It is fitting that in this week’s episode of True Detective, two characters enter a bar and order a dirty martini, putting a purring emphasis on the word “dirty.” When was the last time a television show with such uncompromisingly filthy darkness got on the air and got a following so quickly? That is one of the most fascinating things about Pizzolatto’s series: the protagonists are so devastatingly dark that, although they do not deserve our sympathy, they get under our skin. It is a blessing that the actors in their roles are so excellent and vivid, as neither Hart nor Cohle are guys I would have liked to know in real life.
The sixth episode of True Detective is more casual and leisurely than the prior two episodes, two of the finest hours HBO has aired in years, but it is not brighter. Much of this week takes place in 2002, a bit of a detour from the supposed path of last week’s episodes, which led us to believe we were remaining with Hart and Cohle in 2012, as authorities re-open Dora Lange’s murder case. It is not a bad episode at all, but it’s less urgent and exciting than the superb hours that came before, and therefore, a bit disappointing.
Although Hart seemed to be back on the wagon, abandoning the drink and making an effort to restore his fatherly virtues, he goes back to old habits in “Haunted Houses.” In 2002, he returns to bars and scouts out a much younger woman named Beth (Lili Simmons), who infatuates him. Maggie suspects that something is up, verified when she sneaks onto his cell phone and finds a nude photo of Beth. However, instead of confronting her husband about his illicit affairs again, she tries to level the playing field by having a bit of naughty fun on her own. Moreover, the recipient of her coy sexual games turn out to be – who else – but the dreary, damaged Rust Cohle.
The star of this week’s hour is neither Harrelson nor McConaughey. That honour goes to Michelle Monaghan, who has rarely gotten the chance to go deep in films (Due Date, Mission: Impossible 3 and even Gone Baby Gone underused her talents). Here, the actress gets the chance to show the many layers of Maggie Hart. She watches in penetrating silence as her cheating husband avoids eye contact and channel surfs. She gives firm answers to Detectives Papania and Gilbough, not showing any vulnerability but speaking with an icy nonchalance that hints she is hiding something. She gravitates helplessly toward Cohle in a seduction less steamy than chilly – further represented by a close-up of pale relief rather than ecstasy when the deed is done, the most haunting shot in the whole episode. She is just as capable of misleading appearances and deceit as the men who populate her life, but at least she has a reason for wanting to feel more and forget the person causing her such strain.
As for Cohle’s suspicious identity as a possible suspect in the Dora Lange murder, he still has a lot going against him. In 2002, he tries to connect the cases between Lange and other murders and disappearances in the area. Cohle interviews a hungover Minister Theriot (Shea Whigham), who talks to him about an evangelical initiative to finance rural schools in Louisiana called Wellspring. That effort would provide a faith-based ‘alternative’ to the rest of the state’s education. Theriot, by the way, abandoned his calling to lead the devout when he realized that the men at the top had some, well, dirty inclinations toward little children. Cohle also tries to get a response from Kelly, the young girl found at LeDoux’s. However, when he asks her about the men who hurt her back then, she screams, agonized, at the detective – hinting again at Cohle’s possible involvement with that heinous crime.