“It never sat right with me then, and it doesn’t now, you asking me to lie to you about him.”
In an episode where Rust and Marty make amends and reunite a decade after their bloody split to settle a final debt and hunt the Yellow King in earnest, it’s funny that this line stuck with me above all else. It comes near the end of the episode, in a brief and otherwise forgettable scene when Maggie visits Rust in his run-down bar. She asks him to assure her that whatever he and Marty are working on won’t end with her ex-husband getting hurt. He tells her he can’t make that promise, and then delivers his strange rebuke. It seems to come from left field, and the formulation itself is odd. Maggie used to ask him whether Hart was sleeping around, sure, but what does he mean when he says that she asked him to lie?
When that word comes into play, “lie,” it immediately makes you think of the lies Rust told on Marty’s behalf; he knew his partner was cheating, but he kept quiet. So he fibbed for Marty, maybe, but that’s not what he’s saying here, and the meaning isn’t clarified. In fact, it takes a moment to parse, but when you do, it’s an incisive bit of dialogue. What he actually means is that when Maggie asked him whether her husband was faithful, she wasn’t after the truth. The truth was always obvious. What she wanted was a comfortable lie—she wanted Rust to reassure her, because, as I discussed at length in last week’s review, she lacked the courage to leave and needed the solace of deception to maintain her own personal status quo. (Finally, that staus quo became untenable in the face of Marty’s bald infidelity, and even then it took a destructive act for Maggie to break free.) When she asked Rust for the truth, there was an implicit bargain that both understood.
The next mystery about the line, then, is why it came into Rust’s mind at that moment. Had he been stewing on it for the past decade? Probably. But there’s something more, and to understand that, we need to understand the present. Again, Maggie is asking him for something. She wants an assurance that Hart will be safe. And again, she’s smart enough to know better. Everything she needed to know was conveyed in Hart’s visit, when he thanked her in a way that doubled as goodbye. She understands Cohle’s obsessive streak, and even if she doesn’t know the specifics, she’s smart enough to see the danger facing them both. But her inability to face the truth hasn’t waned with the years, and she’s asking Cohle to lie to her again. She needs the deception that will give her comfort. She hasn’t changed, but Cohle has; he won’t whitewash the truth the way he did with Marty’s infidelity years ago.
It would be easy to stop there and marvel at the depth, both interpersonal and psychological, that Cohle’s line represents. We’ve seen how it explained the past, and we see how the transaction changed in the present. But what about the future? One theory that’s been floating around for some time revolves around Maggie and Marty’s oldest daughter Audrey. She’s on medicine and relatively stable now, but as a child she used dolls to depict what looked like non-consensual sex between a group of men and a girl, and drew a picture of a girl whose arms appear to be tied behind her back next to a naked, aroused man with a scraggly beard (NSFW drawing, originally shown in an earlier episode). The details about Audrey seem too purposeful, too prominent, to be leading nowhere, and the suggestion is that she may have been involved in, or witnessed, the depraved acts carried out by the Yellow King and his followers. One theory goes that it was her father-in-law, a wealthy man who may have been connected to Tuttle’s people, that brought her along, and some still suspect Marty.
In either case, the spotlight swivels back to Maggie. Could her desire for the easy answer, for the bland consolation of ignorance, have led her to miss the obvious evidence of abuse? To date, her inability to reckon with hard truth resulted in drama that all parties, it could be argued, brought upon themselves. But the kind of willful disregard that resulted in the abuse of her own child would be something else entirely and cast light on the role that complacent (and complicit) ordinary people play in facilitating the blossom of evil. To rise to power, men like Hitler needed millions of non-psychopaths who could nevertheless abide their psychopathology, and someone like the Yellow King could never exist without scores of civilians who failed to face the dark shadows at their doorstep. And if this is the case, Marty is equally culpable; an earlier line from the interview room about missing the truth “right under your nose” resonates in the midst of the damage it may have wrought on his own daughter.
That one line, delivered in a manner you could almost call offhand, tells a story about Maggie’s life and may illuminate a key element of the murders Cohle and Hart are trying to solve. And in the coded depth of that line, the richness of True Detective can be seen in microcosm. It’s staggeringly insightful, but to be truly awed, consider that each episode has multiple moments just like this one. When Rust tells Marty that life is only long enough to get good at one thing and to “be careful what you get good at,” it’s easy to imagine a similar spiral of meaning that connects someone like Rust with a man like the Yellow King.
“After You’ve Gone” was the penultimate episode of the series, and it entailed a certain degree of exposition and set-up. We needed to know what happened with our principals in the past decade, and we needed to be prepared for next week’s finale. What we learned is that a man with facial scars is at the center of a ritualistic ring that abuses children and is connected somehow with a sect of Mardi Gras celebrants who wear animal masks and decorate their victims with blindfolds and antlers. The whole group may have originated with Sam Tuttle, a patriarch who only liked to be with a woman once before he cast her aside and thus spawned a number of children out-of-wedlock. One of these children was a sheriff named Childress, whose son is likely the landscaper who was identified by his scars by three different witnesses, and may in fact be the Yellow King himself. Hart and Cohle visit one of Tuttle’s former domestics, now old and nearly senile, who becomes animated when seeing a picture of the trademark devil net and begins shouting, “rejoice! Carcosa! Death is not the end!”
But the end is evident, showing its gray countenance in all the hollows of decay. Before the resumption of the case, the lives of the two former partners had become stagnant. Cohle moved to Alaska and became a functioning alcoholic who worked on fishing boats and tended bar, and Hart tried dating on Match.com before resigning himself to the loneliness of encroaching age. Cohle, who once said that he lacked the constitution for suicide, now sees his life as a “circle of violence and degredation” and intimates that once he resolves the case and pays his debt, he’ll kill himself. Marty says nothing so extreme, but by virtue of tackling something so big, it’s clear that he, too, is willing to make the final sacrifice and has surrendered some of his self-preserving impulses. He quit the police force because the horrors had worn him down, but now he’s being asked to face the most horrific act of all, and there’s an underlying sense that by accepting Cohle back into his life, he may be embarking on his own closing act.
There is barely anything left of the two men beyond the debt they owe. They let the case slip away in 1995, and everything else that may have mattered was slowly shorn from their lives in the ensuing decades. In 2012, they’ve approached the ideal of the true detective, for whom nothing exists outside the problem. Beyond those confines, life is grim, and neither has put his faith in an afterlife. This has never seemed like a show that would use its ending to project either Hart or Cohle into the unwritten future; the gods of television won’t grant them the heaven of the unseen hereafter. We have one hour left with these remarkable characters, and if I have my guess, the circles of their fate will all be closed when the final credits roll.