True Detective episode 2 review: Seeing Things

True Detective is about more than just two men investigating the death of a woman. It’s about relationships between men and women...

This review contains spoilers.

1.2 Seeing Things

Marty Harte’s dad had no truck with exploring his feelings. Back in his day, guys didn’t just ‘air their bullshit to the world’ and for men like him, real men, emotions are a concept by which we measure our manliness. It’s bad enough even to acknowledge them, worse still to actually address them.

TV, cinema and the hard boiled school of crime fiction have long-standing fixations on the hyper-masculine environments that men build for one another. As crucibles of conflict they make great settings for drama. They’re less suitable for the exploration of emotion. The standard archetypes of this fiction, whether cowboy, soldier, gangster or cop, all adhere to a model in which thought must be defeated by action. That they’re all myths is irrelevant. They exist, and the Gary Cooper, ‘strong, silent type’ remains the sort of man against whom even a wealthy and powerful mafia boss could measure himself and come up short. Marty Harte gained six inches on his father but even in the end still couldn’t take him. He too came up short, figuratively if not literally.

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Despite these barriers, writers continually seek ways to chip through the walls and take an emotional sounding. Sometimes it’s best just to run with it, however odd it seems. Tony Soprano’s therapy sessions were unusual enough to provide his show’s original angle. It’s difficult to repeat the trick, but True Detective manages it by convincing its lead characters that their therapy sessions are something more manly, like a police interview. 

The intercut scenes with Detectives Gilbough and Papania are True Detective’s most distinctive device and present the principals more as therapists and client than cops and witness. There are no histrionics, no shouting, no frustrated demands for more information, just a six-pack of Lone Stars where an accredited therapist would have a box of Kleenex. The sessions, it would seem, also have no artificial time limit. Both Harte and Cohle are simply given the room to tell their stories and a few gentle questions to encourage the telling.

These stories are all about men, and this week, specifically about their relationship with women. These relationships are not limited to romantic or sexual ones either. Harte and Cohle are both fathers of daughters, or at least Harte is. Cohle’s daughter ‘passed’, leaving him the simple task of going in too heavy at work before his marriage passed too. ‘I emptied a nine into a crankhead’, says Cohle of his Robocop: Narcotics Division phase, and makes it sound cathartic. We’ll leave any further speculation over meaning to Dr Freud, except to note that when Harte asks if his mom is still alive his reply is a laconic ‘maybe’.

It left him the hallucinating void that we now see. The sort of man who, while capable of assessing the mental state of the person or persons unknown he is chasing, merely reduces his own condition to ‘PTSD. Exhausted nerves. Whatever’. Since then, he’s come close to marrying again, once, but it didn’t work out. That silence you hear? That’s the world’s awed surprise. 

Harte is doing a marginally better job at keeping his home life insulated from his work, but then, he has a system. As he tells Gilbough and Papania, ‘on this job you gotta decompress before you go being a family man’. His method, a drunken visit to his mistress Lisa is conducted as parodic role-play; she cuffs and mirandises him before letting him take his release ‘for the good of his family’. That family is, to all intents and purposes, perfectly normal, even in their imperfections. Marty has inter-generational disagreements with his father-in-law. Maggie despairs of his drinking and womanising. His daughters make crime scene reconstructions with their dolls. You know, the usual. It’s hardly a surprise that Modern Day Harte doesn’t wear a wedding ring while Flashback Harte does, even as he is cuffed and straddled by his mistress. These men are defined by their relationship with women, even when it is absent. The detectives’ locker room confrontation is sparked by a macho quip about women, specifically, Cohle’s ‘wash up. You got some pussy on you’ and Harte’s possessive, albeit fraudulent, defence of his wife. His heat-of-the-moment insult for her is ‘ballbuster’. It’s a revealing epithet. For him, women are either a limitation on his freedom or precious objects warranting his protection.  He is gallant enough to warn Lisa that ‘there’s still a ‘crazy man out there, killing women’ and seems genuinely angered by the condition of the underage prostitute he meets on that crazy man’s trail without really understanding why. ‘It’s a woman’s body, a woman’s choice. Suddenly you don’t own it the way you thought you did’ admonishes the madam but the import and the irony sail right over his head.

He wouldn’t have even met the girl were it not for his partner, who proved as capable of the rough stuff and of solid police work as he is the amateur psychology. Harte insists, repeatedly, on following the ‘johns’, it’s Cohle who takes the more thorough path, questioning, following and photographing. He speaks to men in daylight and women, or a certain profession of women, at night. It’s a deliberate distinction. Man/Woman. Sun/Moon.

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Before we disappear too far down the rabbit hole of symbolic speculation, we’re reminded that True Detective is a cop show, complete with arguments over jurisdiction and a classic ass-chewing by The Chief. Major Quesada is happy enough for the pair to hand the Lange case over to the task force and only Harte’s reputation gives them any say on the matter. Or gives Harte any say; the spooky, drawling Cohle is reminded instead to shut the fuck up. Surprisingly, given what it’s already done to them, they elect to keep it. It’s unfinished business, and, if Cohle’s visions are anything to go by, perhaps even ‘a mainline to the secret truth of the universe’. Here, he may have a point. If there’s any way to tap the emotional core of masculinity, it’s through the examination of brutal violence.

Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, The Long Bright Dark, here.

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