One of the great joys of watching Lost week to week when it was on the air from 2004-2010 was the theorizing that occurred in between episodes. Contrary to the increasingly popular method of “binge watching” shows, the week long (or more) breaks in between episodes of Lost allowed viewers to obsesses over every detail, every clue, and every line of dialogue. Although it was ultimately the characters that made Lost great television, the mystery aspects of the show were a fascinating hook that kept obsessed viewers busy on message boards and websites for years. True Detective has found itself subject to a similar phenomenon, perhaps more so than any other show in recent memory. A multitude of message board posts, articles, and social media discussions have occurred over the identity of The Yellow King, just what exactly Carcosa is, and other details of this terrific series. Images, text, and references have been scrutinized with a keen and obsessive eye. Lauded series such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad have certainly inspired much discussion, but in effect the mystery puzzle structure of True Detective and the careful implementation of clues throughout each episode (some obvious, others not so much) have turned the audience into detectives themselves.
One of the most fascinating elements of True Detective throughout its run has been trying to pin down just what exactly the show is and what it’s trying to accomplish. Some television shows run for hundreds of episodes and fit into one neat box, producing episode after episode of entertainment that all exist within the same parameters. Certainly this series feels like one whole; the gothic Louisiana imagery, philosophical and religious overtones, and singular case make that clear. Yet at the same time individual episodes have played with the structure and rules, existing as existential character drama, horror, biker noir, action, mystery, and now, finally, police procedural. The opening shot of this episode, in which we see the inner workings of a jukebox select and begin to play a new record, can serve as a metaphor for the turn in genre the episode is about to take. If we look at the seven episodes of True Detective that have aired thus far we can now see how they all fit into the overall structure of the story Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Fukunaga are telling and what is interesting is that, and I commented on this with episode 6 as well, that as the end approaches the story is fitting into a more traditional framework. That is not to diminish the quality of these episodes. On the contrary, “After You’ve Gone” is fantastic television and one of the most shrewd and economically told bits of police procedural I have seen in some time. In many ways Pizzolatto and Fukunaga are rewriting the rules of television, and it is thrilling to watch. True Detective season 1 has been a flowing, evolving, unpredictable beast, and everything that has been built in the previous episodes is what makes a more traditional episode like this one work so well. If Hart and Cohle weren’t such compelling characters, none of this would matter. But Pizzolatto has crafted these two complex detectives, and spent time studying their relationships, their worth as men, and the effects being a detective has on their soul, and in the home stretch all of that will make the payoff worthwhile.
Here’s the thing. There comes a point in a mystery where the answers have to finally be revealed. “After You’ve Gone” answers many questions. I spent time discussing the theorizing that has occurred over this show because I think it is important to understand how some may end up reacting to the answers. When we theorize, and discuss, and study, we end up creating our own set of expectations. Expectations are a tricky beast because it is rare that they are met. I speak not in terms of quality, necessarily, but in terms of ideas. By theorizing so heavily about the ultimate conclusions and results of something, we have strong ideas about what/how we’d like to see things end, and if they do not end in that way disappointment can set in and we may end up liking something less than is actually appropriate on a pure quality basis. We have to be careful; at once that theorizing is an incredibly rewarding way to engage and extend our viewing experience with something, but it can also set something up for failure. It is the rare thing that can fit into the results that everyone sees fit; we can’t please everyone. What is clear with “After You’ve Gone” is that the only thing Pizzolatto and Fukunaga are trying to please is the story itself. The form, structure, and execution of this story may have evolved from episode to episode, but the narrative remains intact and as one distinct whole.
At the end of “Haunted Houses,” we saw Rust invite Marty to have a beer and catch up. Marty loaded his weapon and agreed to the drink. The weapon is never used. Save for a few carefully implemented flashbacks, all of this episode takes place in the show’s present. Gone are the interrogations and the jumping between timelines. At the bar, Rust begins to reveal to Marty that for the past 2 years he has picked up the Dora Lange/Yellow King/Carcosa case once again and that he needs his help. Rust takes Marty to his storage locker (the one Papania and Gilbough so desperately wanted to see) and inside is a full on investigation suite. Maps and images adorn the walls, giant words are scrawled on brick, and a stick figure hangs from the ceiling. If Rustin Cohle wasn’t so clearly on to something that nobody else was, it would be easy to mistake him for a lunatic. In fact, that is exactly what Marty thinks until he sees the photographs and videotape. Much of “Haunted Houses” was spent discussing Reverend Billy Lee Tuttle and the break in to his house in 2010 right before his death, and now we have confirmation that Rust did break in but was not responsible for Tuttle’s death. Or, at least, we know that Rust tells Marty that he broke in but did not kill Tuttle. If we have learned one thing throughout this show it is that we can’t always trust the stories these people tell.
We only see glimpses of the videotape on a small black and white television, but Marty’s reactions (brilliant work, Mr. Harrelson) are more than enough to convince us of the horrors within. In my review of the first episode of this series, I took a broader approach than I have in subsequent reviews both to initially keep spoilers to a minimum and talk about the overall quality of the show. Thus, I never mentioned the disappearance of poor Marie Fontenot in 1990 or Sheriff Ted Childress. The videotape shows Marie being raped and murdered in ritualistic fashion in the woods by 5 men wearing animal masks. (Such as the 5 men in the photo with Dora Lange, or the 5 points on LeDoux’s tattoo, or the 5 Lone Star can men Rust makes.) The story Childress told was far more pleasant; Marie was safe with her father, away from her hooker mother. In episode 5, when Cohle is told by a prisoner that he never caught The Yellow King back in the day (right before the man kills himself) one of the prison guards is named Childress. (Conspiracy!) How does Reverend Tuttle fit in? Billy Lee Tuttle is the son of Sam Tuttle, a man who had many illegitimate children; one of them was a Childress. (Conspiracy!) After Marty – now a private detective with resources Rust, who works at a bar, does not have – agrees to help Rust, they visit a former maid of Sam Tuttle who is aware of the man with scars (aka the spaghetti monster) that was mentioned many times previous throughout the investigation. The man with scars is a Childress but also Sam Tuttle’s grandchild. (Conspiracy!) When Rust mentions the word “Carcosa” to the maid, she becomes overwhelmed with fear and wants to know how Rust knows that name. If I understand everything correctly, I believe that Carcosa is what the men call the land where they commit their horrible crimes. The land we’ve heard mentioned before where rich men do terrible things. Where the influence of Cajun Mardi Gras and costumes comes in to play and the Yellow King/Carcosa mythology comes to roost.
Rustin Cohle is right. There is a vast conspiracy afoot in Louisiana. As he puts it, there’s a sprawl. Now, in 2012, a member of the Tuttle family is a senator. In one of those carefully placed flashbacks, Rustin talks to a hooker who used to attend a Wellspring school and recounts “dreams” of being molested by men in animal masks. I have chills just thinking about it now, about the pain on his face as he tells the story and the anger Rustin feels for allowing this to go on for so long. In present time Rustin and Marty talk to a mechanic who recalls the three young men (the LeDoux brothers and the man with the scars) on his hunting trips. Rustin hooks Marty in not only by the videotape but by suggesting that he has a debt. By impulsively killing LeDoux back in 1995, Rustin believes that Marty precluded them from discovering the conspiracy then and there. Marty is all in now, though, and watching the two men work together in 2010 in pursuit of the same goal, despite their previous 10 year estrangement, is riveting and rewarding. Their investigation settles on Steve Geraci, last seen in episode 2, now Sheriff. Geraci worked for Ted Childress back in 1990 and is the most likely man to know about the coverup. Luckily, Marty and Geraci are friends and they meet to play golf. When asked about Fontenot, Geraci spins the same tale about Marie going to live in safety with her father and Marty immediately knows that he’s lying. Marty submits to Rust’s more aggressive approach and tricks Geraci on a fishing trip where Rust waits to interrogate him. This is the last we see of Marty and Rust in True Detective’s penultimate episode.
Earlier, Marty goes to visit Maggie. The scene is sterile and cold; years of pain and heartbreak lie between them. We see the life that Marty now has and it is an empty one. He eats microwave dinners by himself after no longer being able to compress the harsh imagery that one often sees as a detective. Marty does not even see his children, the oldest of whom is now a painter. A photograph of her adorns the mantle. Maggie seems wisened and content. She visits Rust at his bar but he is not receptive to her presence. She is checking in on the two previous men in her life after being questioned by Papania and Gilbough. Marty leaves Maggie’s house by saying “Thank You,” after being asked if he is saying goodbye. It is a bittersweet scene because it gives us a glimpse of what could have been. The lives that Marty and Rustin have led are a direct result of their lives as detectives. Rustin was “missing” for 10 years but for 8 of them he was simply fishing in the cold of Alaska. (So he sayss.) They are empty, broken shells of the men they were in 1995. In 7 episodes of television we have come ever closer to solving a mystery but we have also watched two men deconstruct. They aren’t the brash, bad men they once were; age has slowed them down and allowed them time to repent. They are broken, however, and Rust remains ever the nihilist while Marty is a terrible father and a tool of a womanizer. Why I still like these men, though, is that they don’t give up. 17 years after Dora Lange’s murder and Rustin Cohle and Martin Hart are still on the case, determined to find justice. All of their bad behavior and BS will amount to nothing if they end up as heroes in the end.
I have continuously brought up Marty’s daughter because I cannot get the image of the barbies out of my head and the similarity it held to the tableau Rustin made with the Lone Star cans. Now that we have seen the videotape and know just what The Yellow King and his people were up to, I still submit that it is all connected. It is possible that this was merely shown to illustrate the effect Marty’s career had on his daughters and was only a subtle red herring, but I just can’t shake it. I still linger on Maggie’s father, too, because he had such an ominous presence and if it all connects I think it has to connect through him. Rustin talked of a sprawl… does it extend this far? With only the finale left, we are sure to find out.
Finally, the episode ends with Papania and Gilbough lost in the backwoods of Louisiana attempting to find the abandoned church that Rustin talked about in their interrogations. This is the first time we see either of them out of the office, and I think it is clear they will be heavily involved in the finale next week. They come across a man driving a lawnmower who gives them immaculate directions. We have seen this man before, in episode 3, in a scene very similar to this one. Back then it was Rust and Marty who came across the man as he mowed the lawn of a “closed until further notice” Wellspring school. He had a beard and worked for the Parish, covering several properties. Now, in 2012, he no longer has a beard, and when the sunlight hits his face just right the spaghetti like scars can be seen all over his face. Papania and Gilbough don’t see this, of course. They drive away too quickly and don’t even get to hear his chilling decree that his family has been working on this land for a long time. At last, we know who the man with the scars is. Pizzolatto has laid the clues perfectly throughout each episode and it is now coming to a boil. This is why I don’t expect some huge twist to come out of nowhere in the finale. Thus far everything we’ve discovered has fit in with what we’ve already seen. The identity of The Yellow King is the last piece of the puzzle, and I suspect nothing less than a full on collision in the finale.
Note: Leading into the finale, I recommend you read other reviews and analyses of these episodes. I have seen a multitude of differing theories, opinions, and reactions to this episode. Not everyone is as positive as I am, although many are. Some have been confused by the genre shifts that I have relished so much. Others never liked the show to begin with, calling it too self-serious. I even read one review that thought this episode was a satire of the police procedural (and perhaps it was?) One of my favorite comments suggested that Rustin’s storage shed was like a True Detective theory message board come to life. This show is having fun with its audience, and the audience is having fun with the show. I haven’t read this much good and diverse writing about a series since, well, Lost. Just remember: as much as you do read, keep your expectations in check and go on the ride that Pizzolatto and Fukunaga have created; it will never end the way you want it to but only the way it is supposed to.