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Episode Seven of HBO’s True Detective depicts our chastened heroes in a chastened style. Gone is the murky intercutting among the 1995 flashbacks, the 2002 flashbacks, and the parallel interviews of 2012—the formal deviousness that caused us to doubt not only what the truth might be in this case, but whether “truth” even existed in the series. Approaching its finale, True Detective has arrived at a simpler form, and with its unitary narrative it offers now a unitary sense of “truth.” For the first time since the series began, we feel confident in expecting finality from the finale. Next week we will indeed learn whodunnit.

If the hermeneutics of the series have become less murky, so have the ethics. Rust will not again be seen stealing cocaine, snorting cocaine, participating in violent raids on stash-houses, or otherwise becoming what he beholds. The nearest approach to the mimetic criminality of his past career is a flashback to his recent break-in at a Tuttle mansion.

That sequence is shot in the style of a heist film, replete with safe-cracking skills and smooth cat-burglar moves. Rust’s ninja getup is incongruous, worlds apart from the perfect disguise he assumed so painfully in Episode Four. The daffiness of the break-in sequence (Rust, in a humorous voiceover: “I was aware that I might have lost my mind”) discourages our inquiring into its ethical complexities. Our heroes, bless their hearts, have become simply heroes.

(Series creator Nic Pizzolatto has said in an interview that Rust and Marty are not anti-heroes but heroes. Now it can be told.)

They are simply heroes with an ultra-simple code: They will find and punish the men who rape and murder women and children. Episode Seven propounds this code rather overbearingly. Marty’s big moment, as he rages against the violation of Marie Fontenot, is tellingly overacted by Woody Harrelson: “No! God! Jesus!” [Slams the table three times.] “[Expletive]! [Expletive]!” and on from there.

And on and on. Episode Seven has Marty and Rust affirm repeatedly their horror of rape and murder. Regrettably, it seems that True Detective is unsure how to present its heroes now that they have emerged from the murk and become clear in their minds, unconflicted, pure. It tends to overperform their ethical clarity.

The detectives have been simplified existentially, as well. Now both Rust and Marty are living only for this last case. Neither has a family, close friends, or a proper job; all earthly commitments, attachments, and visions of satisfaction have been purged. The purgation follows out the ascetic strain that always inflected Rust’s approach to detective work. Rust suffered for his undercover work, which required discipline, self-denial, and physical sacrifice—quite consistently for a man who slept beneath a crucifix on the floor of a bare room.

Marty now takes up Rust’s ascetic style. Like Rust’s grim apartment, Marty’s place of business is spartan, with an icon on the wall. Paying work had dried up for Marty, and his personal life had been emptied out, even before Rust’s return. Give or take a farewell visit to his ex-wife, the decks had already been cleared for this last case.

Now Marty and Rust can crystallize their detective-selves in pure form. Ascesis may be understood in part as a self-fashioning that purges whatever is circumstantial in the ascetic’s identity; its upshot is the precipitation of a truer self. The purged self is both ethically true (good and right) and existentially true (authentic). In Episode Seven, Rust seems concerned, like a good ascetic, with the ethical significance of self-formation in view of vocation: “Life’s barely long enough to get good at one thing. … So be careful what you get good at.” At last, the true detectives?

Contrast our “trued” detectives, in their singleness of purpose and identity, with the metamorphosing Tuttle clan who have emerged as our villains. In a “saturnalian” country-style Mardi Gras tradition, the Tuttle men don animal masks for the ritual violation of children. Their shape-shifting is described by one of their victims, now grown up and turning tricks in New Orleans: “They had animal faces. That’s why I decided it had to be a dream. They had animal faces—well, had to be a dream.”

The prostitute reporting these “animal faces” is a transvestite answering to “Johnny Joanie.” The impulse to metamorphosis has befallen him, we take it, because of his exposure to the Tuttles’ ritual. Shape-shifting is no longer a tactic deployed by our hero Rust; it is a mark of what is neither authentic nor good nor right.

Our villains appear in masks and murk. They are seen through the drugged semi-memories of Johnny Joanie (“Memory be f***ed”), the semi-senility of Miss Dolores, the grainy footage of the Fontenot tape—and last week, the catatonic psyche of Kelly Rider. The murk is concentrated now around the evildoers, setting them apart from our heroes. This fact may be read as a promise that true detection will dispel all murk in the finale.

Pizzolatto affirms that he is not trying to trick us (now it can be told), and he marvels at the pointless cleverness of the internet in anticipating twist endings and plot-treachery. And he begins to deliver clarity and finality at the end of the penultimate episode. On another lawn, as two more detectives walk away from the man on the mower (“the detective’s curse” again), we finally see the telltale scars.

Of course Miss Dolores, a Tuttle-addled fanatic, has promised (threatened?) that there will be no finality and no finale for anyone: “Rejoice! Death is not the end! Rejoice!” Out of earshot, Rust remarks to Marty: “Sure hope that old lady was wrong about death not being the end of it.” This is not a gratuitous Rust-ism. Rust has been busy crystallizing himself in the final form he views as true (authentic, good, and right). As he has said to Marty, “My life’s been a circle of violence and degradation. . . . I’m ready to tie it off.” Let’s have no afterlife untying it again.

More on: True Detective

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