In one of the most poignant scenes in HBO’s “True Detective,” Michelle Monaghan’s Maggie Hart accuses her husband, Martin, played by Woody Harrelson, of being a promiscuous “sulky teenager.”
“You put a ceiling on your life, on everything, because you won’t change,” she said, exasperated.
It’s a pivotal scene that marks the first time viewers see just how disillusioned Maggie is with her marriage, and Monaghan shines in it, portraying strength, vulnerability, sadness and hope from one quotable line to the next.
“I was moved by that (scene),” Monaghan recalled during a recent phone interview from her L.A. home. “I think all of the people who saw it were too. … It’s confronting for a lot of people because it’s really honest and very real. It’s how people speak and that’s powerful.”
Unlike her fictional husband, Monaghan has never put a ceiling on her life. Growing up in Winthrop, Iowa — a town of 850 people, according to 2010 Census Bureau data — she said Hollywood seemed so separate from her life.
But merely 14 years after starting her acting career, Monaghan, 37, has not only shared the screen but held her own with stars such as Tom Cruise (“Mission: Impossible III”), Jake Gyllenhaal (“Source Code”), Robert Downey Jr. (“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”) and her “True Detective” co-stars Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, who plays Martin’s partner, Rustin “Rust” Cohle.
“True Detective,” which with 2.3 million viewers had HBO’s biggest series premiere, follows Louisiana homicide detectives Hart and Cohle and spans 17 years.
In 1995, the pair investigate the disturbing murder of a young woman and the crime’s possible occult connections.
In 2012, the partners are questioned about their casework after a murder similar to the ’95 killing takes place and, in the most recent episode, they reunite to seemingly finish what they started.
The finale of the first season, a planned anthology series, will air Sunday, hopefully putting to rest speculation as to who is “The Yellow King,” the supposed cult leader and possible serial murderer. Whodunit theories surrounding the king’s identity have set the Internet abuzz for weeks.
The procedural aspect of “True Detective” is interesting and complex, but the heart of this show, its sweet, sticky nougat center, is the characters’ rich relationships and their tangled emotional webs.
“What’s really happening (in the show) is this incredible dissection of relationships and how they intersect and they converge and they change over time,” Monaghan said. “I think that is what is really grabbing people emotionally and at times even making it uncomfortable.”
Monaghan hasn’t been a TV show regular since her powerful turn as naive, well-meaning teacher Kimberly Woods on “Boston Public” in 2002.
Woods stirred up racial tension at Winslow High School after hosting a discussion about affirmative action and eventually had to transfer when a student became obsessed with her.
It was the quality of “True Detective” that lured Monaghan back to the small screen, she said.
“It wasn’t necessarily about making a conscious decision to come back to TV,” she said. “It was really the level of material and the caliber of people involved that decided it for me.”
Monaghan’s Maggie Hart is easily the show’s most developed female character, and Monaghan plays her with finesse. She deftly balances Maggie’s mama-bear fortitude with the tenderness and raw hurt of a wife trying to connect with a husband she fears she’s lost.
Episode 6 exposed Maggie as the reason for the rift between Hart and Cohle, and her performance was impressive, revealing a woman at her wits’ end, forced to take dramatic measures.
Maggie is one of Hart and Cohle’s few “anchors to the world of civilized reality,” said series creator Nic Pizzolatto.
“I think Maggie is the most emotionally intelligent person in the story, and I think she is the most honest person in the story,” he said.
The final show of Season 1 of “True Detective” airs at 8 p.m. Sunday on HBO.