Before the premiere of HBO's True Detective, writer Nic Pizzolatto told interviewers, "The aspects of a police procedural don’t interest me at all and I’m certainly not interested in serial killers or serial killer stories," which might lead one to wonder why he'd write a police procedural about the hunt for a serial killer. But with the fifth episode, "The Secret Fate of All Life," the show, and the investigation it's built around, are starting to spiral outward, suggesting a universe, or universes, of alternate possibilities.
"The Secret Fate of All Things" opens with a sequence every bit as thrilling in the complexity of its writing and editing (or, for me, substantially more so) than the six-minute single take that closed the previous episode. In the present day, detectives Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Hart (Woody Harrelson) explain how they tracked down and killed Reginald Ledoux, the chief suspect in the murder of Dora Lange, but the scenes from 1995 show a very different scene from the one they describe. As the detectives recount, in matchless unison, how they took machine-gun fire from Ledoux and killed him in self-defense, we watch as a handcuffed, unarmed Ledoux is shot, point-blank, in the head by Hart after he discovers the two children -- a live girl and a dead boy -- Ledoux has been holding captive.
The shuttling back and forth flows smoothly into a new time frame, 2002, and also illustrates what Cohle describes to his present-day interrogators as a fourth-dimensional perspective, a vantage from which the sphere in which we live our lives resembles "a flat circle" and events repeat themselves ad infinitum, "like carts around a track." By the time Cohle starts discoursing on string theory, we're starting to wonder decades obsessing over a single case have permanently warped his mind, and perhaps even, as the present-day detectives do, if Cohle might be a perpetrator in an investigator's guise.
Viewers may also be wondering what happened to their well-acted, sharply written, but basically conventional cop show, which by the end of "The Secret Fate" we seem to have left behind for good. Pizzolatto has talked about his love of "weird fiction," a kind of protean predecessor to supernatural horror whose practitioners include H.P. Lovecraft, and it seems as if that's the terrain where True Detective is headed, although we don't know how far it will go. (I've seen the next two episodes -- all, in other words, but the eight-part series' finale -- and I'm still not sure.)
In a fascinating essay, Michael M. Hughes explained that True Detective is threaded through with references to the weird-fiction touchstone The King in Yellow, and last night's episode certainly bears him out. Before he dies, Reggie Ledoux mentions the black stars that have served as a recurring symbol, and tells Cohle, "You're in Carcosa now," suggesting that Cohle has crossed over into another world, even another dimension -- or, metaphorically, that he has seen things he can never unsee, witnessed a depth of human depravity that will leave him forever altered.
Pizzolatto suggested to the Daily Beast's Andrew Romano that Cohle's fourth-dimensional perspective mirrors that of the show's audience:
"Cohle describes the possibility of other dimensions existing, and he says that’s what eternity is, 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.... 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."
Romano concludes from this the upshot of True Detective may be "that at some indivisible level, life is story." But I hope that's not true, and not just because the story-about-storytelling angle feels awfully sophomore-year. If the opening of "The Secret Fate of All Things" shows us anything, it's that life isn't all story: Stories are what we tell to make sense of life, or a comforting lie to paper over its ugliness, but the truth -- wild, unmanageable, weird -- is still out there, even if we can't see it all.
The evocation of fourth-dimensional philosophy within the context of a serial killer investigation put me in mind of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell, which tells the story -- or a story -- of the man who may have been Jack the Ripper. Moore's script contains what have always struck me as some of the most profound insights into the writing process I have ever read, especially the moment in the prologue when a fraudulent psychic confesses, "I made it all up and it all came true anyway" -- a perfect analogue for the leap of faith a writer makes toward an empty page. But Moore also opens the tale with an epigraph that has always haunted me, addressed to Jack the Ripper's victims: "You and your demise: of these alone are we certain." We may never know the truth, but the bodies don't lie.