Evil conspiracies are all too ordinary, on True Detective

On True Detective, it's interesting that the closer we get to knowing who is behind all the murders, the more we realize that the answers are mundane — and all the more horrible for being the opposite of supernatural.

I'm not trying to claim that there is a big reveal here about the show not being supernatural. What I mean is that the show has brought in a lot of references to otherworldly forces and ideas, and so it's all the more intense when we discover that the answers to our mysteries are so far removed from the abstract worlds of Carcosa and M-Brane theory.

We continued at a breakneck pace toward next week's finale, with Rust and Marty reuniting to capture the killer they missed back in 1995. Rust is open about the fact that he's doing this because his life has been nothing but violence and ugliness and he's "ready to tie it off." But before he kills himself, he owes a "debt" to the world to solve this case. Though Marty still feels ambivalent about Rust, and worries that his old partner has gone insane, he understands that he owes a debt as well.

Trapped in the Present

In this episode, we are also firmly rooted in the present. We discover what's happened to Rust and Marty since their 2002 fight — and it's not pretty. They're both lonely and single. Rust has gone into self-imposed exile in Alaska, seemingly because he hates the cold and wants to suffer. He's worked fishing boats and kept himself drunk constantly.

Marty, meanwhile, has lost the family that meant so much to him. His wife and daughters are long gone and he's left the force to open his own (seemingly unsuccessful) PI business. He tells Rust that he finally gave up police work around 2006, when he was at a crime scene where a tweaker tried to dry a baby off by putting it in the microwave. "I didn't want to ever have to look at anything like that again," he sighs, as we recall that Rust had a similar breaking point when he found a perp injecting a baby with meth.

Rust tells Marty that he came back to Louisiana in 2010, after he realized that the mystery still hadn't been solved. Since then, he's been amassing more and more evidence in his storage space/office. But it wasn't until he broke into the Reverend Tuttle's homes that he had the evidence he was looking for.

Evil conspiracies are all too ordinary, on True Detective

Marty is really uncomfortable with the idea that Rust has gotten his evidence completely illegally — until he actually sees it. Rust has a stack of pictures from Tuttle's safe. We see only a few of the pictures, but judging from Marty's face and reaction they are likely pictures of kids being dressed up in sacrificial gear and killed. He also has a videocassette, and we see in hazy black and white that one of the missing little girls is sobbing and being tied up with antlers on her head. This scene is incredibly powerful because our focus is entirely on the detectives' reactions, not on the images themselves.

In a brief flashback to 2010, we see that Rust has tracked down at least one former student at one of the Tuttle schools. Now an androgynous prostitute in New Orleans, this classmate of one of the victims recalls waking up, paralyzed, while "men in masks" stripped the children and took pictures of them. One of those men was the one with scars.

Scenes like this are what have destroyed Rust and Marty. But unlike most people, who can tune those images out or pretend they are somebody else's problem, Rust and Marty feel that they owe a debt until the crimes are stopped. In this sense, these two horrifically abused and abusive men are a lot less broken than ordinary people (like, say, Marty's ex-wife) who can hold down jobs and sip coffee instead of suck down whiskey. They understand that justice must be done, even if it comes at great personal cost.

Solving the Crime

Now that Marty is fully on board, the two detectives can really go to work. Marty works his old connections to get information on anyone who might have been connected to the Tuttle family, as well as the missing girls. They interview these people (more on that in a minute), but they are also clearly aware that this is a job that will probably kill them both. They're not playing by the rules. And that's obvious when they basically kidnap a local sheriff, Steve, who used to be Marty's colleague at the CID and also helped cover up the details of one victim's murder.

Marty even visits his ex-wife, after not seeing her for two years, just to (as she puts it) say goodbye. He asks after his daughters, and we discover that his eldest — the one he hit back in 2002 — has become an artist in New Orleans and has some kind of psychological condition that requires her to take meds. When Marty's ex tries to visit with Rust, he scornfully tells her to leave his bar. Rust is even more unmoored from the world than his old partner, but not by much.

Evil conspiracies are all too ordinary, on True Detective

Rust and Marty aren't the only ones, though. After the break-in at his house, the Reverend Tuttle died mysteriously. Rust suspects that one of the men who participated in the Carcosa rituals killed him, before anyone could learn more about the Tuttles' involvement in the sacrifices. We also learn that the Tuttles come from a region of Louisiana where Mardi Gras is celebrated in a way that's mixed up with Vodoun and other magic rituals that involve animal masks. Everything is starting to come together: the iconography of the kills, the selection of victims via Tuttle's voucher schools, and the heavy-hitters who have orchestrated the coverup.

But how can two lowly, disgraced detectives take on the most powerful family in Louisiana? Only by throwing themselves on the sword, literally and in the court of public opinion. This is the proverbial last job for both men, but the only reward at the end is going to be death. And hopefully, as Rust says after they interview an old servant of the Tuttles', there will be no afterlife.

Sam Tuttle's Legacy

I think the most revealing and fascinating part of the episode came when the detectives interviewed an elderly woman who had been a servant in the Tuttle household for roughly two decades. She worked for Sam Tuttle, the father of the Rev. Billy Lee Tuttle and uncle of the current Louisiana governor. Unfortunately, now her mind tends to wander.

Using his best interview wiles, Rust holds the woman's hand and gently asks her about working for Sam Tuttle. Perhaps because of her dementia, the woman speaks fairly freely, rambling about how back in those days (presumably the 1950s), a man's home really was his own private domain where he could control everything. And Sam Tuttle took that to the furthest degree. He was never satisfied with a woman once he'd had sex with her once, so he had many mistresses and many illegitimate children running around on his vast, rural estate.

Then, the question we've all been wondering about: "Did one of those children have scars on his face?" asks Rust. It turns out that one did — a little boy who was one of Sam Tuttle's grandchildren, a "Childress," whose father scarred the boy's face deliberately. When Rust asks the woman about the "devil catcher" stick sculptures he's drawn in his notebook, she recognizes them immediately. "You know Carcosa?" she asks wonderingly. "Him who eats time? Rejoice, death is not the end! Rejoice, Carcosa!"

This brings us back to Errol, the humble lawn mowing man from a previous episode. He's the scruffy guy who was tending grounds at one of the closed Tuttle schools. We see him again at the end of this episode, mowing a cemetery lawn in lazy, flat circles, and giving directions to the two detectives who have been interviewing Rust and Marty. "You know this place pretty well, eh?" asks one of the detectives. "My family has been here for a long time," Errol mutters to himself as the detectives zoom away in the wrong direction.

Evil conspiracies are all too ordinary, on True Detective

We can see a network of scars beneath Errol's thin beard. This is no vast, Satanic conspiracy nor a Cthulhonic eruption from the darkness in our civilization's past. Instead, we realize that these ritualistic murders are part of Louisiana's political history. They are woven into the fabric of its oldest families, whose legacies stretch from the governor's office, to the police force, the church, and even the lowliest meth cookers and groundskeepers. To solve the mystery of the Carcosa murders, we must understand the horrifying tangle of wrongness that is Louisiana's power structure.

This is all very Faulknerian in a way, if you've read William Faulkner's classic novels about family history in his home state of Mississippi, Absolom, Absolom! and The Sound and the Fury. (I highly recommend that you do, if you liked True Detective.) In those novels, our main characters are struggling to come to terms with their family's horrific history, which all originated with a low-class white man named Sutpen who amassed a great fortune by capturing his own slaves and running a vast plantation.

Like Tuttle, Sutpen had crazy appetites and spawned a family full of incest, violence, and bastard children. Even though our main characters live in the 1920s and 30s, they can't seem to untangle themselves from Sutpen's pre-Civil War legacy. They are driven to suicide or worse, their minds weighted down with almost supernatural events from the deep Southern past. One of Faulkner's obsessions throughout his life was the way Southern history continued to eat away at the modern South, breaking its people's hearts and minds so completely that they could never escape Mississippi even when they moved North.

In True Detective, our characters are also struggling with the legacy of a brutal patriarch with many broken children. But unlike Sutpen, whose name is ultimately disgraced and forgotten, Tuttle's name has become synonymous with power in Louisiana. This is no black magic conspiracy, after all. Instead, the tragic truth that our detectives discover is that evil comes from all-too-real people in positions of authority. There is no Carcosa. There is only Louisiana.