[Spoiler Alert: This column is a discussion and analysis of the latest episodes of HBO’s True Detective. If you have not seen Episode 7 that aired on Sunday, March 2nd, please stop reading and catch up on your viewing. Plot points from Episode 7 feature prominently in this column. If you are not caught up, check out my Episode 1 & 2, Episode 3 & 4, and Episode 5 & 6 recaps along with our first True Detective episode of the Film Dispenser Podcast]
With the show’s feet promptly planted in 2012, True Detective covered a great deal of ground in its seventh episode. Marty reluctantly climbed aboard his former partner’s Conspiracy Train, and he took a trip through Mr. Cohle’s Little Shop of Horrors that left him visibly shaken and committed to pursuing justice. Add in a little torture interrogation on Marty’s boat, and a brief reappearance of the creepy Lawn Mower Man, and this installment set the stage for a blow-out finale.
Are Predictions Worth Anything at This Point?: Between the Film Dispenser podcast following Episode 5, and my column about Episode 6, we nailed quite a few of the recent developments. But, then again, predicting where things are headed when the series is ¾ finished may not be a particularly impressive feat.
Prediction: The crimes weren’t committed by a single perp, but rather by some kind of Illuminati-style cult. Correct. The photos and videotape collected during Rust’s unauthorized investigation have confirmed that the murders are the work of some kind of quasi-religious cult, not one particular individual.
Prediction: Rust Cohle has been running an independent investigation for years. Partially Correct. I predicted he had been working on the Yellow King murders since he was suspended and resigned from law enforcement in 2002. In fact, he’s only been conducting his parallel investigation since his return to Louisiana in 2010. As he candidly admitted to Marty, he spent the other eight years mostly “hammered” and drifting from town to town.
Prediction: Rust’s storage shed is really his command center for his investigations, and the “evidence” he has gathered could be construed as proof of his own guilt if found by Detectives Gilbough and Papania. Correct.
Prediction: Cohle is currently undercover in the murder cult, and that explains his burned-out bartender appearance. Wrong. The former detective has been consumed by a combination of guilt and his obsession to bring Dora Lange’s killer to justice. He looks like a burned-out drunk because he’s been one for the past decade.
The Death of Reverend Tuttle: In every credible piece of crime fiction, the investigators make incorrect assumptions, and some facts are not related to other facts despite appearing to be. This is the primary problem with your average one-hour crime procedural. There isn’t enough time for faulty reasoning and red herrings when you only have 42 minutes of screen time to solve the crime. So, one-hour crime shows are inherently too neat and tidy to resemble any real investigation, but it’s their all-inclusive nature that also accounts for their popularity. However, the dead ends and false starts lend True Detective a realism that is satisfying to die-hard crime fans.
On a couple of occasions, Detectives Gilbough and Papania mentioned break-ins at the home of Reverend Tuttle to Cohle and Hart during their individual interviews. The detectives theorized that whoever broke into Tuttle’s home subsequently killed him. They’re half right. Cohle tells Hart that he black bagged Tuttle’s various homes to collect evidence against the murder cult. Cohle found it interesting that the only burglary not reported was the break-in at the Tuttle residence where Cohle found a mother lode of incriminating evidence – photographs, a video tape, etc.
Did Cohle subsequently kill Tuttle? He says no, and I think we’re supposed to believe him. He hypothesizes with Marty that, when the theft of the incriminating evidence was discovered, Tuttle either killed himself or his fellow cult members found him to be too much of a liability to keep around. Either way Tuttle died of an apparent overdose that was not administered by Cohle. Gilbough and Papania are trying to make the facts fit a narrative of their creation.
All in the Family: To find the true killers of Marie Fontenot, Dora Lange and countless others, Cohle and Hart go back to the beginning, to the roots of the case, and consequently, the roots of the cult. But, this time they have a specific point of reference – the Tuttle family, a powerful Louisiana clan that has a former Governor and a U.S. Senator in their ranks. Their search brings them to the home of an elderly African American woman who worked for the Tuttles. She reveals that the Tuttles had additional “families” or “outside children”. One of the little boys was badly burned as a child. It was something his father did to him, she says.
Could this little burned boy have grown up to become the Yellow King? Is he the same burned man that escorted Dora Lange to the tent revival in 1995? The elderly woman can’t recall the first name of the burned boy, but she remembers his last name is Childress, which just happens to be the last name of the sheriff who processed the missing persons report for Marie Fontenot and wrote it off to a “family situation”. It was the first of dozens of missing persons reports that were written off as “Made in Error”.
The Tax Man Cometh: When the two former detectives look more closely at who worked (covered up?) the Marie Fontenot disappearance, they see the name of Deputy Steve Geraci on the initial missing persons report. You will recall him as Detective Geraci, the man Cohle gave a demeaning slap in the face during the pilot episode. In 2012, Geraci is the sheriff of Iberia County and runs his own little law enforcement fiefdom. Could his position of power and influence be a pay-off for being a good little foot soldier and covering the cult’s tracks in the 1990s?
During the 2012 investigation, Hart contacts Geraci, and the two men meet for a friendly game of golf. When Hart works the conversation around to a “true crime” book he wants to write about Marie Fontenot and Dora Lange, Geraci discusses the missing persons case in dismissive terms that are nearly word-for-word the story Sheriff Childress told Hart and Cohle in 1995. Although he’s uncertain if Geraci is complicit in the crimes, he knows the former detective and current sheriff knows more than he is telling.
Hart invites the sheriff for a morning of fishing on his boat and resumes his questions about Marie Fontenot. Geraci grows irritated and wants to let the subject drop. Cohle emerges from the depths of the boat with a gun pointed at the sheriff. When Geraci appeals to Hart for help, he replies, “Don’t look at me. I ain’t ever been able to control him.” And we know that Geraci is about to find out that a slap in the face ain’t so bad, after all. Cohle’s reputation for being a bit unhinged probably made for an effective interrogation.
The audience isn’t privy to what follows, but I have to wonder how that situation resolves itself. As Hart pointed out previously in the episode, a sheriff in Louisiana can only be arrested by the governor. So, how do Hart and Cohle escape the wrath of Sheriff Geraci after their impromptu interrogation (torture?) session? Have things gotten cold-blooded enough that Hart and Cohle would consider killing him to keep him quiet? I can’t imagine putting a stain like that on our heroes, so I’ll be curious to see how they navigate those narrative waters with credibility intact.
Are the Yellow King and the Burned Man One and the Same?: Episode 7 did an impressive job of scaling down the task at hand to the apprehension of the Burned Man. There have been dozens, maybe hundreds, of victims over the decades, and undoubtedly dozens of men have donned the animal masks and ceremonial robes depicted in the pictures and video in Rust’s storage facility. It would be impossible to bring them all to justice. So, the focus has narrowed to the perceived leadership of the murder cult.
But, are the Yellow King and the Burned Man one and the same? If so, then we know for a certainty we have never laid eyes on the Yellow King during these seven episodes. There can be no Big Reveal in the final installment where we marvel at the surprise identity of the Yellow King. That’s not a bad thing, narratively speaking. It’s simply a matter of common sense. We’ve never seen someone with a burned face, so if the Burned Man is the Yellow King, then it follows that we’ve never seen the Yellow King.
But, what if the Burned Man is simply the second-in-command to the Yellow King? It’s hard to imagine that the leader of this murderous group would be seen in public courting the cult’s victims. The Burned Man was clearly identified in Episode 3 by the women at the tent revival as the man who escorted Dora Lange to their worship services. So, if the Burned Man is the Yellow King, then the Yellow King was taking some serious risks that could have been shouldered by a faithful lackey.
The idea that the Burned Man and the Yellow King are one and the same is another faulty assumption that the audience has been urged to make. The Burned Man is the cult’s boots on the ground – the finder and the recruiter of victims, one of its ringleaders. But, the Burned Man is not actually the Yellow King. Which brings me to one last question….
Is the Yellow King Even a Person (Alive or Dead)?: I began pondering this question after Episode 6. Is the Yellow King a person? Or is the Yellow King the cult’s subject of worship like a Sun God is to the Aztecs or Jesus is to Christians. In Episode 5, Cohle’s pharmacy homicide suspect, Guy Francis, says, “I’ll tell you about the Yellow King.” The double murderer doesn’t say that they’ve met. The reference is vague. Is the Yellow King a person or a concept? He implies that he knows about the Yellow King, not that he has met an actual man with that title.
In Episode 2, when Cohle and Hart visit the trailer park brothel, they find Dora Lange’s journal. In it there are references to a King in Yellow, but once again, there is nothing definitively stating that she met this person. Once again, he is referred to ambiguously and may be nothing more than a concept.
The most obvious answer is that the Yellow King is simply one of the rural Mardi Gras costumes seen in the photos and video that Cohle boosted from Tuttle’s home. The Yellow King could be one person who has been involved in these crimes for decades, meaning he’s well into middle-age by now, or maybe dressing up as the Yellow King is a position of honor that is handed around to the participants. If it’s your turn to wear the crown, then it’s your turn to carry out the cult’s murderous agenda.
Well, I’ve probably droned on too long, and there are so many other subjects we could touch on. I haven’t mentioned Carcosa, the name screamed by the Tuttle’s former maid when she laid eyes on one of the spirit traps made out of twigs. Carcosa also happens to be the mythical city from a short story by Ambrose Bierce that reappears in an 1895 play by Robert W. Chambers. What 1895 work? It’s called “The King in Yellow”. Cohle has repeatedly expressed his belief that nothing is ever truly over. Apparently, that applies to analyzing True Detective, as well.
[Look for the Film Dispenser pre-finale podcast for True Detective that will be available later this week. Spencer and I will discuss these and other theories as we continue to dissect one of the most unique shows in television history.]
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.