If you felt like the big raid at the end of “Who Goes There” was a turning point for True Detective, good work—here’s a special commendation from the Louisiana State Police. If you felt like True Detective couldn’t get any better than that—maybe you’re investing too much in an artfully executed piece of filmmaking. (Don’t worry, you’re in good company there, with myself and approximately 95 percent of the Internet.) “The Secret Fate Of All Life” matches a season high with another season high, boldly taking Reggie Ledoux out of the picture and forging ahead into the murky depths of season one’s third act. The obvious reference point here is Twin Peaks’ “Lonely Souls,” another expertly handled hour in which a killer is identified and dispatched sooner than the audience expected. In this case, however, I have a hunch we won’t be treated to a secondary character’s momentary flirtation with a career in pop music.
This is the series’ nimblest balance yet of “It’s not about the case”/“It is about the case.” Sixteen minutes into “The Secret Fate Of All Life,” Reggie Ledoux is dead and Dora Lange’s murder is ostensibly solved. A series of domestic and workplace dramas follows, but not really: Rust, and True Detective, can’t let go of that central mystery. There’s evidence mounting that suggests the murders go beyond Ledoux—and the only person who could corroborate such suspicion had his brains scrambled by Detective Hart (if they weren’t already permanently scrambled by various chemical agents). True Detective is wading into dangerously Killing-like territory, responding to its biggest question mark with even more question marks—but it’s better constructed than all that. These twists and trapdoors organically flow from what Nic Pizzolatto laid out in previous scripts.
To that end: If you doubted the veracity of what Rust told Gilbough and Papania in previous episodes, that doubt is substantiated as soon as Hart and Cohle descend upon the Ledoux compound undetected. There’s some fine work of juxtaposition via editing in these sequences, as Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson provide battlefield narration for what turns out to be a stealthy and uneventful operation. But Pizzolatto has shown his work in previous episodes, so it goes off like gangbusters. “Who Goes There” demonstrated Rust’s habit of building narratives for himself. In his boozing and philandering, Marty shows that he has a complicated relationship with honesty. Characters only telling half of the story is fundamental to True Detective. This isn’t a show that fabricates tension out of waiting for the other shoe to drop; the tension in True Detective comes from knowing that there’s a bigger monster lurking in the shadow of the monster that just fell.
Because even though the killer is found, he never truly goes away. That’s the logic of Ledoux and his Carcosan cronies, the core of the theoretical-physics lecture Rust gives to Gilbough and Papania, and the seed of doubt that “The Secret Fate Of All Life” plants in the viewer’s mind. It’s also how True Detective gets away with poking at universal truths within a story of such narrow scope. It’s all there in M-theory babble Rust is just now drunk enough to lay out: It’s this circular view of existence, where everything that will ever happen has already happened—and will happen again, for eternity.
I don’t think True Detective adheres to this train of thought precisely, but there are patterns that repeat within the show, cycles of birth, bloom, stasis, decay, and death that ensnare these characters. If Reggie Ledoux is no longer around to perpetrate his kind of evil, there’s someone else out their ready to pick up the slack—and the crown of the yellow king. Reinforcing this notion, Cary Fukunaga and Adam Arkapaw pack the frames of “The Secret Fate Of All Life” with circular imagery: Rust’s ring of can men, that big knot in the tree, the magazine of Ledoux’s tommy gun, the crown that the Hart girls fight over. And then there’s that telltale swirl, Rust and Marty’s presumed key to finding their man—which now looks more like a map of Detective Cohle’s impending decline.
“The Secret Fate Of All Life” marks another pinnacle of daring for True Detective, and it’s a daring that has to make way for some hiccups in momentum. Twin Peaks echoes go beyond “Lonely Souls”; in the space of 20 minutes, it goes through all the awkward throes, fits, and starts that David Lynch and Mark Frost encountered after they revealed Laura Palmer’s killer. (That’s mostly in the middle section devoted to establishing the 2002 portion of the season’s timeline, but even that is in engrossing in the way the show temporarily transforms into a family drama about putting the pieces together after a separation.) But “The Secret Fate Of All Life” also barrels forward with the force of last week’s bravura finale, its last 10 or 15 minutes puling the show forward with a determination that Twin Peaks didn’t find until Agent Cooper followed Windom Earle into the woods.
But Rustin Cohle is no Dale Cooper, and he now finds himself the primary suspect in an investigation of his own making. “The Secret Fate Of All Life” renews the energy of True Detective by shifting the focus to “Rust the killer”—a storytelling path that’s been there from the start, but now has all of the brush cleared away from it. This would be a hacky direction to take were it not for the scenes in “The Secret Fate Of All Life” that find Rust or Marty contradicting the official version of the Ledoux situation. Everyone but Rust, Marty, and the viewer knows Ledoux’s death as a siege gone wrong; we understand it as two guys covering their own asses after emotion gets the best of them.
And so the seeds of doubt are planted: How far is Rust willing to go to cover himself? Is this the only time he’s restaged a crime scene? Why is he studying the stick sculptures so intently—and to what end? Suddenly, thrillingly, he’s trapped in his own pattern: When you find heroism in a lie, it’s hard to get the truth to work for you down the line. Because in True Detective’s mind, it’s not a line—it’s a loop.
- I’m not the first person to recommend this io9 piece about The King In Yellow and the Carcosa mythos (it’s been all over social media this weekend), but it’s a must-read primer on the weird little bits of Robert W. Chambers that are seeping into True Detective’s soil.
- I skimmed over the time jump to 2002, but I suspect that’ll be a bigger part of next week’s episode—so we can discuss it in detail there. In brief, I think the transition was handled elegantly enough, though it yields some on-the-nose imagery about the passage of time. (Beer bellies and thinning hair and whatnot.) The actual transition point is pretty fascinating: In light of Marty’s narration, I watched the sequence with balled fists, anxious about some sort of tragedy befalling Audrey and Maisie. Though it now seems inevitable that something terrible is going to happen to Audrey, Mistress Of The Dark in the next three weeks…