Earlier this month, I interviewed True Detective creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto. At that point, only three episodes of Pizzolatto's gripping crime drama had aired on HBO. But the guy couldn't help himself. He was excited about what was to come—especially in Episode 5. "They’re like children," he told me. "I love them all for different reasons. But for me, Episode 5 is the most special of the children."
Fast forward a few weeks. On Sunday night, "The Secret Fate of All Life"—a.k.a. Pizzolatto's beloved Episode 5—finally premiered on HBO. It turns out Pizzolatto wasn't exaggerating: "Secret Fate" was the best installment of True Detective yet. In fact, it might have been the most masterful hour of television I've encountered since the series finale of Breaking Bad —and one of the most thought-provoking since, well, ever.
Consider where the episode started and where it ended up. We open in 1995. Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) has survived a firefight and taken his bald, bearded biker contact Ginger hostage, forcing him to set up a meeting with a meth cook who could lead them to satanic murder suspect Reggie Ledoux. By the time the credits roll, we've seen Cohle and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) catch and kill Ledoux; we've discovered that, in the years since Ledoux's death, someone else has continued to rape, pose, and slaughter young girls in the same manner; and we've learned that Papania and Gilbough, the cops who are interviewing Hart and Cohle in 2012 about the Ledoux case, think that Cohle fixed the outcome of the 1995 investigation to conceal his own involvement.
In other words, the entire premise of the series—watch Hart and Cohle nab Dora Lange's killer in 1995 while recounting the experience in 2012—has been upended. Most whodunits would have saved their monster for the season finale; True Detective disposed of him at the halfway mark. Ledoux wasn't the end of the story. Cohle is now hunter and hunted. The interrogations are over. And the investigation is suddenly shifting into the present tense. It's a testament to Pizzolatto's skill as a storyteller that he was able to include so many pivot points in a single episode without calling attention to the narrative pyrotechnics on display. The shifts were seamless. In retrospect, they feel inevitable.
But that's not exactly why Pizzolatto was so proud of "Secret Fate" when we spoke—nor is it why I'm going to go back and rewatch the episode as soon as I finish writing this post. The real achievement of Sunday's True Detective didn't have anything to do with plot. Or character. Or chronology.
Instead, it was all about theoretical physics.
About halfway through "Secret Fate," Cohle—the mustachioed, ponytailed Cohle speaking to Papania and Gilbough in 2012—launches into one of his metaphysical monologues. "This is a world where nothing is solved," he intones. "Someone once told me time is a flat circle. Everything we've ever done or will do we're gonna do over and over and over again."
That "someone," of course, was Reggie Ledoux. As soon as Cohle and Hart captured and cuffed their killer back in 1995, he started to talk. "You'll do this again," Ledoux told Cohle. "Time is a flat circle." Initially, Cohle dismissed Ledoux's prediction. "What is that, Nietzsche?" he shouted. "Shut the fuck up." But he seems to have given the idea a lot of thought in the 17 years since encountering Ledoux—and, back in 2012, he proceeds to share his conclusions with Papania and Gilbough.
"You ever heard of something called membrane theory, detectives?" Cohle asks.
"No," Papania says. "That's over my head."
And so Professor Cohle begins to hold forth. "It's like, in this universe, we process time linearly," he says. "Forward. But outside of our space-time, from what would be a fourth-dimensional perspective, time wouldn't exist. And from that vantage, could we attain it, we'd see"—he crushes a can of Lone Star between his palms—"our space-time look flattened, like a seamless sculpture. Matter in a super-position—every place it ever occupied. Our sentience just cycling through our lives like carts on a track. See, everything outside our dimension—that's eternity. Eternity looking down on us. Now, to us, it's a sphere. But to them, it's a circle."
Needless to say, Papania and Gilbough are utterly baffled by Cohle's lecture, and I would have been, too—if Pizzolatto hadn't already told me what he was up to.
"You could see Cohle as Job crying out to an unhearing God," he explained. "Or you could see him as something else."
"Like what?" I asked.
"Cohle describes the possibility of other dimensions existing, and he says that’s what eternity is," Pizzolatto continued. "He says that if somehow you existed outside of time, you’d be able to see the whole of our dimension as one superstructure with matter superimposed at every position it had ever occupied. He says that the nature of the universe is your consciousness, and it just keeps cycling along the same point in that superstructure: when you die, you’re reborn into yourself again, and you just keep living the same life over and over. He also explains that from a higher mathematical vantage point, our dimension would seem less dimensional. It would look flattened, almost."
Pizzolatto took a bite of his branzino. "Now, think about all the things Cohle is talking about," he said as he finished chewing. "Is he a man railing against an uncaring god? Or is he a character in a TV show railing against his audience? Aren't we the creatures of that higher dimension? The creatures who can see the totality of his world? After all, we get to see all eight episodes of his life. On a flat screen. And we can watch him live that same life over and over again, the exact same way."
The thought was dizzying. Sure, True Detective is a page-turning crime yarn. But at least according to its creator, it's also a meta-page-turning crime yarn—a story about storytelling. Pizzolatto had transformed m-theory into a metaphor for television—and television, perhaps, into a metaphor for existence itself.
The important thing about the Yellow King and Carcosa isn't what they signify to Reggie Ledoux. It's what they signify to us.
The more I think about it, the more I think this might be the ultimate "meaning" of the series: that at some indivisible level, life is story. Much ado has been made online about all the references on True Detective to the Yellow King and Carcosa, as if they were aspects of a coherent satanic theology to which Ledoux & Co. subscribed—a puzzle to be unraveled eventually. But it's telling that the Yellow King is a reference to The King in Yellow, an 1895 collection of horror stories by Robert W. Chambers that itself references a forbidden play called "The King in Yellow"—a play that in turn "induces despair or madness in those who read it." It's also telling that Chambers borrowed the name "Carcosa" from Ambrose Bierce, and that H.P. Lovecraft later borrowed it from Chambers.
In other words, the important thing about the Yellow King and Carcosa isn't what they signify to Reggie Ledoux. It's what they signify to us. They call attention to the story-ness of the story we're watching. They tell us, as Pizzolatto put it to me, that Dora Lange is "meant to stand in for the universal victim for this type of show"; that Ledoux, with his comically archetypal 666, pentagram, and swastika tattoos, is the universal serial killer; and that True Detective is a form of metafiction.
Watch the first five episodes again, and you'll notice how often Pizzolatto circles back to storytelling as a theme. It's the engine that drives investigation. It's the motivation behind religion—a “fairy tale," as Cohle puts it, designed to “get us through the day." When asked about his so-called shootout with Ledoux, Hart says, "I tell it the same way I told the shooting board and every cop bar between Houston and Biloxi. And you know why? Because the story's always the same, 17 years gone. Because it only went down the one way." But as we soon see, it didn't go down that way at all. Hart's story is just that—a story.
Underneath it all—the spooky imagery and quantum physics—that's the simple but serious claim Pizzolatto seems to be making: that everything is a story. "This doesn’t work if it’s not a tale well told," he explained near the end of our interview. "But if you want to keep going, that’s, like, the fourth layer of understanding. You don’t have to. Nobody needs to think about that. But I’m not just using the genre while saying “Haha, we’re better than genre.” Not at all. I love the genre. But a genre doesn’t ever have to be limited by what’s been done before."