaken by revisiting the past. But Rust is merely confirming what he already knows, something he’ll do next in a pretty knockout sequence with Reverend Tuttle.
Veteran character actor Jay O. Sanders plays the Reverend, and along with McConaughey, makes this particular scene of two guys sizing each other up really sing. Rust is there for two reasons: to find out more about the Wellspring program that saw the church overseeing/running rural schools, and to confirm his suspicion that Tuttle’s organization has something to hide. As for the Reverend, he sits back to play the part of the dutiful public citizen helping out the police as much as he can, though conveniently many of his records were destroyed in a flood and/or were the domain of private schools, since shut down, that the Tuttle group assisted. Mostly he wants to find out how much Rust knows and where his investigation is taking him, but of course, the detective plays coy. And oh yeah, if that isn’t enough the entire scene is underscored by more religious philosophy. The conversation briefly turns to someone named Austin Farrer, once accused of embezzling from the church, and who later died in an accident. And that also (coincidentally? doubt it) happens to be the name of an English theologian and philosopher that Wikipedia tells us believed “that human actions are fully our own but also are the work of God, though perfect hidden.” It’s more suggestions of something divine at the root of all this horror, but to what purpose?
Once Rust is back at the office, his notion that there is something rotten in the church with a possible link to the police is confirmed when he’s hauled into the office of his new boss, Maj. Leroy Salter. After having previously warned Rust to back off from his unsanctioned investigation which has already been raising flags, getting a call from Tuttle about the detective’s inquiry is the breaking point. Rust is suspended for one month, with no pay, a penalty even Martin—who is beefing with Rust—thinks is extreme. But the suspension only delays the inevitable.
Now armed with information that will truly hurt Martin, Maggie is ready to to finally strike back at her husband after years of being taken for granted and repeatedly hurt. Not only does she tell him she had sex with Rust, but she takes it one step further and wounds his pride right where it counts saying, “To tell you the truth, I haven’t been fucked liked that since before the girls.” It sends Martin into a fury but there’s nothing he can do about it. He certainly can’t hit Maggie, and whatever insults he has stored up won’t undo the damage. All he can do is stay coiled and ready for the opportunity to unload on Rust. And it does arrive when his partner comes back to the station to get some files, with Martin confronting him outside, and a brutal fistfight playing out in the parking lot. Rust and Martin both land hard, bloody punches and the tail light on Rust’s pick up is smashed before the fight is broken up. Both men are brought into Salter’s office, with neither admitting the source of their static. But it’s all too much for Rust, who up and quits the force, once again intoning, “Fuck this world.”
But ten years on in 2012, the trio continue to keep the brief affair and real reason why Martin and Rust split, and the latter quit, a secret. And both Maggie and Martin defend Rust. The former declares that he’s one of the few responsible men she’s ever met in her life, while the latter gets up and leaves his question session with Gilbough and Papania entirely, when they flirt with the idea that Rust could be behind Tuttle’s accidental overdose and the break in at his house just prior to his death. “Something went wrong with him, a long time ago,” Papania maintains. Both of them think Rust’s explanation for where he’s been doesn’t hold up and bears a closer look, but Martin isn’t interested.
The final moments of the show will likely be closely scrutinized with good reason. Rust tracks down Martin on the highway, honking at him from behind, and at the side of the road, they arrange to finally talk that same day. Martin will follow Rust where they will end their silence over a beer. But there are two key shots: one is of Martin checking the bullets in his gun, and the other is the closing shot with the camera locked on the back of Rust’s pickup, right on the broken tail light. Is the story true, that he really has just resurfaced, and as such, hasn’t had time to fix his truck? Or is it just one more broken thing from the past, that Rust is still unable to mend? Like everything else in the show, it likely has a purpose, one we’re eager to see.
“Haunted Houses” is an evocative title for this week’s episodes accurately describing the growing rot we’re seeing. The house of the Lord is certainly haunted with the deaths of women and children, the police station is haunted by their own possible ties to the murders, the former marriage of Maggie and Martin still haunts them a decade later, and of course, Rust is just plain haunted by everything in his life. But the most significant line in the episode belongs to Joel Theriot, that is especially resonant when it comes to Pizzolato’s references to God throughout the series. “All my life I wanted to be nearer to God. The only nearness? Silence.” [A]