The following is a viewing diary I wrote as I watched the show for the first time, pausing after each episode to collect my thoughts. As such, it is spoiler-free for upcoming episodes (although the comments section may not be).
Oh boy, now we're really getting somewhere!
I didn't want to be tough on the previous episode but in light of this one it feels even more like filler. I was worried the show would waste Ginger and sure enough, he's hog-tied with duct tape within the first five minutes of "The Secret Fate of All Life," but that's ok because we have way bigger fish to fry. Where to start? Well, how about at the beginning...in which the '95/Reggie Ledoux/Dora Lange case is resolved, or "resolved," way sooner than I expected.
Initially I thought the 2012 investigation was a framing device. It would yield a major plot twist or revelation at the very end, but the bulk of the action would take place in 1995. Then, as much of the intrigue emerged in the 2012 sequences, I figured the last episode (maybe the last two) would take place after the initial investigation ended. But here we are, barely halfway through the series, and that first storyline has been wrapped up. As suspected (especially after the fourth episode) the shootout story is a cover-up. After finding two brutalized children (one dead) in Reggie's meth lab, Hart vengefully executes the much-discussed but barely glimpsed Reggie, whose partner accidentally kills himself soon after. Cohle and Hart stage the crime scene and are celebrated as heroes. And the years roll by. It's a great twist.
Hart wins his wife and kids back. I was skeptical at first, but it's clear this direction is necessary for further character development, particularly the exploration of his relationship to his oldest daughter (Erin Moriarty). There has always been something slightly off with her character - most notably, in an early episode she gets in trouble for drawing lewd pictures at school: a masked man fondling naked women. Now she is in full teenage-rebellion mode, getting busted in a car with two guys. An enraged Hart slaps her, sending her running out of the room. His wife - more confused and unsettled than upset - approaches her locked bedroom door and says, strangely, "Audrey, it's just you and me." Cut to an anguished-looking Hart, and Audrey does not open the door.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Audrey has most likely been sexually abused, perhaps by her father. On the one hand it would be quite easy to read their relationship as the usual father-daughter tension and to speculate that if anything he has neglected her too much (Hart even says his greatest sin was inattention, not infidelity). And I'm not sure there has been enough foreshadowing to justify this reading. But it would certainly tie together Hart's other character flaws and erratic behavior, his jealousy and need to control women, that scene with the young prostitute and Cohle's cynical rejoinder, his obsession with being the perfect family man and his inability to play that role.
This would also resonate with the larger themes of the show - revealing that the darkness our protagonists explore is also deeply within themselves, a kind of ghoulish outer projection. Above all, there are those disturbing drawings. Yes, kids sketch inappropriate images all the time but there was something particularly sinister and sadistic about these ones. Part of me thinks True Detective would not really go in that direction, would not sink Hart that low but...without spoiling other movies or shows, let's just say this wouldn't be the first time I've been surprised by that twist.
If suspicion about Hart simmers in the background, suspicion of Cohle is finally and emphatically foregrounded. Thank God. I was vaguely worried that True Detective would reveal Cohle to be the killer, a twist I would consider obvious and rather silly (and let me use this opportunity to say I'd feel pretty similarly about Hart, which I consider an even less likely possibility). By openly accusing Cohle this early on, the 2012 investigators are essentially reassuring us that it won't be him after all. Cohle is barely concerned about these insinuations, offended maybe but more by the 2012 detectives' lack of perception than their belief he could be a serial killer. Hart, on the other hand, is thrown off-guard by these suggestions, which start to add up in his mind.
Working within fixed parameters can be great but at a certain point I love to see them broken down. Our horizons expand and the possibilities become endless. Cohle delivers several soliloquies about time in the 2012 interrogation, mostly to the effect that we are trapped in its cycle. But onscreen the passage of time has a liberating effect. As we lose the framework of the 1995 Dora Lange investigation, we realize that now anything can happen.
A routine confession in 2002 can open up a hidden verbal passageway, the phrase "Yellow King" incantated like a secret password or shaman's spell. The death of this sniveling thief (Christopher Berry) can send Cohle off to an isolated phone booth in a dusty corner of nowhere, then back to Tuttle's abandoned school, filled with a dozen or so of those familiar ritualistic little totems. We are also informed that Tuttle died a few years ago, a death that the suspicious cops would like to pin on Cohle. This detail suggests that even as we move closer to the present, we will not be settling down in 2012 too soon. I expect the late Tuttle still has an important role to play in upcoming episodes.
I never knew where True Detective would be heading, and never really thought I knew, but now I have even fewer preconceptions and I love it. At this point all I can do is offer a series of questions: is the Yellow King a person or a concept? If he is a person, is it someone we have already seen? What role will the 2012 investigators play now that we've seen Cohle walk out on their interrogation? How much longer can they be sustained as a framing device, especially now that they are only talking to Hart? What will get to see of Cohle in the present? Did Cohle kill Tuttle? Why? What does Hart know - and thus what can be revealed (in flashback) - about his ex-partner's activities over the past ten years? What caused their falling out? Is it something to do with Hart's family? Why has the killer - whoever he is - begun killing again? And at what point will the story permanently set itself in 2012? Will all its events be revealed in flashback or is there going to be a moment when we start moving forward, into even greater uncertainty and possibility? Yes, please.
Early in the episode, Reggie recognizes Cohle, says something about a "black star" and cryptically hints that he knows what's going to happen next. That makes one of us.