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.

In the same way, I have been fascinated by the first four episodes and the way they slowly unwrapped the characters of Hart, and especially Cohle. I much prefer Matthew McConaughey when he plays Cohle with a captivating alert stillness than when the script calls for him to rage or wig out. I can see why you wanted the biker subplot to move along, Chris—my husband thought episode 4 went off the rails at that point—but I thought it was essential to understanding Cohle. It’s one thing to know that he worked undercover for years. It’s another to witness exactly what that required of him. (For similar reasons, I’m also hoping FX’s The Americans gives us a glimpse into Stan’s earlier undercover assignment, which irrevocably changed him.)

But if the last episode gave us a window into Rust’s past, this installment left me wanting to see more of the time that elapsed between the initial case in 1995 and when the action picks up again in 2002. Was one successful solve enough to spur Rust into furnishing his previously empty-but-for-a-lawn-chair house and easing into a normal relationship? I enjoyed (and yet, as the mother of a young daughter, was terrified by) the abrupt visual transition from Hart’s little girls squabbling on the front lawn to a rebellious teenager stomping across the grass. But the leap to happy, settled Rust was harder for me to buy.

And as long as I’m nit-picking, I want to return to a scene from episode 4—the interview/interrogation of Charlie Lange in prison. When the detectives press Charlie for information about Reggie Ledoux, he sputters for a while, and then inexplicably unloads a bucketful of titillating details:

He said that there’s this place down south where all these rich men go to, uh, devil worship. He said that, uh, they—they sacrifice kids and whatnot. Women and children all got—all got murdered there and, um, something about someplace called Carcosa and the Yellow King. He said there’s all these, like, old stones out in the woods, people go to, like worship. He said there’s just so much good killin’ down there. Reggie’s got this brand on his back, like a spiral. He says that’s their sign.

I don’t know about you, but that struck me as an enormous load of bullshit. And yet our heroes appear to take it all as confirmation that Ledoux is the big bad they’re after. I realize shows that involve some procedural element require their characters to make mistakes, but I seriously hope our detectives aren’t the kind of guys who can be snowed by a jittery fool like Charlie.

And I really really hope we’re not headed for an ending that involves religious conservatives with ties to the governor playing around with devil worship, because that just might make me break my television. In my days as an evangelical teenager, I read a series of pulpy books by the Christian writer Frank Peretti in which the bad guys were always a group of secular elites in cahoots with demons. They were absorbing and also pretty awful. I’ve found that secular liberals are often no subtler or artful when conjuring religious conspiracies. (See: The DaVinci Code)

It’s possible that my concerns will be all for naught. I certainly hope so. Because I haven’t been this hooked on a show in a long time. Despite my nitpicking, I can’t wait for the next look at our unreliable narrators. The gulf between the tales Marty is spinning in 2012 and the reality we see playing out is particular intriguing. From what I can tell, Cohle has only dissembled about the biker adventure and the showdown with Ledoux. Those may seem like pretty big events to dismiss with “only,” and yet I find it telling that Cohle’s comments on his own life and on Marty’s seem candid and straight.

I’m almost afraid to ask what you thought of the episode, Spencer. I may have my reservations, but I still want to love True Detective. Don’t burst my bubble!

Kornhaber: Fear not that I’ll burst your bubble. Fear instead that soon, you’ll have to burst mine. See, I’m basically going the opposite direction from you two: The first few episodes underwhelmed me, while tonight’s had me hooked. I’m a True Detective skeptic who’s starting to dig the show at the exact moment when you diehards are starting to doubt it.

The opening three episodes’ slack pace felt, to me, like indulgence; the gorgeous cinematography and the leads’ incredible performances seemed wasted on a story we’ve seen countless times before. If the show was a character study, it was in service of the most overstudied character types in Western pop culture—straight-white-male cops put upon by society, women, jobs, and their own dark desires—without saying anything new about them. The interview conceit had yet to pay off in any meaningful way; mostly, it felt like a way for Matthew McConaughey to filibuster until someone gave him an Emmy. The fourth installment packed more intrigue, and its much-acclaimed final shootout was as fine a piece of filmmaking as I’ve ever seen on TV. But I was still left wondering whether all this effort, money, and talent was amounting to a stylish retread.

This episode, though, starts to complicate things nicely. Our unreliable narrators, as you’ve called them, Amy, had actually seemed fairly reliable till now. In the fourth installment, we saw their testimony start to diverge from reality, but tonight the two men leapt almost entirely into fiction, and it was fascinating to watch.

Marvel at the passion and expertise with which our two protagonists lie. Cohle mimics gunshot sounds and mentions bark flying off trees; Hart vows that he’s telling the tale the same way he’s told it in “every cop bar between Houston and Biloxi.” This is spine-tingling, Grade-A bullshit. So even as we see how events really unfolded, we can understand why these cops’ false narrative has held up for 17 years.

But watching the episode, we can also understand Gilbough and Papania’s suspicions about Rust. Cohle keying on Reanne Olivier, and Reggie Ledoux being connected with the biker gang Cohle had dealt with while undercover, initially seemed like convenient, TV-ish coincidences. In a neat trick, it’s been revealed that these developments were meant to test our suspension of disbelief. We would have been smart to question the narrative in front of us, as Gilbough and Papania have done. This puts everything we’ve seen so far in a new light, and aligns the viewer for a time with the interrogators, not the interrogated.

That said, I’ll be shocked if Rust is the bad guy. I’d suspect Marty before I'd suspect him. It seems pretty likely that Cohle’s gone rogue to pursue an investigation against what he believes to be a powerful cabal with law-enforcement ties, hence his disappointment that his interrogators seem, at best, ignorant pawns in a larger scheme—“you wasted my fucking day, company men.”

The age of antihero TV has served up plenty of examples of protagonists who lie, of course. But with Walter White and Don Draper and Frank Underwood, the viewer’s in on the con and understands the motivations behind it. True Detective is messing with that dynamic in a way that’s more faithful to how fabrications work in the real world: Everyone’s on the outside, except for the liars. Five hours with these characters and they’re more a mystery than ever.