How ‘True Detective’ Will End
Another Sunday, another spectacular episode of True Detective.
If you haven’t seen HBO’s deep, dark crime drama yet—it stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as a pair of Louisiana detectives investigating a disturbing ritualistic murder over the course of 17 years—stop now. This story will consist of nothing but spoilers.
(By the way, after you stop reading, immediately go and bingewatch the seven episodes of True Detective that have aired so far. It’s the finest show on television at the moment. By a mile.)
As for the rest of you: what an episode, right? “After You've Gone” answered a few of the questions we’ve been puzzling over from the start. It came close to answering others. And it introduced a handful of new mysteries that will presumably be solved next week, when Season 1 of Nic Pizzolatto’s masterful series concludes and the twisted tale of Rustin Cohle, Martin Hart, Dora Lange, and the so-called Yellow King comes to a close.
The biggest outstanding question, of course, is whodunit? How will True Detective end? With that in mind, I’ve decided that instead of writing a straight recap of “After You've Gone,” it makes more sense to look at what we know right now—including what we learned Sunday night—and what it suggests about the impending denouement of Pizzolatto’s show.
At the end of this exercise, I’ll sketch out my own theory of what’s going happen in next week’s finale. I’ll probably be wrong, but what the hell. Part of the fun of True Detective is geeking out on all the symbols and allusions Pizzolatto has packed into his narrative.
Anyway, here goes.
The ending isn’t going to be supernatural.
So far a lot of the geekier discussions about True Detective have revolved around the show’s more “supernatural” elements. Robert Chambers’ 1895 horror classic The King in Yellow. The word “Carcosa,” which Chambers borrowed from Ambrose Bierce, and which later showed up in the works of H.P. Lovecraft. The spiral symbol on Dora Lange’s back. The flock of birds that formed into the same spiral in an early episode. Cohle’s synesthesia. Reddit boards are full of readings that would impress Talmudic scholars, or perhaps CIA cryptographers, with their ontological complexity: what this represents, what that means, and how it’s all leading up to some sort of otherworldly finale.
I don’t buy it. Why? Because that’s not what Pizzolatto is up to—according to Pizzolatto himself.
In an interview last week with Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff Jensen, Pizzolatto basically shot down the idea that we would encounter some sort of cosmic or demonic “Yellow King” at the end of the series. “I just did a DVD commentary that plainly explains [the mythological backstory], but a lot of things are left in fragments for the viewer to piece together about how we arrived at where we arrive,” he said. “You know, you can Google ‘Satanism’ ‘preschool’ and ‘Louisiana’ and you’ll be surprised at what you get. But instead of having our Satan worshippers worship Satan, they worship The Yellow King.”
Do that Google search and here’s what you find: a New York Times story from 1995 about a Ponchatoula, La. splinter church “accused by the police of a litany of ungodly offenses, including sexual abuse of perhaps two dozen children and the mutilations of cats for satanic rituals.” This was the true story Pizzolatto mined for True Detective, and it wasn’t demons committing those crimes in Louisiana. It was men. Same goes for Pizzolatto’s show.
So what’s the deal with the Yellow King?
As I wrote last month, Chambers' The King in Yellow is a collection of stories about a forbidden play called The King in Yellow—a story about another story that in turn induces madness or despair in those who read it. And so “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.”
Pizzolatto confirmed my suspicions a few days later. “The King In Yellow is in there because it’s a story about a story, one that drives people to madness,” he told Jensen. “Everything in True Detective is composed of questionable narratives, inner and outer, from Cohle’s view that identity is just a story we tell ourselves, to the stories about manhood that Hart tells about himself, to the not always truthful story they tell the detectives investigating them. So it made sense—to me, at least—to allude to an external narrative that that is supposed to create insanity.”
In other words, the Yellow King is a literary device—a creepy mythology that Pizzolatto pinned to Ledoux & Co. in order to reinforce his metafictional themes. The Yellow King is not the monster we’re going to meet at the end of the nightmare.
In fact, the end of True Detective isn’t even going to be particularly surprising.
If you’re expecting a huge twist in next week’s finale, prepare to be disappointed—again, according to Pizzolatto.
Earlier this year, I interviewed the True Detective creator for a couple of hours. The Daily Beast published a long transcript here. But a lot of material had to be cut for space, and one of the passages that had to be compressed was this exchange about the end of the series.
“I’ve enjoyed reading people theorize about what’s going to happen because it’s a sign that you’re connecting,” Pizzolatto told me. “But I’m also sort of surprised by how far afield they’re getting. Like, why do you think we’re tricking you? It’s because you’ve been abused as an audience for more than 20 years. I cannot think of anything more insulting as an audience than to go through eight weeks, eight hours with these people, and then to be told it was a lie—that what you were seeing wasn’t really what was happening. The show’s not trying to outsmart you.”
It’s not The Sixth Sense.
“It really isn’t. Exactly. I knew the guy was dead as soon as he showed up after being gut shot in the second close. It was the same thing with The Usual Suspects. It was like, “Wait a minute. Don’t tell me this whole thing is just a lie. Because if it just a lie, what parts of the movie were true? Maybe none of it. What did we just sit here watching?”
People like to be fooled, though.
“I question it. I don’t think me outright lying to you is “fooling’ you. Chinatown, for instance, is a kind of smart trickery that is rewarding. You didn’t get lied to in Chinatown. You just couldn’t see all the pieces of the picture. And then when you saw it, you realized not only was this about the corruption of an entire state, but it was mirrored in the corruption of an American family. Simply being told, “Hey, everything you just saw—we lied?” That’s not smart. Nobody outsmarted you. And really if you pay attention… if someone watches the first episode and really listens, it tells you 85 percent of the story of the first six episodes.”
In short: the finale isn’t going to head off in some strange direction. It’s going to flow naturally out of what we already know.
Which means neither Cohle nor Hart is the killer.
Speculation about Cohle and/or Hart’s involvement in the post-1995 slayings has run rampant online. Some viewers have followed the lead of 2012 interrogators Papania and Gilbrough and wondered whether Cohle got murderous after disappearing from Louisiana in 2002. Others have fingered Hart—the yellow-blonde hair, the violent temper, the way he blasted Reggie Ledoux’s brains out “to cover his tracks.”
Forget about it.
First of all, revealing that one of our detectives was the killer all along would be the most predictable Sixth Sense- or Usual Suspects-style twist imaginable—precisely the sort of “this whole thing is a lie” betrayal that Pizzolatto dismissed when we spoke. To be the murderer, Cohle or Hart would have had to spend the entire series pretending to investigate the Lange killing—even when he was alone. Pizzolatto isn’t going to “abuse” his audience like that.
Secondly, when I interviewed Pizzolatto, he denied—vehemently—that Cohle and Hart were antiheroes. “I think they’re both actually heroic in the sense that they’re not corrupt men,” he told me. “They’re doing their job well. They’re honest cops. There are moments throughout the series where they could let the case go, but they don’t. So they may not be moral exemplars, but I do think they’re heroes. If the average person thinks that in similar situations he could behave with courage equal to Cohle and Hart, great—I guess you’re a hero, too.” This is not how a showrunner would describe a secret murderer.
Which brings us to Episode 7. Cohle and Hart bail on the interrogations. Cohle invites Hart to buy him a beer. Hart agrees. In the bar, Cohle reveals what he’s been up to since returning to Louisiana in 2010—investigating the “copycat” murders and missing-persons cases that have cropping up along the bayous ever since Dora Lange was killed in 1995. He wants Hart’s help. “We left something undone,” Cohle says. “We got to fix it.”
“If you were drowning, I’d throw you a barbell,” Hart responds. “Why would I ever help you?”
"Because you have a debt,” Cohle fires back. "Because of the way shit went down in ‘95”—because Cohle helped cover up the fact that Hart lost his cool and shot Ledoux—“this is on you, too, buddy.”
Hart knows Cohle is right. He agrees to visit Cohle’s storage locker and examine the evidence Cohle has amassed—including a snuff video of Marie Fontenot (an early, Lange-like victim) being killed (and possibly raped). Cohle’s covert investigation—he’s obsessed with solving the case even when no one is watching—ensures he wasn’t involved. Hart’s tortured, heartbroken reaction to the video—“No!” he screams, slamming his fist into a table—ensures he wasn’t, either.
So who was it? More than one man, it seems.
In fact, all signs point to five perpetrators.
“I don’t know the sprawl of this thing,” Cohle tells Hart in the storage locker. “The people are in a lot of different things. Pieces. Family trees.”
If you haven’t heard of the Five Horsemen theory, go look it up. There are some crazy iterations of this hypothesis percolating through cyberspace, but all of them start with three simple facts:
There were five men on horses dressed in black Cajun Mardi Gras capuchons surrounding Dora Lange in a photograph at her mother’s house.
There were five male dolls surrounding one naked female doll on the floor of Audrey and Maisie’s bedroom.
And there were five beer-can men on the interrogation-room table when Cohle finished carving up his Lone Stars.
Meanwhile, the “lone star” on the head of each beer-can man, the black stars Ledoux was whispering about before he was shot, and the pentagram tattoo on Ledoux’s back—all of them have five points.
Even before Episode 7 aired, True Detective fans were betting that a shady cabal of sick men was behind the Dora Lange murder. After all, as Dora’s ex-husband Charlie Lange put it in Episode 4, Reggie Ledoux—Charlie’s former cellmate—"said there was this place down south where all these rich men go to devil worship. He said that they sacrifice kids and women and whatnot. He said something about Carcosa and the Yellow King. He said there’s, like, all these old stones out in the woods, where people go to, like, worship. He said there’s just so much good killing down there.”
In Episode 7, we finally learned that these “rich men” likely belonged to one family.
The Tuttles are at the center of these murders.
This was the biggest revelation in “After You've Gone.” In the course of his solo investigation, Cohle learned that additional disappearances and killings were linked to the Christian schools started by Reverend Billy Lee Tuttle—the brother of former governor and current senator Eddie Tuttle who swooped in in 1995 with a task force and tried to get Cohle and Hart off the case. In 2010, Cohle discovered a former student at one of Tuttle’s schools—Tobey Boulere, now a transvestite named Johnny Joanie—who remembered “men taking pictures… sometimes other things.”
“They had animal faces,” Boulere told Cohle. “That’s why I decided it had to be a dream.”
Cohle proceeded to break into Tuttle’s houses. In one of them he found 15-year-old photographs of a blindfolded girl wearing antlers: Marie Fontenot. He also found the snuff film depicting her death. Tuttle killed himself shortly thereafter. He thought he was being blackmailed.
But Billy Lee wasn’t alone. After teaming up again in 2012, Hart and Cohle tracked down the Tuttle family’s former housekeeper by linking a domestic paycheck from Tuttle’s father, Sam Tuttle, to an elderly black woman living in Section 8 housing in Alexandria, La. She revealed that “Mr. Sam” was a sexually disturbed fellow who had “lots of children, all types” from various affairs and would only sleep with virgins. “See, once she had it done to her,” the old woman said, “he didn’t like ‘em but that one time.”
Then Cohle showed her some sketches of the “devilcatchers” he’d found during the investigation. The images seemed to trigger a distant memory. “You know Carcosa?” she asked, slipping into a trance. “Him who eats time? Rejoice, death is not the end! Rejoice, Carcosa!”
The implication? That ritualistic rape and murder, and the whole Yellow King/Carcosa mythology, was a Tuttle family tradition.
The Lawnmower Man is part of this, too.
From the start of the series, a man with scars on the lower half of his face has drifted in and out of the investigation. In Episode 7, he was everywhere. Tobey Boulere recalled “three younger men” involved in the sexual misconduct at his Christian school—one of whom had “bad scars around the bottom half of his mouth, like he got all burned up.” A Ledoux cousin—a mechanic—recounted a deer hunting trip with Reggie, Reggie’s brother, and a man with scars “underneath his nose and cheeks” who gave him “funny looks all night.” In the storage unit, Cohle pieced it all together. Reggie Ledoux and his brother (who both died at their compound in the 1995 “shootout”) were two of the three “younger men.” The third was the man with the scars—likely the “spaghetti monster with green ears” who was reported to have chased a girl through the woods in 1995 (and who was later sketched by police).
When Hart and Cohle interviewed the old Tuttle housekeeper, she also remembered a scarred face. It belonged to one of “Mr. Sam’s” many extramarital grandchildren, she explained. “I think his daddy did that to him,” she said. “He was a Childress.” Shortly thereafter, Hart and Cohle discovered the Vermillion Parish sheriff who covered up the Fontenot killing was a Childress as well.
What Hart and Cohle haven’t figured out yet is that they’ve already met the man with the scars; he was the pudgy, plainspoken fellow (Errol) who was mowing the lawn outside one of the shuttered Tuttle schools in Episode 3. He had a beard at the time, so it was hard to tell. But at the end of Episode 7, we encountered him again; he was the guy giving directions to Papania and Gilbrough as he circled—spiraled?—around a bayou cemetery on his riding mower. This time his beard was gone. His scars were visible. And he bore an uncannily resemblance to the spaghetti monster sketch.
“My family’s been here a long, long time,” he said to himself as the cops drove away.
Audrey Hart, Marty’s elder daughter, may be involved as well.
We know that Audrey arranged her dolls in a manner that mirrored the picture on Dora Lange’s mother’s wall—five men surrounding a seemingly vulnerable woman (in Audrey’s case, a naked Barbie). We know she drew sexually suggestive pictures at school. We know she’s become a bit of a delinquent as a teenager, having sex with two boys at once.
We don’t know that she was sexually abused as a child, but Pizzolatto seems to be suggesting as much.
As a child, Audrey stole her younger sister’s crown and threw it into a tree. Could she have been symbolically protecting Maisie from the “crowns” that the Tuttles placed on their victims?
When I asked Michelle Monaghan, the actress who plays Hart’s wife Maggie, whether “Marty’s family is still going to be part of the plot” after Episode 6, she gave me a funny answer.
“You mean my family, as in, my mother and father and that sort of thing?” she replied.
I told her I meant the Hart kids, but sure—let’s put everyone on the table.
“Yes, yes,” Monaghan said. “Our family—everybody—is still going to be part of the plot going forward.”
Could Marty Hart’s father-in-law—a wealthy guy who showed up in an earlier episode complaining about how “everything is sex” with kids these days—be involved somehow?
So what’s my theory of how the show ends?
OK, this could be totally off-base. But since when has that stopped anyone from speculating about True Detective?
Based on the evidence above, I suspect that in next week’s finale (“Form and Void”) we’ll learn that the Five Horsemen were Sam Tuttle, Billy Lee Tuttle, Eddie Tuttle, and two other figures who may or may not be Sheriff Ted Childress and (his son?) Errol Childress.
Reggie Ledoux and his brother (along with Errol Childress) were the “three younger men” responsible for capturing and drugging the Horsemen’s victims. Errol has served in this capacity since the Ledouxs died in 1995.
Carcosa is the Tuttles’ name for the “place down south”—the “old stones out in the woods” where women and children are “sacrificed,” presumably to the Yellow King (a deity who will remain unseen). I’m not sure where the Tuttles cult mythology came from—and I’m not sure Pizzolatto will explain it in the finale—but my guess is that it blends Mr. Sam’s virginal fetishes with Cajun Mardi Gras traditions, voodoo, and perhaps some sort of Druidic “old god” worship. After all, French Mardi Gras may have originated with pagan Celts who sacrificed humans to ensure fertility and prosperity.
And because Cohle and others keep referring to events happening over and over again—the spiral tattoo, “time is a flat circle,” and so on—I think the central event of Episode 8 might echo an earlier tragedy. Cohle’s daughter died years ago, long before we met him. Could Hart’s daughter Audrey be victimized somehow in the show’s final episode? When I interviewed Pizzolatto, he told me that “one of the major themes of True Detective is the damage that men do to women and children.” My guess is that in the final moments of the season the supernatural elements of the show will recede. What remains will be all too real.