True Detective drops more hints about the possible identity of the Yellow King [Recap: season 1, episode 6]

Kevin McFarland reviews episode 6 in season 1 of HBO's crime drama "True Detective," starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. If you're new to the show, start with our introduction here. This post contains spoilers.

In the rapturous aftermath of the “oner” from the end of True Detective’s fourth episode, Alyssa Rosenberg wrote the most astute pushback against all the hype. In her analysis, the show went into a project in the New Orleans area and didn’t reveal anything about the lives of the people there. That long take depicted all of the minority characters as some kind of criminal, either as residents of a stash house full of drugs, or toting automatic weapons and running through the streets to fend off the biker gang in the robbery-gone-wrong.

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That’s a valuable perspective on the scene. It's correct in the limitations of barely establishing the biker gang, and in not even bothering to set up the people living in the projects. But it ignores the overarching approach that frames Rust and Marty as the two unreliable sources for the entire narrative. To Rust and Marty, everyone gets boiled down into a symbolic representation because that’s the best way for them to sift through all the information and make sense of a case. The specific, societal experience of the various communities—white, rural, tent-preacher frequenting types, or the urban ghettos—don’t matter through a lens that only searches the psyches of these two men.

All of this leads to the observation that “Haunted Houses” has the most daunting task of any episode of True Detective. By bringing Marty’s ex-wife Maggie into the story, as a third witness to the history between the detectives (and supposedly one without the sort of bias that would lead her to shield either of them anymore) it’s an opportunity to take the only continually-significant non-male character and carve a meaningful place in the show’s world for someone other than brooding men with haunting secrets. This is the chance for Nic Pizzolatto to expand what has so far been a fascinating but narrow mystery series concerned with masculine existentialism, giving it a broader, more inclusive meaning.

Unfortunately, this isn’t on par with the best episodes of the season thus far, and “Haunted Houses” doesn’t find a way to make Maggie as important to the story. (It can’t make that leap in only one episode.) Her arc is shorter, less defined, and mostly in service of the history between Rust and Marty.

Michelle Monaghan is a talented actress who deserves more to work with than the perpetually dissatisfied housewife character she’s been given. Bringing her back into the narrative, in the 2012 point on the timeline, does just that. Maggie proves as adept as her ex-husband at sticking to basic facts (without delving into meticulous specifics) in order to obscure the full portrait of the truth. According to her testimony in 2012, Rust is just a normal, good person with some unique personality quirks, and her marriage just didn’t work out. And she’s got her own Cohle-isms to spit at Detectives Gilbough and Papania: “In a former life, I used to exhaust myself navigating crude men who thought they were clever. So ask your questions, or I’m leaving.”

Conversely, the full picture of what pushed Rust and Marty’s partnership beyond repair is the most predictable version of that story, from the outset. Marty starts drinking and cheats on Maggie again, and in order to seek the most impactful revenge, Maggie screws Rust. I want to focus on this plot point because it contains the moment True Detective could have actually entered Maggie’s perspective. The one scene so far that only has her, without any relation to Rust or Marty, is the brief one at the bar, where she initially plans to act out her infidelity. But she doesn’t go through with it, instead telling Rust about everything—though they do have a kind of magnetism absent from Marty and Maggie’s marriage—in the dead of night, and then using him as a tool specifically designed to inflict the most pain upon Marty.

The two detectives have been growing apart over the evidence in the Dora Lange case, but the personal transgression—dating back all the way to that “don’t mow another man’s lawn” scene—trumps the professional disconnect. They fight in the parking lot, and Rust quits the force out of frustration, leaving the star partnership in tatters, seemingly irreparable. Pretty much every part of that general sequence could have been predicted, and in a show that has so many unexpected and surreal touches, that’s mildly disappointing.

The episode begins and ends with Marty inflicting violence upon others. At the outset, he uses his pull as a hotshot detective to get a few moments alone with the much older boys who were caught in a car with his underage daughter. The “man’s game charges a man’s price” line is some cold-blooded shit to say to some guys before beating them to a pulp, but it’s mostly just the first sign that Marty sees his inability to control the women in his life—a ridiculously backwards standard—as the beginning of a downward spiral.

Mired in middle age and beaten down by the banal routine of buying tampons for his three girls, Marty succumbs to alcohol dependency and goes into a bar for a drink. There, he sees the same clerk he talked to at a cell phone outlet, and it turns out to be the underage girl from the bunny ranch back in the second episode. Marty gave her money and told her to “find something better,” and it’s clear she has taken steps toward that. But she’s still damaged, and perhaps that’s what leads her to form some kind of hero complex around Marty for his accomplishments as a detective. Marty reads that infatuation, and cheats on his wife again. Though Harrelson’s performance conveys regret almost immediately, Marty is thoughtless and careless about his actions, leading to a painfully awkward scene where he eats dinner while watching television after Maggie has checked his phone and found all the evidence she needs to blow up the marriage.

Rust, meanwhile, has descended into his obsession with a long-closed case. Against orders, he re-interviews family members about missing and dead children. He goes to see Kelly, the girl he and Marty rescued from Reggie Ledoux’s cookhouse, who is now in a catatonic state; her one statement before a traumatic episode suggests Cohle is right to assume another suspect is still out there.

He revisits tent preacher Joel Theriot, now back on the sauce and out of the gospel game. Cohle gets one unsettling lead from that encounter, about Theriot discovering child pornography in a very old volume while cleaning the senior minister's library at his Billy Lee Tuttle-funded bible college. That tip is enough to send Cohle to go see Tuttle at the man’s office, to talk about old records and dead children. Just as Marty said to the 2012 detectives last week, the scene plays like Cohle trying to take a pulse check on Tuttle, to better understand what he’s dealing with on the surface. He doesn’t even take the records Tuttle offers him.

The continual references to The King In Yellow in Pizzolatto’s scripts don’t just unearth that somewhat forgotten text. The play-within-a-collection is a story so powerful that it causes those who read it to obsess over it and go mad. That’s a scary prediction of how the critical narrative around True Detective has gone to this point. There’s now such feverish speculation over the whodunit aspects of the show that it threatens to overtake what has been, to this point, a masterful control of tone and scope.

But if we’re going to play around with symbols, there’s one tiny detail that pops out as more significant: Reverend Theriot drinks out of a John Deere mug. That company’s logo is a bright yellow buck with large antlers. One key symbol from the first murder scene (antlers) and the dominant color in the oft-referenced text (The King In Yellow) equals yet another thread to follow.

“Haunted Houses” advances the plot to the extent that now we know the reason the partnership split. Rust and Marty had been going in opposing directions for a while. The interrogation scene, where Rust tells a mother who murdered one of her children to kill herself instead of facing the music, is particularly chilling. And right after, Rust and Marty get into a short verbal altercation where Rust basically posits that Marty owes all of his success to his partner. Rust eschews other work in favor of an investigation that won’t gain any traction since nobody wants to admit there’s a loose end out there (or that it might lead up the ladder). And Marty’s home life has finally, permanently broken.

But Rust and Marty yet have unfinished business. There are two unexpectedly graceful examples of editing in the second half of the episode. The sequence of events, from Maggie discovering the pictures on Marty’s phone to the end of the episode, is bookended by Rust in his truck honking at Marty while driving away from the interview with the detectives in 2012. It’s not clear what’s still left to reveal in the past, but now there’s a future beyond the videos presented in the pilot. And there’s resentment fierce enough that Marty checks to make sure his gun is loaded before following Rust along down the road. And that ties in with the second piece of editing. The final shot of the episode is from a camera attached to Rust’s red truck, which reveals a busted taillight—indicating that Rust hasn’t fixed it since the fight a decade ago. The damage done by that incident hasn’t been repaired.

Rust may look like a guy who can’t let go of the past and has allowed himself to appear haggard, but the gun shows Marty hasn’t forgotten anything either, and may indeed have something sinister to hide. That adds more cargo onto the crazy theory train. But I honestly do not care about whom turns out to be the Yellow King or the serial killer or the link between these characters and some larger Lovecraftian cosmic conspiracy. Right now I’m happy to be impressed by the writing, acting, and visual style, working together to keep what would otherwise be another male-centric crime drama insanely compelling.

Stray Musings:

Update: An earlier version of this post misidentified the damaged taillight as Marty's. It was Rust's.

Published 8:35 pm Sun, Feb 23, 2014

About the Author

Kevin McFarland is a Contributing Writer at The A.V. Club and in other little corners of the Internet. His Alaskan Malamute, Dynamite, loves the snow so much he might as well be a direwolf. Follow him on Twitter.

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