On last night's episode of True Detective, "The Secret Fate of All Life," we began to understand where Detectives Papania and Gilbough's interviews with Rust and Marty have been leading. Is it a false path, or something that will take us past the thicket of lies? Spoilers ahead.
I think one of the most interesting parts of last night's episode was that we saw the first fissure forming between the stories that Rust and Marty have been telling, and the "truth" that we're seeing in flashbacks. After their hellish fight at the stash house, Rust gets Red to arrange a meeting with suspect Reggie Ledoux's meth cooking partner. But Ledoux's buddy isn't interested in Rust's offer. "I can see your soul at the edges of your eyes — it's corrosive, like acid," he says to Rust. "You've got a demon, little man. And I don't like your face."
Which is exactly the kind of thing that meth-cooking trash say in this show. And it also tips us off to the theme of this episode, which is looking into Rust's face and getting damn creeped out.
Even though the deal was a bust, Rust and Marty are now able to follow Ledoux's partner back to the creepy lair where Ledoux is hanging out in a bath towel and torturing children. But I'm getting a little bit ahead of myself. As the two men creep through the wilderness, past homemade tripwires and minefields, we hear their voiceover narration explaining that as soon as they got to Ledoux's place they were under fire.
"Blam! Bullets cut through!" Marty says, evoking a scene of mayhem where he and Rust heroically dodged machine gun fire to kill Ledoux and rescue two kidnapped kids. But as we watch the scene unfold, we see that nothing of the sort happened. They walked into Ledoux's house, grabbed Ledoux just as he was getting out of bed in his gross towel, and cuffed him. Marty goes into the house to investigate further, while Rust tries to get Ledoux's partner pacified.
"It's time isn't it? The black stars," Ledoux mutters insanely to Rust. He's referring to the "black stars" we saw in Dora Lange's notebook — and which are themselves a reference to what you'd see in the sky of Carcosa, the imaginary land from Robert Chambers' book The King in Yellow, which provides a lot of the weird imagery for this series.
Just as it seems like Rust has Ledoux and his partner in the bag, Marty discovers the kidnapped, abused kids in Ledoux's house. He's so overcome that he comes back outside and just shoots Ledoux in the head. Which of course sets Ledoux's partner off running through the minefield, where he instantly becomes several blobs of flesh.
And here is where the lies begin.
To make it appear that they shot Ledoux in self-defense, Rust expertly rakes the nearby foliage with a machine gun. Now he's set the stage for their story of running toward Ledoux's hideout while under heavy fire. It's an intense scene, with Rust's face obscured by the flat, black circle of the gun. We know from his history that this isn't new territory for him. He's murdered suspects before, and has always gotten away with it.
Just as Rust and Marty get away with this crime. As they emerge from the underbrush with the two abused children in their arms, rescued from Ledoux's shack of horrors, we know already that they're going to be lionized as heroes. Their colleagues congratulate them, they get commendations, and luckily all the evidence at the Ledoux place backs up their story.
This is also the beginning of a period of brief happiness for both men. Marty persuades his wife to come back to him, and Rust even has a girlfriend for a little while. Plus, Rust's uncanny ability to extract confessions from prisoners earns him a reputation all across the local region, and he's brought in as an expert to consult on interrogations. But that corrosive acid at the corners of Rust's eyes is still eating away at his vision.
As he tells Papania and Gilbough in this episode's nihilistic monologue, we're doomed to just repeat the same terrible experiences over and over again. Our lives are a flat circle, he says, smashing a beer can into a flat circle to demonstrate. We can never escape.
Papania is suitably unimpressed by this, but the idea of repetition permeates the whole episode. We see repeated images of circles, and the same kinds of terrifying situations recur. Rust and Marty's lies are circling back to haunt them, like drops of stale beer sliming their way around that smashed can in Rust's hand.
When Rust and Marty are getting fed up with their interviews, Papania and Gilbough reveal that they believe that Rust is the real killer. His stories about the murders don't add up. He provided all the evidence to crack the Lange case, they point out to Marty, who reluctantly agrees that's true. Plus, there's the little issue of that guy Rust was interrogating in 2002 (seven years after the Ledoux shooting), who claimed to know about the "Yellow King" who killed Lange. Rust attacked him viciously, and then the guy committed suicide in prison after receiving a mysterious phone call.
Did Rust make that phone call? Papania and Gilbough have Marty wondering about it too, especially after they point out how Rust kept miraculously providing all those leads. When the detectives confront Rust, they also point out that five witnesses saw him hanging around the crime scene of a new murder that looks almost exactly like Lange's murder in 1995. Rust promptly stalks out of the interview in a cloud of Nietzschean philosophy and cigarette smoke, growling that if they want to look through his mysterious storage space that they'll have to get a warrant.
Even the imagery of the show suggests Rust's guilt, as in this scene where we see a yellow crown hovering over Rust's head as he barrels down the road toward Ledoux's hideout. The Yellow King, remember, is the character who controls the world with insanity and pure power.
After the detectives suggest that Rust may be guilty, we travel back to 2002, right before Rust and Marty have a terrible falling-out that's only been hinted at so far. The guy who told Rust about the Yellow King has both of them kind of spooked, and Rust starts to wonder whether the killer is still out there. He starts crazily investigating other murders, possibly related to Lange.
As Rust revisits old crime scenes, uncovering the weird hole into the nothingness of nature that you see at the top of this post, Marty is journeying into his own void. Except his void isn't abstract, like Rust's. It's the emptiness that has grown between himself and his eldest daughter. She's become rebellious, dressing like a Hot Topic model and partying with "bad kids." Things come to a head when the police catch her having sex with two older boys in a car.
Marty hauls her into the house, her eyes two dark circles of fear and rage, and calls her the "head of the varsity slut squad" in front of her mother (and her sister, listening from down the hall). When she screams "fuck you!" at him, he hits her in the face as his wife watches, horrified.
It's interesting to juxtapose this scene with the moment earlier in the episode, when Marty rescued the abused girl from Ledoux's drug compound. Here, he's the abuser rather than the rescuer. There are also a lot more layers of repetition here, echoing from previous episodes. We know that Rust lost his own daughter when she died in a car accident, and that he lost his first job when he shot a drug dealer who was injecting a child with meth. Plus, let's not forget that Marty himself isn't exactly a paragon of sexual virtue. Last episode, he exploded in a frenzy of violence against his girlfriend's lover.
If you superimpose these scenes on top of each other, the way you would if time were a flat circle, you see endless scenarios of men trying to protect young women with violence — but also subjecting them to violence, and turning their sexualities into an occasion for violence that has nothing to do with protection at all. In these scenes, we finally unspool one story about how insanity begins. It's when a man no longer sees a woman as a person, and instead crushes her into a dead symbol to justify violence.
When Marty looks into his daughter's eyes, he sees a void like the one Rust sees in that tree. But when we as the audience look into her face, we see a person — a terrified, rebellious teenager, who has now been sucked into the dark repetition that has consumed her father and his partner Rust.
Of course when we look into the void that Rust sees in the tree, there really is nothing. Rust is more profoundly removed from the human world than Marty ever is. He sees the void at the center of all meaning in the world. As he walks into the Light of the Way school, through darkness and decay, he finds more and more of the stick figures that have become the signs that mark the Yellow King's work.
Who is guilty here? Is Rust walking through a pile of his own handiwork? And who is unleashing the true darkness in this world of unsolved crimes? Is Marty's violence against his daughter the psychological equivalent of what Ledoux did to those little kids? Are our characters giving birth to their own evil, over and over, in repeated acts of meaningless violence?
As Rust holds one of the yellow signs up to the light, like a religious icon, I couldn't help but think of a line from Chambers' book The King In Yellow, supposedly spoken by the King himself: "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!"
Except in True Detective, there is no living God. There are only men, and the void.