A review of tonight's "True Detective" coming up just as soon as I throw you a barbell when you're drowning...

"My life's been a circle of violence and degradation, long as I can remember. I'm ready to tie it off." -Rust

We've spent the previous six weeks of "True Detective" talking quite a bit about the thin way that Nic Pizzolatto has written the characters who aren't Rust and Marty, and debating whether this is a feature or a bug. Now, this has always been a very self-aware series, one that's commenting on various clichés of police procedurals and serial killer melodramas even as it deploys them all, and one where our heroes spent the first five hours (and, for Marty, part of the sixth) looking into a video camera — and, more often than not, directly at us — and offering commentary on the story that we're watching. Pizzolatto has written crime stories of his own, has read and watched countless others, and in many cases he's anticipated the potential criticisms of the series and tackled them head-on within the context of the plot. And as we enter the penultimate chapter of Rust and Marty's story, it's time to deal with the business of our heroes mattering so much more than anyone else.

As "After You've Gone" brings us into 2012 for the duration (give or take a few flashbacks to what Cohle and Hart have been up to since they last spoke), we find that not only are they the only fully dimensional people in the story, but they're essentially the only people left in their own lives.

It's not that the show suddenly transforms into a play with only McConaughey and Harrelson on the stage. We see Maggie, and Rust's new boss, a couple of old colleagues from the 1995 detective squad, and Gilbough and Papania run across the spaghetti monster himself, who turns out to be Errol, the groundskeeper Rust spoke to at the end of episode 3. (More on him in a bit.) It's not about who else is still there in the world at large, but who each man has to lean on or care about. In the hour's first scene, Marty jokes that Rust must have alienated everyone else in his life and gone back to him in the rotation, but it's not like Marty the glad-hander is living a much richer existence. His detective agency is a barren storefront with only one employee. He hasn't seen Maggie in two years, doesn't seem to be in touch with either daughter, and though his old cop buddies smile when they see him, it's always with the understanding that this is a rare occasion. He tells Rust that he has a quiet life, and this seems a charitable way of putting it. He had a life that was defined by being a cop, and when one dead child too many ended that career, he had nothing else. He doesn't much like his ex-partner for a variety of understandable reasons, but he needs Rust again, as much for companionship as for purpose.

And one of the great things about the time-spanning structure of this season is the way we get to see the partnership evolve over a long period, from the uneasy alliance of 1995 to the bitter 7-year itch of 2002 to these two being so old and weary and useless in the company of anyone else that it might finally occur to Rust to ask Marty about his personal life. There is nothing for either of them but each other and this last piece of business. Both seem at peace with the idea that they might die closing the case, or at least go to prison — Marty's visit to Maggie was that of a man saying his final farewell — almost as if they know that their story only has an hour to go before the world never sees either one of them again.

What was striking about watching the partners working together again after all the years apart wasn't just seeing the greater ease they have around each other now — that Rust can actually acknowledge Marty's detective skills, and Marty can return the backhanded compliment with an amused, "High praise from a bartender" — but how, for all their differences, they have come to the same place. Marty doesn't want to believe any of Rust's crazy conspiracy theories, but he watches that old videotape(*) and he's an instant convert. All these wild theories of Rust's are true, and he screwed up badly in 1995 by executing Reggie Ledoux, and now he has to do whatever it takes — including kidnapping and torturing his old buddy Steve — to unburden himself of the debt.

(*) That sequence, like the later flashback to the case that ended Marty's police career, continues the show's trend of telling us about the most monstrous deeds without ever quite showing them to us. We cut away from the flickering TV screen before we see what exactly the men in the animal masks were about to do to Marie Fontenot, but Woody Harrelson's face tells us the entire horrifying story, just as it does when Cary Fukunaga's camera makes sure to keep the dead baby out of focus as poor Marty gets a look.   

Alan Sepinwall has been reviewing television since the mid-'90s, first for Tony Soprano's hometown paper, The Star-Ledger, and now for HitFix. His new book, "TV (The Book)" about the 100 greatest shows of all time, is available now. He can be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com