In the opening of True Detective’s fifth episode, a man named Dewall gets a read on Rust: “I can see your soul in the edges of your eyes. It’s corrosive, like acid. . . . And I don’t like your face. . . . There’s a shadow on you, son.” Dewall is strangely attuned to the terms and images that have characterized Det. Rustin Cohle, in all his nihilism and shadinessextending even to a punning gloss on that nickname, a nickname that Dewall cannot know. Dewall is the “cook partner” of meth chef and murder suspect Reginald Ledoux, and Rust is undercover. The cover is blown here, in a sense; Rust is found out, albeit not as a detective. He looks unsettled, and his unsettling sets the agenda for the episode, in which characters seek to get a read on others and not be read themselves.
In the years 1995-2002, Rust was known in Louisiana for his knack for getting a read on suspects, such that the police bureaucracy assigned him the somewhat irregular position of pinch-hitting super-confessor. Marty has noted Rust’s “eye for weakness” and his “nose” for guilt, and Rust has described his own hermeneutics: “You just look at somebody. . . . You just look ’em in the eyes, the whole story’s right there.”
But Rust’s peculiar success in eliciting confessions has depended less on observation, perhaps, than on performance. The cops in 2012 want to know, what was his secret as an interrogator? A dogma. Preach it: “Everybody knows there’s something wrong with themthey just don’t know what it is. Everybody wants confession, everyone wants some cathartic narrative. . . . Everybody’s guilty.”
Rust’s trade secret is the doctrine of Original Sin. That doctrine guides his charismatic eliciting of a cathartic confession of “what it is” that is “wrong with them.” “There’s a weight,” he says to a suspect in Episode 3, “and it’s got its fishhooks in your heart and your soul. . . . There’s grace in this world, and there’s forgiveness for allbut you have to ask for it. . . . You got one way out, and it’s through the grace of God.”
Rust’s template for interrogation is the one he once applied to the old-time revivalist preacher: “Transference of fear and self-loathing to an authoritarian vessel. It’s catharsis.” No less than the bombastic preacher, Rust is performative. It is important that his interrogation subjects not get an accurate read on his attitudes and motivations.
Then one subject flips the script. In a 2002 incident recalled in this episode, Rust extracts a confession of double homicide from a PCP addict named Guy Leonard Francis. Rust is very cocky. He has boasted before that he never needed more than ten minutes to determine whether his subject was guilty or not, and here he is doing his thing and making clear where the power lies. Until Francis seeks a deal, using his own knowledge as power: “I know who you are. I know about that woman y’all found out in the woods. . . . Y’all never caught the man that did that. He’s been out there, killin’. . . . I’ll tell you about the Yellow King.”
Rust flips. Other cops in attendance seek to lower the stakes by assuring Rust that Francis was making a cynical play: “He’s shuckin’ and jivin’. He knows exactly who you are.” But this is not reassuring. Francis has gotten a read on Rust and used it to manipulate him. That should be Rust’s play.
Marty says as much when warning the 2012 cops about their “consultation”: “If you two talked to Rust, you weren’t gettin’ a read on him, he was gettin’ a read on you.” That is the familiar M.O. But note again the power-inversion: Rust is doing to the 2012 cops what Francis had done to him in 2002. (The one asking the questions is not always the one getting the answers.) We cannot know yet how significant this iswhether the “read” Rust wanted was just a glimpse at the discovery file on the Lake Charles murders, or whether he suspect the 2012 cops (“company men”) of involvement in a collusive bureaucracy. At any rate, the cops should not take it lightly.
Marty’s recognition of Rust’s reading skills brings us to this episode’s great set-piece, the raid on Ledoux’s cook house with collaborative voiceover from two lying detectives. One thing we re-learn here is that Marty is a very simple reader and teller, with a genius for suppressing ambiguity. Speaking of the Ledoux raid, he says this like he means it: “You know why the story’s always the same, seventeen years gone? Because it only went down the one way.” Between Marty and Rust, in this instance, Marty appears the more comfortable liar. As in other contexts, Marty here does not recognize ambiguity, only exigency. (Marty: “There is nowhere else I want to be.” Maggie: “I wonder if you even know you’re lying.”) Marty can be unequivocally duplicitous because he is so simple.
Rust, though a better actor, is less at home in the unadorned lie, because he is visibly conscious of complexity. He has this in common with the screenplay. The set-piece in Episode 5 marks an instructive contrast with the famous tracking shot of Episode 4. The Ledoux raid is not rendered by a “single take,” in any sense. Duplicity provides the structure here.
A note on lawns and lawnmowers. Marty twice laments the “detective’s curse,” which is to miss what is in plain sight, and he acknowledges that this curse has applications both professional and personal. His true failure as a husband and father, he says, was not infidelity but “inattention.” Marty was not attending, or tending, to things at home. On some level he knew it all along, which is why he was so disturbed in Episode 3 to find that another man had mowed his lawn.
In this episode, in a florid fantasy sequence, the Hart daughters play on their lawn, allegorically enacting Audrey’s fallwhich Marty chose not to see as it was happening. (On the obscene drawings in her elementary-school notebook: “I just don’t know what good lookin’ at it any more is gonna do.”) The lawn becomes marked as the space that is not properly (at)tended to, where things happen in plain sight and go unseen. It is the site of the detective’s curse.
Julia Yost is a Ph.D candidate in English at Yale University.