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True Detective: The Secret Fate of All Life

“Time is a flat circle.”

Now that I’m all caught up with True Detective, I’ve started to wander into the morass of internet theories about the show. Some are excellent: I recommend this I09 article about the literary allusions that are part of the “Yellow King” mystique that Pizzolatto crafts with such skill. But I’ve also noticed two common refrains in criticism and assessments of this show, and I feel compelled to address them.

The first criticism I’ve noticed is the argument that the allusions won’t add up to much, or that the references to Ligotti and Chambers are somehow the “answer” to the show. This represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how allusion works. Let’s call it the allusion illusion: the hyperlink mentality that reads a text only in terms of its use of other texts, and suspects some secret code to emerge from that reading. Pizzolatto has gone on record that the literary allusions are ancillary to the purpose of the show, which is to explore these characters in darkness.

Having said that, it is delightful to consider the metatextual weight of this show: it is one embedded narrative within another, given the interview/interrogation structure. But this is also a TV show with many texts built into it: Dora Lange’s journal, Cohle’s notebook, the videos of the interrogations, even the lies that Hart and Cohle tell to the shooting review board. True Detective is not just a story about character, but also a story about the stories characters tell themselves to understand the world.

The second criticism—and the most prominent one—is that Cohle isn’t spouting “real philosophy.” What a silly thing to say! First of all, if you’re looking to a TV show for real philosophy, you’re looking in the wrong place. Second, most philosophy today, the philosophy practiced by philosophers working in philosophy departments at universities, is hardly a guideline for how to live: ethics are but one branch of philosophy, and you probably won’t like what you find hanging from that branch.

What True Detective does do is portray a cop with some education and a great deal of native intelligence who has explored some philosophy (such as M-brane theory) but also developed his own perspective on the world. It is a complicated perspective, one with a genealogy that stretches back into early Christian doctrine about the shape of the universe and our place in it, and I challenge any naysayer to come up with a worldview of their own without sounding a bit pretentious.

Complaints about the philosophical acumen of a complicated character also miss the highlight of this show: the biased, incorrect, complicated, and various interpretations that Cohle, Hart, the modern police, and who knows who else create about the desperate situations they find themselves in. If viewers want one authoritative voice within the show to answer their questions, they should watch a simpler show.

Because True Detective is complex and (I hope I don’t regret this in a few weeks) perfect. “The Secret Fate…” is a marvelous episode; its brilliance is so overwhelming that I have to deal with it in three sections:


“Everybody wants some cathartic narrative. Especially the guilty.”

So we got the big shoot-out in the woods, and it was neither a shoot-out nor woodsy. This segment was a marvel of editing, as we got both Rust and Cohle narrating exactly what isn’t happening on screen: they are telling the same story and it is a complete lie. Little visual clues made this even more fun, as when Cohle, in voice-over, talks about hiding behind an old decrepit boat, but what we see onscreen is Cohle in front of an old decrepit car. I couldn’t help but think of The Usual Suspects as I watched this sequence, and that is always a good thing.

Ledoux made references to “black stars” and “Carcosa”—these are the literary references that have gotten the internet so het up. But his references aren’t just literary: as the interrogation of Dora’s husband indicated, there is something deeper at work in the backwoods of Louisiana. Devil worship, molestation, and power intersect in some place we haven’t yet seen, but it is inevitably the place that Cohle, if not Hart, is headed.

After all, where is Hart headed? He finally "committed to something" (oh, how I laughed) with the death of Ledoux; will that come back to haunt him? I see why he did it, and using my TV morality I'm cool with it (my TV morality differs from my real-life morality), but he also made is possible for others to die because he killed the one person who might provide answers. Then again, in 1995 did Hart or Cohle know enough to even ask the right questions?


“There’s a feeling like life has slipped through your fingers.”

The years after the shooting were handled beautifully, and I admire the show’s willingness to emphasize that the case doesn’t end in 1995. Perhaps a case like that never ends: I can’t imagine this season ending on a happy note with complete closure. After all, if time is a flat circle and we are locked in a roller-rink loop of repetition from the point of view of an omniscient but indifferent god, then closure is impossible.

The looped-ness of life, the circularity of both existence and understanding that existence (that is, ontology and epistemology, if you want “real” philosophy) was illustrated beautifully with the tiara stuck on the tree, the roller rink, the spirals that marked Ledoux and Dora Lange, the beer cans, and even some images we’ve already seen, like the spiraling birds in Cohle’s hallucination in the second episode.

The transition years also emphasized the molestation theme, which I have avoided talking about (perhaps due to my discomfort with the prospect—now apparently undeniable—that Audrey was molested). Audrey posed toys in a gang-rape scenario, drew inappropriately sexual pictures, and has a history of promiscuity under coercive conditions. Was she molested by the same people associated with devil worship that Lange brought up? Cohle said the answer was right under his nose. Was it his father-in-law? Was it, god forbid, his partner? I don’t remember if Audrey posed the dolls before or after Cohle came to the house. I think I don’t want to remember.

Although the bulk of the transition sequence was on Hart and his family, the shot of Cohle watching TV with his excellent girlfriend (who is perfect for him; the scene about “small arguments” was hilarious) illustrated the way that his life slips through his fingers when he doesn’t have enough “conflict” to “thrive on.” Cohle likes police work because it is conflict, but also because it allows him to draw that conflict inward. The question this episode leaves us with is how far inward he drew those conflicts.

2002 and Now

“How many times have we had this conversation, detectives?”

As was telegraphed early on, Cohle is under suspicion in the recent Lake Charles murders, and with good reason. The two present-day detectives found out that Cohle was seen in the vicinity of the murder before it happened. In cop parlance, he looks good for it.

Not to us, I hope. I wouldn’t put murder past Cohle, of course, but I don’t see him murdering for pleasure. At this point, I must believe he is investigating the string of disappearances that were later marked “reported in error”: a mass killing that has gone unnoticed. Dora Lange wasn’t the worst of it, just the one that was found.

We will surely see more of 2002 in the last three episodes of the season, so I don’t want to speculate too much. But Cohle did remind us of that over-enthusiastic task force from the first episodes, and we once again heard about Billy Lee Tuttle, who was the mentor of the preacher we say in Episode Three.

Does that mean the answer is as simple as a bunch of pseudo-Christians preaching devilry and destruction out in the woods, a “yellow king” who uses the force of Southern Christianity as a cover for diabolical murders and molestations? Maybe that’s the answer to the investigation, but that’s not the answer to the show: the answer I want to discover goes beyond who did what. I want to know how Cohle and Hart deal with the knowledge they will eventually gain, and what that knowledge will do to them. I want to see how the present-day detectives fit into things, how they react to Cohle and Hart, and whether or not Cohle’s maniacal perspective on the universe changes theirs. Each episode is so rich that I’m jonesing for more.

I have so much more to say, but I’ve probably gone on long enough. Suffice it to say that this show could easily become fodder for some sort of storytelling masterclass—and not just TV stories, but all stories. Its pacing, characters, setting, dialogue, everything continue to astonish me.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


  1. I love the enthusiasm you are bringing to these reviews, Josie. It's very infectious, and I'm enjoying your thoughts.

    I like the notion that The Yellow King references aren't a literal key to solving the mystery of the show, but are more to mark the series as the latest entry in the Carcosa mythos. Perhaps the murder functions like the fictional play, driving all who follow it too closely (or fall under its sway) insane.

    This doesn't exactly bode well for Cohle and Hart, but the writing has probably already been on the wall for them since Episode 1. I seem to recall Hart saying early on that those types of CID cases weren't the kind of work you could do long-term without losing some part of what makes you a whole, functional human (or something like that). In a way, they force you to stare into the abyss, and the abyss stares back at you. Maybe revealing you aren't that different than the monster at the end of the story. "The world needs bad men to keep the other bad men from the door."

    I saw a comment on the Io9 article (with screen shots) that said it's not a peephole in Cohle's 1995 apartment, but a small mirror he attached to the wall that only shows one eye (which Marty asks about in Ep. 4). It makes one wonder what Cohle sees when he stares into his one eye reflected back at him. Is that his way to center himself, or to avoid staring at the monster?

    Definitely a fascinating episode, and back into the more reflective zone I prefer with this show. I particularly loved the way this episode further highlighted the "unreliable narrator" issue, and called into question what Cohle's angle may be in 2012. I don't think he committed the murder either, but I guess we'll see.

  2. A mirror? That's interesting. I'll check out those screenshots; I can't believe they got one that made it clear.

    (Having said that, my schedule has been such that I've watched most of these episodes during the sunniest part of the day, when--even with the curtains closed--my TV screen is slightly obscured by the light. So I might be missing some of the tiny visual details.)

  3. This show is so unbelievably top notch. I was tense during the entirety of the episode. I dunno how they're gonna top this season, and they're just getting started!

    There seems to be a conspiracy brewing, how many of the hints are red herrings is anyone's guess. I forgot to mention it in the episode when it happened but I remember noticing that the minister with the killer sideburns crossed his chest the opposite way. Whether that has significance I dunno.

    I feel like Marty's family may have more to do with the story than it seems. Someone posted a picture that showed they had plate art, presumably by one of the daughters, that had the swirl on it.

    All I know for sure is that I'm stoked for the next episode.

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  5. Another fantastic review, Josie. I was struck while I read it of another aspect of this show that makes it work so well.

    I am able to appreciate the show without knowing any of the illusions being made. I thought the I09 article was fascinating, but I would have still enjoyed the series without having read it.

    Similarly, I do not parse what Cohle says. I assume that he is talking out of his ass and, in this episode, we learn that it exactly what he has been doing. Hart tells the detectives that Cohle was just talking to get a read on them. And, he did.

    From the beginning, all Cohle wanted was to know what the police know about the new killings. As soon as they let him know, he leaves. The other thing to keep in mind is that, by drinking that beer during the entire interrogation, everything that Cohle has said becomes inadmissible.

    What was so incredibly well done in this episode was the confirmation that both men are unreliable narrators. That, of course, forces us to question every word they have said in the past five hours. It also makes what they say more interesting as we can ponder why they make the choices they do.

  6. After the heart-pumping 6-minute shot of awesome, it was neat to see the show go back to its more cerebral roots.

    One of the things I liked about this episode was the transition itself from 1995 to 2002. It wasn't until my 2nd viewing that I caught on via the shot of the ribbons from tiara falling apart as time went by.

    I kinda want to know more about Hart's then-girlfriend. And about what really broke Hart and Maggie's marriage for (seemingly) good.

    Can't say I'm 100% behind the idea of Audrey being abused. Nothing quite pings me to that.

    Like Chris B said in the comment above, I like the connection to the "King in Yellow" (as explored in the i09 article). However, it doesn't deepen my love for this great show. :)

  7. One thing that kept running through my head during the narration of the 'shootout' is that quote from Sherlock: "Only lies have detail."


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