The terrible and secret fate of all life, according to Rustin Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), is that you can’t remember your lives, you can’t change your lives and are thus doomed to be trapped in a nightmare you keep waking up into. He is a man with a heavy past, and he’s a man who remembers his debts.
This last part, he tells it to his old partner over beers in the opening scene of “After You’ve Gone,” while the song “Angel in the Morning” plays on the jukebox. The two worn out and broke down ex-detectives are drinking the beers promised at the end of the previous episode, Marty (Woody Harrelson) with his gun (.38 with hollowpoints) hidden safely in his pants, but it is not as was foreshadowed.
Every single time that True Detective has teased a major confrontation at the end of an episode, it picks up the week after with a reveal that the tension wasn’t as tightly packed as we thought. What we saw as a lit trail of gunpowder leading up to a keg turned out to be something less volatile: a thread of black yarn that continues to burn throughout the crowded firework factory that Nic Pizzolatto has made for us, expertly missing all the fuses and gas cans that lesser shows would ignite.
The closest thing we see to the long-time-coming firefight or bar room assassination implied with the closing shots of “Haunted Houses” is a verbal knife to Marty’s heart. Rust tells him that he also has a debt, that not finishing the job in ‘95 is causing pain and suffering, and Marty is partially responsible.
Instead of pulling out the .38, Woody Harrelson’s chin barely catches Martin Hart’s hurricane of rage resulting from the accusation, but after reigning in the signature rage-bite, he comes around, willing to hear Rust out at least as far as he’s willing to shoot straight. And boy if that isn’t how the episode goes.
The black yarn burns in a direct line toward next week’s season finale, looping around on itself for only for two flashbacks in the entire episode (a quick 2010 interview with a Tuttle abuse victim, and a nifty break-in scene to Billy Lee’s Baton Rouge residence) and some weird time-play with a Maggie and Marty goodbye scene. The action stays in the show’s 2012 present tense, and Rust invites Marty into the storage unit of mystery he flaunted in the faces of new detectives Gilbough and Papania.
The camera hangs above the detectives, who are moving straighter than ever before as director Cary Fukunaga recalls the circle that they move through, centering the camera on a sodium light that flares creating an orange sun in a dark sky above the parked car of our maybe-heroes.
Inside Rust’s storage, we get an explanation for the gun, “You can never be too careful,” and the old partners dive into the old case of the Yellow King. The storage unit is the most organized Rust’s thoughts have seemed yet, but no less eerie. Above a picture of the spaghetti monster sketch from 1995 are the words “Yellow King,” “scars,” and “Carcosa,” while the steel door out plays canvas to a red painting of the Yellow King’s spiral sign.
Marty needs more than the conjecture that Rust is presenting as what he terms “the sprawl.” For a man who has always seemed almost too ready to give religion the benefit of the doubt, the one place he has never been able to make a leap of faith was with detective work. That hasn’t changed, and now, it seems like more of a professional conviction than an excuse to fuck women who aren’t his wife.
He wants to know the one blind spot in his past. After the two parted ways in 2002, Rust broke into the home of Billy Lee Tuttle, who weeks later died of an overdose (but Rust believes was taken out after being compromised by what he stole from the man).
Rust tells Marty everything: How one of the break-ins – the one to Tuttle’s Baton Rouge residence – wasn’t reported. It just so happens, this was where Rust found photos of children blindfolded and antlered in the midst of exactly the kind of abuse the men have been meditating on for 17 years.
There was also a videotape.
It’s the transformative moment for Marty we’ve been wanting, and though it doesn’t change the monster he was, watching a fuzzy black and white tape recording of little Marie Fontenot being made a martyr by men in animal masks awakens something righteous inside of him. It’s framed perfectly, with McConnaughey facing the Yellow Sign, back turned, allowing Marty to fully experience this horror alone.
We don’t know the details of the video beyond the stuff that was alright to show on TV, but as is par for the True Detective course, Marty’s reaction is enough. He flips out, and for the first time in the show’s run the jutting chin of angry Harrelson isn’t something to fear, it’s cause for the one moment of real sympathy that character has been able to solicit in the entire series. Marty is back on the case, only this time he’s chosen his partner.
Back together, freelance and flying the banner of men determined to never again avert their eyes, the true detectives set up headquarters in Marty’s office. It turns out that these days he’s a private investigator, operating out of a plaza under the company name “Hart Investigative Services.”
The partners truly bond for the first time in their long careers of hating on the other. They lead empty lives now, alone more than ever. Marty scans through Match.com profiles while eating TV dinners on his couch. He fishes. Rust works at a bar. He drinks.
They share a regret that they might have been something else, one a painter, the other an athlete. For the first time in their relationship, Rust says something philosophical that Marty agrees with:
“Life’s barely long enough to get good at one thing.”
“If that long.”
“Well, be careful what you get good at.”
It turns out, during the ten years that we skipped over, Marty got good at exactly the right thing. He fibs his way into the archives at the police department under the guise of a burgeoning true crime novelist, and right when he find his old nemesis, hard detective work, he rises to the occasion, climbing mountains of paper files and scaling back down with actual leads. Hart has finally become the true detective he’s capable of.
The rechristened partners pay a visit to another Ledoux, moving straight ahead while circling back into the past of their unfinished business. This perfectly cast Ledoux is an obscure, legit one working out of a garage and he knows about the scar-man from his childhood. He doesn’t think the spaghetti monster is any relation, but it takes just a little more of Hart’s investigative services to realize that the family tree of Carcosa has spawned quite a few branches.
Marty’s leads bring the boys to Mrs. Laurence, an old woman who used to work for the Tuttle patriarch, Sam, father to the late Billy Lee and uncle the current governor, Eddie. What’s more is that Sam is the grandfather of a boy with a scarred face, serving as the common connection between the Ledoux brood and the Tuttle dynasty (“A man’s house was his own,” the old woman muses). She begins to get upset when the bombshell drops.
Rust shows the poor old woman pictures of the devil traps and immediately she begins to spout off about Carcosa. Things start getting weird in the classical literature sense as she describes the Yellow King as “Him who eats time.”
She gets stuck in a loop, rambling, “Death is not the end. Rejoice.”
A final lead in the Marie Fontenot thread points them in the direction of the Sheriff of Iberia Parish, who after an investigative game of golf with Marty summons the rage chin of righteousness, and score a follow up play date on Hart’s boat, where his is ambushed and compelled to talk at gunpoint about every little detail concerning the Fontenot case.
The last sequence of the episode puts us in a car with Gilbough and Papania, looking for a directions to a church that doesn’t exist anymore. They stop for travel advice from a man on a riding mower, but because they are new detective on this case they don’t realize the striking family resemblance the grass cutter shares with the secretly most wanted family in the bayou. They drive off into the trees as the unnamed Ledoux gets back to mowing in a circular manner.
“Time is a flat circle,” once said a pre-headshot Reggie Ledoux. To Rustin Cohle, this prospect is real and tragic. It dooms him to live his life over and over again.
It’s a big picture philosophy, held up by a regret filled past that’s been doused in self-loathing and alcohol. What it doesn’t account for is that when the flat circle of time is being experienced, it appears to its active passengers as a straight line. Rust and Marty are shooting straight, and though they can’t prevent the infinite nightmares behind them, there’s no guarantee that an equally eternal salvation doesn’t lie ahead.
As the camera pans left, away from the new Ledoux’s lawn-circle, a large boat slowly makes its way down river. The camera lingers on it. The vessel moves straight like that black burning yarn.
You can’t remember your lives. You can’t change your lives. But if you’re careful with what you get good at in the short time you have to get it right the first time, you can make sure that those running in circles with you don’t get trapped in a nightmare they keep waking up into.
This yarn is only going to burnout once, even if it has always burned out that same way before. Rejoice.