"I don't dwell in the past," Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) tells his former partner Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) in their first conversation in a decade, but neither can escape it. For Martin, the past is a series of mistakes and choices he's continually trying to correct, to varying degrees of success. When he meets Rust, he tells him he's trying (again) to stay away from the bottle, revealing he hasn't had a drop in a few weeks (suggesting he's forever relapsing into bad habits). As for Rust, the past continues to consume him in the shape of Reggie Ledoux, with the unanswered questions and knowledge that his death was just one loose thread in a larger tangle of horror still lingering. But where has Rust been?
Detective Maynard Gilbough (Michael Potts) and Detective Thomas Papania (Tory Kittles) have been throwing a cloud of suspicion around Rust in their interviews, questioning whether or not he's truly been away. But Rust tells Martin the same story he told the detectives. "Most of the last decade I spent stone drunk. Functional, but hammered," he says, confirming that he was working fishing boats and tending bar in Alaska. But it's the "debt" he feels he owes that brought Rust back to Louisiana in 2010, and he knows that Martin also feels there's work that needs to be finished. He reminds Martin that shooting Reggie Ledoux in the head closed off any opportunities they had to find out the extent of the conspiracy—a theory Rust has been diligently re-building for the past two years. But he needs Martin's help and connections to bring it all together and decides to share with him what he hasn't shown anyone else.
The pair head to the mysterious storage locker that Gilbough and Papania have been asking to see, and within is a room papered with maps, drawings, the words The Yellow King, Scars and Carcosa written on the walls—it looks, as Martin assesses, like the work of someone who has been "alone too long." But Rust has a helluva story to tell, and Martin can't deny that it's compelling. It's a theory Rust describes as a "sprawl," with the latest link in the chain the Lake Charles murder, which still has yet to be reported in the press. And it spreads to numerous women and children who have disappeared along the bayou, often within a ten-mile radius of a Tuttle school. It goes back further, with Rust establishing something perhaps generational, with current state senator Eddie Tuttle a cousin to the late Reverend Billy Tuttle, and certainly someone with the power to keep the killings under wraps. But as Martin notes, it's all "conjecture" at this point, and Rust still has no real evidence with which to make his case, and delicately, his sanity is questioned. "I had my time when I wondered if this was all in my head," Rust states. "That time has passed."
But Rust needs Martin's "access" to case files and research databases to keep going, and he'll need to convince him that this isn't a wild goose chase spurred by guilt or mourning. And again, Rust shares with Martin what he hasn't told Gilbough and Papania (because as he says, they might be unknowing "pawns" in the grand scheme of this horror). Rust admits to casing and breaking into two of Tuttle's home, noting that only one of the robberies was ever officially reported, and what he found cleared away any notions that he might have been building something out of nothing. In Tuttle's safe, Rust uncovered photos that confirm rituals involving children, but it's a terrifying video documenting the death of Marie Fonteneau (cleverly remaining mostly off screen, though showing a girl being held down by a group of men in masks, with her legs open, which says all you need to know) that seals the deal that Rust is on to something. He didn't kill Tuttle as Gilbough and Papania believe, but Rust thinks that once word got out among the people the Reverend associated with about what was taken from safe, he was eliminated. Martin is convinced, and he's on board.
What follows is an old-fashioned investigation. Martin is four years off the force, quitting after finding a dead baby in a microwave belonging to an meth addict, vowing it would be the last time he'd ever subject himself to something like that. But he's now running his own private investigation service, and still knows the right people in uniform to bribe with a bottle of single malt to get the info he needs. And it turns out Rust's idea that the truth behind the killings involves "family trees" is spot on. But no matter how far the branches spread, the answer lies with one person: the man with the scars.
Marty and Rust continue to dig, and everything starts coalescing after a visit with an elderly former employee of Sam Tuttle, the Reverend's father. She reveals that Sam had children with many women, implying that after they had given birth, he was no longer interested in them. And when Rust asks about any of the kids having scars, the woman reveals that she knew him, and he was a grandchild on the Childress side of the family. And then things take a turn to the eerie when Rust shows her some drawings of the strange twig sculptures. "Carcosa," she says before repeating over and over, "Death is not the end, rejoice." To remind you, as writer/creator Nic Pizzolatto has stated, ”…Carcosa is the domain of the Yellow King. For viewers it should be taken as a signifier of the larger mythology unfolding around this case.”
That mythology goes all way back to the series first episode "The Long Bright Dark" (that you'll definitely want to rewatch). Dora Lange's body was found just outside of Erath, which we learn is the home of the Tuttle family, on January 3rd, notably pointed at the sun. Why is that date significant? Because Rust believes that part of the rituals involved in the killings center around Saturnalia, a festival of light, celebrating the winter solstice, which in ancient times involved human sacrifice. Other practices of Saturnalia are presided over by a priest with his head covered. Sound familiar? There's more. The illustration of the "green eared spaghetti monster" first surfaced in the premiere episode, as does the name Ted Childress, the sheriff who first took the report about the missing Marie Fonteneau. And then there's Steve Geraci (Michael Harvey). He beefed briefly with Rust way back in 1995 in the police department, but his role turns out be much bigger than expected. He took the original complaint about Marie Fonteneau, and moreover, Erath was his beat, so if there was anyone able to make a case disappear, or at least know the players involved, it would be him. So Martin makes the first play to try and get some info out of Geraci in 2012, and it becomes clear he's lying. So Plan B is enacted, and before the episode closes, Rust has Geraci at gunpoint on Martin's boat, willing to do whatever it takes to get the answers he needs.
But the final twist of the episode is perhaps the most resonant. "You know the detective's curse? Solution was right under my nose, but I was paying attention to the wrong clues?" Martin previous asked rhetorically of Gilbough and Papania, but little does he realize how prophetic that statement will be. Those two detectives close out "After You've Gone" following up on Rust's stories, heading to The Son Of Life church, again last seen in "The Long Bright Dark," and they are hopelessly lost (reminder: the minister played by Clarke Peters told Rust and Martin that the twig sculptures were taught to him to be "devil's nets"). The pair stop to ask a man riding a lawnmower for directions, and he informs them the church has long since closed and gives them directions back to the highway. "I know the whole coast," the man tells the cops, who quickly drive away. They should have stuck around. As the man gets up, his face his scarred, he continues the conversation with himself, intoning with a palpable chill, "...my family's been here a long, long time."
Attentive viewers have seen this man before: in episode three, "The Locked Room," Rust talks to him outside The Way Of The Light school (where he was also mowing the lawn) as they were trying to track down Reggie Ledoux. Perhaps he didn't see the man's scars under the beard he had at the time. Or perhaps he was struck by the detective's curse, unable to see solution right in front of his face. As Flavorwire pointed out a week ago, the Lawnmower Man (as they call him) is the key to The Yellow King, and he's been hiding in plain sight. And for all the wild theories being spun about the secrets behind the killings, the fact that the biggest clue is out the open, undiscovered, is perhaps the most frightening.