“If you can imagine Marty’s behavior as an expression of weakness … pain—you’d see that it’s not about you.”
—Cohle, to Maggie, Episode Four
Let’s talk about human weakness. Here comes Marty Hart circa 2002, reformed, older, committed. The kind of guy who buys tampons and maxi pads for his wife. He lives in the pragmatic reality of enduring love, not the eroticized fiction of infidelity. But he has the bad luck to find the wrong T-Mobile store, with the wrong employee, and afterward he stops dead in the parking lot and stares at the drab sign above a generic bar: “Fox and Hound.” He remembers when he used to be the hound. He thinks he could be the hound again. And he’s just seen a fox.
But it’s not a weakness to crave extramarital sex, or the illusion of renewed youth it offers. And it’s not a weakness to take comfort in domesticity. It’s not even a weakness to carry these dueling desires at the same moment. That’s just nature. And as Marty’s new fling—a reformed prostitute he first met years earlier at the hillbilly bunny ranch during the Dora Lange investigation—said about our God-given flaws, “the universe is forgiving.” Weakness, though, is trying to bridge these appetites, succumbing to one without forgoing the other. Weakness is dragging a wife into your temptations. Weakness is letting someone believe in you, depend on you, and letting her down. That was Hart’s mistake. Maggie later says of him that he “never really knew what to want.” And that’s almost it, except that he did know what to want—he just didn’t know what to want more. Weakness is lacking the courage to pick a side.
Maggie left Marty once, in 1995. Seventeen years later, she looks across a table at two detectives with hard bitterness in her eyes and tells them lies about her peace of mind. When they bring up ’95, and the aborted break-up, she explains that, “it’s hard to admit defeat.” Which is nonsense. It’s a cover-up, and the thing she’s disguising is fear. Winning and losing is a false dichotomy clung to by those who have sacrificed dignity to their secret terror. She didn’t want to lose in ’95, and she didn’t want to lose in ’02, because losing really means seeing herself as a fool. So the second time around she fucks Rust, because that’s the thing she knows will hurt Marty the most. And in lieu of courage, hurt is the only weapon left in her arsenal.
But she needs a reason other than all-encompassing rage. “He’ll have to go,” she tells Cohle, after it happens and just as he realizes he’s been used, “because this he won’t live with.” And that’s another justification, because there is nothing preventing her from leaving it all behind again, this time for good. The only person who needs inertia is Maggie herself, but because she gave Marty the power to fail her again, his weakness exposed hers. The fear of being alone in ’95 delivered her back into the arms of a man who was always going to fail her, and now it rises again from its low simmer to overwhelm her, to illustrate exactly how pathetic she became. She’s hit by the full reality of the years she lost, and the truth she willfully ignored. But once more, she fails to confront herself.
Instead, she sublimates the hurt into an emotional version of the sunk-cost fallacy—something must be salvaged, or the 17 years of marriage will mean nothing. But the only thing to salvage is pain, and the only way to justify inflicting this pain is to frame it as a tactic that will set her free. The words Cohle spoke in Episode Four are no different than what any psychologist will tell a patient about an emotional abuser—it’s about them, not you. But it’s human nature to make things personal, and Maggie is no bigger than anyone else. This, then, is her weakness. When someone is unfaithful to you, you can either forgive them or you can’t. If you forgive them, you have to forgive them totally, and if you can’t, you have to walk away. But Maggie opts for the untenable middle path, without forgiveness or departure. Weakness is lacking the courage to pick a side.
And while Marty deserves the pain, nobody gets hurt in a vacuum; Cohle becomes collateral damage. So what about him? What about the man who strives to exist without weakness? Who will throw himself into his work with raw obsession, and hide behind his dire philosophies and bleak poetry, and treat his own life like something that can be sacrificed without a thought? There’s pain in his past, and loss, and now he’d rather die than become entangled in the human emotions that sent him on a spiral into the criminal, and psychological, underworld.
“Sometimes people mistake a child as an answer for something,” he tells a woman who murdered her own three children. “Like a way to change their story.” He’s speaking about himself, and his own lost daughter, and his own failure to become somebody different. He’s speaking about the suffering that made him want to die, and, failing that, to become an object made of stone. Something that can transmute its pain and become the embodiment of a stark Nietzschean Superman—stopping killers, extracting confessions, and saving the world while existing outside it. He lives for the moments of cold victory when he can reach into the abyss and pull some of it back. “If you get the opportunity,” he tells the Marshland Medea, “you should kill yourself.” This is how he tries to accomplish the paradoxical task of extinguishing darkness.
But life is not a comic book, and Cohle can’t extinguish his own humanity. Of all Matthew McConaughey’s incredible achievements in True Detective, the greatest came Sunday in the stilted, urgent, brief sex scene with Maggie, which lacked any of the erotic qualities of Marty’s encounters. Here we—I, anyway—saw the repressed love impulse in Cohle made explicit. Exactly how he loves Maggie is mysterious, but undeniable. Love, of course, is the thing he had attempted for years to negate, but which became embodied in Maggie—conveniently, maybe, since she was a woman he couldn’t touch. It’s why he becomes so angry at Hart when he realizes he’s sleeping around again. “Goddam,” he says, unable to believe what his partner is capable of losing. And then, because of Maggie’s weakness, there comes a night when she’s no longer untouchable, and the dam that has kept Cohle’s humanity from bursting shows its first crack, and then another, and more, until everything he’s tried to suppress rushes out in an overpowering deluge.
After the flood, when he realizes that he’s exposed himself to a scorned woman, the hard reality sets in. He wants her to have acted from the same wellspring of suppressed communion, but she tells him “it’s not you” as if that’s some kind of favor. It stuns him to the point of tears. Because as he allowed Maggie to reach a place he kept carefully hidden for so long, there was a part of him that begged, like a child, not to be hurt. He made himself vulnerable, and the result was more devastating than he could have imagined. The naked pain on his face, after he’s finally allowed himself a moment of rare hope, is one of the most shattering moments we’ll ever see on television. We know, in our guts, that we’ve just witnessed a man’s last chance; whatever curtains parted in that moment, they’ll now close for good.
But Cohle wasn’t blameless either. We always go back to a choice—can Marty resist temptation? Can Maggie walk away? For Cohle, when his daughter died, he was compelled to choose life or death. He tells Hart in the pilot that he “lacked the constitution for suicide,” and if that’s the case, then life was his last remaining option. But he wanted death-in-life, a one-dimensional existence full of dark bravado that denied, at every moment, hope and love and whatever redemptive angels brim inside us whether we welcome them or not. Unrecognized, they exist as ghosts of a bygone happiness. And the longer we ignore them, the greater our pain when they resurface and we realize that we’ve forgotten how to reconcile ourselves with joy. Cohle couldn’t choose life, and he couldn’t choose death. Weakness is lacking the courage to pick a side.
When Maggie tells her husband that she fucked his partner, he grips her by the neck. She relishes the confrontation and spits out an insult when he relents: “Coward.” She’s right. But when Cohle asserts that people who give advice are really talking to themselves, he could say the same about those who hurl insults. Maggie is a coward, too, and so is Cohle. All three endured their traumas and attempted to live on in a space between redemption and retreat. True Detective, their show, is obsessed with the way human beings create their own pain, and Nic Pizzolatto is a writer for whom redemption comes in small acts of atonement that arrive late in the day. In weeks past, we’ve indulged ourselves in symbolism and conjecture, but it’s become clear that the truth of the resolution will transcend our theories and hearken back to choices that have been postponed for years. To catch the King in Yellow, Hart and Cohle will have to be more than brilliant—they’ll have to be decisive.