With the opening scene of “After You’ve Gone,” Nic Pizzolatto is teasing us. Rust and Marty are sitting across from another, and there is familiarity alongside uneasiness. Marty is the audience surrogate: he wants answers, especially about that storage unit, but Rust feels him out first. He repeatedly tells Marty that they owe a “debt.” What’s brilliant about this episode is how it toys with expectation at one turn after another: given Rust’s philosophical nature, it seems like the debt is something ill-defined. That’s not the case at all. Rust means something quite literal.
In terms of direction and dialogue, the storage unit scene is a thing of beauty. Rust explains his theory, and Marty does not miss a beat. They bounce ideas off each other, until Marty finally shares Rust’s theory, yet this is character-building scene. Both men are wiser after a decade apart, although we do not know it yet. Rust demonstrates his wisdom through self-awareness: when Marty pushes him about how crazy his theory sounds, Rust plainly acknowledges that it could have been possible that he was going insane (he broke into several Tuttle homes to prove he was right).
Marty still needs a final push, however, and Rust offers it in the form a video tape (with a theatrical offering of a whiskey flask, naturally). We catch glimpses of what Marty sees, yet the inevitable shift from Marty’s perspective to Rust’s is what’s important. And I don’t mean in terms of the frame, either: after Marty realizes he’s watching a snuff film, one complete with a girl who’s sobbing for her life, he’s back to being a detective/janitor alongside Rust. That’s the debt: he owes it to Dora to find her murderer since he took the easy way out when he shot Reggie.
Shortly after Marty rushes to push the stop button, Pizzolatto flashes forward to a scene where he has tea with Maggie. The scene contains a lot of information – his daughters are doing well, more or less – but the important part is how it demonstrates Marty’s maturity. He’s come for some parting words with Maggie (she thinks he’s going to do something dangerous), and the subtext is how Marty finally sees the cost of the job. He cannot do this work and preserve a family, whatever vestiges of it are left, so the scene is indeed a farewell to a normal life. In this scene and throughout the episode, Pizzolatto clarifies why he chose the name for this series. A true detective has little room for anything else.
Working together after a decade apart, Rust and Marty have the case, booze, and each other. Pizzolatto and his director Cary Joji Fukunaga place special attention to this last part: at first Marty notes how he’s had his first beer in three weeks, then he sips from the flask, then they’re sharing a bottle. Fukunaga lingers on each bottle/glass, highlighting how time has deepened their understanding of the job. The scenes together are less adversarial, too. Rust and Marty chat about the old times like long-lost friends, and Rust even surprises Marty by asking a personal question. There’s quiet experience at work here: they have no pretense of a complete life, so they’re able to talk more freely than they could when they were (official) partners. Their isolation is their bond.
Then there’s the case, which has some major breakthroughs in this episode (Marty has access to records that Rust does not). Broadly speaking, they involve missing children, the Tuttle clan, and police collusion in the subsequent cover-up. The details of the case are catalysts for small moments of empathy. There’s a flashback to 2010 where Rust talks to an orphan who was a victim of the Tuttle clan, and the dialogue highlights the cognitive dissonance that rape victims must embrace. He steadfastly notes how he was dreaming, even if he and Rust know exactly what he means through subtext. McConaughey’s performance is important here: he’s no longer the Tax Man, merely there to collect information. His eyes convey a deeper sense of understanding, and he internalizes the necessary strength it takes for a victim to share their story.
The same empathy continues when he and Marty visit a housing project (remember that the last time we saw similar housing, there was an intense shoot-out). Marty sits near a former nanny who now suffers from dementia, clinging to her word like an obedient child. He asks questions deliberately but not forcefully, and she utters the same creepy language that Rust would from his 1995 days, except now he does not need to indulge his dark side. The scene is haunting and weird, but it ends with a moment of comedy. It’s funny when the nanny’s daughter (granddaughter?) demands money for her time. It’s funnier when Rust nods over to Marty for him to pay up.
Last week The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum took issue with True Detective lack of female perspective, while Slate’s Willa Paskin suggested the show is about treating women badly. Both arguments have their merit, although I side with Paskin more, and even take her argument a bit further. Marty and Rust’s tunnel vision is so complete that the show is about what they lose through their commitment to the case. Many cop shows are about the struggle between the personal and the professional. This one argues that it’s impossible for the two facets to coexist. Marty and Rust and better detectives, finally, because their personal lives have no depth. Unmoored by family or loss, they have what’s necessary to push forward.
Throughout “After You’ve Gone,” Rust points to his chief suspect aka the man with the facial scars. He asks multiple witnesses about this man, and the subtle pauses before the description is telling. He knows that to recall this man’s is to be disturbed by him. The menace of this man force Rust and Marty to strong-arm a Lousiana sheriff for information. We finally see him in the episode’s final shot, and perhaps the reveal is a letdown. But then again, even a serial killer is a man first, so we should expect some banality. The finale of True Detective airs next week, and there enough loose ends that I cannot but think that Pizzolatto has a proverbial ace in the hole. Marty and Rust see some nasty shit in this episode, yet they seem ill-equipped for what comes next.