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'True Detective' Recap: Spin the Black Circle

Rust and Marty's story spirals out of control in the best episode yet

Michael Potts in True Detective.
LACEY TERRELL/HBO
February 16, 2014 10:05 PM ET

This is the curse of a great story, as well as its blessing: You can always tell it over again. "The Secret Fate of All Life," True Detective's fifth episode and its best thus far, is preoccupied with storytelling and with repetition. Conspiracies, confessions, cover-ups, heroic archetypes that can be slipped into like a costume, occult prophecies that lock you into your life like a cell – each of these narratives helps turn the story of Marty Hart and Rust Cohle's finest hour into a labyrinth neither of them seems capable of escaping. They take Marty's lie, that his story never changes because it happened that way and that way only, and make it truth.

'True Detective' and 60 More Reasons to Love 2014

The show itself, on the other hand, is as unpredictable as ever; its marvelously weird pacing is how it shakes off the shackles of cop-show cliché and becomes its own dark and riveting thing. How many other shows would stick the central, fatal confrontation between cop heroes and serial-killer villains in the first act of the fifth episode? Even if the inconsistencies between the stories Rust and Marty tell about that fateful day and the events we're watching unfold weren't so obvious, simply placing the showdown with so much more show to go indicates that this is in no way the end of the story.

Those inconsistencies, however, are irresistible. Writer Nic Pizzolatto excels at giving us little snippets of information that don't add up until later, forcing us to do mental math until they do: Suddenly, Rust is talking about a "they" who are kidnapping and killing people, not a he, even though we'd spent all this time looking for a single suspect. Suddenly, he and Marty are talking about dodging machine-gun fire capable of leveling the trees around them, even as we watch them stroll right up to the killers' lair unmolested. Like the unforgettable shot of the killer in a gas mask and underwear at the end of episode three – it seems like this is a sign that the guy is next-level insane, until we learn that though that may well be the case, he's also a meth cook who has to worry about fumes and flammability – these are pieces to a puzzle we don't even realize is being assembled until the show suddenly twists them all into place.

Marty and Rust themselves aren't nearly so able to shake up the structure of their own stories – which, admittedly, can work to their advantage. "Intense genius and courageous man's man take down deranged killers" is such an appealing narrative that the partners coast on it for damn near two decades, despite all manner of details that don't pass the smell test. During his interview, Rust refers to Marty as "Captain America," while a trophy belt buckle he keeps in his locker reads "All-Around Cowboy." These archetypes are good enough to help him cover up the execution of a suspect and get back in the good graces of his wife and kids. Rust, meanwhile, parlays his expertise in crafting "cathartic narratives" into becoming Louisiana's top interrogation specialist, tricking suspects into confessing by making them feel like it's a way to give their sad stories a hint of a happy ending. Hell, his (relatively short-lived) relationship with a doctor is based in part on her knowing he's a "conflict-oriented" character type, which they use to make him more fun in the sack. The power of storytelling, ladies and gentlemen.

But it's the lies that bind them the tightest, and those lies get bigger and bigger. Though the nature of their 2002 falling-out remains a mystery, we now know why, whatever it was, it wasn't enough to get either man to turn on the other during their interviews in 2013: They're covering up the truth about their participation in not one but two multiple homicides. From the looks of it, they only paused between the drug-den bloodbath in the last episode to the serial-killer "shootout" in this one long enough for Rust to buy some duct tape and Marty to grab his Division Bell tee. If either of them was to start slipping in their defense of the other, with even so much as a "yeah, you know, in retrospect that guy was a total asshole," the whole façade would be in danger of crumbling. 

And so they are trapped by the stories they tell, as well as the stories told to them. Rust springboards from the deranged mysticism of Reggie Ledoux – "You'll do this again. Time is a flat circle." – into a cosmological worldview that dooms all living things to endless repetition of their lives and deaths. To Rust, life is a vinyl record with a locked groove – or, perhaps, a spiral drawn on a corpse – visible only to entities that reside in the next dimension over. Depending on how much credence you lend to another set of stories, the supernatural horror tales from which True Detective borrows terms like "Carcosa" and "The Yellow King," those entities might be realer than you'd think. ("The black stars rise" indeed.) Even the repetitive story upon which Rust and his present-day interrogators agree – the killings appear to have continued even after the Ledoux dust-up – harms him, costing him a confession back then and, it seems, making him a suspect in the death of the good Rev. Billy Lee Tuttle, whose evangelical school for underprivileged children seemed to lose those children at the same rate it gained disturbing sculptures, here and now.

Marty doesn't escape unscathed either. In his own repressed, would-be alpha-male way, he repeats many of Rust's obsessions without realizing it. He scoffs at his partner's nihilistic philosophizing but reps Pink Floyd, arguably the single gloomiest megapopular band of all time, on his t-shirt of choice for taking down a meth-dealing serial killer. His slut-shaming, physically abusive reaction to his daughter Audrey's statutory rape by two older teens recalls Rust's argument that his own toddler daughter's death spared him "the sin of being a father." (Note also that playing to the Captain America type is exactly the kind of thing that leads Marty to refer his own kid as "captain of the varsity slut team." As Audrey puts it, why would a guy like that understand where she's coming from?) And of course his reaction to Ledoux's house of horrors – straight-up executing the son of a bitch – echoes the murder of a child-killing meth-head that stranded Rust in deep cover years ago. Those who do not learn from a story are condemned to repeat it. Let the circle be unbroken.

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