After five of the best installments of episodic television ever made, this week's "True Detective" was somewhat of a letdown, albeit a necessary one, preoccupied with dotting i's and crossing t's to set up the show's final act.
In "Haunted Houses," we saw the return of many of the supporting characters we met in 1995, who unsurprisingly were scarred and changed in various ways. We also learned with finality what we already suspected:
+ that Marty Hart's marriage and his partnership with Rust Cohle both ended in 2002 when Cohle became intimately involved (briefly and over a kitchen stool, no less) with Maggie Hart, who engineered the tryst as a final act of revenge against and separation from her philandering husband.
+ that a string of "missing person" cases in the Louisiana bayou have a common connection with the Tuttle Ministries schools and an undercurrent of pedophilia.
+ that whatever Cohle has been doing since 2002, fixing his truck has not been one of them.
With 2012 Cohle and his cosmic preaching largely absent from the episode, the path to that breakup -- littered with beaten pretty boys, reformed hookers, fallen preachers and one prominent yellow tie -- seemed fairly procedural. And it left us fairly close to where we began (in both distance and time), with Cohle flagging down Hart after his interview with detectives Gilbough and Papania at the state police headquarters in Lafayette on May 1, 2012. The two men spoke for the first time in a decade then headed to a bar to discuss unfinished business, leaving our story apparently ready to move forward, instead of looking backward, for the first time.
But "Haunted Houses" ultimately worked because, as has been the case just about every week with "True Detective," it left us not quite sure if we were watching the same show we thought we were watching the week before. "True Detective" has gotten into our collective psyches as deeply as any television show ever made and, of course, much, much more quickly. And part of that fascination is the show's chameleon-like ability to defy genre. So, once again, we're left asking … what is "True Detective"?
In "The Long, Bright Dark," it seemed to be a neo noir cop show with a twist, that being that one of the officers investigating the crime, crazed by personal tragedy and professional turmoil, turned out to be the killer. That would be Rust Cohle, of course, but seven weeks later we don't think there are very many viewers left who still think that's the case.
So we moved onto our own personal "True Detective" theory, formed while watching "Seeing Things" in Week 2, that the "good" guy (that would be Marty Hart) was actually the bad guy. In that episode, Cohle suggested trying to find Dora Lange's church as the detectives were leaving the hillbilly bunny ranch and Hart talked him into waiting until Monday to do that. When they went on that search a few days later, it was Hart who luckily spotted the church just as they were ready to give up looking and when they got there -- surprise! -- a huge clue. Did Hart plant that clue over the weekend? We thought then that he did, just like we thought he shot Reggie Ledoux to silence him, not punish him. Hart's access to case files would allow him to pre-select both vulnerable women as victims and bad men as suspects and his involvement with the investigations would allow him to steer cases toward those suspects if the need arose. But the Yellow King mythology seems to have gotten too big to be something Hart the killer came up with on his own. (You can check out the unveiling of our "theory" in the Vine video at right.) It seems much more likely now that if Hart is involved it's as part of a large-scale conspiracy.
It was in "The Locked Room" when many began to feel the show was headed toward a "Rosemary's Baby" conclusion. There is not just one bad guy, but a legion of them, a cult of them -- Ledoux, the Lawnmower Man, a biker gang, Charlie Lange, possibly Hart's father in law -- all tied together by a connection to Tuttle Ministries, where the King in Yellow mythology is indoctrinated into some young people the way the Bible is taught in Sunday School.
By "Who Goes There," with Robert Chambers "The King in Yellow" shooting up the best sellers chart, there came an awakening that the horror on "True Detective" could be something supernatural. The original King in Yellow mythology is not symbolic in any way, it is literal, it is about monsters and demons and ghosts and the occult. And we had already seen some supernatural things on this show (a ghost child, an artistic flock of birds, mention of a "spaghetti monster") and perhaps chosen to ignore that those things might be literal.
Things really got weird in "The Secret Fate of All Life" when it seemed possible "True Detective" could be something much bigger and stranger than a noir cop thriller. It might be a TV show about a brilliantly perceptive cop in a noir cop thriller who becomes aware that he is a TV character in a noir cop thriller. As early as Episode 1, this blog noted that an undercurrent of the narrative seemed to recognize there were viewers involved and Cohle's "time is a flat circle" monologue directly mentioned people watching from "a fourth dimensional perspective." The internet buzzed with the theory and noted the eight episodes of "True Detective" will be preserved forever as a single unit on a flat circle of plastic, a DVD, where we can watch Dora Lange killed and Cohle grilled again and again. And not a thing we or they can do will change the story or the outcome. The story of "True Detective" will be one unit before our eyes -- past, present and future all fitting together beautifully and perfectly, like a single sculpture, matter in superposition every place it ever occupied -- but to them, to those characters processing time linearly, it's a life they're reborn into every time we hit play, sentients cycling through their lives like carts on a track. Our minds were already sufficiently blown, when we pondered this: Isn't our collective experience watching this amazing show part of our linearly processed universe? Is it possible that our lives might be as tragically futile as Rust Cohle's and Marty Hart's and Dora Lange's? That our world is already wholly formed and unalterabale and we're just not aware of that truth, that secret fate of all life? Of course, this is the basis of M-theory, as explained so eloquently by Mr. Cohle to detectives Gilbough and Papania. And if this was a show about that, wouldn't that be about as far from a noir cop thriller as you can get?
But now, after "Haunted Houses," we're wondering if this show isn't exactly what it claims to be -- a character study about two cops where the serial murder they're investigating is secondary, more novel than TV drama. What if the killer of Dora Lange and Rianne Olivier and who knows how many others turns out to be an "average" bad guy and it doesn't matter if there's a conspiracy or a King in Yellow or a twist at the end? What matters is how these men, polar opposite representatives of masculinity, change and are changed by what they encounter investigating these crimes and what it says about how men tasked with protecting the women and children in their lives have responded.
So far, Marty Hart and Rust Cohle have had a rough time of it, both as detectives and men, and we've learned a lot about them (and perhaps ourselves) in the process. But at the end of "Haunted Houses" we stand in the "True Detective" present and Hart and Cohle have another chance to get it right, both as detectives and men. Writer Nic Pizzolatto and Diretor Cory Fukunaga already know how this will play out. But the rest of us, with our linear perception of time, are left just waiting to see what happens next.