“True Detective” has been a big hit for HBO this winter — more than 10 million people watch the show each week once repeat airings and multi-platform viewing are counted. It has also been, hands down, the most discussed, dissected and debated show of 2014 thus far.
Expect even bigger numbers and more chatter for Sunday’s (March 9) season finale. Want to know what everyone’s going to be talking about on Twitter? Don’t want to miss out on the office talk on Monday? And don’t have seven hours between now and Sunday night to do a series binge? Zap2it is here to help.
In honor of the literary underpinnings of “True Detective,” here’s a CliffsNotes-style guide to what you need to know ahead of the finale.
The show jumps back and forth in time, primarily taking place in 1995 and 2012, with some scenes set in 2002. In 1995, Louisiana State Police detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) investigate the death of a young woman, Dora Lange, whose naked body was found in a field, a spiral tattoo on her back and deer antlers tied to her head.
The investigation uncovers a possible conspiracy involving ritual abuse at a defunct religious school, and Cohle especially butts heads with the Rev. Billy Lee Tuttle, who ran the school and happens to be the cousin of a U.S. senator. It also leads them to Reggie LeDoux, a meth cooker for a biker gang and a former cellmate of Dora Lange’s husband.
The case is considered closed, but in 2002, a suspect in another case mentions “the Yellow King” — something that had come up in the ’95 investigation — to Cohle, which sets him on an unsanctioned investigation into other deaths. His off-book work rankles his superiors so much that he’s kicked off the force.
In 2012, another pair of detectives, Gilbough (Michael Potts) and Papania (Tory Kittles), call in both Hart (now a private investigator) and Cohle to interview them about the Lange case. It becomes clear that they suspect Cohle in a new case that’s similar to Dora Lange. Hart and Cohle, estranged for 10 years, agree to work together to close the case once and for all, and discover that the Tuttles and some other families with deep ties to the bayou region may be part of some sort of cult.
Cohle and Hart are unquestionably the center of “True Detective” — in fact, among the criticisms of the show is that the people around them are underwritten at best, one-dimensional plot-movers at worst. To a large extent that’s by design: “True Detective” is told from their point of view, and they are so well-drawn that the thinner characterization around them is excusable.
Cohle is … a piece of work. In both his past and present incarnations, he’s given to espousing a very bleak outlook on humanity, rattling off philosophical monologues that can be described as pessimistic and even nihilistic. “Time is a flat circle” is probably his most-quoted line — meaning we’re doomed to repeat things over and over without even realizing it. Prior to partnering with Hart, he worked undercover for several years infiltrating a biker gang. He was married, but it fell apart after his daughter was killed in an accident.
In his 2012 interviews with Gilbough and Papania, he appears a shell of his former self — although that may be something of an act on his part. He’s far more lucid when he goes back to work with Hart.
Hart, meanwhile, is at first blush the more grounded of the two: When we meet him, he’s married to Maggie (Michelle Monaghan), and they have two young daughters, Audrey and Maisie. Though not as verbose or outwardly intellectual as Cohle, he’s smart and good at his job. He also cheats regularly on Maggie, with a fondness for younger, not entirely together women — then feels exceedingly guilty about it.
In 2002, Maggie reaches her breaking point with Marty’s latest affair and sleeps with Rust to force a divorce. A decade later, she’s well-set up in a nice house, while Marty is eating Lean Cuisines and surfing Match.com.
Among the more prevalent criticisms of “True Detective” is that its female characters in particular are poorly drawn — either harpies or sex objects, or sometimes both. Other critics have argued that’s a function of the show being grounded in Hart and Cohle’s points of view — which creator Nic Pizzolatto says was his intention in this Buzzfeed interview.
The literary references
The show has made repeated references to the Yellow King and a place called Carcosa. Both are references to “The King in Yellow,” a collection of short stories by Robert W. Chambers published in 1895 (a much deeper explanation is here); Chambers borrowed Carcosa, a fictional city first referred to in Ambrose Bierce’s 1891 story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa.” The Yellow King in “True Detective” is presumed to be the leader of the cult behind the murders, and “Carcosa” is likely the place where the cult’s rituals are performed.
The show has sparked a spree of deep diving and analysis not seen since “Lost” went off the air. Pizzolatto poked a hole in at least one big theory in that Buzzfeed interview, saying the end of episode 7 — where Errol the lawn-mower man was revealed as, in all likelihood, the Spaghetti Monster linked to the killings — was meant to disprove the idea that either Cohle or Hart was the killer. “Nothing is so ruinous as a forced ‘twist,’ I think,” he says.
Errol’s last name is Childress, one of the old families that the Tuttles’ former housekeeper connected to the Tuttles in episode 7. The show seems pointed very much toward implicating the Tuttle family, the Childress families and maybe some other rich and powerful people — including, maybe, Maggie’s.
The Harts’ older daughter Audrey staged a disturbing-looking scene with her dolls that resembles some of the cult iconography. As a teenager, she acts out sexually, and in a 2012 scene, Maggie tells Marty she’s doing fine with the help of medication. She’s an artist, and one of her pictures includes black stars — another Chambers reference and a recurring motif at other points in the show.
Where will the finale take us? We’ll find out when it airs at 9 p.m. ET/PT Sunday on HBO.