‘True Detective’: Taking Jumper Cables to the Plot in ‘After You’ve Gone’

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HBO

Time may not heal all wounds, but it at least crusts them over into scabs. Some do close completely, while others are more easily ripped right back open. It never hurts quite as badly as the first time, but even a fading scar serves as a reminder that you once suffered through something painful and permanent. The last time we saw Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, they were locked in combat, brawling through their intense feelings after Marty found out his wife, Maggie, had let Rust slip her the high hard one for about 30 glorious seconds. It’s been a decade since their blowup, and Rust and Marty have calmed down considerably. Age has mellowed their self-destructive drives, and they both have had a lot of alone time and space to consider past mistakes and whether they should (or even could) have chosen other paths at the various forks in the road. But they probably couldn’t have, what with life being an endless cycle of violence and degradation and all.

Their meeting feels like two exes who split on bad terms seeking closure. It’s hard to feel anything but sentimental about their reunion, especially with the Juice Newton version of “Angel of the Morning” playing on the jukebox in the background. Just call me Rust Cohle of the morning, Marty! Marty seems to be recovering from the bout of midlife testosterone poisoning that spurred him to ruin the stability of his family. Even his brusque remarks to Rust have a little more tenderness to them now, and the sparks immediately start to fly again as they reconcile. Neither man has any kind of regular companionship, romantic or platonic, and they both seem very lonely but resigned to their fates. Rust, because he thinks man is born alone and dies alone, and Marty because he knows he deserves it.

There are no longer any women throwing themselves at Marty (young, hot, or otherwise), and his ex-wife has long since walked out with the kids. He now spends his nights perpetually solo, bathed in the blue glow of a computer screen, scrolling through potential mates on Match.com. There is no T or A whatsoever in this episode, which makes the last episode feel like it was one big summer bachelor blowout before the colder autumn years came on in this week’s. The boobs have left the building, and even the building may have left the building. All that’s left now is deep existential horror and long monotonous evenings with no one to talk to. These guys need pets. Can somebody please get Rust and Marty some kittens?

This episode also seemingly put a nail in the lingering question of whether True Detective glamorizes its characters. You’d be hard-pressed to find either Rust’s or Marty’s 2012 lifestyle very enticing. They occupy their days with long work hours, and then drink or surf the Internet until they fall asleep. True detectives — they’re just like us! Rust, of course, is still fixated on the murders and surrounds himself with the evidential detritus from the case. His storage locker central hangout could be a lot less creepy. Hanging papers up everywhere is par for the course, but spray-painting “SCARS,” “CARCOSA,” and “THE YELLOW KING” on the wall in huge letters is maybe slight overkill.

Marty’s reason for quitting the force is revealed to be a microwaved baby at a crime scene, which prompted him into such disgust that he went independent. He has a big empty office to show for it, and as a private eye he has presumably gone from tracking murderers to tracking other people’s errant spouses to see if they’re cheating. Marty no longer talks a big game about his dick-slinging prowess. He openly admits to Rust that he doesn’t have any girlfriends to speak of, and doesn’t even try to compensate with any Kenny Powers–esque macho bullshitting about it not being his fault. But both men, while much chiller, are still pretty awful guys. Rust speaks casually about using jumper cables for torture in the past, and his intent to use them on the child molesters. Marty cracks a racist joke whose punch line is that it’s not really racist, although it doesn’t exactly make him seem worldly or progressive. Plus he refers to Gilbough and Papania as “Fuck” and “Suck.”

Maggie, meanwhile, has moved on just like we hoped she would. Her previous life of exhausting herself navigating the cruelty of men who believe themselves to be clever is now over, and she has escaped into the safety and comfort of a stable remarriage. She doesn’t appear to harbor any residual anger or resentment about how her first marriage played out, and there’s been an implicit long cooling-off period in which to decide bygones could be bygones. Her gentle interaction with Marty informs us they have at least patched up their relationship to a point where they can talk and be in the same room together. Things are still tense between Maggie and Rust, but they haven’t seen each other since 2002. Michelle Monaghan and Matthew McConaughey have such good chemistry as actors that there’s a bit of residual sexual tension between Maggie and Rust, but it’s long since past being acted on.

OK, enough already with character arcs. Back to the CREEPY STUFF! The puzzle pieces are getting filled in, and it’s not necessarily as enjoyable as wondering what is going to happen. But if True Detective didn’t answer these questions, we’d be even more frustrated, so begrudgingly we accept that there is one actual plot and not a numinous cosmic thread of potential plots. True Detective has still not jumped the voodoo shark into being full-on supernatural, and with one week left it seems highly unlikely it will. Equally unlikely seems the common fan theory that Marty’s daughter Audrey would turn out to be one of the victims, based on her dark drawings and sexually experimental goth phase. Instead, we know she is alive, at least in the present day, an artist who exhibited paintings in New Orleans and is medicated for some kind of psychological disorder. And it seems less likely that Rust Cohle is the mastermind behind the crimes and more likely the scar-faced lawnmower man did it. He is a weirdo Gomer Pyle (the Full Metal Jacket one, not the Andy Griffith Show spinoff one) and so obviously villainous he spoke aloud to himself eerily and then practically let out an evil laugh after sending Detectives Gilbough and Papania in the wrong direction.

Turns out the evil isn’t isolated. It goes all the way to the top, and powerful people are involved. If it’s a genre cliché, it’s nonetheless a fairly satisfying one. Rust continued his habit of pushing psychologically fragile women over the edge. Last week he visited Kelly Rita, the catatonic young victim with Lorde hair he and Marty rescued, and asked her about traumatic details of the case until she became unhinged and started screaming. This week he checked up on a former employee of the Tuttle family, an elderly black woman with dementia who had been a maid, and turns out to know all about Carcosa. Naturally, she chokes on the word and starts coughing. Rust has a seducer’s ability to turn his charm on and off like a light switch. Several times now, we’ve seen him pump information out of someone and then discard them and disregard the consequences, like when he bonded with “the marshland Medea” over the death of his child, drew a confession out of her, and then encouraged her to commit suicide in jail.

An out-of-time pagan cult that commits ritualistic abuse? We’re back in weird-fiction country, with shadows of the British horror movie The Wicker Man. In The Wicker Man, a cop is dispatched to a remote British island populated by a pre-Christian society that worships nature. True Detective transposes this concept onto a coastal Louisiana milieu, invoking rural Mardi Gras masking traditions that may look sort of ominous but are basically just folk art. I learned all about the tradition of Courir de Mardi Gras from my other favorite HBO show about Louisiana, Treme, which showed character Annie attending a traditional Faquetigue Courir de Mardi Gras in Eunice. From what I remember, it involved a lot of drinking, fiddle playing, a nonfatal chicken chase, and zero human sacrifice. But it does involve masks! Although they are by no means rigidly animal-themed. The only reason the Courir looks vaguely sinister is because it’s the only time of year you are allowed to wear pointy hoods, which are otherwise banned in the area because of their affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan.

The corrupt but protected secret rituals on True Detective seem like a mishmash of a real thing, namely Cajun folk traditions, with a fictional scary thing that lurks in the collective unconscious: the Illuminati, like the secret societies made up of the ultrarich in Eyes Wide Shut. Then again, both Eyes Wide Shut and True Detective could be riffs on Bohemian Grove, the secret society of ultra-rich men that stages a yearly faux-pagan ritual involving a giant owl shrine. (Even though a Spy magazine exposé of Bohemian Grove revealed that it is mostly a place where very powerful men get shit-faced and piss all over a beautiful forest.) While some of the men in True Detective’s secret cabal are powerful, many are apparently also related to Tuttle.

Will there be one final twist? Or is the finale going to play the situation as it lays now, with Rust and Marty overpowering crooked Sheriff Steve Geraci on the boat and then saving the day somehow, possibly rescuing Gilbough and Papania from the scarred man and exposing the Tuttle school’s secret pagan cult and their history of abuse to the public? I’m not ready to turn in my overly high expectations just yet, and I wouldn’t be shocked if this show had a couple more tricks up its sleeve. The stakes are high, and anyone can die, since there’s no imperative to preserve Rust or Marty for a second season. Will Rust sacrifice himself to save the day, fulfilling the prophecy of Reggie Ledoux’s chest tattoo? Will they shut down the cult, or will it be a ’70s movie–type downer ending where the Tuttle family gets away with it forever, time being a flat circle and all? Or maybe an otherworldly tentacle monster will swoop down in the last three minutes of the show and spray an unearthly gas through the screen at every True Detective viewer, infecting them with tiny yellow octopus bugs that burrow into your brain, make you unable to do anything but talk about True Detective until you alienate all of your friends, and then cut off the oxygen to your brain so you die? Even if that’s the case, spoiler alert: Death is not the end.

Filed Under: TV, true detective, HBO, Nic Pizzolatto, Woody Harrelson, Matthew McConaughey

Photo on 2014-01-10 at 12.58 #3

Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.

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