“Haunted Houses” | Another True Detective Riff


I had an intuition that “Haunted Houses” would likely be the weakest episode of True Detective. Structurally, the episode has a lot of work to do to set up the two final episodes (which I expect to be very strong—although episode four, “Who Goes There,” has set the bar really high). Metaphors like tying loose ends or connecting the dots don’t apply well to True Detective—which is, I’d argue, a show about the insanity of looking for satisfactory answers to, y’know, life and death—but “Haunted Houses” nevertheless underlines some of the plot points that will coalesce (or shatter) in the finale episodes.

We finally get to see why Hart and Cohle split up in 2002, and the moment is deeply dissatisfying in its obviousness and predictability, although there is a teleological neatness to seeing Hart fall apart, disappointing both of his partners—Maggie and Cohle—both of whom seem to have seen this coming. Indeed, in this episode, Hart fulfills a prophecy from the second episode, when Cohle wryly suggests that he’s putting a “down payment” on the child prostitute he feebly tries to “rescue” from the woodland brothel.

“Haunted Houses” focuses heavily on Marty Hart, which might be why I found it less engaging than what’s come before. There’s no aggravating Cohle monologue in this episode, and his actions are confined entirely to 2002, where he’s raking through the slime of old cases — “dead women and children” — causing headaches and pissing people off. Cohle, who has lost his own daughter, is keenly attuned to the infanticidal cost of existence. In the episode’s standout scene, he slowly, patiently extracts a confession out of a swampland Medea who has killed all of her children. Cohle has earlier revealed that the simple core of his interrogation technique is rooted in the idea that everyone has sinned and that everyone wants to confess—and he gently guides the mother to confession. Then, in a strange but somehow caring tone, he ends the interrogation: “If you get the opportunity, you should kill yourself.”

Cohle’s detective work begins to knit together the major threads of what we now might as well call the Tuttle case: The big people who are involved in sick shit. The series isn’t at its best when it’s doing the police procedural thing, and even soaked in Southern Gothic noir, some of these scenes play out in broad strokes—but those broad strokes will likely build a foundation for the rest of the drama to unfold on.

The Cohle sequences that don’t involve his detective work seem to frame him from Hart’s point of view—his lines are never quite wholly contextualized as they are in earlier episodes, seasoned and weighted by 2012 Cohle’s dark ramblings. When Hart calls Cohle’s observations on the Tuttle (non)case “pure gibberish,” there’s clearly an invitation here for the audience to agree—or not.

Not that Hart has done anything meaningful lately—let alone “anything heroic,” in his own words. Most of “Haunted Houses” conjures him in wholly abject terms. In the opening scene, he mercilessly beats the two boys his daughter has had (consensual) sex with. The scene is violent and cruel, quickly telegraphing the fact that Hart is a bully. (When asked what types of detectives exist in the opening scenes of the first episode, “bully” is the first descriptor on Hart’s list). He leaves, gets in his car, shuts the door, then opens it again to vomit: Abjection: His guts spilling out, his borders unrestrained. He’s sick. That abjection is underscored later when Hart feels shame at carrying a shopping bag brimming with tampons, and then heavily underscored when his commanding officer refers to him as a “walking tampon.”

Hart attempts to reassert his manhood—his kinghood?—throughout the episode, first by violating the civil rights of the boys in the cell and then by having an affair with a woman young enough to be one of his daughters. When he finds out that Maggie has fucked Cohle in revenge (in brutal and confusing scene), Hart begins to choke her, threatens her, before redirecting his rage into a physical attack on Cohle. None of this behavior helps him to reassert his sense of identity; the 2005 segment closes out with Hart cuckolded, shamed, bloody, abject.

Of course that’s not the end of the episode. In episode four, Cohle left the interrogation room, having got a read on detectives Papania and Gilbough, and also severing (or at least displacing) one of the show’s formal conventions, the interrogation scenes. In episode five, Hart does the same. The interrogation scenes have been a simple but effective way for True Detective to reveal the ways that truth—and implicitly identity—is a construction, a narration: A performance. 

Leaving behind the interrogation sequences opens the last two episodes up to something new, which begins in the most interesting part of “Haunted Houses” — the last few minutes, when 2012 Hart meets 2012 Cohle (his first appearance in the episode). Cohle has clearly been tailing Hart, and he hails him from behind (ex-cop pulling over ex-cop), a kind of anti-interpellation, or an interpellation into some other, darker (dis)order. While “Haunted Houses” doesn’t evoke the strange thrills and weird questions that made the first half of the season so compelling, it nevertheless sets the stage for something dark and ugly—some kind of monster at the end of the dream.


10 thoughts on ““Haunted Houses” | Another True Detective Riff”

  1. Enjoyed this riff, in particular how you had slim pickings to pore over as compared to previous riffs. You find me agreeing with all the points you made.
    I think from episode 1, we were all waiting for the Tuttle story to fill out, hence my reply to your last TD riff.


    1. Yeah, I don’t know even why I wrote this riff. It reads like a recap, which I’m not good at. The ep was really straightforward, actually—bridgework. Not bad, but I’m hoping that they stick this ending.

      I’m mostly interested in the abjection here (and, specifically, to be clear, I’m working from Julia Kristeva’s conception of abjection—she has this notion of the deject—that’s Cohle), and I think that the episode brought Marty into (im)pure abjection. I’m also interested in the hailing, in the interpellation at the end—Rust pulling Marty over—Rust redefining the symbolic order of their relationship (right by what looks like the trail that led to the meth house where they found the kids).

      The show is clearly heading into this occult—in the “hidden” sense—territory, this Tuttle-territory of ritual and dream and dark imagination.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I guess I’m alone in thinking that Rust and Maggie getting it on wasn’t disappointing and predictable. It was obvious from E01 that there was chemistry between them and the way they finally got it on was, imo, powerful. It also showed a bit of depth (a/k/a deviousness) to Maggie who has been a somewhat boring long-suffering wife until now. The bag of tampon thing was goofy — the only obvious mis-step in the show to date. No man, macho or otherwise, is gonna cart a flimsy plastic bag bulging with tampons into a bar. Marty does take the lead in this episode which is why it doesn’t have as much zing as the others. Much as i like Woody Harrelson, I get tired of looking at that weird thing he does with his jaw and, let’s face it, he’s not the actor my man Matthew is, nor is his character remotely as compelling. I find that much of what other people dismiss as Rustin’s bizarre, overly dark ‘ramblings’ make a lot of sense to me. I can imagine myself making a sardonic comment about the average IQ of those tent revival people and, when he tells that murderous mom to kill herself, I think she should, too. Unless Rustin is rite and she is doomed to play out, like an annoying video loop, giving birth and murdering her spawn over and over and over . . . I love the detail of the broken tail lite. Trust me, as someone who lived in Texas for 16 years, nothing says drop-out more quickly than a man who lets his truck look tacky.


  3. Is the broken tail light also not still broken from when Rust threw Marty into it when they had their fight outside the police station?

    Also, to add to Marty’s need to reassert his manliness, he had been further emasculated by Rust treating him like his secretary by telling him to type out the report.

    Anyway, the episode wasn’t the most thrilling so far but it’s made me excited for what’s to come. I’m really loving this show, and as much as I’m excited to see it play out, I’m also really excited to see what plot-line/cast the next season has in store.


    1. I think the broken tail light is clearly still broken from the fight with Marty—a symbol, sure, a reminder, a wound. And yes! Rust telling Marty “type the report” — total emasculation.

      On Tue, Feb 25, 2014 at 10:10 AM, Biblioklept wrote:



  4. The tail light is a cool detail. Here’s my riff on that:

    It reminds you that Rust likes to preserve and unearth the past, even allowing it to repeat (as in episode 4, as he becomes undercover again). He hates cover-ups and simple explanations. The first episode has him lingering over the ritualistic objects as signs of habit–which he reads as fundamentally historical. Marty and the police station are anti-historical. Before Rust re-engages Marty, episode 6 shows Marty walking out of interrogation because he doesn’t want to keep up with Rust’s history, “what he has become” (or whatever the line is).

    Of course that perfectly coincides with the main arc of any mystery thriller; history’s usually at stake. But compared to Twin Peaks this show is a whole lot more obsessed with the historical details of missing persons, archives that Tuttle claims (obviously as a ruse) were probably lost in a flooded basement. Whereas Lynch used the mystery plot in order to explore the fundamental dualism of reality, True Detective’s writer uses mystery to explore the various encoding strategies that trap and preserve the past: ritualistic violence, confession, bureaucracy, deception, etc.

    There’s more to say on this but it would then no longer be a riff on the tail light. Looking forward to your next “recap,” Biblioklept.


    1. Nice take—and I think the tail light (a broken red light: the red light=stop, but here it’s broken, authority is reversed, etc.) is a key image (the end of the episode lingers on the image).

      I actually started rewatching Twin Peaks because of True Detective—on the third ep now. Hadn’t seen it since 2002. Strange how dated some of it is—I think because Lynch and Frost changed the landscape: What was weird in ’91 is now normal.


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