True Detective barrels into the darkness of new cross-genre territory. TV recap: 'The Secret Fate of All Life,' S1 Ep. 5

Kevin McFarland reviews episode 5 in season 1 of HBO's crime drama "True Detective," starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. If you're new to the show, start with our introduction here. This post contains spoilers.

“Why should I live in history, huh? I don’t want to know anything anymore. This is a world where nothing is solved. Someone once told me time is a flat circle. Everything we’ve ever done, or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again.”

At this point in the history of prestige television dramas, after so much buildup-as-misdirection, perhaps it should be expected that the showdown True Detective has been pointing toward turns out to be less climactic than initially suggested. Instead, it’s another crumb leading down an increasingly dark and threatening hallway, not unlike the abandoned school Rust navigates at the end of the episode with only a flashlight for guidance.

In the pilot, detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart dropped hints about this incident--Dora Lange, the house where they brought kids out--as though it constituted the big reveal, the key that would unlock the mystery of all the various layers. But I was still floored and impressed with how this episode nimbly pivoted from what has served as an ominously early climactic event into unexpectedly deeper, darker, and more complex moral and philosophical territory.

It begins with the culmination of the Reggie Ledoux lead. Rust takes his biker buddy turned reluctant informant Ginger to a bar, out past all the factories and refineries, where he meets a man who knows Ledoux but refuses to give up any information to Cohle in the guise of his undercover identity. Symbolically, Fukunaga pushes the camera in as the man growls at Rust, “I can see your soul at the edges of your eyes. It’s corrosive like acid. You’ve got a demon little man.” That sets the tone for later, but plot-wise, the meeting is just a way for Rust and Marty to track this guy back to the cookhouse, the one suggested at the end of “The Locked Room,” where they don’t wait for backup and instead go through the buildings on the property.

In the 2012 interviews, Rust and Marty have their stories lined up. Rust returns to the case after receiving a tip from one of his old Confidential Informants about Reggie Ledoux’s cookhouse. The whole raid sequence, as the two men describe fighting against a hail of gunfire just as they were turning to call in backup, reveals that even though they no longer work together, they have enough mutual trust to hold firm on the version of the story they devised, presented to the public, and staked future reputations on. In reality, they snuck up on the men silently, rushing in undetected to case the entire property. Once they located Ledoux, they cornered him and cuffed him. But when Marty discovered two kids (one recently dead, another not yet reported missing) held captive, he executed Ledoux. That sends the other man there, holding the ingredients for some decidedly less-than-Heisenberg quality meth, running for his life, where he steps on one of the homemade traps and gets blown to smithereens. Like Cohle says, it’s a “shitstorm,” just not the assault they describe. The entire sequence is another brilliant one for director Cary Fukunaga, cutting between Cohle and Hart as they narrate the tale, contrasted with the real story.

So Marty and Rust apprehended two men at a drug cookhouse in the middle of nowhere, and seemingly solved the biggest case of their respective careers—-albeit with the actual story completely covered up. But in order to make it look legitimate, Rust grabs a rifle, sprays bullets around, and they carry the kids out as backup arrives for the hero shot. But Rust’s proclamation from “The Locked Room” of a monster waiting at the end of the story doesn’t apply here, because it’s clearly not the end of the tale. That editing decision a few weeks ago, to play that line over a tattooed man in underwear and a gas mask carrying a machete, made it seem like whatever the detectives found at the cookhouse would put the case to rest, that the “monster” would be found there. But the fact that there’s an unrevealed incident from 2002 still to be dissected, and new detectives on the case in 2012, suggests that the monster at the end of story in Rust’s mind hasn’t yet been reached.

I mentioned in my first post on True Detective that one of the most impressive elements is the show’s fluid relationship to its timeline, both within an episode and across the series so far. In “The Secret Fate Of All Life,” that stylistic guiding principle gets textual analysis, as Rust expounds on his theories about experiencing past, present, and future events all at once, repeatedly ad infinitum. It’s something that Reggie Ledoux says to him-—the “time is a flat circle” statement that now haunts Rust so badly he’s been destroyed by the line of thinking it led him down. It also informs the structure of the episode, which begins in 1995 with the final incident in the Dora Lange case, then skips years ahead to a peaceful working relationship, then reveals a lingering thread that most likely caused Rust’s descent into the scraggly drunk caricature he presents in the 2012 interview.

After the raid, Maggie comes around and reconciles with Marty, but they run into significant parenting difficulties with their oldest daughter in her teen years. Marty once again goes over the “Detective’s Curse” of not noticing what’s right under his nose—-which should suggest something in plain sight will be important to how this all shakes out—-and his latent anger at his inability to control the women in his life re-emerges when his daughter gets caught in a car “having relations” with two older men.

Rust enters his stable relationship with Maggie’s doctor friend Laurie, becoming the go-to bullpen interrogator to get a confession out of anyone. Until one day, a prisoner brings up the Yellow King, and it sets Cohle off. Suddenly, the Dora Lange case isn’t ironclad, and that nagging detail begins to unravel Rust’s reality. When Cohle and Hart return to the prison to talk to the man, he’s slit his wrists and committed suicide. The surveillance footage of his detainment shows nothing particularly suspicious. His last phone call from his lawyer was made from a payphone in the middle of nowhere. This is the mysterious unraveling that will form the back half of the season, as a black hole expands and Rust searches through every last place associated with the case for more devil nets, poring over the most important case of his career in order to find what he missed. The period of satisfaction is a speed bump in this story, and there’s no lingering over the malaise of positivity in the middle of the episode, which is just a brief reprieve before the darkness washes over everyone again.

The other interesting narrative arc this episode plays out is Marty beginning to doubt Rust—-or appearing to, since True Detective has proven adept at the bait-and-switch. At the beginning of the episode he’s reciting the story down to the letter, even as the images betray the egregious falsehoods. Marty emphatically states, “I tell it the same way that I told the shooting board and every cop bar between Houston and Biloxi. And you know why the story’s always the same, 17 years gone? Because it only went down the one way.”

It must be noted that Woody Harrelson’s two hand taps at the end on “one way” to sell this moment, a desperate authoritative tone that belies the façade these men have created in order to justify what they did to seemingly close this case at the time.

But in light of the accusations from the 2012 detectives, it’s important that it’s actually Marty who takes the irrevocable step to put a bullet in Ledoux’s head, which necessitates the extensive cover-up and the hail of automatic rifle fire as an alibi. As the new investigation probes further, Marty finally puts up a wall, and they’re forced to explain their line of thinking.

In the pilot, the dates on the interviews show they talked to Cohle first, and they say his stories don’t line up. And they have photographic evidence of Cohle showing up at the scene of the most recent case tied to the old investigation. This all comes together in an attempt to push the theory that Rust Cohle is the actual disturbed serial killer. Marty drew the most brutal case of his career three months after meeting Cohle; Cohle made every big evidentiary breakthrough in the case, guiding the investigation; Cohle went to enormous lengths to keep the case going through to Reggie Ledoux. And in the interim between 2002 and 2012, Billy Lee Tuttle died under mysterious circumstances, right after Cohle reappeared in the state. This whole theory feeds off the reprimand Marty gives to Cohle in the pilot about bending facts to fit ideas. These new detectives offer up scruples that add up, without the benefit of experience, to show Cohle as a plausible suspect due to his behavior.

This is where I must point out Michael M. Hughes’ excellent post over at io9 examining the influence of Robert W. Chambers’ 1895 short story collection The King in Yellowon this season. There have been plenty of strange, seemingly supernatural touches to True Detective, most visibly Rust’s hallucinations, including the flock of birds that form the spiral symbol found throughout the case near the end of the second episode. Hughes points out that lines pulled directly from Chambers’ play-within-a-book appear in Dora Lange’s journal, and multiple characters have references something like this in connection to the occult practices Charlie describes to the detectives, about something called Carcosa and the identity of the Yellow King.

What makes me so increasingly excited about True Detective, enough to keep reassessing it week after week as something greater than what it appeared to be initially, is how Pizzolatto’s writing keeps jumping the lines between genres to loop in odd combinations. In the early hours of this series, True Detective looked particularly adept at telling a high-quality version of a standard hard-boiled crime thriller, the kind that “went all the way to the top” with shocking, vulgar details. But beginning with last week and bleeding into the beginning of this episode, True Detective became an action movie, either in a point-of-view from Rust’s perspective, or during the raid. And now it draws in a philosophical quagmire about experiencing time all at one moment in a theoretical fourth dimension.

The supernatural and theoretical elements of True Detective are beginning to amplify in the story. This is no longer simply a crime story with a complex investigation.

Cohle’s final lines in “The Locked Room” resonated with me again after watching “The Secret Fate Of All Life,” in a way that I can’t shake now that there are such nihilistically philosophical beliefs on the table: “You, yourself, this whole big drama, it was never anything but a jerry-rig of presumption and dumb will and you could just let go, finally know that you didn't have to hold on so tight. To realize that all your life, you know, all you love, all you hate, all your memory, all your pain: it was all the same thing. It was all the same dream, a dream you had inside a locked room, a dream about being a person. And like a lot of dreams…there's a monster at the end of it.”

This show has a far more existential bent than it initially presented, when it was two mismatched detectives with opposing lifestyles: one lackadaisical, lightly religious, unhappy family man on the verge of crisis, paired with a man teetering on the edge and trying desperately to use his gifts to hold on in a world he couldn’t bring himself to depart by his own hand. We’ve seen the apex of satisfaction and happiness in this show, and it lasted for the length of a caesura. What follows now is the grand spiral downward.

Extra Musings 

• The song closing out the episode as Cohle examines the devil net is “Eli” by Bosnian Rainbows, the new band from former The Mars Volta leader Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, with Le Butcherettes vocalist Teri Gender Bender. The music video for the track depicts someone smoking to the point of hallucination, which seems appropriate for Cohle’s mental state at this point during the case.

 • Let’s make this clear right now: Matthew McConaughey deserves an Emmy nomination as Rust Cohle. And judging from the nominees over the past few years in the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series category, it makes me sad that poor Jon Hamm will probably be on the outside looking in once again.

• The Stanford Library has one edition of The King In Yellow available to read in full for free on Google Books. You can also buy a paper copy on Amazon.

[Photo courtesy of HBO/Lacy Terrell]

Published 8:11 pm Sun, Feb 16, 2014

About the Author

Kevin McFarland is a freelance writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming at The A.V. Club, Paste Magazine, This Was TV, and in other little corners of the Internet. His Alaskan Malamute, Dynamite, loves the snow so much he might as well be a direwolf. Follow him on Twitter.

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