"Haunted Houses," the sixth episode of True Detective, was almost certainly the weakest hour yet. The show is so superbly acted and directed that this sounds like more of a criticism than it actually is; "Haunted Houses" was still terrific television. But for the first time the show felt somewhat clichéd and unoriginal—less an experiment in stylistically groundbreaking television than a retread of other cop shows and films. Fortunately, several dynamite scenes and a terrific ending managed to make me feel even better about where the show is heading in its final two episodes.
The basic problem with the plot in this episode was that it mined familiar ground. (SPOILERS AHEAD.) Matthew McConaughey's character, Rust Cohle, was suspended and then resigned from the police force, in a scene familiar from almost every cop movie ever made. (He is made to surrender his badge and gun.) The larger concern is that the reason for his doing so—an unwillingness on the part of his bosses to investigate the potentially politically explosive direction of the case—was also familiar. It isn't merely that a sexual abuse cover-up and a sleazy religious leader feel old hat. It's also that the institutional nature of the evil that is being hinted at is a disappointing departure for the show. This isn't, or shouldn't be, a story of political corruption or a Jerry Falwell-like sleaze. The absolutely pervasive sense of evil and menace that the show offers is somehow diminished by these more mundane varieties of bad behavior.
We learned several new bits of information, aside from the fact that Michelle Monaghan, unlike the male actors, looks exactly the same in scenes taking place in 2012 as she did 17 years previously. Woody Harrelson's character, meanwhile, was said to have found God at one point, which wasn't explained sufficiently and was thus not quite believable. The subplot involving Monaghan's decision to have sex with McConaughey, while psychologically somewhat believable, resulted in an undeniably intense but also familiar sex scene, a version of which has been seen in other cop movies. (Basic Instinct comes to mind.) "Haunted Houses" did contain the arcane references that are sure to cause addicts to check books out of the library, as has already happened with previous allusions to H.P. Lovecraft. (This episode it was a Franciscan mystic and Medea.) But the net affect was still less atmospherically affecting than previous airings.
Still, the virtues of the show shined through. The Reverend Tuttle subplot may be worrying in what it portends, but the scene with McConaughey and Tuttle was one of the best of the series, and contained the same level of lurking threat that the rest of the episode, for the most part, lacked. The same was true of the scene where Cohle goes to visit one of the kidnapping victims whom he had rescued in the previous episode, resulting in arguably the creepiest scene of the series.
Perhaps the most important scene was the opener, however, at least in what it might portend. We didn't just see Harrelson acting like a jerk or a lout or even a criminal, as he did in the first several episodes. Rather, we saw him engage in sadistic behavior. He didn't merely beat up the boys who had sex with his daughter; he psychologically tortured and scared them, too. This was a type of cruelty that the show has otherwise restricted to the doings of the unknown murderer(s), as opposed to the two troubled detectives.
Does this mean that the show is heading in an even darker direction? It's hard to say. But the final scene was certainly promising, as it hinted at more time with our two heroes in the same room, which this episode mostly lacked. In the bleak universe of True Detective, this is distinctly cheerful news.