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).
Cohle and Hart began this story as opposites, the classic odd-couple cop partnership. In 1995, Hart was a backslapping, well-liked family man, a cop's cop but no great detective. Cohle, meanwhile, was an antisocial, fucked-up loner, brilliant and alienating. Their rapport was almost comical. In 2012 they still cut very different figures, maybe even more so than back then. Cohle has gone to seed, unshaven, long-haired, bug-eyed in his paranoia. He fell of the wagon long ago, and ran as far as he could in the other direction as it rolled away. Hart, retired from the force and operating as a PI, is clean-shaven and properly attired. He maintains chummy contact with his old pals in law enforcement.
But Cohle's and Hart's similarities speak louder than the differences. Both look sad, bitter, lost. Both are alone, utterly. Hart apparently does not even speak to his daughters and when he visits his ex-wife, it's only to make sure she didn't say anything bad about Cohle to the investigators. Then again, maybe they aren't quite alone...because once again they are partners. And they need one another more than ever, both personally and professionally.
Cohle has been digging dirt on the Tuttles for years and while he didn't kill Billy Lee he had a hand in his death. After he stole snuff films and child pornography from Tuttle's safe, the old man died under mysterious circumstances. This essentially proves that this family is behind the occult sex crimes (we learn more of the details and scope in this episode than in all the previous episodes combined). It also proves that he is not our prime suspect. He's dead and gone unless the show has a twist to pull, which I doubt, and his narrative utility is served. Instead, our attention and suspicions settle on the scarred man - the one described by the near-catatonic survivor of the '95 showdown and later corroborated by several other acquaintances.
When Cohle reveals the storage shed in which he collects evidence and charts the progress of his personal, obsessive investigation, there are three words emblazoned on the wall: "Carcosa" on the right, "The Yellow King" on the left, and "Scars" elevated above both in the middle. The creepy drawing of the "spaghetti monster," reported by a little girl in one of the early episodes, is prominently displayed beneath this title. By the end of "After You've Gone" we will learn that we've already seen this man (Glenn Fleshler): he was the seemingly dim-witted lawn mower whom Cohle questioned right before a big break in the Reggie Ledoux case. Only now, moving in closer than we did before, do we discover that the seemingly gentle giant spurts criss-crossed scars across his jaw.
We also discover more about Carcosa when an old woman (former housekeeper to the Tuttles) feverishly identifies sketches of the stick structures and proclaims, "Death is not the end!" As for the Yellow King, not a peep. I'm predicting a bait-and-switch with this: just as Reggie and Tuttle were once our ominous focal points - not red herrings exactly, but guppies in the grand scheme - so I think "Scars" is just one more step on our path to the Yellow King. At least I hope so. That ominous name has been dangled in front of us for nearly the entire show and it's held more promise and intrigue than any other element.
Hart, meanwhile, would like to walk away from his cuckolder but he can't. Cohle tells him he owes a debt, for killing Reggie and prematurely ending the investigation in '95. Hart mournfully agrees to join forces again. After painting an unpleasant picture of Hart for many episodes, this chapter strives to redeem him. Now that he too is a loner and loser, his hypocritical mean streak is eclipsed by his long-standing stoicism and dogged devotion to justice. He's still a good ol' boy, but uses that back-slapping charm to dig up important files and lure a lying sheriff (Michael Harney) into a trap. For much of the earlier investigation Hart played sidekick to Cohle's savvy sleuth, mostly covering for Cohle as he alienated co-workers. Hart still plays that role in a different way, but also demonstrates his own investigative prowess. The years as a private eye, away from the bureaucratic crutch, have apparently sharpened his skills.
Just as episode five's sprawling timeline and narrative twists/turns surprised us after the low-profile cop-show conventions of episode four, so this hour reverses the focus and tone of the last. Episode six emphasized the personal lives of the detectives at the expense of much actual detection but "After You've Gone" plunges headlong into the ever-expanding case. Maggie makes a few fleeting appearances and she'll probably still have a role to play. But aside from a montage of Cohle's and Hart's sad-sack workaholic lives, their personalities emphatically take a backseat to the procedural aspects.
I was wrong about nine episodes, by the way...there are only eight. One to go. If I have a worry about True Detective it's that in the effort to tie some things up too neatly it will let others fall by the wayside. Can one episode resolve all these plot threads, provide a satisfactory denouement for these two memorable characters (who will not be reappearing in season two), and most importantly deliver on the hints of wild, unfathomable black magic simmering under the state for two decades? This episode is as enjoyable as the others, and certainly more revealing than episode four, but it doesn't quite convey the flavor of those juicy early episodes or carry the gravitas of those intense middle chapters.
The final episode of the series arrives after meticulous narrative, character, thematic and stylistic buildup. To use Cohle's thinly-veiled euphemism for his own impending suicide the show still has something to see to before getting on with something else. I've been grateful that True Detective is a short series, focusing on a tight story while giving itself room to breathe. But now I find myself wishing we could have more. If I still feel that way after this final hour, I hope it's out of greed rather than necessity.