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'True Detective' Is Getting Ready to Wrap a Lot of Things Up

HBO/Michele K. Short

"After You've Gone," the seventh and penultimate episode of True Detective, was arguably the best hour of the series yet. It certainly ranked as the strongest episode since the third hour, back in January. Episodes four, five, and six--four and five, especially--were also superb, but they lacked the mysterious police procedural scenes that made the first three hours so striking. This episode not only included numerous scenes of the two cops working together, but also exhibited narrative storytelling at its finest. My only concern is that, with an hour left, there is too much to be resolved. 

"Time has its way with us all," Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), in philosophical mode, says to Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson). "You must have pissed him off," Hart responds, deadpan. We hadn't seen as much of this variety of humor in recent episodes, and it was nice to have the two cops' rapport front-and-center again, even if McConaughey, with his old age makeup and ponytail, looks like one of the burned out hippies I recognize from growing up in Berkeley.

People have compared the show to other great serial killer dramas, but this episode, or at least the sustainedly great first half, in which Cohle takes Hart to his storage locker and briefs him about the case, reminded me of L.A. Confidential. In both "After You've Gone" and Curtis Hanson's brilliant 1997 film noir, you had two completely different cops who decided to work a case together again, after mutual antagonism. You even had a scene with two cops talking about why they did or didn't decide to commit to the job, which reminded me of a great scene between Kevin Space and Guy Pearce in L.A. Confidential

The episode had a number of other virtues. The conclusion to the conversation with Tuttle's former maid was, without doubt, one of the creepiest moments in the entire series. And the two scenes with Hart and Cohle's former colleague, on the golf course and on his boat, were fascinating and nebulous in the best way.

I have no doubt that the finale will attract viewers and a new round of critical acclaim for the actors and creators, but it does seem that the negative criticism of the show reached something of a high last week, with people attacking different aspects of the script and the show's treatment of its female characters. The excellent Emily Nussbaum, in The New Yorker, for example, wrote a much touted piece saying that, despite its virtues, the show was shallow and borderline misogynist. 

Nussbaum's piece makes some good points, but is also unfair. For starters, she writes as if the show is full of sex and nudity (especially female nudity), when in fact by the standards of cable television it is relatively chaste. Nussbaum adds:

While the male detectives of “True Detective” are avenging women and children, and bro-bonding over “crazy pussy,” every live woman they meet is paper-thin. Wives and sluts and daughters—none with any interior life. 

There are two responses to this. The first is that all of the characters except for Hart and Cohle are paper-thin. The two detectives who are interrogating Hart and Cohle, and who appear in numerous scenes in every episode, are given essentially no back-story, and are provided no real outlet to display anything about their personalities. The same goes for all the cops that Hart and Cohle work with who drift in and out of various episodes.

Now imagine that any of these characters were female. I assume Nussbaum would integrate them into her critique. And yet all of these characters are male, and are given absolutely nothing to do. This is the show's narrative structure, for good and ill.

The second response is more specific. I agree that the character who really should have more depth, Hart's wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan), is given some mediocre dialogue and, despite some promising scenes in the early episodes, hasn't developed into a fully-fledged, fascinating character. Before episode 7, however, a friend pointed out to me that many of Monaghan's scenes would at least be somewhat better--and her character more interesting--if Monaghan herself were not giving such a one-note, dull performance. And, indeed, episode 7 offered her two scenes, one with each lead; in neither of them was she given a tremendous amount to work with, but a better actress might have made both scenes come alive. (Even the viewers who hate McConaughey's dialogue admit he is great in the role, which shows you what good acting can accomplish.)

Nussbaum also adds this: 

Last week, Maggie finally got her own episode, in which she is interrogated by the cops. She lies to them, with noir composure, as the visuals reveal a predictable twist: Maggie had revenge sex with Rust. That sex is filmed as gasp-worthy, though it lasts thirty seconds. We see Monaghan’s butt, plus the thrusting cheeks of McConaughey.

I don't know what the gasp-worthy line is supposed to imply, unless she is hinting that the show is trying to argue that 30-second-long sex is usually satisfying for women, which I strongly, strongly doubt was the intended message. Moreover, given that Nussbaum would have indicted the show for having double standards if McConaughey had not disrobed, I am not quite sure what we are supposed to make of her decision to include this detail, or why she thinks it helps her case. 

But back to episode 7, and how much we still don't know. Is the show getting ready to seriously embrace what McConaughey's character called "the sprawl"--the idea that the murders are part of a broad political and religious conspiracy? Or is the killer connected but still peripheral to the weird goings-on of the Tuttle clan? It's hard to say, although I do hope that it is the latter. The show, as I wrote last week, is at its best when it focuses on the personal demons of its characters. It'll be quite  a letdown if it merely blossoms into Louisiana House of Cards.