Last Sunday night, I gave True Detective a bad review. In return, it gave me nightmares.
That night, my brain conjured up not one but two separate imaginary season finales in dream form. In one, Rust Cohle and Marty Hart tracked the killer conspiracy to an oily Louisiana politician (played, in the dream, by Deadwood veteran Zach Grenier, proving that my brain and True Detective's casting director have a similar attitude about raiding past great HBO dramas for talent). Content they'd gotten their man at last, they didn't notice the hulking, faceless, antler-and-tentacle-headed man-monster lurking in the shadows until it was too late.
In the second, I was no mere viewer – I was a participant in a final, fatal raid on one of Billy Lee Tuttle's schools for underprivileged children/hunting grounds. Dodging bullets and knives as Cohle and Hart killed their way through the cult, I turned a corner into a classroom and uncovered the terrible truth: It was all a schoolkid prank gone horribly wrong. Sobbing high schoolers surrounded a giant paper maché Yellow King, the students praying aloud for death after realizing what they'd done. At this point it gets hazy: I think the whole thing may have been revealed to be some elaborate performance piece, because the next thing I remember I was walking away from the building while the school's principal called after me through an open window, asking if I'd liked the show. I woke up just after I realized with horror that the principal was Billy Lee Tuttle himself.
This is the thing about True Detective: It gets under your skin, even when it gets on your nerves. I stand by everything I wrote last week – about the show's po-faced privileging of angry-man angst, its woefully inadequate handling of its women, its frequent recourse to cop-show clichés – and yet I still woke up bathed in sweat from what felt like hours of unconscious obsession with this series. (Time is a flat circle, of course, so it might have just been the ten minutes after I hit the snooze button.) A show about two haunted men on the trail of a killer haunting an entire region, True Detective is haunting in turn.
Never has that been truer than in "After You've Gone," the second-to-last episode in this eight-episode storyline. Like the wall of clues in Rust's storage shed – shades of everything from Carrie Mathison's high-purple Homeland bulletin board to the black-light map in the Hatch on Lost – it brought any number of disparate details together, finally allowing us to see how they (almost) all fit.
Some of the answers are a matter of character. Is Marty the gladhanding gasbag he appeared to be in the early episodes, when his cheery bullshit was contrasted with Rust's searing cynicism? If he ever really was, he's not anymore – recharged by the urgency of the investigation that Rust has jumpstarted, he's suddenly a supercop. He finds witnesses by scouring files leaping from database to database like one of those X-Men whose mutant power involves talking to computers, and uses his man's-man charm and just-one-of-the-boys connections to get places Rust could never go, e.g. on a fishin' trip with Evil Ron Swanson. Rust's compliment to Marty may come across like a crack, but he'd be nowhere without Marty, and he knows it.
Is Maggie merely the cipher she seemed last week, mattering only insofar as she gets Marty or Rust to feel some type of way? No: witness her poise, the steel in her smile, the blend of kindness and condescension in her eyes when Marty comes to visit her in her lovely new home. She got the better end of that divorce – a new love in her life, a better financial outcome, and most importantly a sense of closeness to her kids – and actor Michelle Monaghan wears her victory and security on her face.
And is Rust…well, is he a crazed killer? I'm sure there are ways conspiracy theorists could keep hope (or whatever) alive, but no. The story of his missing years seems legit: He really is a high-functioning alcoholic who works in and lives behind a dive bar. And to the extent that flashbacks present us with an "objective" viewpoint on events, his hunt for answers is the real deal, whether he's questioning former victims or, most surprisingly, breaking into stately Tuttle Manor. "What I'm sayin' is, I was aware that I mighta lost my mind," he tells Marty of the break-ins – a moment of self-awareness that's key not just for Rust, but for the show itself, since both are at long last acknowledging that Rust says and does crazy shit.
But the real madness was saved for the perpetrators of the crimes, and the web of myth and murder they've woven around themselves. Scene after scene in this episode was just straight-up bonechilling: The instantly iconic shot of Rust and his great wall, the words "YELLOW KING" "SCARS" and "CARCOSA" arranged around a pair of antlers and the so-called "Spaghetti Monster" they now see as the prime suspect. The interview with one of the Tuttle family's old employees, which takes a turn for the horrific when she starts preaching uncontrollably about Carcosa, "him who eats time" – "Rejoice! Death is not the end!" The photos Rust shows Marty of the old-school Saturnalia festivities popular around the Tuttle homestead, all blurry black-and-white shots of masked, anonymous dead folk. The genuinely difficult-to-watch video of the Tuttles' child-molestation ritual, featuring a group of grown-ups in masks deliberately terrifying a crying child before subjecting her to something so awful it made a man who once quietly walked away from seeing a baby in a microwave scream in anguish.
And finally, the moment the show's been building to all season: the Spaghetti Monster revealed. Turns out he's the lawnmower man Rust bumped into on a Tuttle property way back in '95 – the moment Papagania and Gilbough rolled down their window and showed him to us, that "oh shit" feeling hit like a wave. He's played by Glenn Fleshler, who's got a memorable recurring role on Boardwalk Empire as George Remus, a bootlegger who exclusively refers to himself in the third person – but Remus was not conspicuous in this role at first, because Remus was far from the only familiar face from other HBO shows to show up, even for just a scene or two. Very, very clever work on the show's part (not that some eagle-eyed redditor hadn't figured it out over a month ago). Very, very efficiently explained, too – the older, richer Tuttles and their friends used the schools to find children to abuse in their masked rituals. All the while, the Ledoux brothers and the younger, scarred Tuttle essentially rode shotgun, re-victimizing the victims as well as grabbing other locals and assaulting them without masks, and without mercy. And very, very spooky of the show to let him close out the episode with a line about how his family has been there "a long, long time" that wouldn't feel out of place in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
It's worth noting that however bad his scars might be, they're hardly tentacles. I'm not a betting man, but it seems likely that when Cohle, Hart, Papagania, and Gilbough all reach their final destination in the season finale, neither Cthulhu nor any other supernatural entity will be present. Perhaps the Tuttles and Ledouxes simply latched on to a convenient fiction, a fantastical vision that fueled their cruelty – like Charles Manson finding incitements to race war in the White Album, or Jeffrey Dahmer building an altar of body parts in hopes that he could gain the powers of the Emperor from Return of the Jedi. If the furious drive to "solve" True Detective before its final hour is unveiled tells us anything, it's that the stories we tell ourselves are often just as powerful as the reality. Hell, a few twitter back-and-forths about a pan I wrote, combined with evocative but likely meaningless coincidences like this one, and my brain concocted a double-feature of symbolic violence in this show's honor.
Rust and Marty are telling themselves stories, too. "A man remembers his debts," Rust says, getting all Tyrion Lannister on Marty's ass. They're going to catch a killer and expose a conspiracy not just because it will save the lives of innocent and defenseless people from powerful and remorseless ones, but because it will give their lives a sense of meaning lost in endless nights alone on the couch with a six-pack. They're dreaming up a better world than the one they're stuck in. Next week we'll find out if the dream comes true.
Last week: Breaking Up Is Hard to Do