One more week remaining, and the penultimate episode of True Detective is all about positioning the pieces on the board in preparation for the end. And unusually for season one of a hit television show, it really will be an end.
After You’ve Gone is quite a departure from what has gone before, with the action almost entirely confined to 2012, and only a few brief visual flashbacks to the past. Gilbough and Papania – who have up until now framed the story with their questioning of the two leads – don’t appear until the closing moments. Even then, they’re very much peripheral to what’s happening in that scene, though they don’t know it.
This focus on the present-day shifts the prevailing dynamic of True Detective, because it’s no longer a show about past events being recounted and different versions of the truth. We’re here in the present with Hart and Cohle, and no one is holding our hand and talking us through these events. No one knows what’s going to happen from here on in, and that infuses everything with a sense of foreboding.
Like the heroes of Stephen King’s IT, our protagonists have been reunited by the horror they faced years ago. Forced back together against their will, knowing they have to step up and deal with the past once and for all. As Cohle says, ‘We left something undone.’
Hart, of course, requires some convincing of his responsibility to find out what really happened back in 1995, leading to one of his all-time best putdowns: ‘If you were drowning, I’d throw you a fucking barbell.’ Cohle plays his hole card: a videotape he stole from the late Reverend Tuttle’s home showing a young girl being ritually sacrificed. It’s a great scene, and gives the lie to the cliché that one should always show, not tell. What you don’t see on the tape is more disturbing than most things I’ve seen on television this year. Woody Harrelson does a great job of conveying the fact that you don’t want to know exactly what is on the tape.
They get to work, and Hart quickly proves he’s still got what it takes, both in terms of investigative ability and people skills. They quickly shake loose some leads on the scarred man mentioned in the first couple of episodes, and they discover that the detective investigating the disappearance of the girl in the video is a cop of Hart’s acquaintance who seems strangely quiet on the subject. By the close of the episode, they’re kidnapping him at gunpoint as a prelude to finding out what he knows, by hook or by crook. Or more likely (at Cohle’s suggestion), by car battery and jumper cables.
The mystery of the man with the scars on his face is dealt with in a surprisingly low-key revelation, when Gilbough and Papania stop to ask for directions to the old church and we realise they’re talking to the lawn-mowing weirdo from episode three. A man who has scars on his face. They blow him off while he’s in the middle of a creepy monologue and drive off, showing that perhaps they’re not really true detectives at all. If there’s going to be a resolution, we’re going to have to rely on the two men who are off the force and most definitely operating outside the law.
In retrospect, it seems ominous that Maggie asks Hart in their meeting earlier in the episode whether he’s come back to say goodbye. We know things are too far gone to turn back, and the knowledge that this is a self-contained one-season story means that anything goes in episode eight. After all, nobody’s telling us about this from the comfort of a safe and secure future.