Where True Detective Is Headed, as Best We Can Tell

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 17 2014 9:04 AM

True Detective Lays a Few More Cards on the Table

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"Time is a flat circle."

HBO

David Haglund: After three stately episodes that established the crime and the principals, and one action-packed showstopper that sent Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) through hell, this episode, “The Secret Fate of All Life,” lay a few more cards down on the table that True Detective had heretofore been holding pretty close to its chest.

Yes, Papania (Tory Kittles) and Gilbough (Michael Potts) think that Cohle is the killer. And yes, Cohle thinks there is a conspiracy that reaches high up and involves many missing girls. These, it seems, are the two competing theories of the case. And you can probably guess which one I think is right.

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Willa Paskin: Yeah, I was going to say: Are they really competing? What I thought this episode did, in addition to finally moving on from the cat-and-mouse interrogation-room games, was to establish that the show itself will tell us, the audience, at least some of the truth. The sequence in which we see what really happened with Reggie Ledoux—Marty (Woody Harrelson) shot him, and not in self-defense—plays out so that we know the truth even though Papania and Gilbough do not.

It did give me pause to see just how excellent both Marty and especially Rust were at lying, but I am happy that the show seems not to be heading down the “Rust Cohle is the murderer” path, and is instead choosing the “these not very bright guys investigating Rust Cohle think he is the murderer” path.

I did think Rust’s speechifying this episode—especially as compared to the early episodes—was starting to feel a little far out and pretentious in a nonsensical way. Membrane theory, schmembrane theory.

Haglund: Membrane theory (or M-theory) is presumably an example of the “legitimate scientific and philosophical thought” that Pizzolatto is very fond of. (Update, 4:55 p.m.: In the comments, Dan Schiller notes that Cohle is probably saying “M-brane,” rather than membrane. Brane is short for membrane; both terms are connected with string theory.) Pizzolatto has defended Cohle’s speechifying from charges that it’s just dorm-room bullshit. Me, I love listening to McConaughey talk, so I enjoyed it, though it may have lacked some of the punch of the monologues in earlier episodes. I did like that he at one point quoted Ledoux, simply saying, “Someone once told me.” He absorbed some of Ledoux’s thinking, it seems.

Paskin: Right. What he had once called bullshit, he was now spouting as his own insight.

Haglund: Which I suppose might lead some to conclude that he did later become a killer, the barrier blurring between detective and psychotic (or metapsychotic). But I’m not buying that. The other piece of evidence those suspicious people might cite: He apparently hung around the 2012 crime scene for a few weeks before that murder in Lake Charles went down. But my theory is: He was on to the people who did it, and he was waiting and watching.

Paskin: Oh, I thought that seemed very clear. He’s been investigating this murder, and is much further along than the cops, whom he humored, hoping they had some evidence he didn't have, which they did not.

Haglund: “You weren’t getting a read on him,” Marty says to the detectives about Rust. “He was getting a read on you.” 

Paskin: I do think his quoting of Ledoux raises some questions about what he’s been up to these last 10 years, at the very least embedding himself, let’s say, in Carcosa-theory—which it is clear from the show’s writing we are supposed to be taking very seriously. For those of you who didn’t know or see this already, the Yellow King stuff—which the meth-head drugstore killer brings up again, after its previous appearances in Dora Lange’s journal and Charlie Lange’s cellmate conversations with Ledoux—has a fictional history long pre-dating True Detective. It is a story, essentially, about another story that people read and that makes them go mad, a state maybe not all that dissimilar to Reggie Ledoux’s. Given that Reggie told Cohle “You’re in Carcosa now,” hopefully Cohle’s ramblings are not a sign of the same thing.

Haglund: “It’s time, isn’t it?” Ledoux says. “The black stars...” Those “black stars” are supposed to rise on some “strange” night, according to “Cassilda’s Song,” a bit of The King in Yellow which the show has quoted more than once. There appeared to be black stars on the broken window in the school that frames Cohle’s head in the final shot. And True Detective superfan Patton Oswalt spotted a “looming yellow crown” earlier in the episode.

Paskin: I would also add that because of the way Ledoux died, we in the audience now know exactly how another murder could have happened: They just didn’t get the right man. Which, from a certain angle, makes Marty look pretty suspicious.

Haglund: Makes Marty look suspicious? I rewatched the first couple episodes this weekend, and I definitely got to wondering about Marty’s precise culpability. But when this episode ended, I did not find myself thinking about his role in it particularly.

Paskin: Oh, I also don’t think he is a murderer—but it is a wrinkle that he’s the guy who shot Ledoux, and therefore ended the investigation. If I had to guess, I think the way Marty is going to personally play into all of this is that his oldest daughter is going to have been molested, in some way, by the “big men” doing all these terrible deeds. Marty’s behavior with his daughter—his total judgment of her “sluttiness,” when we know that he’s not so much more admirable or less horny than those boys in the car—tells us something about his character. But between this incident and Audrey’s younger self drawing those dirty pictures in previous episodes, I fear something horrible is afoot.

Haglund: There’s also the doll crime scene that the daughters staged with several Kens surrounding a naked Barbie. And Marty’s wealthy father-in-law seems like a candidate to be among the big rich men that have been implicated first by Charlie Lange and then by the southern-fried pharmaceutical-whatever man. Could it be worrisome at all that Marty joins the Promise Keepers? More ominous, perhaps, is that fight over the crown that the two daughters have. It ends up dangling from a tree like one of those creepy triangular wooden things. And the antlers on Dora Lange were repeatedly described as a “crown” in Episode 1.

As for the Yellow King mythos, Michael M. Hughes at io9 suggested that the show itself would employ that mythos, rather than merely imputing it to a crazed serial killer. “Cohle has seen the monster. I suspect we will, too,” Hughes writes. But I don’t think we will see a monster, per se. Pizzolatto has said that the show will stick with “the realist mode,” and I assume it will. The mythology is important. But I’m guessing it’s important as the belief system of killers—and perhaps as a sort of a allegorical key to the whole shebang—not as the actual metaphysics of this particular fictional universe.

Paskin: I fervently hope that this is the case!

Haglund: One other thing I wanted to ask you about.

Paskin: Besides if Marty was wearing the lamest Pink Floyd t-shirt of all time, I assume.

Haglund: Besides that, though I did enjoy that bit of dad wardrobing. Have you noticed that McConaughey is consistently the only stylishly dressed cop on the show, by the way? His shirts fit him beautifully. All the others look very straight-guy-no-fashion-sense. (And since you mentioned Pink Floyd, let’s briefly note the show’s consistently excellent music: This week, Kris Kristofferson’s “Casey’s Last Ride” was an inspired song choice for that early scene in the bar. Just read the lyrics.)

Anyway, in an interview with the Daily Beast, Pizzolatto described True Detective as, partly, a work of metafiction, referencing that whole “membrane theory” business we discussed above. “Aren’t we the creatures of that higher dimension?” the writer asks, rhetorically, speaking of us television viewers. “The creatures who can see the totality of [Cohle’s] world? After all, we get to see all eight episodes of his life. On a flat screen. And we can watch him live that same life over and over again, the exact same way.”

Does this add anything to the show for you? I need to think about it some more myself.

Willa: This is a nice reminder that I don’t really want to read any more interviews with Pizzolatto until this show is done! I found that particular speech of Rust’s so much less compelling than his previous dorm-room-style speeches. I could make sense of it as a statement on his own circumstance: He, Rust, was still in that room with those kids, because he couldn't ever stop living it. But there is something of a disconnect between Rust’s previous “life is meaningless and futile and there is nothing after it” harrangues and, oh, also “experience repeats in horror forever and ever,” which sounds an awful lot like hell, even if Rust has the various dimensions sorted so it all “works” scientifically.

While I obviously like the idea of us TV watchers being creatures of a higher dimension (flattery, it will get you somewhere!), in the middle of a show like True Detective, where we’re all just stumbling along, desperate to know what happens next, it seems like we’re something much lower. Maybe when it comes out on DVD.

Haglund: Yes, maybe then.

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

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