On a scene by scene basis, “The Secret Fate Of All Life” is as grim and unsettling as any other episode of True Detective. There’s the normal murder and nihilistic grumblings, plus kids locked in crates and increasingly disturbing Hart family drama, and even the detectives’ vanquishing of Ledoux and closing of the Lang case is undercut by our knowledge that the triumph is based on a narrative that is false not only in the details, but in the assumption that it means the end of the killings. But I also found the episode tremendously encouraging in terms of the metagame TD’s been playing with its framing structure. I enjoy some structural experimentation as much as the next pretentious internet writer-type, but I am glad that the 1995 segment has closed out and the 2012 storyline will not play out entirely within the confines of the interviews, leading up to the dramatic confession that one of the main guys has been the killer all along, which is about the only twist possible if they were to remain in that restrictive environment.
Which is not to say I have hated the interview aspect. Harrelson and McConaughey have done a great job carrying it, and it’s actually at its most effective this week, as it begins to contrast in earnest the falsehoods the detectives are telling the interviewers with the reality of how the showdown at Ledoux’s cook site played out. This keeps us a little off balance, when the framing device could easily rob all tension from the proceedings. Between this and last week’s masterful closing sequence, it’s to Pizzolato and Fukunaga’s credit that they have managed to make it work as effectively as a thriller as they have in spite of our foreknowledge that the only developed characters will make it out of the dangerous situations of 1995 unscathed.
No, my main issue with the interviews has been the nagging suspicion that they were building up to that twist I mentioned. Now, maybe you like that kind of thing, and more power to you if so. But me, I’m a simple kind of man. I like butter in my ass, movement in my plots, genuine uncertainty in my suspense, and my narratives to play fair with the audience and make a modicum of goddamn sense in hindsight. That’s just me. And it means that I generally disdain twist endings. Oh, I love me a twist, if it’s setting up a conclusion and not constituting the conclusion in itself (so without getting into specifics: yay, Fight Club and Psycho! Boo, Usual Suspects and Shyamalan!). There are twist endings that work, but they’re few and far between, and generally fit better onto shorter narratives, in my opinion. Particularly in the internet age, hinging a longform narrative on a shocker ending is a recipe for disappointment and discontent.
What this means is that I am happy that we will be getting a proper third act in 2012, and that both our leads are effectively exonerated as suspects. I know the big “reveal” of the episode is that the interviewers like Cohle as the culprit in the new murders, but we and he have been on to that from the jump, and you don’t put those cards on the table in episode 5 if it’s supposed to be the shocking finale to the series. And Marty, well he’s got issues with anger and women, but he’s not the type to go in for the occult, or to have metapyschoses or paraphillic love maps in his repertoire. “Do you know the good years when you’re in them? Or do you just wait for them until you get ass cancer, and realize that they came and went?” is not the sort of sentiment I’d expect to hear from a man who carries out sadistic, ritualistic serial murder. It’s a great line, but I’ll court controversy and say this for the serial killers: I don’t think they are prone to doubts about whether they’re making the most of their days or really leaving their mark on the world.
Plus Marty would never allow his daughters to be hurt, and while we see that none of his family is the most recent victim in 2012, it’s looking more and more like Audrey is growing into precisely the sort of troubled, probably substance-addled woman that the cult targets. Really I base this more on the transitional shot of the tiara she threw in the tree fading to resemble one of their wicker symbols than anything, but it makes me nervous all the same. Symbolism has been kind of a thing with this show, after all. Like for example Ledoux’s (who, along with his partner, is creepy and philosophical to such an extreme degree that even a Debbie Downer like Cohle snaps at him to shut the fuck up already) talk about the black stars (and note the asterisks on the windows framing Cohle as he investigates the abandoned school) and time as a flat circle, which leaves an impression on Rust. To hear he/they tell it, this means that we are locked into repeating the same events over and over again, our lives an endless, repetitive cycle. Or perhaps an endlessly downward spiral, such as the Ledoux’s flat, circular tattoo suggests. Now, this is a bunch of BS, if you ask me. My own understanding of the 4th dimensional shit Rust spouts at the table indicate that time certainly exists, it’s just not as linear and immutable as it seems to us. But TV show doesn’t necessarily have to conform to my own views of reality, and we are seeing the characters repeating the same scenes again and again. Marty and Rust give the same, fabricated account of the “shootout” to the review board in 1995 as they are giving again in 2012. Rust is again pouring over cold case files and examining woven statuettes in creepy abandoned buildings (not to mention visiting the site where Lang was found) in 2002, just as he did in 1995. Maggie takes Marty back, despite the cycle of infidelity and neglect that has come to define their marriage (all while the girls take “one more lap” around the roller rink). She’s also the one who insists on setting up Cohle repeatedly, despite his obvious defects as a mate. But of course the big one is that these murders will continue as long as there is a horrific Yellow King out there.
I won’t try to rehash who the Yellow King is, or pretend I knew about this before reading this link in another review (TL; DR version: The Yellow King is a sinister figure who rules over Carcossa, a place of madness and despair that has also been referenced multiple times by Ledoux and other cult-adjacent figures). It seems that in this context, he will be the leader of the cult, or leaders, if the mantle has been passed in the interim between 95 and the “present” day. And as I type that, I’m starting to wonder if in the end Cohle might not be faced with the decision whether to embrace the demon Ledoux’s partner references in the opening and become the Yellow King himself, or to remain the titular detective? Nah, that’d be pretty crazy. The type of twist that could only fit in a place of utter madness and despair.
Prior recaps can be found in here.