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The True Detective theory that could change everything

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Each week, a handful of Vox's writers will chat about the latest episode of True Detective's second season. Before you dig into this latest round, check out our recap of this week's episode, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date.

Todd VanDerWerff: Outside of the question of Colin Farrell's mortality (or lack thereof), I haven't seen much discussion of True Detective this past week. To be fair, the question of whether Ray will live or die is a big one, so it's easy to see why it sucked up all of the oxygen.

But in weighing Ray's survival prospects, we've missed one other major point, which is that he was gunned down by a man wearing a bird head, and if there's one thing we should all remember from season one, it's that people who wear ceremonial animal masks are bad news. (As if you needed True Detective to tell you that!)

This, of course, got me to thinking, because spinning crazy theories out of TV shows is part of my job. What if the case that Ray, Ani, and Paul are investigating in season two is somehow tied to the one Rust and Marty were investigating in season one?

The idea isn't as far-fetched as it sounds (though, admittedly, it's still pretty far-fetched). At the end of True Detective's first season, plenty of viewers were upset that what appeared to be a massive criminal conspiracy boiled down to Rust and Marty capturing one guy and putting him behind bars. And the show acknowledged this, as the detectives finally, wearily, concluded that getting one guy was a better result than they might have hoped for.

But if the criminal conspiracy — which extended into the highest realms of power and also contained elements of weird, occult demon worship — was truly that massive, who's to say it was confined to Louisiana? Who's to say it isn't a franchise operation, a conspiracy that takes on aspects of the finest crime stories of whatever geographic locale it finds itself in, in the same way that individual Applebee's locations hang mementos of the local sports team on their walls?

The key factor of this potential story turn is that if Nic Pizzolatto has it up his sleeve, it's something he can only do once, so he's got to make the moment count. After we learn that season two and season one are actually investigating different aspects of the same epic crime, the show can't stuff that genie back into the bottle. But if the reveal is cool, I won't lie: It could be one of the best moments in television history.

Just the mere suggestion that these anthological miniseries (the term all the kids are using nowadays to describe shows that share a title but tell different stories with different characters in every season) occupy the same universe contains a weird power of its own. Ryan Murphy and company have dropped hints with each new edition of American Horror Story that the characters all live within the same universe (which is a universe I now want to move to), and one of the best parts of Fargo's first season was when viewers realized that the characters of the TV show were part of the same world as those of the film the show is based on.

What makes this approach work is that it retroactively adds the appearance of continuity to a format that doesn't really boast continuity. We know that Marty and Rust aren't going to turn up in future seasons of True Detective, just as we knew that Frances McDormand wasn't going to show up and save the day in Fargo's season one finale. But even the vague idea that those characters are out there allows the brain to start filling in gaps that don't necessarily exist.

And giving the imagination some room to roam is something this season of True Detective desperately needs. Season one was filled with speculation about the Yellow King and the identity of the killer and whether Rust was mentally stable. So far, season two has mostly resulted in arguments over a yes-no question regarding one character's survival. It's much, much less interesting, and the series now feels more prosaic for it.

Do I expect True Detective to actually connect its individual seasons? Not really. For one thing, doing so would be a huge logistical headache, especially if the show runs for seven or eight years. In order for the same central conspiracy to become a through line of each new story, the show's writers would have to come up with an internal consistency that'd be pretty hard to execute, even within a fictional universe. So I suspect True Detective will remain united by a mood and a philosophical bent and not much else.

But, man, it would be really cool if this happened, wouldn't it?

Read the recap, and come back soon for more discussion.

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