*** Warning: non plot spoilers to True Detective follows. Also: high metaphysical content ***
“You ever heard of something called membrane theory, detectives?” Cohle asks.
“No,” Papania says. “That’s over my head."
And so Professor Cohle begins to hold forth. "It’s like, in this universe, we process time linearly,” he says. “Forward. But outside of our space-time, from what would be a fourth-dimensional perspective, time wouldn’t exist. And from that vantage, could we attain it, we’d see"—he crushes a can of Lone Star between his palms—"our space-time look flattened, like a seamless sculpture. Matter in a super-position—every place it ever occupied. Our sentience just cycling through our lives like carts on a track. See, everything outside our dimension—that’s eternity. Eternity looking down on us. Now, to us, it’s a sphere. But to them, it’s a circle.”
Needless to say, Papania and Gilbough are utterly baffled by Cohle’s lecture, and I would have been, too—if Pizzolatto hadn’t already told me what he was up to.
“You could see Cohle as Job crying out to an unhearing God,” he explained. “Or you could see him as something else."
"Like what?” I asked.
“Cohle describes the possibility of other dimensions existing, and he says that’s what eternity is,” Pizzolatto continued. “He says that if somehow you existed outside of time, you’d be able to see the whole of our dimension as one superstructure with matter superimposed at every position it had ever occupied. He says that the nature of the universe is your consciousness, and it just keeps cycling along the same point in that superstructure: when you die, you’re reborn into yourself again, and you just keep living the same life over and over. He also explains that from a higher mathematical vantage point, our dimension would seem less dimensional. It would look flattened, almost.”
Pizzolatto took a bite of his branzino. “Now, think about all the things Cohle is talking about,” he said as he finished chewing. “Is he a man railing against an uncaring god? Or is he a character in a TV show railing against his audience? Aren’t we the creatures of that higher dimension? The creatures who can see the totality of his world? After all, we get to see all eight episodes of his life. On a flat screen. And we can watch him live that same life over and over again, the exact same way."
The thought was dizzying. Sure, True Detective is a page-turning crime yarn. But at least according to its creator, it’s also a meta-page-turning crime yarn—a story about storytelling. Pizzolatto had transformed m-theory into a metaphor for television—and television, perhaps, into a metaphor for existence itself.
The more I think about it, the more I think this might be the ultimate "meaning” of the series: that at some indivisible level, life is story. Much ado has been made online about all the references on True Detective to the Yellow King and Carcosa, as if they were aspects of a coherent satanic theology to which Ledoux & Co. subscribed—a puzzle to be unraveled eventually. But it’s telling that the Yellow King is a reference to The King in Yellow, an 1895 collection of horror stories by Robert W. Chambers that itself references a forbidden play called “The King in Yellow"—a play that in turn "induces despair or madness in those who read it.” It’s also telling that Chambers borrowed the name “Carcosa” from Ambrose Bierce, and that H.P. Lovecraft later borrowed it from Chambers.
In other words, the important thing about the Yellow King and Carcosa isn’t what they signify to Reggie Ledoux. It’s what they signify to us. They call attention to the story-ness of the story we’re watching. They tell us, as Pizzolatto put it to me, that Dora Lange is “meant to stand in for the universal victim for this type of show”; that Ledoux, with his comically archetypal 666, pentagram, and swastika tattoos, is the universal serial killer; and that True Detective is a form of metafiction.