Marty Hart: An Appreciation of Sorts

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With last week’s news that HBO has pretty much taken True Detective out back and shot it, it seems like a good time to revisit one of the polarizing show’s most indelible characters. No, not Tony Chessani. As much as I did not hate Season Two, I’m not exactly champing at the bit to dive back into it (until this summer when I have the chance to watch it on Blu-Ray with the Pizzolato commentary track on. Holy shit is that going to be fantastic). To properly eulogize True Detective let’s go back to Season One, to a simpler time when Robert Chambers’ “The King In Yellow” was flying off bookstore shelves (or maybe just flying onto Kindles for $1.99 a pop) and people had yet to determine what exactly was problematic (fuck that word) about the show. I give you …

Marty Hart: An Appreciation of Sorts

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I: “True crime. It’s the genre, not the title.”

I have to admit that I’ve always been a bit of a mark for the first season of True Detective. A gritty crime story with occult overtones is right in my wheelhouse, and I also must confess to the romantic, superficial obsession with the South held by many Northerners. So I would’ve watched breathlessly even if the show hadn’t set the world on fire. I have watched the entire season four times, which I have never done for any other season of any other show. The first and second times through I focused on Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, as did most people. Rust is obviously the more flamboyant of the two characters and perhaps the more sympathetic. While neither he nor Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart were exactly paragons of virtue, everyone can get behind a man tormented by the untimely death of his daughter and a subsequent divorce. As we do with most of our anti-heroes, we forgive or overlook sociopathic behavior when we recall the trauma that served as the inciting incident.

So I gravitated towards Rust, wondering if perhaps the extremes he went to in his investigation of Dora Lange were really symptoms of a death wish; not suicide by cop but suicide as cop (even though he claims to “lack the constitution for suicide”). I still feel that his willingness to take on dangerous assignments was a hope that he would be killed in the line of duty and reach that “deeper darkness” where he could see his daughter again. As for the much debated topic of his philosophizing, let me put it this way: I believe that the cult of Rust Cohle has something in common with the teenage males who idolize 60s rock stars such as Jim Morrison: awe at their idol’s ability to ingest massive amounts of illicit substances and spout pseudo-mystical gibberish. So during my third go-round with the series I started to focus a bit more on Marty Hart.

It’s easy to overlook Marty because we’ve seen this type of character over and over. He’s a veteran cop who drinks too much, treats the women in his life terribly, and uses the job as an excuse. Every hard-boiled novel or TV procedural has a version of this guy. And make no bones about it: Marty is an asshole. I’m not trying to rehabilitate his character here; rather, I just want to suggest that a close look at Marty reveals an individual who may not be as complex as his partner, but fascinating nonetheless.

II: Marty vs. Rust

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It’s true that Marty suffers in comparison to Rust. The show often presents Marty as less intelligent, perhaps overplaying that hand when Rust rambles about humans as “sentient meat” and Marty asks, “What’s scented meat?” Marty is also far less contemplative than his partner. Witness their first car ride together in episode one: when confronted by Rust’s theories about mankind “denying its programming,” Marty goes from asking for explanations, to begging Rust to shut the fuck up, to finally deciding the car should be reserved for “silent reflection.” And what would Marty do with some time for silent reflection? He claims that “steadiness” is his defining characteristic and family is the most important force in a man’s life, but it shouldn’t take the distance from the police station to the Elk’s Club for Marty to realize that he’s kinda full of shit on both counts.

Clearly the mysteries of life are better left to Rust, but Marty can’t get the best of Rust physically either. When they first square off Rust effortlessly gets Marty in a hold designed to shatter his wrists. Their big brawl in episode six is a draw, and Marty is only that successful because Rust was clearly holding back. The moral high ground is often Rust’s as well, as in the initial scuffle from episode two. Rust critiques Marty’s extramarital activities, and Marty tries to twist Rust’s comments into vulgar, presumptuous comments about his wife. Rust turns Marty’s logic and his aggression right back on him without raising his voice or his heart rate, and all Marty can do is splutter off in defeat.

Later that morning we get a chance to see Marty engage in some silent reflection after all. As Rust doubles back to beat the bag out of some uncooperative mechanics, Harrelson gives us one of the myriad small details that make his performance so fantastic. Marty takes a furtive sniff of his fingers as if he’s realized that he does in fact reek of “high tide,” as Rust put it. Does he use this realization to become a better husband and father? No. His marriage reaches its inevitable conclusion due to his infidelity, and Marty never truly figures out fatherhood either. He’s more than happy to beat the shit out of the boys from the back seat (although his vomiting immediately afterwards is telling), but note his reaction years later to his daughter’s burgeoning art career. Marty tells Maggie that he’ll have to buy one of Audrey’s paintings, not go to one of her gallery showings and express some genuine interest. Marty never truly transcends his nature, but at least on some level he aspires to be more than the brute he is so easily reduced to by lazy analysis.

III: Marty the Cop

Marty was probably not a bad cop at one point, perfectly suited for run-of-the-mill homicides, but he’s way out of his depth in the Dora Lange case. He calls it “some Halloween shit” and “the most fucked up thing I ever caught,” which it would have to be for anyone not on the Criminal Minds or Hannibal rosters. Harrelson, whose facial expressions are superb throughout the series, shows us that yes, Marty is truly shaken by Dora Lange. The first episode uses this idea in order to be coy about Marty’s womanizing, allowing us to believe that things like getting home late, pouring a drink before he checks on his girls, and never making it to bed can be chalked up to trying to digest this crime scene.

As he and Rust move forward with the case, it’s hard to call most of Marty’s ideas anything other than dead fucking wrong. He initially insists that the murder was personal, and doesn’t buy Rust’s theories about the “scope” of the killer’s ideas. Marty’s other possibilities, that the murder is the work of a drug-addled tweaker or a “retard job” by a john embarrassed by his shortcomings are patently ludicrous given the attention to detail at the crime scene. It’s tough to argue with Gilbough and Papania when they suggest that Rust took the investigation where he wanted it to go because 1. he wasn’t getting much help from “the human tampon,” and 2. he was, y’know, right.

Nonetheless, Marty does have his uses. Some interview subjects are more inclined to talk to the self-proclaimed “people person” than to Rust. It was Marty’s leg work that tracked down Tyrone Weems, who was instrumental in getting to Reggie Ledoux. But then again, this is also the guy whose idea of going undercover at a Deep South biker bar is a Pink Floyd t-shirt, and not even a vintage one at that but a fucking Division Bell shirt. He risked blowing Rust’s cover and getting them both killed (this after Rust’s cartel torture story), and then an even bigger fuck-up ruins the case completely. Despite his inattention to his own daughters, crimes against children make Marty give in to his emotions. He eventually quits the force due to a grotesquely murdered baby, and Harrelson’s performance when Marty watches the video evidence Rust stole from Tuttle is unforgettable. So when he discovers the children chained up in the Ledoux compound he rashly blows Reggie’s head off (Rust’s “good to see you commit to something” is one of the series’ best lines). Were it not for Rust thinking on his feet and coming up with a plausible story they would’ve been totally fucked.

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Nonetheless when the dust settles it’s Marty who gets a promotion and the unpopular Rust gets a simple commendation for bravery (Marty claims he insisted that Rust be recognized). Nothing can compensate for killing Ledoux, but maybe Rust’s fabrications wouldn’t have gone over without Marty’s reputation as a company man. Furthermore Reggie Ledoux doesn’t seem like the type who would sing once he got to prison, although I’m sure he and Rust could’ve talked for hours on all manner of topics. But the fact remains that Marty killing Ledoux left Errol Childress free to do his thing for another seventeen years.

Does Marty develop at all as an investigator? After leaving the force he sets up his own company, “Hart Investigative Solutions,” which appears to be on the decline in 2012. The suit and the Caddy look sharp, but the spartan office recalls Rust’s old apartment and Marty scoffs when Rust asks about people coming in and out all the time. Marty even reveals to Rust that becoming a cop wasn’t ever part of a plan: “you end up becoming something you never intended … never even really knew why.” It would seem Marty just drifted into a job that he had perhaps a subconscious affinity for, and as a bonus, it allowed him the ability to be himself (read: indulge his worst impulses).

When they get back to business with the information Rust has accrued Marty shows that perhaps there always was a shrewd investigator in there somewhere. There’s a great moment when Marty is about to settle in at a computer only to be told he’s going to have to wade through boxes upon boxes of paper files, something that insomniac Rust would’ve dove into in 1995. Those files lead them to a retired domestic who helps them piece together the Childress family, a crucial step in this investigation. Then, as if to make up for plugging Ledoux all those years ago, it’s Marty, not Rust, who has the brainstorm about the green ears which leads them directly to Errol Childress, the killer who was right under their noses seventeen years ago.

As they recuperate in the hospital Marty demonstrates what makes him crucial to this story: the down-to-earth point of view that reigns in and helps us digest Rust’s flights of fancy. Rust still feels that their work is not yet done because while they may have taken out the monster, the system that allowed him to thrive still exists. Marty has to reassure Rust of the worth of their accomplishment by putting their work in perspective: “That ain’t what kind of world it is. We ain’t gonna get ‘em all, but we got ours.”

Brendan O'Brien

Brendan O'Brien

When Brendan O'Brien was 17 he was sure he was going to be a rock star. At 37 he teaches English. Married with a daughter, in his spare time he's a film buff, a basketball junkie, and a cemetery enthusiast.

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