True Detective: Spoiler-y Speculation About the Finale

Some educated guesses regarding where the HBO show may be headed

This post has been updated. (March 7)

“This is a world in which nothing is ever solved.”

We’ll discover just how accurate Rust Cohle’s assertion may be when the season finale of True Detective airs this Sunday night. But until then, it’s boom times for amateur detective-ology. Who killed Dora Lange (and, presumably, a number of other women and children)? Who or what is the Yellow King? These and a variety of other interwoven mysteries are currently subject to rampant online speculation—sometimes precise, sometimes crazy, and not infrequently both—and far be it from me not to pile on. (I hope it goes without saying that if you haven’t watched the first seven episodes of True Detective and/or are allergic to spoiler-y speculation, you probably want to get out now.)

Like everyone, I have my own pet theories, which overlap in many—perhaps most—regards with theories floating around elsewhere. But before we get to them, I think it’s worth quickly clarifying some of the ground rules for what will happen in episode eight, based on creator Nic Pizzolatto public statements (e.g., here at Buzzfeed):

a) The conclusion is not going to be supernatural, no matter how amusing we old H.P. Lovecraft fans would find a cameo by Cthulhu.

b) The central villain/Yellow King won’t be either of the show’s principal characters, Detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) or Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson).

c) The ending will be something for which the seeds have been carefully sown, not some out-of-left-field twist. (Sorry, fans of the Vietnamese Restaurant Owner Theory.) As such, the murders will indeed be part of a religiously inflected ceremony drawing on the tradition of the Courir de Mardi Gras, and the ceremony will involve rape and/or torture, probably perpetrated by five men. (More on this in a moment.) The killers will be members of some cabal of well-connected men that includes the late Billy Lee Tuttle and other members of his family and the related Childress clan. Also involved (and probably a Childress) will be the Scarred Giant / Green-Eared Spaghetti Monster, who I think we can safely assume is Errol the Lawnmower Man, first seen in episode three and featured more prominently at the close of episode seven.

Within these general guidelines, there are, I think, several things to look for. The clearest of these is the involvement, at some point in unfolding narrative, of the Hart family—and specifically of elder daughter Audrey, who appears to have been victimized in some way in the past. Yes, this is the moment for commenters to our True Detective roundtable to take a victory lap: I used to be a skeptic of this theory, but now that I’ve been won over I possess the zeal of the converted. I count at least eight reasons to believe that something awful happened to Audrey as a young girl:

1) The five men. Viewers will inevitably recall the foreboding moment in episode two when Audrey and her sister are called to dinner and Dad gets a view of their obscene doll diorama:

It’s an image that’s echoed multiple times throughout the series, specifically, in the photograph of victim Dora Lange surrounded by five horsemen:

…the videotape of victim Marie Fontenot being held down as five animal-masked men approach her:

…and Rust Cohle’s own tableaux of Lone Star tin men, each of whom has a five-pointed star for a face:

2) The black stars. “Strange is the night where black stars rise” reads a line in The King in Yellow, the imaginary play that is central to the eponymous 1895 story collection by Robert W. Chambers. True Detective draws a great deal of its iconography from Chambers’s work, including the Yellow King, the land of Carcosa, and the recurring black stars. We first see all three in Dora Lange’s notebook:

In episode five, we see that Reggie Ledoux has a black star tattooed on his shoulder; among his last words are “the black stars rise”:

At the end of the same episode, as Rust is searching the hurricane-ravaged ruin of the Tuttle-sponsored Light of the Way school, he finds another in a series of diabolical twig sculptures. As he examines it, the camera pulls back to show two black stars on the school’s shattered window:

The black stars are finally connected to Audrey when Marty visits his long-since-divorced wife Maggie in episode seven, and the camera pans across the mantle to glimpse, side by side in a single frame, a photo of their daughter and one of her works of art:

(Stars feature in a couple of other scenes from the show as well, though their meaning—if any—is tougher to discern. Dora Lange’s friend, Carla, had black star tattoos on her neck, though there’s been no sign that she was involved in the conspiracy. Also, the Harts’ younger daughter, Maisie, has two stars briefly visible on the door of her bedroom as her sister is being punished for her sexual involvement with two older boys.)

3) The dirty pictures. One episode after her disturbing doll display, Audrey gets in trouble at school for drawing sexually explicit pictures. Most are straightforward male-female anatomy, but two stand out—one in which the man appears to be wearing a mask:

…and another featuring a crude angel-like figure:

Dora Lange’s diaries had suggested that the followers of the Yellow King would become his “angels.” And perhaps more to the point, in his investigation of Light of the Way, Cohle also came across multiple drawings reminiscent of Audrey’s:

4) The spiral on the kitchen wall. The spiral mark is in dramatic evidence from the show’s very beginning, when it is found on Dora Lange’s corpse. It later connects the presumed drowning victim Rianne Olivier to the string of murders and, as Charlie Lange reported, it is branded on Reggie Ledoux’s back. Easier to miss, however, is the presence of a childish spiral pattern on the Harts’ kitchen wall, where we see it immediately prior to the “mow another man’s lawn” scene (it's the tiny drawing on the paper plate at the bottom):

5) The paintings of flowers. Another easy one to miss, as we catch only momentary glimpses of it, but the childlike painting of flowers beneath a blue-and-white sky (presumably painted by Audrey) that hangs above the Hart’s bed:

…is a dead ringer for the mural in the sanitarium where Ledoux victim Kelly Rita is being treated. It’s unclear whether Kelly may have painted it herself, but this is clearly no coincidence:

6) The crown. As the show’s timeline begins resetting from 1995 to 2002, Marty speaks for a second time of “the detective’s curse”: “The solution to my whole life was right under my nose—that woman, those kids.” We watch as Audrey steals a toy crown from her sister Maisie and uses it to crown herself, before throwing it up into a tree. The echoes of the antler crown placed on Dora Lange’s head and the tree where she was found are clear:

…but they become clearer still in episode seven, when Hart watches the videotape of Marie Fontenot. Note that the crown she is wearing, like the one Audrey placed on her own head, has streamers coming down from it:

7) “Kin.” I haven’t seen anyone pick up on this one apart from my roundtable partner Spencer Kornhaber, who noticed it last week. When Marty is looking at Rust’s evidence in the storage locker—at the exact moment, in fact, when he’s examining photos of Marie Fontenot—his head obscures the letter “g” on the wall, turning “KING” into “KIN.” Again, hard to believe this is accidental.

8) Maggie’s dad. This is more inferential than the other clues. But virtually every scene in the first three episodes of the show either had a clear narrative purpose or else was later revealed to be important in another context. (The scenes with under-aged prostitute Beth in episode two and Lawnmower Man in episode three both fall into the latter category.) The one scene that has thus far remained pretty much a throwaway was the Harts’ visit to see Maggie’s folks, in which she bickered with her mom and Marty bickered with her dad. The latter essentially foretold Audrey’s future when complaining about the state of youth: “I’ve seen kids today: all in black, wearing makeup, shit on their faces. Everything’s sex.”

He certainly seems to fit the broad profile that’s been offered of the murder conspirators: a wealthy, older guy who lives in the woods on a lake. (Any relation to Spanish Lake? Or the lake in Carcosa cited in Chambers’s The King in Yellow?) One thing some other True Detective obsessives have leapt upon is the possibility that a woman shown briefly in the preview for episode eight is Maggie’s mother. It’s possible, I suppose, but unless I’m mistaken (which I could be) the woman is played by the terrific actress Ann Dowd, who should have been nominated for an Oscar last year for Compliance, and who, in any case, doesn’t seem old enough to be Maggie’s mom circa 2012.

Nonetheless, presuming something bad has happened to Audrey, Maggie’s dad certainly seems a more-than-plausible culprit. Was she actually molested? Might she have seen something—photos, a videotape? It is also conceivable, I suppose, that it could have been Maisie rather then Audrey who was victimized. But given how forcefully Pizzolatto pushes back against charges of misdirection, this seems improbable. Likewise, while Maggie still has some role to play in the finale, I don’t expect it will be one that fundamentally alters our sense of her character.

The two principals, however, are a different story. It seems pretty likely that at least one of them will wind up dead. (Cohle, who back in 1995 bemoaned that he lacked the “constitution” for suicide, now expresses a desire to “tie it off.”) Or perhaps one or both will end up disgraced and discredited: framed for a crime, or perhaps even guilty of one. This last possibility seems among the most intriguing—especially with regard to Marty Hart.

What after all, do we know of Hart? He’s preoccupied with sex and takes a custodial interest in the chastity of women whether it’s his business (Maggie, Audrey) or not (Beth, the first time around). He does not himself adhere to the same rules of sexual conduct he expects of others. He likes “something wild,” and “always did.” And he is prone to fits of violence against those who violate or question his personal sense of the sexual order, be they men (Lisa’s date, the boys Audrey was with, Rust on multiple occasions) or women (at different times, he calls both Lisa and Maggie “a fucking whore,” he threatens to “skull-fuck” the former and begins to choke the latter, and he smacks Audrey hard across the face after her transgression with the boys in the car).

That certainly sounds like someone who might, under the right circumstances, be pushed over the edge and tumble into a zone of acts too terrible to be undone. At the most innocent end of the spectrum, Hart might be goaded into killing someone who deserves it (his father-in-law?) as he already has been once with Reggie Ledoux. Perhaps this time he won’t get away with it, and he will be wrongly perceived to have been the killer all along. Or perhaps it will be darker still, and the primitive passions Hart has struggled to control will be aroused to a genuinely evil act. There has long been a theory afloat that Hart is the Yellow King, based in large part on the promotional graphic for the show, in which the top of the frame, including his “crown” of blond hair is separated from the rest of the shot:

Again, Pizzolatto has made abundantly clear that Hart is not the killer we’ve been tracking throughout the show. (Among other problems, if he were, it would utterly ruin the Cohle character, who’d be revealed to be a criminological incompetent.) But given Hart’s history, it doesn’t seem impossible that he could be tricked or seduced or enraged into finally becoming, perhaps in some metaphorical sense, the Yellow King.

Or perhaps Hart’s own fable of sex and violence merely runs parallel to the murder story and the two are not intended to intersect. But however it turns out, Hart’s is the arc, I think, to keep an eye on. As fascinating as he is, Cohle has always been a bit of a “flat circle” when it comes to his narrative path. Blessed with self-knowledge from the start, he has not fundamentally changed much as a character, at least apart from his approach to personal hygiene. Hart, by contrast, has been on a long, dark journey of self-discovery, his homilies about being an ordinary cop and family man gradually peeled back to reveal something far more disturbing. As the show has taken pains to point out, it’s Hart who still doesn’t know what he is, what he wants.

Here’s betting that, one way or another, he finds out in episode eight.

Alternatively, maybe it was all just this guy from the start. Right. Under. Our. Noses.

Update: Forget everything you just read. Not long after posting this, I realized the true identity of the Yellow King, and the other pieces all fell into place. You can read the details here.