True Detective’s penultimate episode continues to support my theory that this is not a show with a supernatural answer; this series is about the darkness that exists in the real world, not a fictional Lovecraftian horror that merely represents the ontological despair of existing with certain knowledge of little more than our own deaths. After all, what more is detection than many questions with the same, ultimate, deadly answer?
Last week’s episode left me comparatively underwhelmed after the tour de force of episodes four and five. “After You’ve Gone” doesn’t get anywhere near those heights, but I realized that my struggles with these two episodes are similar to those I have with the fourth act of any Shakespeare play: we need that act to make the fifth act happen, but it’s always a letdown after the shock and awe of Act III.
And that’s okay, because episodes one, two, and three blew me away with the introductory setup. Episodes four and five were the wham-bam punch. Now we just have to wait for the roundhouse kick that sends us reeling in the last episode of this story, which will tie everything together. Or not.
It looks like TD has, at the least, given us an answer to the murder mystery. As many online commenters suspected, the lawnmower man that we first met back in…episode two, was it? Well, he is scarred and creepy and his family has been around for a long, long time. Whether he’s a Childress, a Tuttle, or some other offshoot, he’s likely our man, or one of them, since Marty and Rust have clearly stumbled on a long, sprawling story of murder and sacrifice in the bayou.
The history Rust describes is fascinating: a dark twist on the Louisianan tradition of Mardi Gras, with a Yellow King instead of the NOLA equivalent of a King of Fools. The twigs, the antlers, the blindfolds and white dresses: this is some of the creepiest and simplest evocative imagery I’ve seen in a while. It has a mythic resonance, too, as Mardi Gras—that pre-Lenten celebration of carnivalesque debauchery before a ritualized asceticism in which we atone for our sins—is clearly linked to the pre-Christian pagan traditions of feast and famine, Dionysian revelry, and hypersexualized planting festivals. The cult of Carcosa, in other words, makes sense in light of the history of that stretch of the gulf (pirates!) and the dark underbelly of Louisiana’s Mardi Gras that we see even today.
I might be responding to some of this imagery with more force than the rest of you. I used to live in New Orleans, and I can barely describe the utter culture shock of truly beginning to understand Mardi Gras and how it indicated a collective celebration and purgation. Even when stocked to the brim with Texas tourists, Mardi Gras still felt like a ritual dance in which everyone knew the steps with the familiarity with which we know our mother tongue. There was a togetherness of Mardi Gras that was utterly unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. With that in the back of my mind, mixed in with a dash of The Golden Bough, I find the idea of how the Yellow King’s cult of Carcosa works to be utterly believable. As Rust said: “Old scene, new details.”
So we know whodunit, even if Marty and Rust don’t. If only Gilbough and Papania had been read in on the case, they’d know to let the lawnmower man finish that meandering statement about his family’s role in the parish, and they’d know to share that information with Marty and Rust. The point of this show isn’t figuring out whodunit, though: it is watching Marty and Rust grapple with the process of discovery.
They don’t appear to be grappling all that well. Marty’s PI business isn’t as strong as we may have believed, and clearly the divorce was a near-total severance—he hasn’t seen his wife in two years and has developed the habit of carrying around hollow-point bullets. Marty, whatever his flaws, used his family as an anchor. To spin his insult on its head, this case might be the equivalent of throwing Marty a barbell rather than a life-preserver. For a man who is unable to become numb to crimes against children, Carcosa might be a breaking point.
Marty told Rust he looked “brittle,” and that’s not wrong. Rust said he came back to Louisiana for the case, which was “something [he] had to see to, before getting on to something else,” but he also said he was too old to learn something new. That’s why we have to be careful what we get good at; there’s only time to get good at one thing in this life. The “something else” Rust is ready to get on to is death: his life “has been a circle of violence and degradation.” He’s ready “to tie it off” and start his circular life all over again.
Although this episode lacked the flash of some of the earlier ones, the subtle echoes of circles and spirals continue. There’s so much circular imagery that I can’t even list it all, but here’s a tidbit: Rust “circling back around” to Marty after alienating everyone else, Marty circling back to drinking, even the trope of detectives-talking-in-the-car repeated with Gilbough and Papania (which was as hilarious, for different reasons, than some of Marty and Rust’s early conversations). The biggest one is the lawnmower man’s mowing patterns, which seem to move from the outside in. I’ve never mowed a lawn, but I vacuum a lot, and it seems like outside-in is the wrong way to go about it. Time may be a flat circle, but lawns and carpets aren’t, y’all.
It’s tempting to guess what will happen in the final episode, and of course I have some guesses. But I’m also starting to think that it’s not inappropriate to think of this series as like a Shakespeare play: are we really surprised when everyone (except Laertes) dies at the end of Hamlet? A show needn’t have a twist to end strong, as long as it ends truthfully. I think True Detective will.
Fun Links: Psychology Today has a three part series on Hart and Cohle that pretends to be a psychological analysis but is really just a cut-rate review. The Globe and Mail decides that the internet theorizing hasn’t gotten wacky enough, and throws Zizek into the mix. And Slate one-ups the Reddit thread on True Detective slang by creating a video key to difficult terms like “KA” for “known associates,” just in case you’ve never, ever read a modern police story.
Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)
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