If the six-minute, single-shot finale of last week’s “Who Goes There” set your pulse racing through sheer visceral force, this week, “True Detective” keeps up the pace while finding new ways thrill with “The Secret Fate Of All Life.” Yes, there is another nail-biting setpiece that anchors the first half of the episode, but it’s the developments in the case that really start to bear fruit, with the investigation into Reggie Ledoux moving away from merely procedural and pointing toward something more far-reaching and sinister.
Following the shootout in the projects, Rust (Matthew McConaughey) has turned his biker contact into an informant and set up a meeting with Reggie’s cook-partner to try and make a deal to trade cocaine for meth. There’s a sense of desperation emanating from Rust; he leans in a little too closely during the meetup—his confidence almost seems a put on—and Reggie’s partner immediately senses something is off. He declines the deal, but leaves a parting observation about Rust that lingers over the rest of the episode like a prophecy. “I can see your soul at the edges of your eyes. It’s corrosive, like acid. You’ve got a demon, little man,” he says, adding: “There’s a shadow in you, son.”
We’ve long known that darkness weighs on the soul of Rust, but it has never diminished his determination and he’s not letting his only solid connection to Reggie Ledoux slip away. Martin (Woody Harrelson) tails Reggie’s partner following his meeting with Rust, and some careful reconnaissance brings them to a group of trailers and train-containers hidden in the woods, surrounded by crude, homemade booby traps. It’s Reggie’s cook lab, and the pair decide to move in and make the arrest themselves, which soon reveals one of the big reasons why seventeen years later, they are both sticking to a specific version of events.
Tense and intense as it is, the operation at first goes smoothly. Rust and Martin manage to get Reggie outside, on the ground and in cuffs, and as Rust keeps watch on him, Martin goes to corral the wanted man’s partner. The collection of haphazardly assembled buildings is a maze and soon Martin loses track of his man, but finds something strikes him with pure horror and fury. He comes charging out of the train container and without a moment of hesitation, walks right up to Ledoux and shoots him in the side of head, killing him. This, of course, changes everything. Hearing the shot, Reggie’s partner bolts and tries to make it to the woods, only to be rather gruesomely blown up by one of the tripwire grenades on the perimeter of the compound. So what set Martin off? There were two young children inside—one reported missing, the other not as of yet—hidden away and lord knows what they had been subjected to. And as Martin goes to ensure the safety of the children, Rust immediately starts fixing the scene to support the story they will tell for the next decade and more: that Reggie came out shooting, and that Martin and Rust miraculously managed to survive, take him down, save the kids and solve a series of killings. And as the pair will find out, the story is too perfect, too neatly wrapped up, to fully explain the murders.
While the sexier single-take shot will likely go down as one of the best visual moments of show, let’s hope the gorgeous transition from 1995 to 2002 comes in a close second. As Martin’s daughters fight over a tiara in front of the house, it gets thrown up into the branches of a tree. The camera follows along and when it glides back down, a pickup pulls into the driveway and the eldest Audrey gets out the vehicle, now very much a teenager who looks like she’s been shopping at Hot Topic. While this is all happening, Martin’s interview with the detectives from 2012 plays over the top, as he admits his own personal failures when it comes to his personal life. “I cleaned up, but maybe I didn’t change. Not the way I needed to,” he explains. And that’s really the thematic heart of “True Detective.”
The second half of “The Secret Fate Of All Life” finds Rust delivering philosophical monologues about time being a flat circle, and his belief that man cannot change and history is doomed to repeat itself over and over. We’re just corporeal beings living out a pattern we can’t escape. “You can’t remember your lives. You can’t change your lives. And that is the terrible and secret fate of all life. You’re trapped, like a nightmare you keep waking up to,” he grimly intones. And as we learn more about what happens seven years after the case, one quickly understands how Rust has arrived at his belief about, well, the secret fate of all life. That being said, his outlook may be some form of self-protection from a world that pains him much more deeply than he cares to admit.
“I wouldn’t want any viewers to assume we had some nihilistic agenda, or reduce Cohle to an anti-natalist or nihilist. Cohle is more complicated than that,” creator/writer Nic Pizzolatto recently told The Wall Street Journal. “As I’ve said recently, Cohle may claim to be a nihilist, but an observation of him reveals otherwise. Far from ‘nothing meaning anything’ to him, it’s almost as though everything means too much to him. He’s too passionate, too acutely sensitive, and he cares too much to be labeled a successful nihilist. And in his monologues, don’t we detect a whiff of desperation akin to someone who protests too much? When Cohle speaks of the unspeakable, is it with the same illusory perspective as when Hart speaks about the importance of having rules and boundaries? Perhaps that is what Hart references when he tells Cohle in episode 3, ‘You sound panicked.’ ”
But momentarily at least, things do seem to be better in 2002 for both Martin and Rust. The former has reconciled with his wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan), and is back under the same roof with her and their daughters. And even Rust has managed to settle, dating a doctor and approaching something resembling domestic life. Professionally, things seem to be on a even keel as well, with Rust gaining a reputation as one of the best detectives when it comes to getting confessions. And his line of questioning has little to do with the particulars of each case, and instead zeroes in on the problems troubling the soul of criminals. “Everybody knows there’s something wrong with them, they just don’t know what it is. Everybody wants confession, everybody wants some cathartic narrative, the guilty especially,” he tells Detective Maynard Gilbough (Michael Potts) and Detective Thomas Papania (Tory Kittles) in the contemporary timeline.
In the interrogation room, Rust brings forth a presence akin to a father, protector and priest to those he talks to, and he’s so good that, sometimes, the accused don’t even realize they’ve confessed to a crime. And indeed, Guy Leonard Francis is surprised when during his conversation with Cohle, he admits to a double murder. Hoping to strike a deal, he tells Cohle some shocking news: the man behind the antler murders is still out there killing, and “big people” are covering it up. Rust doesn’t believe Guy, until the prisoner says three words that change everything: The Yellow King.
As io9 breaks down in a must-read piece, and as attentive readers may remember, The Yellow King was mentioned explicitly in Dora Lange’s journal, but it has literary connections that may come to bear thematically on “True Detective.” In a collection of influential stories by Robert W. Chambers published in 1895, “The King In Yellow” is a fictional play “that brings despair, depravity, and insanity to anyone who reads it or sees it performed.” And it’s not long until an unhealthy obsession—even for Rust—begins to form as he starts to look again at the killings, with an eye on something far more conspiratorial and haunting. And it’s a feeling that’s underscored when he brings Martin the next day to meet Guy, only to learn that the prisoner has conveniently committed suicide after taking a call from what was said to be his lawyer. But tracing the call, Rust and Martin discover it was from a payphone out in the middle of nowhere. As we learn from the detectives in 2012, Rust’s suspicions begin to circle back to Reverend Lee Tuttle and his religious group somehow being involved in the killings, a theory Martin doesn’t seem to agree with.
But more importantly, Gilbrough and Papania don’t buy any of it. Rust has been identified by witnesses and photographed around the crime scene of the latest victim that is prompting a fresh look into the killings. They believe maybe it was Rust himself who killed Ledoux, perhaps settling an old score, or maybe trying to silence the meth cooker who may have had something on him. And with Rust driving the investigation, cherry-picking previous murders to tie to Ledoux, and finding the evidence, maybe he was covering his own tracks. Maybe he was the one who got rid of Francis who instead of trying to help Rust, was actually blackmailing him. Perhaps he was pushing the idea that Dora Lange’s killer was still out there to find another patsy to pin the crimes on. It’s a bold assertion, and a compelling one, with Martin listening to Gilbrough and Papania’s theory with half an ear toward buying into the notion. And it’s hard to argue that Cohle doesn’t seem just off-center enough to conjure up some twisted serial killings.
However, as the episode closes, we know this can’t be true, no matter how bad it looks. Returning to the abandoned Light of Way school, Rust makes his way inside and discovers more of the mystery totems made of twigs and twine. A single shaft of sunlight shines into the darkened classroom and Rust holds up one of those totems, as he turns it over and around. It looks like the flat circle of time is coming back around again, bringing with it the horror of a crime unsolved, and perhaps more monstrous than previously imagined. [A-]