True Detective: The Great War and Modern Memory

“What you don’t remember you don’t know you don’t remember.”

Finally! It’s back!

There was awhile there where I wasn’t sure True Detective was ever going to get a third season. It’s no secret to anyone that the show experienced quite a sophomore slump in the eyes of many viewers, and I feared that might have been enough to kill this series.

It would have been a shame too, since I always thought this detective anthology was a very novel idea. Plus, I’m in the minority of people who feel that the show's second season gets a very bad rep. While it did fail to live up to the majesty of that first season, I believe it was still a solid piece of fiction.

The thing I ended up finding most interesting about the premiere of the third is how creator Nic Pizzolatto seems to address the reception of the second. On a superficial level, it almost appears as though he were pandering to people who wanted more of what we got in season one.

There are a ton of familiar elements here: a foreboding rural setting, missing children, an investigation that cuts across multiple timelines, unreliable narration, a detective whose damaged mental state dominates the plot.

However, even if he is giving viewers what they want, Pizzolatto is also clearly not interested in telling the same story. Like season two, its story and characters stand well apart from those we’ve seen before.

Here we follow the dark journey of Wayne Hays, an Arkansas State Police detective. A journey that cuts back and forth between three distinct periods of his life, each centered around his last and most haunting case. That being the abduction of Will and Julie Purcell. We see the start of his investigation in 1980, his revelatory deposition on it ten years later, and his fractured reflection on it as a retired old man during a documentary interview in 2015.

This was a very unique framing device right off the bat, which is significantly enhanced by our main character.

One of the main problems with season two is that its attempt to divide up the narrative between four different protagonists resulted in none of them (with the possible exception of Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro) being as brilliantly defined as Rustin Cohle and Marty Hart from season one.

Now we’ve narrowed our attention down to one detective, and I was on board with Wayne Hays from the beginning. We’re given a lot of detail about this character in just one episode, yet he still remains as much a mystery as the case he’s attempting to solve. His background as a long range reconnaissance patrolman (or “lurp”) during the Vietnam War means that he is an increasingly jaded but professional and highly effective investigator. It’s also shown that despite his rough edges, he’s a fairly humane person, as seen early on when he stops his partner West from shooting a terribly cute fox and later when we see his determination to find the missing kids.

Even more fascinating is the effect his psyche has on the story. Hays has trouble remembering things. This shows up nowhere in the 1980 arc, is mentioned but not witnessed in 1990, and completely consumes him as a senior citizen in 2015, where he reminds himself of his memory loss through daily recordings. No doubt this will lead to some big surprises as the season goes forward.

The show has already dropped a few surprises already, the most significant of which is Hays locating the body of Will Purcell in a cave, staged in an eerie ritualistic tableau not unlike Dora Lange in season one. I was not expecting that big of a development this quickly. And it leads directly to a good hook at the end, with the revelation that Hays never found Julie during the initial case, only to discover in the 1990 deposition that she has apparently resurfaced.

This is just one of several vague yet juicy details I assume we’ll eventually get to see unfold as the story progresses. Several possible suspects are already lined up in 1980, while in 1990 it’s mentioned that the incarcerated culprit’s family is trying to overturn his sentence and the police might have caught the wrong guy. And there’s a ton of ambiguity where the missing girl and Hays himself are concerned.

I very much look forward to seeing how it all pans out.

Bits and Pieces:

* These first two episodes are directed by Jeremy Saulnier, who did a fantastic job; I wish he were doing the whole season. I highly recommend his movies: Blue Ruin, Green Room and Hold the Dark.

* I’m glad to see Mahershala Ali in the lead here, after being repeatedly impressed by his acting in various supporting roles. I recently watched Luke Cage, and he was probably my favorite part of that first season.

* Wasn’t sure about Stephen Dorff as Hays’ partner, Roland West, at first, but he quickly won me over. Dorff and Ali have good chemistry. They keep up this series’ tradition of sincere, blunt and unexpectedly funny police repertoire.

* Carmen Ejogo plays Amelia Reardon, a teacher at the Purcell children’s school who later becomes Hays’ wife and writes a true crime novel that chronicles the events of the 1980 investigation.

* In addition to being a former lurp, we are informed that Hays is also a skilled hunter.

* I can tell they're going for a Memento feel with elder Hays' recordings, but the first thing it brought to my mind was 50 First Dates.

* My favorite part of the episode were the instances of what Pizzolatto has referred to as the “slipperiness of memory.” At the beginning, middle-aged Hays states in the deposition that he and West were going over old cases when they caught the Purcell case, and we cut to them sitting in lawn chairs, drinking beers and using junkyard rats as target practice. I also loved how 1980 Hays grimly rejects the idea of getting married and having a family, when we know both lie in store for his future self.

Quotes:

West: It’s too dark, man.
Hays: I don’t care.
I always read dialogue as the writer speaking to the viewer, so this line felt especially meta. It’s like two people describing the show itself.

This episode was vivid and engrossing. A solid comeback for this dark, dark series. Five out of five ornamental angels.

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