True Detective: “The Secret Fate of All Life” (Season 1, Episode 5) Recap/Analysis

A Look Back Last Week’s Episode of the HBO Show Starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson

Feb 23, 2014 By Alee Karim
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"The mirror reflected a face which was like my own, but whiter, and so thin that I hardly recognized it."

—Robert Chambers, "The Repairer of Reputations" from The King in Yellow

Look at Woody Harrelson's Martin Hart studying himself in the mirror of a locker room, long after the thrilling climax of True Detective's fifth episode, "The Secret Fate of All Life." Hart's everyman scenes, minus his profound(ly twisted) partner Rust Cohle (as dazzlingly portrayed by Matthew McConaughey), seem like filler to some, or in the case of a show this stylized and beautiful to watch, like a welcome relief from the tightly-wound waking nightmare that these two men traverse on the hunt for Dora Kelly Lange's killer.

Like the protagonist of Robert Chambers' "The Repairer of Reputations" from his The King in Yellow collection—the secret roots of True Detective, as many have already noted—Hart's self-image does not line up with his appearance and he is just beginning to acknowledge the fact. This obviously illustrates Hart's wistful generalizations about losing his grip on his family, and realizing too late that time has passed. The significance of these observations were almost certainly overshadowed by Cohle's fanciful membrane theory musings and nigh-iconic demonstration, through an empty can of Lone Star, that "time is a flat circle." Make no mistake, however—from here on out, two things change in True Detective: the investigation turns from outward to inward, and it's time to pay attention to Hart.

Of course, the elephant in the room is whether or not Cohle, and by extension, Hart, are complicit in later murders that resemble the ones ostensibly committed by Reggie LeDoux. Ostensibly, that is, because LeDoux never gets his literal or figurative day in court; he only offers some cryptic talk about Carcosa, the mysterious, inscrutably maddening locale from Chambers' mythology. I am confident that this is a highly implausible outcome for the show, and not at all its thematic interest. True Detective is not nearly as much of a whodunnit as its audiences fascination with its mysteries would have you believe. Yes, Hart is becoming increasingly toxic, and rage and violence are a big part of that. At his core, his problem is insecurity; it's why he shacks up with a younger woman and why he quickly reaches for authority and deep swagger when confronted. But as the accumulated details of his troubled personal life continue to conspire against him, he's too self-aware to retreat into darkness, ticking time bomb though he may be.

It would be way too easy for Cohle to be the killer, and it would be way too tragic for Hart to be—but if Chambers' original stories are to be believed, killers can sometimes hide from themselves. That kind of self-delusion grounds another popular TV murder-mystery. As Grantland's Molly Lambert observed, True Detective shares several parallels with Twin Peaks, also a story in which a big murder case is a springboard for investigating the dark forces of the cosmos. In the case of Twin Peaks, discovering that Leland Palmer had sexually abused and murdered his daughter was merely a prelude to the world of Killer Bob and the Black Lodge. Killer Bob is, of course, the metaphysical id, the traveling spirit that visits Palmer as a youth and enables his evil side (as he does to hero Agent Cooper, in another man-in-the-mirror scene, closing out the series). We only get glimpses of the Black Lodge before the horrific prolonged visit in the final episode; our evidence of it is mostly anecdotal, hallucinatory, or relegated to the dream state.

True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto presents his bad vibes analogues only anecdotally and I suspect he'll keep it that way. But if Reggie LeDoux is dead, the only place left is Carcosa (and if LeDoux is to be believed, we're already there). That quiet realization is part of what makes that final sequence of Cohle walking through the abandoned school so menacing. The universe yawning in the face of our terror and incomprehension-it's scarcely been better portrayed in television.

As Hart has pointed out at least twice now, "the detective's curse" is the inability to see the solution "right under your nose." One of the deft touches of the show is the lack of viewer omniscience—we only ever feel as aware as our protagonists. If Hart didn't notice it, how could we? The queer regard with which Hart appraises himself in the locker room is the perspective he ought to have applied to the events of the last seven years. If nothing else, the rest of the series will show us how that regard serves him over the following 10.  


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Morgan Janssen
February 26th 2014

Great to see some actual discussion of the show that reads as though an actual critic is on the case instead of some fanboy cataloguing every easter egg. 
Wondering in your thoughts on Hart’s rebellious daughter?  He confesses that his true sin was inattention, and immeidately after we see her development into 2002 goth.  Pair this with her sex drawings as a child, which apart from their obvious implication, also seem like they’d be at home on the wall of a flooded out church?

Alee Karim
February 26th 2014

@Morgan: Yeah, they’re implying some darkness in his daughter’s past and future. There’s a theory floating that she was sexually abused when she was much younger and that she’ll be the next victim. I’d say that’s plausible and I’d go one further to say that what Cohle knows and is keeping secret in 2012, buys the safety of Hart’s daughter…