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.

We returned to the realm of Carcosa, incipient insanity, et al. again later, with the visit to Ms. Dolores, former housekeeper to Billy Lee Tuttle’s father, Sam, who sounded like a charmer. The most disturbing moment in this interview came when Ms. Dolores was explaining the late patriarch’s roving eye and penchant for fathering children outside of wedlock: “Once she had it done to her, he didn’t like her but that one time. Not after that.” I am genuinely not looking forward to learning what it is.

Possibly, it has something to do with the tableaux of five men surrounding one girl/woman that have cropped up on a few occasions: the photograph in her mother’s home of a young Dora Lange with five hooded horsemen behind her (presumably taking part in the kind of Courir de Mardi Gras festivities Cohle described this episode); Audrey’s disturbing doll diorama from way back; and perhaps Cohle’s Lone Star figurines, which seemed to have pentagrams for faces.

There’s been much speculation (in the comments threads here, among other places) that Audrey was in some way victimized by this cult (or whatever it is) as a child, and I’d initially been pretty skeptical. Her sexual acting-out, it seemed to me, was more likely a way of highlighting her dad’s own carnal infractions. But I’m coming around to the idea. The kid’s spiral drawing on the kitchen wall in the Hart house, the fact that in at least one of Audrey’s crude sex drawings a man seemed to be wearing a mask, your own (excellent) catch of the “KIN” behind Hart’s head at the storage locker, the shot of both daughters fighting over a crown while their dad monologues about “the detective’s curse”—individually they might be red herrings, but together, well, that’s a lot o’ fish.

Which brings me back to Maggie’s father. One notable aspect of the show is the degree to which almost every scene in the early episodes, however seemingly throwaway, becomes relevant later one. To whit: Hart’s early scene with the underage prostitute Beth, and Cohle’s quip about a “down payment.” But one scene that has yet to offer any later payoff is Hart’s visit to the in-laws. It could just be a standalone, but Maggie’s dad does seem to the kind of Rich Guy Living Out in The Woods we keep hearing so much about. (Plus, looking back, he certainly nailed Audrey’s transformation: “I’ve seen kids today: all in black, wearing makeup, shit on their faces. Everything’s sex.”)

Of course the early scene with the obvious payoff this week was Lawnmower (also, possibly, Spaghetti) Man. Color me disappointed on this count. I loved the original scene with this fella back in episode three, largely because I thought the scene was a throwaway, yet it was filmed and performed with such care. Now he’s back as a Southern Gothic Groundskeeper Willie, and, like you, Spencer, I’m relegated to pausing the video to look for scars, and wondering why his voice sounds so very different. I’m sorry, but “is this actor the same actor from episode three?” really isn’t the kind of mystery I’m looking for here.

But obviously I am looking for a mystery, and I’ve allowed myself to get sucked into the dizzying spiral of the Yellow Sign. And there madness lies.

A couple of final thoughts. It’s nice that the show has at last given Michelle Monaghan a little bit to do beyond play Beleaguered Wife, but I feel she hasn’t taken full advantage of these new opportunities, however limited they may be. In her breakthrough role back in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, she managed to elbow her way into what was clearly written as a buddy flick. Here’s hoping she succeeds in doing the same before True Detective wraps up. Whatever is in store, I suspect she’ll be a key part of it.

By contrast, I think Harrelson has really stepped it up the last few episodes. I’ve always liked the older Hart better than the younger version, and never more than in this episode. They did go a little heavy on the creepy-old-guy-cruising-ladies-online-and-dating-filipinas schtick. But you had to like the inside joke of his line to the old police colleague: “True crime—it’s the genre, not the title.”

Cohle, too, had some characteristically nice lines. I especially enjoyed his admission, “What I’m saying is that I was aware I might’ve lost my mind,” followed almost immediately by “After that second house, doubt got taken behind the woodshed and put down.” But what’s up with all his “closing the loop” talk? Terminal illness? (God, I hope not.) Planned suicide? I imagine there’s still something more to be learned about his time away from Louisiana.

In fact my biggest takeaway from this episode is that there’s still something to be learned about everything. I can’t imagine how Pizzolatto intends to wrap up this whole weird, sprawling narrative in just one more hour. Is there some new HBO technology that turns time into a flat circle and keeps us pinned in front of our sets for all eternity?

Whatever the finale has in store, I think it’s safe to say that the overall success of the series will depend on it to an unusual degree. I can picture the three of us sitting gape-jawed a week from now, minds completely blown by what we’ve seen; I can picture us sulking in a pool of “is that all there is?”; and I can picture pretty much anything in between.

How about you, Amy? How are you feeling as we enter the final lap?

Sullivan: How am I feeling? I’m worried about our heroes—if indeed they are still our heroes. In the very first episode, after listening to one of Rust’s nihilistic monologues, Marty asks how he gets out of bed in the morning, and Rust replies that he “lack[s] the constitution for suicide.” But as you note, Chris, he’s starting to sound a whole lot like he’s considering the end—maybe his constitution changed during those years in the wilderness.

Even Marty, who has always been, as he says, “more of a people person,” is worrying me. And Maggie is clearly plenty concerned about him as well. Those scenes in her home were filled with some really amazing acting by Woody Harrelson—watch him half look up at Maggie when she expresses amazement that he’s working with Rust again, before he tells her, “I took some convincing.” He clearly wants to talk to her about it, but that wasn’t something he did while they were married, and he doesn’t really have the right to unload on her any more. So instead, though Maggie can tell something is going on and asks if he’s there to say good-bye, Marty just pauses and smiles at her. “Thank you, Maggie,” he says with perhaps the most authentic warmth we’ve seen from Marty. “I mean that.”

On another show, we could be fairly certain that our main characters will survive the end. But these two are gone from the True Detective universe at the end of the next episode regardless. So instead I think there’s a good chance that this is not going to end well for one or both of them. That raises the potential for a truly interesting, “mind-blowing turn” of the sort Spencer hopes for. It also means I’ll be taking my anti-anxiety medicine before I watch the finale.

It certainly is a relief to see the two partners back together again, and to enjoy the rapport these two actors have with each other. As tense of parts of this episode were—waiting for Marty to get to the awful part of the video was excruciating—the two of them still made me laugh out loud in parts. Rust reminding Marty over their first drink together: “You know, not for nothin’, but if you wouldn’t clipped the dude back then, we might of gotten the whole fuckin’ story outta him.” Marty’s bemusement when Rust asks about his life. (Rust Cohle? Small talk?) And their little good cop/bad cop routine out on the boat in the bayou was played with just the right amount of levity. I’d happily watch a spin-off of Rust and Marty bunking together in a retirement community, bickering into the sunset.

But, alas, we have more serious matters to get through first. So Lawnmower Man/Spaghetti Dude is a Childress? Possibly son of former Sheriff Ted Childress, illegitimate child of Big Daddy Sam Tuttle? And Charlie Lang wasn’t just putting them on with his sudden recollection of Reggie Ledoux talking about a place down south where people devil worship and “there’s just so much good killin’”? I was as underwhelmed by the Lawnmower Man revelation as the two of you, but Pizzolatto did kind of write himself into a corner there—you can’t have a character with a horrific facial appearance that’s remembered decades later and have introduce him to your viewers (and heroes) at some point without tipping off everyone. The solution was apparently to hide his not-that-disfiguring scars under a beard the first time around.

Even though I’m partly hoping for some sort of crazy twist in the finale, I suspect the show will end up being a larger version of the Lawnmower Man reveal. It’s been there all along, even when we thought we were looking for something different. I would love to be able to read too much into Marty’s comments about how “You end up becoming something you never intended” and “Be careful what you get good at.” But I just can’t convince myself that those are hints about a dark, serial-killer persona he’s kept masked this whole time. They’re just the reflections, tinged with regret, of a middle-aged man whose life just didn’t turn out the way he’d hoped.

And that’s good enough. I’ve come full circle and am looking forward to next Sunday when I can watch Rust and Marty team up for one last crazy adventure. I’ve got a battery and two jumper cables that say it’ll be exciting.

Update, March 4: No, it's not our eyesight. The early screener provided for us by HBO evidently used stock footage, possibly from a '70s TV Western, for the "videotape." When the episode was broadcast, this was replaced with footage in which a young girl in antlers and blindfold (Marie Fontenot) is clearly visible being menaced by men in masks. Hart had plenty of cause to be enraged without recognizing any of the men.