True Detective Reinvents Itself, Again

How in the world is this show going to end? Our roundtable discusses “After You've Gone,” the seventh installment in HBO's series

This post has been updated. (March 4)

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

Kornhaber: In that last nanosecond, I saw what we all were. Me, this roundtable, this whole big HBO prestige drama, it was never anything but a jerry-rig of presumption and dumb will. We can just let go finally now, to realize that all the hype we know, all the backlash we know, all the Reddit threads, all the screencaps, it was all the same thing. It was all the same dream, a dream that we had inside a locked room called the Internet, a dream about watching a TV show that would somehow turn out to be more than a TV show.

And like a lot of dreams, there's a monster at the end of it.

And the monster is … a guy vaguely remembered from four episodes back, who has shaved his beard and now if you squint you can some scars maybe, whose voice sounds different than it was when he was mowing that abandoned school’s lawn but IMDB says it’s the same actor so I guess True Detective really is just a show about the sinister side of landscape maintenance.

Sorry for the fevered, Cohle-influenced ramble. It’s just that my head’s spinning a bit—not from the various developments in this past hour, but rather from the fact that we’ve finished the penultimate installment and I still have no idea what True Detective is.

As the disc-switch opening image of the episode indicated—and as all the procedural work and bromantic drinking and cat-burglary flashbacks confirmed—“After You’ve Gone” was a change-up for True Detective. Yet this show remains, in the words of our colleague Derek Thompson, a “mystic Rorschach blot.” Is it an a good-looking but heavy-handed rehearsal of clichés? Deep dark occult philosophical treatise? Lone Star viral marketing campaign? All that? None?

Here’s one thought that hadn’t occurred to me before: satire.  We’ve always known True Detective plays with the tropes of the cops-and-killers genre, but in this past hour there were times when I wondered whether the show was straight-up making fun of the characters and maybe even the audience. Creepy music and dark lighting ratchets up tension before it’s revealed that Rust’s storage unit is basically a True Detective comment thread in diorama form. A lovely old lady reminisces warmly until some twig drawings send her into a mad fit of coughing and “Carcosa!” The jolly lawnmower man makes a nefarious-sounding reveal to the camera after detectives cut him off mid-sentence and drive away.

All of these things are presented like revelations, but they feel more like camp. They’re images out of an airport paperback, recycled to tell us things we already know. Rust’s obsessed. Carcosa’s some lunatic swamp ideology involving the Tuttles. And salt-of-the-Earth Louisiana contains dark secrets. It almost feels as though the show is laughing at us for obsessing over it as a murder mystery: The next twist is… not really a twist!

And yet. I’m still obsessing over it as a murder mystery. I still see a shot like this—


—and wonder whether it’s a hint that, per many close readings, Marty’s KIN is closely involved with the killer-cult conspiracy. Is the “sprawl” that Cohle talks about not the Tuttles but rather the Harts?

Or, now that Papania and Gilbough’s interrogation has ended, should we make something of the fact that we’ve moved onto a new, possibly unreliable deposition? Most of this episode’s narrative is relayed by Rust talking to Marty. How much of what he recounts about raiding Billy Lee Tuttle’s house, or interviewing that young crossdresser, or living a simple lonely life all these years, can we trust? It’s convenient that Tuttle would be killed after evidence was taken from his safe. It’s surprising that the sole student Cohle tracks down from Shepherd’s Flock would readily spill the details about his molestation. And it’s striking that our two temperamentally opposed main cops would lead basically identical existences in the past few years. Is Rust spinning tales? Is he manipulating Marty to help him out in the final stage of some long, awful con?

And then I say: Stop it. Stop scrutinizing the backgrounds of each frame; stop guessing where this show is going. The exact contours of the plot’s resolution still aren’t available to us yet. What is available are the lessons of the story thus far.

If the lawnmower man does turn out to be the scarred, spaghetti-monstrous, Yellow King, it’ll be yet another instance of the show positing unspeakable evil as a product of the banal, the unassuming, and the hidden-in-plain-sight. Cohle or Marty’s complicity would do the same. I’m holding out for some mind-blowing turn in the finale, something that complicates the picture beyond telling us once more that the crushing scariness of mortality (“Rejoice! Death is not the end!”) makes normal people harm one another. I can’t quite envision it. Can you, Chris?

Orr:  Not really. But I’m still hoping. And, like you, Spencer, at this point I have very little idea what to expect. Citing that jukebox shot at the opening of the episode as a metaphor for the show was perfect. It reminded me about a great piece on the subject of setting a film to music a while back by David Thomson (currently the critic in residence at my old haunt The New Republic), which made an eloquent case for the superiority of movies with a powerful, unifying score over what he called “jukebox” movies—that is, ones that focused on catchy-but-eclectic soundtracks. If memory serves (the piece doesn’t appear to be online anymore), his primary examples were two Scorsese films, Taxi Driver (scored by Bernard Herrmann) and Goodfellas. His point was that a powerful score helps knit a film together, whereas a soundtrack, no matter how good (and the Goodfellas soundtrack is a great one) tends to fragment it, to make individual scenes pop more on their own than as parts of a whole.

For the first three episodes of True Detective, it sure looked as though it was going to resemble a well-scored film: the palpable mood, the stately pace, the spectacular use of the watery Louisiana landscape, the immaculate then-and-now structure, and yes, even Cohle’s languid philosophizing—all felt like parts of a coherent, unfolding whole. I know you didn’t much care for it, Spencer, but I fell for it and fell hard. Episode four, the biker neo-noir, seemed like a temporary discursion—and it was, we just never quite returned to where we’d been before. Episode five was the big re-shuffling of the deck, episode six was all tainted love and cycles of wounded vengeance, and now, with episode seven, we’ve entered the relatively familiar territory of the police procedural. So, yes, a jukebox series it is, for better or worse. Maybe the big episode eight finale will play a song we’ve heard before. Maybe it will opt for something from a different genre altogether.

I’ll confess, though, that I’m as much a sucker as anyone for seeing Cohle and Hart back together again following the over-engineered betrayals of the last episode. It’s true that the rapprochement happened a bit quickly. (As a befuddled Maggie notes, “All this time, you two, just—just like that?”) But I guess the videotape was pretty persuasive.

That video was the closest we’ve yet come to The King in Yellow, the much-referenced imaginary play with the power to drive readers mad that’s at the center of an eponymous collection of stories by 19th century author Robert W. Chambers. I shudder to think what would have happened if Hart had watched even a few more minutes. The question is, what did he see?

The best I could tell from our vantage point all too far away from Cohle’s little black-and-white set—seriously, Rust, it’s 2012, they’re practically giving away flat-screens—we saw two older-looking white men, one of them in a dark hat and what looks like antique garb, chatting. (I gather they’re meant to be wearing masks, but I really couldn’t tell.) Then something else happened onscreen, quickly, something involving young Marie Fontenot, something that drove Hart over the edge. But it appeared that Hart was pissed at what he saw even before this happened.* Was it just the masks, or did he somehow recognize one of the men? A Tuttle? A high-ranking cop? Or, maybe—in keeping with your nice “KIN” catch, Spencer—his father-in-law? (More on this in a moment.) In any case, Hart and Cohle’s subsequent exchange—“You shouldn’t have that.” “Nobody should have this.”—pretty neatly captured the spirit of the toxic play in Chambers’s stories.

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