This review appeared shortly after the initial premiere of True Detective in early 2014 — slight edits have been made since the original posting.
Anyone who has been watching HBO’s True Detective knows that there’s something not quite right about Detective Rust Cohle. Matthew McConaughey has one of the roles of his life here, and he conveys the darkness inside Rust with brilliant ambiguity — is he a deceitful lawman or a meticulous killer? The fourth episode of the series “Who Goes There” marked the first indication of real evidence of something sinister within Cohle, although viewers have suspected as much since the pilot episode. Sunday night’s episode began, finally, to blow the question wide open — full spoilers follow for the fifth episode “The Secret Fate of All Life”.
“Who Goes There” finished with a tracking shot that quickly took the internet by storm over the past week, and the following episode picked up more or less where that shot left off. Hart and Cohle use the latter’s Iron Crusaders connection to hunt down Reggie Ledoux, meth chemist and prime suspect in the Dora Lange murder, and we finally reach the swamp-set shootout that both men allude to frequently in their case testimonials in 2012. Detectives Gilbough and Papania ask Hart and Cohle to recount this event for what must be the thousandth time since it happened 17 years ago, and Hart confirms that every time he’s told the story he’s told it the same, because “it only went down the one way.”
…and that assured confirmation, we now know, is in fact a lie. In “Who Goes There” we saw both Hart and Cohle lie about the botched raid and run-in with the Iron Crusaders gang, covering their unsanctioned undercover work and coloring their fib with a yarn involving Cohle’s father. Whatever suspicions we viewers may have had about the two detectives, that cover-up was the first explicit untruth from either of them. It was only the tip of the iceberg compared to what “The Secret Fate of All Life” held in store, though, as we discovered that the famous shootout never even happened: Hart snapped and executed Ledoux in blind rage, and Cohle leapt to action to “make it all look right.”
Gilbough and Papania are hot for Cohle, looking to link him to a 2012 murder that mirrors the Dora Lange case, but they are unable to pry through this lie — or any, so far — because Hart is backing his ex-partner and telling the same story. The relationship between the two continues to be interesting even in a timeline where they sit in separate rooms. But things have changed now, and this episode was very much a set-up for the final stroke of True Detective: Gilbough and Papania have unveiled their motives to Hart and Cohle, Cohle has left the interrogation room (!), and a seven-year jump has brought the flashback timeline a little closer to the present by planting it in 2002. We’ve grown accustomed to the 1995-case-intercut-with-2012-interview format, but in a single episode all of that has changed.
The “darkness” inside Cohle — deemed so both by a character in this week’s episode and by the tagline for this season of True Detective, “Touch darkness and darkness touches you back” — is present in 1995 and in 2012. But what has changed in those long in-between years? Has Cohle let his own darkness be intensified by the brutalities of the Lange case? Most of the questions raised recently are impossible to answer just yet, especially when Hart and Cohle finally prove themselves to be such unreliable narrators.
And yet I have a hard time believing that Cohle is implicit in any of this, at least to the degree that he could be a serial murderer or, as some reviewers have surmised, could be The Yellow King himself. Papania seemed to allude to Cohle’s hallucinations and his condition as a part of his murderous method, as if he would black out and wake up not remembering having killed someone. This Fight Club-esque possibility somehow seems too easy for True Detective, but the show has done a great job of throwing things like that in our faces anyway. With so much to sift through, it’s likely that we’re “looking at the wrong thing”, as Hart says, and the answer is right under our noses. Such red herring tactics beg the question as to whether the last people we’d expect, like Hart or even Gilbough and Papania, are somehow involved in the murders instead of Cohle.
But again, even the basic format of the show is changed heading into the final three episodes of the season, and that’s exciting. We should look forward to more developments surrounding Hart’s family, as the young girls especially seem shrouded by an ominous cloud. Most of all, though, we should look forward to revelations surrounding the two central characters, finding out what they look for in their own futures, what makes them tick in the present, and what forces them reach back to the past.