After last Sunday’s penultimate episode, I started re-watching True Detective, in preparation for the upcoming season finale, thinking all the while about Emily Nussbaum’s thought-provoking quasi-takedown of the show and its gender problem. She makes a good point: “…When a mystery show is about disposable female bodies, and the women in it are eye candy, it’s a drag.” And as much as I agree, I also wonder if she’s being a little too hard on a show that (like practically every other story about a pair of buddy cops) is “solipsistically focussed on [a] phony duet.” So it is. But isn't that something of a necessity for a whodunit that will have to be wrapped up in eight hours of TV or less?
Every storyteller picks who will be in focus and who will fall outside her or his depth of field, which may be large but will never be infinite. In True Detective the audience’s view of Maggie Hart – Michelle Monaghan as the wife of detective Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) – is certainly not in sharp focus. And yet I’m not so convinced she’s as one-dimensional as Nussbaum says she is. I honestly haven’t decided. (I’m also not convinced the Bechdel Test is the only way to judge the depth of a female character, which is not Ms. Nussbaum’s assertion, just a point of order.) Maggie Hart is certainly not a bimbo, and she wields real power in the family (and over Marty), as much as she is also the victim of her husband’s not insignificant transgressions.
The one thing in Nussbaum’s essay I can more confidently disagree with is her claim that the “love triangle” between Maggie and Marty Hart and Marty’s partner Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) “is missing a side.” Sure, Marty is more than a little pissed about the potential chemistry between his wife and his partner (“I don’t ever want you mowin’ my lawn, all right?”). Still, it might be possible that he’s more upset about his having to share the latter than the former.
Give episode four another look, particularly the oddly sad little montage that almost slips by without notice just before the episode’s big finale – as Ms. Nussbaum cleverly refers to it, “the show’s much admired tracking shot (six minutes, uncut!).” Marty’s wife has left him, so he’s bunking with Rust, who is grimly preparing to go undercover and “snatch up” the guy who will hopefully lead them to the guy who will hopefully lead them to potential serial killer Reggie Ledoux. Just as Cohle is done describing what might happen to him if he’s discovered – basically castration, and asphyxiation with one’s own “member” – we hear the opening strains of the Lucinda Williams song “Are You All Right?”
In the next scene the song keeps playing in the background as Marty carries his sleeping bag into his partner’s spartan little domicile and comes to stand more or less where Rust and Mrs. Marty Hart will at some point be having their own adulterous encounter. Cohle sits on the opposite side of the counter, repeatedly pricking himself with a needle – “ink and cayenne” – to leave the impression he’s been regularly shooting up. At this point the song is low enough in the mix to be ignored. Not for long.
For a few brief seconds it drops out completely while we jump back to the “present day” – Papania: “So you got a suspect, and you take a leave of absence?” Cohle: “Yup, Like I said – to see my Pops. He had leukemia.” – then the song comes back in as a non-diegetic soundtrack to a brief, faintly homo-erotic montage, and we hear the words clearly for the first time: “Are you all right? Is there something you want to say? Are you all right? Just tell me that you’re OK. Are you all right? ‘Cuz you took off without a word…”
In this scene images of Cohle in the evidence room, switching a home-made bag of baking powder with a bag of cocaine, are intercut with a few shots of Hart and Cohle at home, presumably on the morning after Hart first came to shack up with his partner. While Lucinda Williams sings mournfully in the background, Marty walks down the hall, in boxers and a white t-shirt, briefly scratching his junk before he spots Cohle, staring at the wall on the edge of his all-purpose living room and drinking Jameson from the bottle.
When Marty first sees Rust the camera is on Rust’s left side. Marty is on the opposite side of Rust, several feet away. This shot is followed by a lingering glance at Rust – more of a gaze, really…a few beats – apparently from Marty’s perspective. (Marty is not in the shot, suggesting that it is Marty himself looking at Rust.) With the well-established beefcake, McConaughey, in profile (is that his good side?) and in a wife-beater, and with Lucinda still on the soundtrack, there is more than a little something or other about the moment. And there’s more: we cut back to the first shot, before looking away Marty gives Rust one last little glance, a bit disdainfully this time (to me, reminiscent of the sort of totally platonic sitcom couple that refers to each other by their last names), then he leans over the counter, pours himself a cup of coffee, and looks pensively over his shoulder at his partner one more time.
The song keeps playing and we see a few more shots related to Cohle’s evidence room shenanigans before cutting back to just a little more domestic bliss. Rust is doing chin-ups (Did I mention that McConaughey has a nice body?) and Marty is now staring at the wall where Rust had been before. The scene, and the song, ends back in the evidence room, where Rust takes a quick snort of his loot before delivering a quick line about the laughable ease with which he was able to pull off the heist: “They really should have a better system for this.”
The juxtaposition of the song and the domestic interaction between the two partners makes for a more than faintly bro-mantic little scene. Maybe all of this is much ado about nothing. But keep in mind what happens in the rest of the episode, with Cohle dangerously risking life and limb behind enemy lines and Marty impatiently (if not devotedly) waiting for him, cell phone in hand, fretful looks on his face.