A review of tonight's “True Detective” coming up just as soon as I throw you a barbell when you're drowning…
“My life's been a circle of violence and degradation, long as I can remember. I'm ready to tie it off.” -Rust
We've spent the previous six weeks of “True Detective” talking quite a bit about the thin way that Nic Pizzolatto has written the characters who aren't Rust and Marty, and debating whether this is a feature or a bug. Now, this has always been a very self-aware series, one that's commenting on various clichés of police procedurals and serial killer melodramas even as it deploys them all, and one where our heroes spent the first five hours (and, for Marty, part of the sixth) looking into a video camera – and, more often than not, directly at us – and offering commentary on the story that we're watching. Pizzolatto has written crime stories of his own, has read and watched countless others, and in many cases he's anticipated the potential criticisms of the series and tackled them head-on within the context of the plot. And as we enter the penultimate chapter of Rust and Marty's story, it's time to deal with the business of our heroes mattering so much more than anyone else.
As “After You've Gone” brings us into 2012 for the duration (give or take a few flashbacks to what Cohle and Hart have been up to since they last spoke), we find that not only are they the only fully dimensional people in the story, but they're essentially the only people left in their own lives.
It's not that the show suddenly transforms into a play with only McConaughey and Harrelson on the stage. We see Maggie, and Rust's new boss, a couple of old colleagues from the 1995 detective squad, and Gilbough and Papania run across the spaghetti monster himself, who turns out to be Errol, the groundskeeper Rust spoke to at the end of episode 3. (More on him in a bit.) It's not about who else is still there in the world at large, but who each man has to lean on or care about. In the hour's first scene, Marty jokes that Rust must have alienated everyone else in his life and gone back to him in the rotation, but it's not like Marty the glad-hander is living a much richer existence. His detective agency is a barren storefront with only one employee. He hasn't seen Maggie in two years, doesn't seem to be in touch with either daughter, and though his old cop buddies smile when they see him, it's always with the understanding that this is a rare occasion. He tells Rust that he has a quiet life, and this seems a charitable way of putting it. He had a life that was defined by being a cop, and when one dead child too many ended that career, he had nothing else. He doesn't much like his ex-partner for a variety of understandable reasons, but he needs Rust again, as much for companionship as for purpose.
And one of the great things about the time-spanning structure of this season is the way we get to see the partnership evolve over a long period, from the uneasy alliance of 1995 to the bitter 7-year itch of 2002 to these two being so old and weary and useless in the company of anyone else that it might finally occur to Rust to ask Marty about his personal life. There is nothing for either of them but each other and this last piece of business. Both seem at peace with the idea that they might die closing the case, or at least go to prison – Marty's visit to Maggie was that of a man saying his final farewell – almost as if they know that their story only has an hour to go before the world never sees either one of them again.
What was striking about watching the partners working together again after all the years apart wasn't just seeing the greater ease they have around each other now – that Rust can actually acknowledge Marty's detective skills, and Marty can return the backhanded compliment with an amused, “High praise from a bartender” – but how, for all their differences, they have come to the same place. Marty doesn't want to believe any of Rust's crazy conspiracy theories, but he watches that old videotape(*) and he's an instant convert. All these wild theories of Rust's are true, and he screwed up badly in 1995 by executing Reggie Ledoux, and now he has to do whatever it takes – including kidnapping and torturing his old buddy Steve – to unburden himself of the debt.
(*) That sequence, like the later flashback to the case that ended Marty's police career, continues the show's trend of telling us about the most monstrous deeds without ever quite showing them to us. We cut away from the flickering TV screen before we see what exactly the men in the animal masks were about to do to Marie Fontenot, but Woody Harrelson's face tells us the entire horrifying story, just as it does when Cary Fukunaga's camera makes sure to keep the dead baby out of focus as poor Marty gets a look.
As I watched the partners meet in the middle, or as close as they can, I began focusing less on the things that make them different than on the ways in which they are the same, beyond this last mission. Rust is the way he is because of that staggering string of tragic events: his daughter's death, the end of his marriage, the man he killed and the four-year stretch as an undercover indentured servant. That would be enough to destroy any man, or at least to burn away a lot of the pieces that make us recognizably human, leaving just enough left for him to function in his chosen profession, and leading him to his particular brand of nihilism. But we don't know much about who and what Rustin Cohle was before all this happened. Maybe he was more like Marty than we might have imagined. Maybe if Marty Hart had been through that same unspeakable stretch, he'd be the one with the droopy mustache giving lectures about how time is a flat circle. Instead, his self-destruction came slower, a bit at a time, so that – as he told Gilbough and Papania – a trained detective missed what was happening right under his nose. Switch their circumstances around, and perhaps Rust is the one stepping out on his wife while putting on a cheerful facade. But no matter their circumstances, and how their respective personalities handled them, the two have come to this endpoint – two men who've been around too long, seen too much and outlived their usefulness for anything but closing this case, and whatever that entails.
And the structure of the series means that anything could happen in next week's finale: the death of one or both of our heroes, the success or failure of their investigation, a perfectly mundane explanation for the activities of this family of killers, or (though I doubt this is where we're going) a more supernatural one befitting the many theories about the Yellow King, Carcosa, et al. This story's over after one more hour, come what may, and then the slate gets wiped clean. Rust Cohle no longer cares about anything but tying off this circle, which makes him incredibly dangerous. And because Pizzolatto doesn't have to worry about bringing any of these characters with him to “True Detective” season 2, he's just as dangerous.
Some other thoughts:
* When I did my rundown last week of HBO drama alums who've had roles big and small in this show, I neglected to mention Glenn Fishler from “Boardwalk Empire,” in part because I didn't recognize him as Errol, who was sporting a beard to hide his scars back in episode 3. (Also, he wasn't constantly referring to himself as “Remus”.) In this episode, he's revealed at a minimum to be the Spaghetti Monster, and possibly the Yellow King himself (note how he's bathed in a golden light after Gilbough and Papania drive off, too tunnel-visioned to even let him finish his sentence). There are definitely pieces missing from this picture – if Errol's the center of this conspiracy, why's he making like Forrest Gump and riding a mower? – and we'll have to find out exactly what he meant by the reference to his family being around a long time: a generational brand of evil, or something more immortal? And how many of the show's old white men – say, Maggie's father – will be encircled in this conspiracy before it's over?
* The show definitely lost something when Hart and Cohle's interrogations ended, but I appreciate how Pizzolatto tries to recreate some of that structure here by having each man telling the other stories of what happened to them over the last decade. No monologues about locked rooms or flat circles, but enough to make it feel less straightforward than episode 6, even as it was more confined to this one time period.
* Marty's visit to Maggie's house also reveals that their girls have done mostly okay as adults: Maisie working in AmeriCorps, Audrey as an artist, albeit one who requires regular psychiatric medication.
* Note how much less ruined Old Rust seems once he's out of that interview room. He was definitely putting on an act for the younger cops, on top of drinking beer to ensure his statement would be inadmissable. A clever guy – albeit one with a ratty ponytail and mustache.
* Marty explains to another ex-colleague that he's thinking of writing a true crime book – “That's the genre, not the title.” Wondering if Pizzolatto ran into any objections along the way to using the title he did.
* This week's closing music: “Lungs” by Townes Van Zandt.
Finally, HBO isn't sending the finale out to critics, which means I'll be writing my reaction to it live that night. One more hour with Cohle and Hart. Boy oh boy.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org