An Up-to-Date Guide to Internet Theories About ‘True Detective’


If you have not watched True Detective yet, be forewarned that this post is full of spoilery analysis.

Possibly you’ve noticed, but a lot of people on the internet are obsessing over True Detective. A great many of them seem to be either unemployed or underemployed, because they’re hanging out all day every day on Reddit or the True Detective Facebook page, offering frankly incredible levels of detail in their analyses of the show. The amount of intricacy involved in their interpretive work would impress some biblical scholars, I think. There are a fair amount of places where it feels like people are departing significantly from the text to get to their theories, so to speak.

As someone who’s been watching the show more for the languid beauty of it and the greatness of Matthew McConaughey’s acting, I confess that reading all this stuff over the last two days has been a revelation. First of all, I discovered that people really… see a whole lot of layers here that I don’t. I think of this as a good document of the journey of two troubled detectives through a years-long movie case, but the internet audience’s reaction seems to be conditioned by years of puzzle shows like Lost to expect an ulterior motive behind every plot development. And boy oh boy, are they experts at dreaming those ulterior motives up.

Here’s a survey and my own take on these theories, starting with the most implausible:

1. A large majority of people think there is definitionally going to be a “false detective.” There is a significant portion of the population who read the title True Detective as one half of a binary. In other words: they think this show is going to present us with a “false detective.” Reading the show this way is not totally implausible given the way early episodes tried to set us up to see Cohle (McConaughey) as a villain returned from the dead and Hart (Harrelson) as the dupe who didn’t realize he was working beside a dangerous killer. That’s certainly what the 2012 investigators who are interrogating Cohle and Hart seem to think.

Personally, I think it’s more like that the title is just an allusion to the toll that “true detective” work takes on the personal lives of those who undertake it. This is more or less what Pizzolatto’s said, and I take his explanation at face value. Serious investigation, the show seems to be telling us, involves drug-taking, neglecting your family, being a little violent, talking about Nietzsche too much, carrying around a giant knife with which one can carve out beer-can people, cheating on your wife, behaving like a thug in locker rooms, and a lot of time spend arguing about the rigors of prostitution with sex workers. “True detectives” engage in all of this because they want to solve the case, sacrificing themselves in the process. “False detectives,” in that sense, are the people who just treat law enforcement like a nine-to-five job — not nefarious “Yellow King” villains hidden in the depths of the police force. My two cents!

2. Some people are convinced that Woody Harrelson’s Hart is the false detective/Yellow King. Though Hart’s been presenting himself as a family man, there’s definitely something… wrong with him. People read misdirection into the way that Hart speaks about Cohle in so many of his interviews. And yeah, there’s something off about the way Hart reiterates, again and again, that Cohle needs stability, while the flashbacks show us that Hart was, if anything, just as volatile in the midst of a much more “stable” family life. Plus there’s the whole shooting Reggie LeDoux out of nowhere thing, which on a light read might look like Hart attempting a cover-up of something he’s involved in. Though it really looked more like an impulse move, to me.

I do think, at this point, if the show is going to pull out a surprise ending of that magnitude… it’s not going to feel particularly organic. It’s going to feel like a gimmick. There’s just too much that doesn’t fit. If Marty is the Yellow King, in internet parlance, that means that for the entirety of the show he’s been deftly hiding his ties from Cohle and from his family at large. And without putting too fine a point on it, Woody Harrelson’s performance doesn’t really suggest that Hart has much cunning in him; he’s a high-strung lughead who doesn’t have much capacity to see the long-term consequences of his behavior. Not exactly a criminal mastermind type, if you ask me, without some serious third-act-of-a-B-movie maneuvering that would seem beneath this show.

One slightly more plausible offshoot of this theory holds that Hart’s daughter Audrey is being abused. If that’s what the show is trying to suggest, then yes, it would explain (1) her teenaged promiscuity; (2) the strange sexual drawings she did for school friends in a notebook; and (3) the doll formation both of Marty’s girls seemed to be playing with at the beginning of the series (which might itself have been the product of Marty’s imagination). And obviously one candidate for the abuser, in that case, would be Marty himself, though frankly that squares oddly with the way he reacted to his daughter’s being found having a three-way on the interstate, calling her a “slut” and slapping her. All of that, again, is more hotheaded former jock behavior than sociopath stuff. And to be honest, given how underwritten the female characters have been on this show generally, and its frankly cursory understanding of abusive dynamics — this is no Top of the Lake — there’s a part of me that believes the only possible reading of any of Audrey’s forays into sexuality is that they are reflections of the environment in which she grew up, one in which her dad spends a considerable amount of time investigating sexual violence and whispering about it with her mother. She’s just picked up on what’s in the atmosphere, I think. I hope.

3. There is a lot more money on Cohle’s playing a very long game with the 2012 detectives who’ve been interrogating him. Many people point out that if Cohle is the long-simmering murderer-monster the 2012 detectives suspect him to be, he’s gotten awful sloppy. He’s allowed himself to be photographed near the 2012 crime scene; he drove by the place knowing that police would be logging every license plate in the vicinity. (A smart Reddit commenter points out that at Dora Lange’s crime scene, one of the first things Hart does is ask the officers to log all license plates driving by, so Cohle knows that protocol.) It’s like he wanted to be caught in the 2012 net so he could learn something. Like Marty says, late in the fifth episode, Cohle’s been getting a read on the detectives much more than he’s been getting a read on them.

And the seal on that clue, I think, comes when Cohle calls the detectives “company men” on his way out the door at the end of the fifth episode. The epithet suggests that, yeah, since 2002 or so, Cohle’s been convinced there was a massive cover-up on behalf of whoever the Yellow King actually was, and he’s been convinced it came from people in power. And so, in order to investigate the case, he likely had to quit being a “company man” himself. In other words, that long hair, the mustache? They’re just the marks of somebody who’s been long undercover, I think. This interpretation is the only thing that ties Rust together as a character; if he’s actually secretly, I don’t know, attending bible revivals in his spare time, he is a stone psychopath.

Not that I’m totally ruling that out, the psychopath thing.

4. Lawnmower Man is the lynchpin, the way back to the Yellow King.

The crucial graphic for this theory is here, which juxtaposes the image Cohle and Hart get in episode one of a “green-eared spaghetti monster” and the guy-on-a-lawnmower who Cohle finds outside the Light of the Way School in episode three:

I didn’t even really need to see this myself to know that the lawnmower guy was lying. There was something too happy-go-lucky about his demeanor. Also: an abandoned school in a show like this is basically a giant neon sign flashing, THIS IS GROUND ZERO, THIS IS GROUND ZERO.

But is he the Yellow King, as a lot of people are speculating? I’m not convinced of that, either. I think he’s a guy who is connected to this mysterious cult that the murder victims have all been tied to one way or another. To keep up the Lost analogy I suggested at the beginning, he just seems like one of the Others, meaning someone who knows something more about what’s going on, but not necessarily the King himself. If Cohle’s theory is right, the King has to be someone bigger and more powerful, more connected to the Powers That Be in Louisiana who could help cover up a massive criminal conspiracy. The obvious candidate for that is Reverend Tuttle, the guy who, we learned last episode, died in 2010 from what Hart dismissively called “mixed medications.” Not lawnmower dude. But I still think the spaghetti monster will be back, and this time with some better mythology to share. Hope you’re all tuning in Sunday too, to obsess some more!