Review: ‘True Detective’ – ‘The Secret Fate of All Life’

Senior Television Writer
02.16.14 254 Comments

A review of tonight’s “True Detective” coming up just as soon as I have an All-Around Cowboy belt buckle…

“There’s a shadow on you, son.” -DeWall

“The Secret Fate of All Life” is a major turning point in the story of Rust Cohle and Marty Hart. It brings us to the end of the Dora Lange investigation, and the deaths of Reggie Ledoux and his partner. It introduces a new time period into the story, as we jump ahead to 2002, which is when we know that the partnership will end. And it finally makes overt what’s been implied for a while: that the cops of 2012 suspect Cohle not only of being the killer in their current case, but for some or all of the killings from the 1995 investigation.

And you can understand how they came to this conclusion. They don’t know as much as we do – a good chunk of this episode, in fact, is devoted to differentiating the fantasy from the reality of the “gunfight” that killed Ledoux – and so are free to look at the obvious holes in the 1995 story, Cohle’s presence at the 2012 crime scene and the cupful of crazy he displayed in their interview and assume that they are staring at a meta psychotic, or someone who knows how to draw a paraphilic love map, the monster in the locked room, or any of Cohle’s other dark theories brought to grim, mustachioed life. 

Knowing what we know, though, it’s reasonably safe to assume that Cohle isn’t the killer – and events here also strongly suggest that Hart isn’t – not only because we know much more about his movements in 1995 (that he was undercover with the bikers, for instance, during the period where he claimed to be visiting his father), but because we’ve seen that this was an investigation filled with men every bit as mysterious, dangerous and hard to read as Rust Cohle.

“The Secret Fate of All Life” opens with Cohle and Ginger the biker meeting with Ledoux’s partner DeWall, who seems to share Cohle’s gift for both psychological profiling and colorful dialogue. “I can see the soul at the edges of your eyes,” he tells him. “It’s corrosive, like acid. You got a demon, little man, and I don’t like your face. It makes me want to do things to it.” He may not detect that Cohle is a cop, but he knows he’s trouble and walks away.

And when our complicated heroes arrive at the cook site – in a sequence beautifully joined with the 2012 interviews so we are hearing one version of events at the exact moment we are seeing something very different – and get the drop on Reggie Ledoux, he also demonstrates a verbose quality, suggesting that Cohle is from Carcosa(*) and offering up the “time is a flat circle” theory that Cohle will incorporate into his own elaborate personal philosophy years down the line.

(*) That’s a reference to both Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” and to Robert Chambers’ horror story collection “The King in Yellow,” which borrows from the Bierce tale, and whose title no doubt influenced this story’s Yellow King.

Ledoux happens to be saying this as Cohle is having a tense standoff with DeWall, with Hart nowhere in sight, and it is both oddly amusing and completely true to character that Cohle stops for just a moment to identify this as a paraphrase of Nietzsche. Cohle is complicated and unknowable in so many ways, but consistent in so many others, including his ability to segregate his emotions from the task at hand when necessary.

Marty Hart doesn’t have that skill. The tragedies in Cohle’s past have cauterized so many of his emotional nerve endings, so that he only feels things under extraordinary circumstances (like the discovery in 2002 that he and Hart completely missed the real killer). Hart, on the other hand, feels everything too strongly. It’s why he was so insanely jealous when Lisa was dating another man, why in 2002 he’s so cruel and, eventually, violent to his daughter Audrey. And it’s why in 1995, upon seeing the two children (one dead, one just barely alive) who were being kept prisoner by Ledoux and DeWall, he breaks so thoroughly that the only response his mind and body can offer is to march right up to Ledoux and put a bullet in his head(**).

(**) Again, Matthew McConaughey is getting the bulk of the acclaim and will likely win the bulk of the awards (especially if the two leading men compete in the same category), but Woody Harrelson has been extraordinary in his own right, just in a less flashy (and, relative to prior roles, less surprising) way. Look at the expression on his face as Hart emerges from the house ready to kill Ledoux. That is a man who has just witnessed the absolute worst of humanity, and who is now being governed by a single, unshakable directive: to kill the sonuvabitch responsible. Good ol’ boy Marty has been sent to the showers in that moment, replaced by something hollow and angry and unshakable.  

That sequence, which ends with DeWall blowing himself up on one of the landmines he and Ledoux buried as a security system, doesn’t feature an elaborate single take like the one at the end of “Who Goes There,” but it’s as tense and visually striking in its own way (particularly the sequence where Cohle fires off the AK to fake the ballistics evidence for the “gunfight”). And Cohle’s willingness to cover up Ledoux’s murder goes a very long way towards explaining why Hart would be so loyal to him for so long, both during the remaining seven years of their partnership and the decade after it came to a sour end.

The flat circle theory suggests we will repeat the events of our lives over and over again, never realizing it, but as the narrative jumps to 2002, we see that these two men are doomed to repeat things even within a single lifetime. Marty has talked Maggie into taking him back, but the dark behavior from Audrey that he tried to dismiss when she was a little girl has blossomed into something he can’t ignore when she’s a troubled teen. Cohle is once again a cop in high demand from every nearby law-enforcement agency, but this time for his interrogation skills rather than as an inexhaustible undercover operative. And though both men have assumed the Dora Lange case was long over, Guy Leonard Francis’ mention of the Yellow King brings back all the old memories, and sends Cohle on a tour of all the old crime scenes.

While the 2012 cops are busy looking at Cohle as their suspect, we have some other clues. Francis mentions that “big people” are behind the Yellow King, Cohle begins to suspect the anti-Christian crimes task force of playing a role, and the 2012 cops wonder if Cohle was looking into the Reverend Tuttle, cousin to the governor. Tuttle died in 2010, right after Cohle returned to Louisiana, and it could well be that Cohle murdered the man he believed to be the Yellow King, but the fact that the crimes have continued past Tuttle’s death suggests that either he was wrong, that the conspiracy was larger than just the one Tuttle cousin, or even that, for all of the knowledge we have of this case and this man, the 2012 cops are on the right track and the monster has been standing in front of us the whole time, making beer can men and drawling contemptuously.

I’ve said in the past that Nic Pizzolatto seems more interested in the story of Cohle and Hart than in the story of this case. But as we draw ever closer to this season’s conclusion, the plot and the characterization are starting to come into balance. (And we’re apparently going to go through this next phase of the story without Old Rust as a guide, unless he happens to agree to talk to the cops again.) It’s possible that we’re not going to truly understand who killed Dora Lange and why until we truly understand Rust and Marty and exactly what they’re capable of.

Some other thoughts:

* After the 2012 cops noted that they were speaking to Hart after they had interviewed Rust, I went back to the start of the premiere, and sure enough, the videotape timecodes show that Cohle’s interview is April 26, and Hart’s is May 1st. It’s a detail I didn’t pay much attention to at the time, especially since we meet Old Marty before Old Rust. And now one of the many reasons I want to rewatch the earlier episodes is to see how the second interview is shaped by the results of the first.

* That’s Elizabeth Reaser (from “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The Good Wife” and the “Twilight” films, among many other things) as Cohle’s 2002 love interest. The 2012 cops’ questions suggest something bad happened between her and Cohle, but that could be anything from a rough breakup to something violent. I like Reaser and would ordinarily hope she gets more to do in the ensuing episodes, but given how underwritten Michelle Monaghan’s role has been – really, how underwritten and/or clichéd every character other than Rust and Marty has been – I’m not expecting much more than a plot function.

* Due to the iffy picture quality of some of the early screeners, I mistook Ledoux’s tattoos for dirt (or worse) when we first glimpsed him at the end of episode 3. Here, we get a very clear and extended look at all the ink on his body, including a hangman’s noose around his neck, a swastika, a 666 and a praying woman. And I have to imagine that Nic Pizzolatto or someone else in the creative team spent a very long time figuring out exactly what would be there and how it would tie into Ledoux’s own personal philosophy, and how that in turn reflects Cohle’s belief system.

* Given the number of cops and other first responders who come to the cook house after the deaths of Ledoux and Dewall, how long do you reckon Cohle had to leave Ginger bound and gagged in a ditch before he was able to go cut him loose? Or do you think Cohle would have such contempt for the man that he would just leave him there to either get free on his own or die trying?

* In case you missed it, Cary Fukunaga told exactly how they pulled off the six-minute tracking shot from the end of last week’s episode, including the fact that it was a single take, even though they had inserted certain spots in the choreography where they could have cheated if they’d needed to.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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