True Detective
Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in True Detective.HBO/Sky Atlantic

"Time is a flat circle."

The fifth episode of HBO's True Detective, The Secret Fate of All Life, not only marked the halfway point in this absorbing high-quality drama, but also the watershed moment that declared the deeper thematic thrust of its story. Now hopping between 1995, 2002 and 2012, a serial killing solved in the past appears to remain unsolved in the future. But for detectives Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey), it appears time is the ultimate enemy.

Explosive Showdown

Subverting our expectations, the explosive shootout at the meth lab that we expect turns out to be a covered-up execution. In 2012 Hart and Cohle stick to the story they recounted to a police committee, that a firefight broke out and they were left with no choice but to take out Reggie Ledoux (Charles Halford).

But as the viewer sees, their present day testimony is a pack of lies. Rust helps the two evade the explosive traps littered around the lab as the two trawl through the undergrowth. In tense POV shots Hart then proceeds to walk through the lab and sneak up on Reggie.

With Reggie handcuffed and DeWall (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) held at gunpoint, it appears the situation is under control. But then after seeing two abused girls, one dead, hidden away in the lab, Hart's rage takes hold and with his pistol he executes Reggie at point blank range.

In the subsequent chaos DeWall flees and finds himself caught in his own explosive booby trap, and the cool as a cucumber Cohle begins restaging the event to make it look like there was a shootout.

It's a surprisingly anticlimactic crescendo, and appears to leaves the murder mystery wrapped up by the fifth episode. But True Detective has never been solely interested in catching the killer, and it is in the leap seven years ahead to 2002 that we start to see how Hart and Cohle have changed, or haven't changed enough.

"The future is always behind you."

The shots of Hart's two daughters in his front garden as children playing with a kite in 1995 as it flies up in to a tree, before the camera pans back down to a now teenage Audrey, will be one of the most melancholic images you'll see on TV this year.

True Detective
Jumping ahead to 2002, Det. Rust Cohle re-opens the murder case of Dora Lang.HBO/Sky Atlantic

In 2012 Hart laments giving attention to everything except his family; a man who never realised what he had until it was too late.

"The good years came and went. There's a feeling like life has slipped through your fingers. Like the future is behind you. Like it's always been behind you."

The Yellow King

But Cohle holds the opposite viewpoint. He reopens the murder case after a prisoner reveals to him that 'the yellow king' is still at large, and when the confessor is found killed in his cell later, all the festering corruption that Cohle felt existed before surrounding Governor Tuttle and his religious schools initiative comes boiling to the surface; the demons of the past haunting the present.

As he tells his modern day interrogators, "time is a flat circle". Time may move inexorably forward for those who live it, but from an outside perspective people are trapped in purgatory, doomed to make the same mistakes again and again.

Cohle's philosophical musings on time might come across as pretentious, but they illustrate how the characters in True Detective are all trapped by time. What makes True Detective stand out from other crime dramas is the mystery of the show has come as much from Hart and Cohle examining their past as the hunt for the serial killer itself. It will now be interesting to see how they are developed in the final episodes, as the events that led Cohle and Hart to split in 2002 are linked to their interrogations in 2012.