True Detective Is Changing—but for the Better, or for the Worse?

And: Is this show going to make evangelical Christians into villains? Our roundtable discusses “The Secret Fate of All Life,” the fifth episode in HBO's series

Spencer KornhaberChristopher Orr, and Amy Sullivan discuss the latest episode of True Detective.

Orr: So, better late than never, right?

In my mid-season assessment last week, I called True Detective the best show on TV. Now we can spend the final four episodes discussing whether the show is able to live up to that high appraisal. (I know that you, Spencer, already have your doubts.)

The first three episodes of the series were very much of a piece in terms of pace and mood, before the fourth episode (and particularly its latter half) broke from formula with the biker bar scene and stash-house raid. At the time, I was wondering whether we’d return to the original formula or head somewhere new altogether.

Judging from last night’s episode, “The Secret Fate of All Life,” the answer is the latter. To my eyes, the episode seemed like a hinge for the entire season. The Dora Lange case has been solved (though perhaps incorrectly), Reggie Ledoux and his portly partner are history, and Detectives Gilbough and Papania have finally laid their cards on the table. One story has concluded, and another is beginning to unfold.

Moreover, the format to which we’ve grown accustomed is evolving, too. In the present day, the interrogation of Rust Cohle seems to have run its course—no more Lone Star tin men!—though that of Marty Hart is ongoing. As for the flashback narrative, it has (contra my expectations) leapt forward seven years to 2002.

Befitting the fact that this is the first time we’ve seen time elapse to this extent, an underlying theme of the episode is time itself. Ledoux declares it to be “a flat circle” (a line Cohle later recycles); Hart expresses his sense that “the future’s behind you, like it’s always been behind you”; and Cohle (of course) has to offer a soliloquy on the characteristics of four-dimensional time-space.

In keeping with all this chatter, the episode homes in on one of the regular motifs of the show: that life is a cycle fated to repeat itself, that, in Cohle’s words, “everything we ever do, we’re gonna do over and over again.” Hart’s daughter has graduated from dirty stick figures and inappropriate doll dioramas (the latter echoed, I think, by Cohle’s tin men this episode) to a more substantial transgression. But that transgression itself seems to be the sins of the father playing out again through the daughter. After a brief segue of romantic normalcy, Cohle is back to his loner self. And further trouble, possibly self-inflicted, appears to be looming for Hart, who’s taken to examining his thinning hair and staring longingly at the rodeo belt buckle of his youth. When he explains to the detectives that “things were… pretty good for a while,” he seems almost incredulous, as if things being “pretty good” must inevitably be a brief intermission from the normal, degraded state of the universe.

Another theme running through the episode is interrogation. Hart notes that Cohle was famous for his technique, and Gilbough and Papania ask him about it, setting up Cohle’s terrific response: “Everbody knows there’s something wrong with them. They just don’t know what it is.” Later, we have another chance to see Cohle in action, wresting a confession from the pharmacy killer Guy Francis and learning more in the process than he’d expected. Gilbough and Papania also finally make explicit that their “interviews” with Cohle and Hart are really interrogations themselves.

At the same time, the episode makes clear the unreliability of the information obtained through interrogation. Cohle and Hart’s descriptions of the events of 1995, which had begun diverging from reality last week, are becoming less and less accurate. It’s a point that’s neatly underlined by them telling the same fabrications about their confrontation with Ledoux not only to Gilbough and Papania but also to a contemporaneous police board. “You know why the story’s always the same 17 years gone?” explains Hart, lying through his teeth for the umpteenth time. “Because it only went down the one way.”

Anyway, those are my broad thoughts about the episode. A few more specific observations:

I’m relieved that the biker subplot of the episode 4 seems to have concluded. Intriguing as it was, it always felt like a bit of a discursion, and I’m glad to be done with Ginger and his well-earned boy-named-sue complex.

To date, I was resistant to the critique that True Detective’s dearth of interesting female characters was a major flaw. It is essentially a two-character show, after all. (It’s not like Gilbough and Papania have come to life meaningfully either.) But I do think the latest wrinkle with Hart’s daughters was a bit much, and lent weight to the complaint that the show’s female characters get sorted into “good girls” and “tramps.”

On a more upbeat note, was Cohle’s line to Hart after the latter executed Ledoux—“Good to see you commit to something”—the most blackly comic line of the show so far? It has to be up there. And did anyone else notice the shout-out to Body Heat? In his interrogation of Guy Francis, Cohle quotes Mickey Rourke’s career-making line from the film almost verbatim: “You gotta be a fucking genius to get past that shit. And let’s face it, Francis. You ain’t no fucking genius.”

I’m wondering, too, how deep into the mythology of the Yellow King and Carcosa the show is going to delve. The themes derive from fin de siècle horror writer Robert W. Chambers, whose story collection The King in Yellow was immensely influential, in particular on the Cthulhu mythos of H.P. Lovecraft. I haven’t read it myself (though a copy is on its way). In the meantime, there’s some interesting material about it, and the show’s other influences, in this WSJ interview with series creator Nic Pizzolatto.

Finally, I’m a little disappointed that, more than ever, the show seems headed toward one of two conclusions: Either the killer will turn out to be Cohle or it’ll be someone connected with Billy Lee Tuttle, the evangelical power-broker lurking in the margins of the story. I’d been hoping for a more unexpected twist. But who knows? We’ve still got a lot of show ahead of us, and as Cohle reminds, “This is a world where nothing is ever solved.”

What did you think of the episode, Amy?

Sullivan: I didn’t love this episode, but I suspect that may change when I re-watch it after seeing the episodes to come. As you said, Chris, the show is headed somewhere new, and while I trust Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Fukunaga so far, I’ve been burned by too many shows in the past to feel totally comfortable until I know more about where we’re going.

In part, my discomfort has to do with whether the show is moving away from its exploration of these two men, and is instead getting tangled up in a whodunit plot. Or—worse, in my opinion—a freshman dorm-style rumination about life and meaning and evil. In your piece lauding True Detective as the best show on television, Chris, you cautioned that a puzzle is only as good as its solution. I don’t think that has to be the case. I thoroughly enjoyed Broadchurch and its two lead characters even as I was disappointed by the show’s ending. And I’ve been recommending the Irish writer Tana French to everyone I know because while her books are framed as mysteries, they’re really intricately wrought character studies.

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