[Warning: This article is the Carcosa of spoilers.]
Not since Lost has a TV show been the subject of as much close scrutiny, heated discussion and perpetual theorization as HBO's True Detective. The guessing game inspired by the show's scattered red herrings, obscure literary references and vague philosophical subtexts has led to as many serious, fascinating discussions as it has to laughable hypotheses. But now all the speculation has come to an end: The season finale of TD aired last night, leaving its fans with just as many questions as answers.
While discussions of the show's finale and its larger meaning rage on, let's take a brief tour, memory lane-style, through all the clues and hints the show creators dropped along the way, and see if we can make sense of how the show's creators pulled off one of the greatest TV mysteries of all time.
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The spiral symbol (referred to cheekily/accurately by some as the Time Warner symbol) was one of the first examples of iconography to appear in the show, as a tattoo on the back of murder victim Dora Lange. It reappeared every so often, once as a bird formation, another time on a drawing in Marty's house, leading the victims, and us, toward the conclusion. It turned out to be just one of many symbols employed by the Tuttle family and their Carcosa-frequenting followers.
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Along with the spiral, these miniature voodoo-esque creations kept popping up, first at the initial murder scene and then at an abandoned school. The latter finding helped the detectives to link the Tuttle family (or at least their foundation, which had funded the school) with the murders.
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In the course of their investigation, Rust and Marty came upon a sketch of a man that looked like a green-eared "spaghetti monster" who had once chased a little girl through the woods. But the tip remained moot until they were able to compare it with more concrete physical descriptions, ultimately discovering that the "monster" was actually Errol Childress, a man with a face covered in scars, who worked as a painter.
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When the detectives visited a tent church that the initial murder victim, Dora Lange, had frequented, they were told that Lange had usually come accompanied by a "tall man" with shiny skin on his face. Again, this was Errol Childress, a man Rust and Hart see early on, but whose scarred face is hidden by dirt and whose height is hidden by the fact that he's riding on a lawnmower.
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The initial suspect, Reggie Ledoux, turned out to be a red herring, matching neither the description of the spaghetti monster nor the tall man with scars. But on a visit years later to a facility where one of the children rescued from Ledoux's compound was living, Rust learned that Ledoux and his partner had had a third accomplice — and this one, according to the girl, had scars. Boom.
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Yet another mythical male haunting Rust and Marty was "The Yellow King." After a breeze-by reference to the figure in Episode Two, questions about his identity took the Internet by storm, with the question "Who is the Yellow King?" eventually becoming shorthand for "Where the hell is this show headed, what the fuck is Rust talking about and who killed all those women?"
Luckily io9 helped us out with a thorough explanation of the literary import behind the name, and some genius with iMovie created the most viral video in the TD fan universe. Even as it became clear that the tall man, the scarred man, the spaghetti monster and the Yellow King were all probably the same person or at least very closely related, this reference remained — and remains, even after the finale — the most elusive. True TD fans will be plumbing its significance for weeks to come.
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Along with mentions of "The Yellow King" came mentions of Carcosa, presumably the place where said king carried out his despicable deeds. We knew it was important, and scary, because the mentioning the word alone caused an old lady to go into raptures.
Carcosa, according to io9, is from same book (The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers) that "Yellow King" comes from. Those who went digging for more info on the term were well-rewarded: It turned out to be the name of the ruined temple-like structure where all the action of the finale goes down.
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While the detectives were following threads of various mythical narratives, and Rust was quoting Nietzsche while cutting gingerbread men out of beer cans, real connections were being made on the ground. Late in the season the detectives find out that Sheriff Childress and former deputy Geraci helped to smooth over (maybe suspiciously) the case of a missing girl in 1990 (Marie Fontenot).
In a turn of events that only hardcore fans picked up on, one of the prison guards "watching over" a man with information about the Yellow King, who committed suicide (thus preventing Rust and Marty from learning any more from him), was also named Childress. Those evidence-crushing Childresses were everywhere.
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Early in the season the governor of Louisiana — with support from his pal, Christian ministry magnate Billy Lee Tuttle (son of Sam Tuttle and cousin of Lousiana Governor/future Senator Eddie Tuttle) — tries to take over Rust and Marty's investigation, claiming that anti-Christian crimes fell under special state jurisdiction. Rust and Marty saw this simply as an irritating power play, but they would have been wise to ask themselves why Tuttle cared so much about so minor-seeming a crime.
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Billy Lee Tuttle's reach may have been huge, but the multiple associations between his business and the murders were too coincidental to go unnoticed. His foundation owned the school where Rust found the little stick things. And where did Dora Lange happen to attend church? Oh, just one of the Tuttle tent-ministry operations. To make matters worse, when Rust went to go solicit financial records about the school, Tuttle told him they'd all burned in a fire. The guy was clearly hiding something.
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When the detectives visited Dora Lange's mother, she showed them an odd picture of a young Dora posing with five hooded horsemen. No Santa-at-the-mall shot, but it didn't pique much interest from Rust or Marty. Most likely it's proof that Dora's involvement with the Carcosa crowd began early, and this horsemen get-up was just their costume of choice. But the picture gave rise to one of the more amusing theories about the show: that the beer can figures Rust cuts (which, OK, sure, kind of look like men who might ride horses?) signaled his involvement with the cult. E for effort?
It's the most-quoted line from the show, a prototypical example of Rust's tendency to veer off into Intro to Western Philosophy territory. But it did ultimately have resonance. Think of the irony inherent in the scene when the two detectives investigating Rust and Marty drive by the lawnmower man and pay him no heed, just as Rust and Marty did. Time, in True Detective, really does move in a circular fashion.
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Marty makes this remark twice in the show, and it surely came back to viewers with a thud when they learned that the suspect — the Yellow King/spaghetti monster/tall man/scarred man — was right under their nose, riding a lawnmower while they jetted off on a fatal detour to chase a red-herring lead.
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Remember those? The spaghetti monster's other weird facial feature? They're the tiny detail that ultimately reveals the identity of the Yellow King. Marty connects the description with the fresh coat of green paint on a house near the Dora Lange murder scene. To the lawnmower man! (Cue siren.)
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So yes, the Yellow King was the man on the lawnmower, Errol Childress, whose ancient Louisiana family includes sheriffs, prison guards and the high-ranking Tuttles, all of them connected in an ongoing plot to recreate occult rituals at the expense of young women and childrens' lives. Mystery solved. With some stabbing in between.
But let's not forget that lawnmowers figured into the story in another, more poetic way. The first time Marty suspects that Rust is impinging on his domestic territory is when he catches him mowing his own lawn. He's right to be suspicious. That single kind gesture leads to the affair between Rust and Marty's wife that will ultimately destroy their friendship and Marty's marriage (not that Marty doesn't do his fair share of mistake-making).
It's just another example of the True Detective brilliance: How so mundane an object like a lawnmower winds up providing the final crucial link between the show’s hard-boiled pyrotechnics and its moving emotional storyline.