True Detective episode 5 review: The Secret Fate of All Life

Very little can be trusted in True Detective, even time itself. Here's Michael's review...

This review contains spoilers.

1.5 The Secret Fate of All Life

‘Time’, says Reggie Ledoux, ‘is a flat circle’. Rust Cohle, the man who chased him to his death, has a more sophisticated take on the fourth dimension. For him, perception of time depends on your vantage point. It may be a flat circle, it may be a sphere but we nevertheless ‘cycle through our lives like carts on a track’.

The passage of time, and our relationship with it, was key to The Secret Fate of All Life, an episode that was the best demonstration yet of True Detective’s own curious time signature. The show’s central format of examining a case through flashback and two different perspectives gives some of the narrative a woozy, uncertain quality, a feeling that is made even more intense when we’re given doubt on the passing of minutes, hours and years.

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We knew, for example, that the raid on Reggie’s redoubt was not going to go down the way that Hart and Cohle described it and found out even as we saw the ‘truth’, or possible truth play out.  Their calm, dispassionate retelling of the story had all the hallmarks of a lie agreed upon and we knew that something untoward was happening, even before it did. We were trapped in a nightmare, knowing that something awful was happening but powerless to stop it. And why? Because it had already happened. In his silent killing of Ledoux, Hart presented us with the punishment before we’d seen confirmation of the crime. Here, time runs backward. It runs slowly too, in the slow motion unloading of the AK-47 alibi and in the steady, unsettling creep that the two detectives made to their booby-trapped destination and the equally uncertain slow motion trek back, carrying a child, a corpse and a lie.

Time then sped up in the passage of years that took us from the purported solving of the Dora Lange case to the moment that it all came rushing back and at which we know, thanks again to the odd time signature, that Hart and Cohle will make their final falling out. Whatever its ultimate fate, time feels linear as we experience it. As Hart put it, ‘life just slips through your fingers’ and, offering a simple take on his partner’s temporal philosophy, noted that ‘the future is behind you, like it’s always been behind you’. The shot of him anxiously checking his hairline in a mirror was a neat bit of shorthand for the passage of time; the clip of his daughter’s ageing tiara in the tree even better. Last week’s tracking shot will win most of True Detective’s visual plaudits, but this simple shot shows how confident it is with its subtleties too.

It’s significant that the seven year fast forward focused on the family; the events of this episode heralded a more personal focus for the remaining course of the show. Heretofore, we’ve seen that the impact of investigation has taken its toll on both leads; increasing Hart’s Asshole Quotient and making Cohle, well, more Cohle-like, but now everything has slammed home with severe force. The problems in the Hart household had been plastered over but the cracks have returned, bigger and darker. That Audrey was going to have a difficult adolescence was flagged by her toyland crime scene and sexual drawings all those years ago, but now that adolescence is here, large and inescapable. It was telling that Hart’s immediate response to the suggestion of sexual abuse was an outburst of violence, whether blowing Reggie away or slapping his rebellious daughter. Both events, and his repeated need to release the pressure of the ‘detective’s curse’ raises a few questions, just what is he trying to suppress? And how is it ultimately to come out? If indeed that is the right tense. Perhaps we should be asking ‘how has it come out?’

His partner, who has traditionally done better at suppressing his urges (last week’s finale was, paradoxically, the most overt display of his professional restraint), also found that the realities of the case are a trigger. His sudden and very real anger at Guy Leonard Francis’ mention of the Yellow King reveals just how personal the case is to him, which in turn offers some hint as to why he has been pegged as a suspect by Gilbough and Papania. Just look at his closeness to the case even after he left the force, witness his anxious boozing and nervous manufacture of tin men while discussing it. Listen to his words; ‘in eternity nothing changes, nothing grows. Until death’. He even sounds like a killer justifying his acts. He’d be a person of interest to any reasonable detective. The trouble for this particular pair of reasonable detectives lies in Cohle’s slippery intelligence. ‘You’re not getting a read of him’, Hart tells them, ‘he’s getting a read of you’.

He should know. Their shared experience, firstly of killing Ledoux and his accomplice, then of covering it up has entwined the fates of the two men. Cohle’s immediate response to the murder of Ledoux was to join in and make good his partner’s alibi. They may have disliked or mistrusted one another but they have now been given a need to find some kind of assured dependence. There are a few clues to this arrangement, notably Hart’s stated insistence that Cohle received a commendation, but mainly in the fact that their falling out was so significant and that, even after this estrangement, Hart is so keen to defend his former partner against the heavy accusations that have been placed at his feet.

Their estrangement is temporal. The crime, and their connection to it, is eternal and inescapable. ‘Everything we’ve ever done or will do we’ll do over and over again’ says Cohle. ‘That little boy and little girl are going to be in that room. Again and again and again. Forever.’ On this bleak assessment, the case will never, can never truly be completed. As 2002 Rust Cohle unpicks the threads that connect Dora Lange, Reggie Ledoux, Guy Leonard Francis, Billy Lee Tuttle, his taskforce and Cohle himself, he comes to realise that it will never go away. ‘You’re trapped’ he says, ‘in a nightmare you keep waking into’, like an endless cycle.

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‘Time’, says Reggie Ledoux, ‘is a flat circle’.

Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, Who Goes There here

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