'After You've Gone' sets everything up for True Detective finale [TV recap: season 1, episode 7]

"Life's barely long enough to get good at one thing, if that long."

Sharing a defining event links people together for life. Rust Cohle and Marty Hart have the covert assault on Reggie Ledoux's cookhouse, the seemingly culminating event in the worst case they ever drew as detectives. For better or worse, landing that Dora Lange case has defined nearly 20 years in the lives of these men, and there's still lingering guilt and emotional damage because of it. The pilot opened with a few shots in the darkness: someone carrying what turned out to be a body, a bit of burning brush, and then a field of crops engulfed in flame. That left the first sign of a sinister undercurrent running throughout the bayou. But the total confusion of those first moments—meeting Rustin Cohle and Martin Hart, discovering their work in Louisiana, peeling back the first few layers of a complex and perplexing series of disappearances and murders—is now almost by the wayside. All that's left is the present-day conclusion.

"After You've Gone" strips away much of the artifice that has obscured the central partnership of the series so far. The past has been teased out, the reckoning that tore them asunder revealed, but still that sense of a job left unfinished pulls them back together. It's not as technically impressive as many of the other episodes, nor does it have the air of total confusion about it anymore. This is where anyone who overcommitted to the True Detective whirlwind hype machine over the last two months should start getting nervous. It's an episode that would fit in with other ordinary crime dramas, elevated only by the strength of the performers and the anticipation that the material in the pervious episodes can earn a fittingly stunning ending.

Yes, this show has displayed stylistic chops greater than most other series currently airing, and Nic Pizzolatto knows how to construct an artfully fascinating mystery. But the landing is another trick. It's tough enough to get good at hooking people with a compelling beginning, then deepening the obsession. Over the course of seven episodes, this series has provided two memorable performances above all else, and then some impressive camerawork. The story still needs a capstone, and whether it takes a surreal turn or works to provide these men with some kind of redemption narrative will decide whether True Detective is essential or merely very good.

Rust and Marty go to a bar. They haven't seen each other in years. Time has taken its toll on them both. ("Father time has his way with us all. Say you must've pissed him off.") Rust has been in Alaska, living in the cold even though he hates it. Marty has his own private investigator firm. The resentment over Maggie is still there. (Marty: "If you were drowning, I'd throw you a fucking barbell. Why would I ever help you?") But Rust essentially issues the command that Marty must help him. Marty has done what he can to cope with where his life has taken him at this point, though his anger still bubbles underneath the surface. Rust, on the other hand, is so racked with guilt and haunted by the loose threads that he returns, completely distrusts the current detectives involved with a similar case, and instead seeks out Marty to fill him in on what he's been keeping tabs on. In his mind, they have a debt: they saved one girl, now cracked up in a mental hospital, but without fully following through, there are countless others that have disappeared because of what went unexposed.

Unlike the rest of the season, which moved fluidly through different moments in the timeline, from 1995 to 2002 to 2012, True Detective has run out of room to move as easily to elucidate more details. Most of the cards are on the table, so the flashbacks are confined to Rust catching Marty up on his personal investigation since 2010. He interviewed a cross-dressing former student at one of Tuttle's schools who has suppressed memories about sexual abuse. He was a former classmate of Marie Fontenot. And Rust solemnly states that as a skilled B&E man, he did break into Tuttle's homes in Shreveport and Baton Rouge in order to dig up evidence. That's where he gets the real trump card that convinces Marty to rejoin the effort to solve the case.

In a safe, Rust found a tape that shows what happened to Marie Fontenot—and he thinks that once word got out among whoever was involved that Tuttle's safe had been compromised, he was taken out. The content is so shocking that it twists Marty into knots. ("You shouldn't have that." "Nobody should have this.") But on the strength of that one piece of evidence, together with all of the little circumstantial details that intrigue Marty but lead him to point out the insanity of Rust's position, they agree to partner up again. They have to.

So Cohle and Hart are back on the case, this time as private investigators sussing out small details previously overlooked. Just like old times, Rust still has his trusty "Taxman" notebook in tow as they run down leads, focusing on a man with serious facial scarring. They're back in the car again, driving along as they trade quips and philosophical musings. There's still a good amount of mystery here about who exactly is responsible for covering up a number of the details that could've turned the case in their favor. And certainly they both still have guilt over the way the Ledoux confrontation went down, because it may have destroyed the best lead in the case. But the investigation burrows deeper into the Tuttle family, revealing more about Carcosa and the scarred man, creating a lead to run down, or one hell of a red herring should True Detective take a giant leap in the finale.

Rust's investigation into the matters got him the evidence necessary to get Cohle on board, but it also made him sound like an absolute crazy person. His research into Tuttle's hometown, and the way they celebrate Mardi Gras in that area, bears a striking resemblance to the murder case. And when the two former detectives interview a woman who worked at Tuttle's father's estate, the line of questioning leads to her devolution into babbling about Carcosa, yet another person seemingly driven mad by the material inspired by The King In Yellow.

More impressive is the work that Marty does on his own to further the investigation where Rust can't go because of burning old bridges. Rust was always the one to track down files, stay up all night making connections, but this time it's Marty who delves into old non-digitized case files for evidence, tracking down inconsistencies and turning up new people to talk to. One of the old sheriffs they talked with, Steve Geraci, lied about some details related to the Fontenot disappearance, and when Marty makes a social call to play golf with the man, he still doesn't tell the truth. And he happens to be the sheriff in the area where Rust and Marty suspect the disappearances started. That's the thread they eventually have to pull when the other evidence has been gathered.

Separated from the 2012 interviews that have framed the narrative up to this point, the mystery focuses on what has happened since the Reggie Ledoux showdown instead of unpacking the convoluted past of these two men. Without an interrogation, and with so many years of history built between them, Rust and Marty can relax and tell each other the truth. There have been several sequences recounted by Rust, Marty, and Maggie where the narration written by Pizzolatto and the sequences directed by Fukunaga contradict each other. All of these characters lie to the police, for self-preservation, distaste for the investigation, or a little of both.

But it's telling that when Rust and Marty let all of the smokescreens fade away, they're telling each other about mundane, boring existence—except when the case haunts them. Marty, in recalling why he quit the force, says that it just got too much after seeing the aftermath of a meth tweeker who put a baby in a microwave in an attempt to dry it off. He dated a few people, but mostly goes home and eats TV dinners, a sad continuation of that pitiful scene where Maggie discovered Marty's affair. And Rust drinks himself stupid while eking out a living at the bar while running down leads in the case.

As for Maggie, she's still only there to show how the men have changed in the intervening years. Marty goes to see her, set up in a bigger house, to check on the girls. One finished up an AmeriCorps stint in Chicago, while Audrey deals with medication, has a boyfriend who's good to her, and paints. But Marty is removed from his family, hasn't seen Maggie in over two years, and she suspects that he's "saying goodbye" just in case things turn south with whatever Rust has going on. When she goes to see Rust at the dingy bar where he works, he basically kicks her to the curb. They're getting into something dangerous again, building to risky action like the undercover disaster in Beaumont with the biker gang, or the raid on Ledoux's cookhouse. Rust can't promise that nobody will get hurt, but there's nothing he can do about it. A debt must be paid.

And there's even the cryptic kicker with Detectives Gilbough and Papania driving around the bayou in search of a church long-since closed down. Lost and in need of direction, they stop to ask a groundkeeper driving a riding mower in circles—and the words he mutters to himself after they drive off in haste drip with suspicion. Is this the same guy at the old Tuttle school that Rust and Marty encountered, who maintains the grounds at several closed-down properties including schools and churches? Is he a Childress?

Whichever direction this goes, be it surreal, redemptive, or a giant rug-pull, this episode feels like the least memorable. It's table setting for the fireworks of the finale, with a few quotable lines, some memorable bits of performance, but largely just adding more fuel to the theory fire. There are now a handful of potential suspects—known to the viewer in bits of dramatic irony, but not to Rust and Marty. I suspect that there's also the possibility that the whole case could slip through their hands again, and that Rust's heavy existential philosophizing will amount to a whole lot of nothing in the conclusion of the case. But there's nothing left to do now but wait and see what kind of monster Pizzolatto and Fukunaga have waiting at the end of this story.

Extra Musings

 • The song playing on the jukebox in the opening scene: Juice Newton's "Angel Of The Morning."

• In the screener cut that was sent out, the tape that Marty watches is just a bunch of white noise, so if in the broadcast cut that's been replaced by some kind of shocking snuff film footage, I haven't seen it. That would also make Harrelson's reactions a lot more plausible.

• Just as a note: there's no screener for next week's finale, so I'll be watching it live and getting a review up as quickly as possible, but it won't be as early as the past few weeks.