Your Comprehensive Guide to Re-Watching ‘True Detective’: Episodes 1-4


The grand finale to the marvelous True Detective is on Sunday, and if you’re like me, you’ve spent all week re-watching the first seven episodes, both to admire the excellence of the show thus far, and because you might spot a lot of stuff you missed first time around. Are Marty and Rust going to find the Yellow King? Does it matter? Is time really a flat circle? And what the fuck’s up with those black stars? We’ve worked our way through the whole series again, because shit, why not. First up: episodes 1-4. (Episodes 5-7 coming tomorrow!) Spoilers abound, obviously.

Episode 1: “The Long Bright Dark”

In which we meet our protagonists, bear witness to Dora Lange’s murder, and get a sense that something very nasty is going on.

Things to watch for: As several others have observed, the dates on the recordings tell us that the two modern-day detectives spoke to Rust first. This is important, because the way the show is set out, you tend to assume that Marty and Rust are relating their narratives concurrently. They’re not. The modern-day cops have already heard all Rust’s philosophizing.

The key piece of Rust’s dialogue in this episode is his oft-cited reflection that “You never know what the thing’s gonna be, do you? That little detail somewhere way down the line that makes you go, oh. Breaks the case.” But it’s also worth noticing just how much Marty talks about family — not his family, mind you — throughout this episode and the series. Having watched all seven episodes, we now know how bitterly ironic this is, both because of the disintegration of Marty and Rust’s families, and because of the atavistic nastiness of the Ledouxs and the Tuttles.

Marty’s observation that “a father’s burden is too much for some men” seems all the more portentous now, too. And then you’re struck by the fact that we really know nothing about Rust — all his old files are classified or redacted, and he’s a very unreliable narrator, prone to acid flashbacks and filtering his memories through his peculiar pseudo-Buddhist philosophy (“We are things,” he tells the bewildered modern-day cops, “who labor under the illusion of having a self.”)

As for clues: there are three whacking great ones that you miss first time around due to not understanding their context. The first comes at about 18:04, where our protagonists drive past this sign:

On first viewing, it’s a piece of ominous atmospherics. The second time around, it’s a whacking great neon sign that someone is killing women and children.

The second is this:

Who is this girl? Is it Marie Fontenot, about whom Marty and Rust are told shortly afterward? Is Rust having one of his visions? If so, just how much of the stuff he sees is real, anyway? A little later in the episode, one of the 2012 cops observes that it was “remarkable intuition” to follow up what seemed like an unrelated lead. It is, isn’t it?

Then there’s the green-eared spaghetti man. People have been arguing for weeks that it’s the scar-faced man we first see in Episode 3 and again in Episode 7. They’re right, surely, because those green ears — they’re his earmuffs, aren’t they?

And finally, on the theory that Marty is somehow involved with the killings: I don’t buy it. If he is, he’s hiding it incredibly well, and also, he has multiple opportunities in this episode to have Rust removed from the case. I don’t doubt his family is involved somehow, but if so, it’s not with his blessing. Not yet, anyway.

Episode 2: “Seeing Things”

In which families are discussed and dissected, we get our first hints about the Yellow King, and a disturbing scene is created with sinister little dolls.

Things to watch for:

Much of True Detective revolves around the evil that men do to women — as I wrote a couple of weeks back, you could happily run this show under the title Men Who Hate Women, which was the original Swedish title of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — but there’s also a constant theme of fatherhood and family, and the failings thereof. It’s particularly prominent in this episode, and all the moreso when you re-watch the episode knowing where Marty and Rust’s lives are going.

There’s also a strong theme of corruption running through this episode. Every time we see the police commander, he’s glaring at Rust — he clearly sees that here is someone who could foul everything up for him. When Rust and Marty visit the “bunny ranch,” it’s clear that the local sheriff is complicit in its operation. And Rust himself says to the hooker off whom he’s scoring drugs, “Of course I’m dangerous. I’m police. I can do terrible things to people with impunity,” rather foreshadowing what’s to come.

As far as clues go, first, there’s Dora Lange’s mother, Mrs. Kelly: another broken family, another catalog of grief. The decidedly sinister photo on Lange’s mother’s mantelpiece has been the subject of much internet speculation:

Who are these people? Are they the ones responsible for the hideous sacrifice video Rust retrieves from the Tuttle family safe? And is one of them Lange’s father? Because there’s a sense of something very nasty indeed going on here — when she’s asked about her former husband, and whether Dora had a relationship with him, Mrs. Kelly answers with a question: “Why? What have you heard?” When asked if he died, again she doesn’t answer the question, instead asking, “Why wouldn’t a father bathe his own child?” Absent fathers, abused children, broken families.

With this in mind, there’s a lot of foreshadowing here: Marty’s children alone on a boat, looking innocent and vulnerable, as Marty argues with his father-in-law (an avatar of respectable corruption if there ever was one) and Maggie argues with her mother. The family dysfunctionality follows the Harts home, and we see how Marty and Maggie’s marriage is foundering.

This episode gives us one very strong visual clue, at least — the much-debated doll setup, where Marty finds his kids setting out some action figures in a very sinister scene:

There’s definitely an indication here that the girls know more than they’re supposed to, either firsthand or via what they’ve heard from their classmates. But no one notices, really. There are plenty of pointers that Marty is missing things — Maggie warns him that he has developed some sort of selective deafness, a warning he ignores. And also, he misses what his children are talking about just prior to the doll scene: “You don’t have a mommy or daddy anymore. Yours just died. How? In a car accident.” Just like Rust’s daughter. Just like Dora Lange’s father, allegedly.

One other clue we may have missed first time around: when Rust reads Dora’s diary, there’s a shot of it where you can read her scribblings about the Yellow King and Carcosa:

“Strange is the night where BLACK STARS rise.” Black stars turn up later in the series, but this isn’t the first time we’ve seen them. In fact, the first time we see black stars is earlier in this episode, when Rust speaks to Dora’s friend:

Does it mean anything? Who knows? The passage Rust reads from Dora’s diary says, “His children are marked,” which seems like a whacking great coincidence — but maybe, that’s all it is. Speculating about this stuff is part of the fun. As Marty observes early in this episode, “You’re looking for narrative. Interrogate witnesses, parcel evidence, establish a timeline, build a story.”

And that’s what we’re all doing. It’s also interesting that Marty’s observation is set over a montage of his own kids, suggesting that trying to build a family is as much an effort in creating a story out of nothing as anything else. And, perhaps, just as doomed to failure.

Episode 3: “The Locked Room”

In which things start to get metaphysical, we start to doubt the veracity of both our narrators, and we catch the first glimpse of the monster at the end of the dream.

Things to watch for:

This is arguably the best episode to date, wherein the show takes a sharp left turn from brooding cop drama to multi-dimensional mind bender. Or so it appeared at the time, because it’s interesting to look back at this now that it seems maybe Rust’s locked-room philosophizing is just another in the long line of red herrings True Detective has thrown at its audience. Still, it’s hard to believe that there won’t be at least some sort of metaphysical payoff to be had at the end of the series, because this episode is very, very heavy with the hints it lays on.

There’s Rust’s much-quoted speech at the end of the episode, of course, but there’s more than that. We start with a visit to the preacher who used to inhabit the church wherein Rust and Marty found a creepy drawing of a girl with antlers, and for a couple of minutes we observe him preaching to his flock. Much of the attention has focused on Rust’s virulently anti-religious response, but listen to what the preacher’s saying: “You are a stranger to yourself… This world is a veil, and the face you wear is not your own.”

It’s not really all that different from what Rust is saying, is it? Indeed, the more you listen back to what our favorite philosophizin’ detective has to say about religion, the more you start to realize that with hindsight, those words could just as easily apply to himself: “You gotta tell yourself stories that violate every law of the goddamn universe to get through the day — what does that say about your reality?” This is, after all, a man who spends much of the next episode expostulating on a rather dubious interpretation of string theory and the possibility of time repeating itself.

Marty, in one of his moments of perceptiveness — he’s smart when he puts his mind to it, although the point is that he rarely does — notices this. “For a guy who sees no point in existence,” he says to his partner, “you fret about it an awful lot.” And he’s right, Rust does sound somewhat panicked — or at least agitated — when he sets out his views on the universe. It’s no different 17 years later, where he tells the detectives about his views on the futility of existence.

This episode again expands on themes of carelessness and familial dysfunctionality. Marty’s pontification about fatherhood — “You are accountable for other people. You are responsible for their lives.” — seemed ironic even the first time around, but it’s all the more so with a more complete knowledge of this story. As much as anything, True Detective is about how terrible things can happen within families — be they nuclear, religious, or social — without those “responsible” knowing any different. The preacher — who we see again later as another emasculated father, another alcoholic removed from those to whom he claimed a responsibility — is oblivious to what’s been happening at his church. Like Marty, he doesn’t see what’s going on under his nose. He’s too proud, too self-satisfied.

So too is Marty, or at least 1995 vintage Marty. By 2012, he’s humbled, just like the preacher. Look at the little touches, like how he looks at his empty ring finger, something that seems even more poignant with the knowledge of what’s happened to his life in the intervening years. But still, this is the first sense we get that what Marty and Rust are telling the detectives is not true. The dramatic counterpoint between “Rules describe the shape of things… boundaries are good,” and Marty going crazy at his girlfriend’s date. The stench of hypocrisy.

And then, something I didn’t notice the first time around: Rust’s paternal use of the word “son” in the interrogation room. Even that is treacherous: “I never been in a room more than ten minutes where I didn’t know if the guy did it or not,” he tells the detectives in 2012.

As far as visual clues go, the biggest (and really the only) visual clue from this episode is, of course, the yearbook.

Reddit has been over this innumerable times, but the biggest takeaway surely is this:

In this episode, we actually get two glimpses of what may well be our bogeyman, the monster at the end of the dream. But it’s not Reggie, like we figured first time around. No, it’s this gentleman right here — on the right, he’s on his lawnmower at the end of Episode 7, but on the left… that’s him in the yearbook, no? But why doesn’t Rust notice his scars first time around? Because of the beard he’s sporting?

A couple of other things, though. First, something that not a lot of people have talked about: Rust’s synesthesia. “He tastes colors,” marvels Marty. “One sense triggers another sense,” Rust explains further. Surely this must have some sort of significance, especially given the prominence given to the Yellow King’s, well, yellowness?

And here’s something else to think about. Right at the end of Episode 7, we see the scar-faced tall man mowing a spiral in the lawn. Marty goes inexplicably crazy at Rust in 1995 after he finds out that Rust… mowed his lawn. Marty looks ready to cry. What does it all mean?

There are of course heavy hints dropped here that we may never really know: “Fulfillment and closure… fuckin’ empty jars to hold this shitstorm,” sneers Rust to his modern day interviewers. “Nothing’s ever fulfilled. Until the very end. And closure… No. Nothing is ever over… The ontological fallacy of expecting a light at the end of the tunnel. That’s what the preacher sells.” Like Bluebeard’s wife, maybe it’s better that we don’t see inside the locked room. But just like her, our curiosity is going to get the better of us.

Episode 4: “Who Goes There”

In which True Detective becomes, weirdly, an action show.

Things to watch out for:

Not a great deal, to be honest. Even at the time, this episode felt like a strange left turn for True Detective. The first three episodes largely eschewed cop show clichés, focusing instead on the relationship between the two protagonists. This episode is the complete opposite — a gorgeously shot, ultra-violent clusterfuck, an episode where the show’s multi-chronological narrative is replaced by visceral action. Previously we’ve skipped between past and present, giving a sense of watching this show from out of time, like one of the fourth-dimensional observers Rust discusses in Episode 5. But for much of this episode we’re very much in 1995, right there with the characters. The much-discussed final shot of the episode, in particular, places you right inside the action, so much so that it’s like you’re right there with Rust and his erstwhile biker compadres.

The narrative is strange, too: why so much attention devoted to how Rust and Marty track down Ledoux? If you were writing this show, wouldn’t you perhaps have them follow a lead out into the bayou to discover Ledoux’s cookhouse with a minimum of fuss? Why this entire detour with the biker gang, who we never see again?

On reflection and re-watching, I think the answer is this: the entire episode is a character study of Rust. Even before he goes undercover, we see new aspects of his personality: a capacity for cruelty, when he flat-out tells Dora’s ex-husband that he was responsible for her death. This echoes the last episode, where the preacher reproaches him about compassion, to which he pays no attention. But there’s also a capacity for compassion, demonstrated in the way he talks to Maggie and the way in which he tries to ensure a child doesn’t get hurt in the gunfight at the stash house.

In any case, the backstory we get in this episode isn’t a history of Rust Cohle — it’s his fake history as Crash, although Matthew McConnaughey has told us, “This is where Cohle has all the freedom. He can go over the edge as this guy. And inside, he loves the life of Crash even more, because the shackles are off of him. He knows he may die sooner living this life, but there’s a freedom and peace in that knowledge for him.”

In seeing Crash, we see an aspect of Rust we haven’t seen before. As far as the show’s overarching plot goes, though, there’s very little advancement (although the indications throughout have been that the narrative isn’t the most important thing here.)

This episode also gives us further insight into Marty: there’s something terrifyingly predatory to the way he watches the stripper he follows to a dance party in search of Tyrone Weems. He could just as easily be about to rape her. The implication is clear, as if Marty’s violence hasn’t made it abundantly clear already: the potential for (sexual) violence lurks in all men. This is reinforced by the ease with which Rust slips back into the role of Crash.

This latent capacity for violence forms a dramatic counterpoint to the protagonists’ relationships with women. There’s a lot that’s been said about whether True Detective is misogynistic, but really, it’s hard to re-watch this episode and make any such argument — the girls might be naked, but it’s the men who are liars and hypocrites. Lisa’s speech is a slap in the face to the male characters’ casual misogyny: “Do you think it’s OK to treat women the way you do? This is what you get.”

Even Rust falls victim to this — ironically enough, right at the very moment when he’s expounding on the show’s other great theme: family. “Kids are the only thing that matter,” he tells Maggie. “They’re the only reason for this whole man/woman drama. People fuck up. We age. Men, women, it’s only supposed to work to make kids.”

She calls bullshit, and really, everything we’ve seen before or since only goes to demonstrate that she was right. Families don’t protect kids; they fail them. They are betrayed. Even the bikers are a family of sorts, a family that Crash never really belonged in and ultimately turns on.

And then there’s Marty’s lament, the detective’s curse: “The solution was right under my nose, but I was paying attention to the wrong clues.” The solution, perhaps, was this: don’t fuck your family around. Don’t shortchange the wrong things, in Maggie’s parlance. It’s a lesson he learns too late.

There are virtually no visual clues to pick up on in this episode (unless you found any, in which case, do let us know.) But on a lighter note, an easter egg of sorts: this is the show’s creator, Nic Pizzolatto. He’s so young!