Three episodes in, it’s apparent that this third season of True Detective is telling two intertwined stories at once. The first is the central mystery of what happened to the Purcell kids when they were abducted on November 7, 1980, a mystery the season is unpacking on three different timelines at once. The second is the story of what obsession looks like at various stages.
The Purcell abduction begins as just another case for Wayne in 1980. By 1990, it’s derailed his career and begun to sour him as a person. It’s also refused to go away. Even if the case hadn’t kick-started Amelia’s literary career, it would have resurfaced when evidence that Julie Purcell remains alive came to light. “I feel like I’m tired of this thing being in our lives,” Wayne tells Amelia as they sit outside the Walgreens where Julie’s prints showed up. When she suggests they just check into a motel and drink and screw their troubles away, he barely manages to say, “Oh, that’d be great,” before returning to Purcell talk. And in 2015, it haunts his fractured memory and revisits him in dreams and hallucinations. The crime’s awfulness extends to its inability to let go of those it touches.
The problem with this approach — at least in “The Big Never,” this third episode — is that one story is far more compelling than the other. By 1990, Wayne hasn’t had a crack at a major case in years. He works what appears to be a miserable desk job while Amelia, as an author, gets to continue to investigate the Purcell case, writing a soon-to-be published book and flirting with the local cops in order to learn more details about evidence that Julie’s still alive. He resents this, even if he can’t fully articulate that resentment. Instead, after freaking out when his daughter wanders off at Walmart, he drinks and broods and throws the fact that he has to do the shopping while she investigates a crime back in her face.
Mahershala Ali and Carmen Ejogo help sell these moments, but they still feel forced, as if Nic Pizzolatto felt the obligation to fill in the cracks with an obligatory exploration of fractured masculinity. Then again, if these scenes feel a little half-developed, that might also be because of what we don’t yet know of the story. Like the older Wayne, we’re only seeing bits of the narrative at a time. Once we know more about why Wayne was pushed off his promising career path, will his piggishness to Amelia make sense? Will lines like “Did you confuse reacting with feeling? Did you mistake compulsion with freedom?” — as delivered by Amelia’s specter in 2015 — seem profound rather than discarded lines from “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”? Maybe, but waiting for that feels like a big ask on the series’s part.
It probably also doesn’t help that we’ve reached the point where, after the initial rush of the setup, so many series feel like they’re struggling to justify their running time. Even at a comparatively compact eight episodes, True Detective still has a lot of space to fill. Right now, the bits that don’t push the narrative forward feel much less compelling than the bits that do, though it’s possible that could shift.
Fortunately, the central narrative remains pretty captivating. Searching the kids’ rooms for clues in the 1980 timeline, Wayne and Roland uncover a bunch of possible leads, including a map, some odd notes, and a bag bearing the Hoyt Foods logo. This sends them off to explore Will’s love of Dungeons & Dragons — unnamed, but we saw a D&D manual in his room in an earlier episode — and the possibility that they’ve been spending the time they claimed to be playing at a friend’s house elsewhere. It also puts Hoyt Foods — a processing plant where Lucy once worked and which funds the Ozark Children’s Outreach Center, a charity now offering a reward for any information on the Purcells’ disappearance — on their radar. Is the company’s concern just out of the goodness of their corporate heart, or will Hoyt play a more sinister role? Developing.
Also developing: Wayne and Roland seem to have found the crime scene, and with it some multisided dice, a bunch of toys the Purcell parents don’t recognize (including more straw dolls), a nearby farmhouse with an owner who doesn’t want the place searched (though this seems to be more on principle than out of a desire to hide a secret), and their first mention of a fancy brown car driven by a black man and a white woman. Yet, in 2015, the True Criminal producer pelts Wayne with questions about potential witnesses they seem not to have questioned, at least some of which refer to an upscale brown sedan. Hmm …
Meanwhile, in the 1990 timeline, we spend most of our time with Roland, who seems to have done well for himself in the Arkansas State Police. He’s risen through the ranks, helped Tom Purcell crawl out of a hole and stay sober, and now seems eager to revisit the Purcell case and bring in Wayne, with whom he’s fallen out of touch, in to help. The episode ends with their reunion, and after a slightly intoxicated Wayne addresses the elephant in the room by suggesting Roland’s skin color helped him advance while he’s floundered, they head off together to revisit the cold case that’s suddenly heated up again. Brooding time is over and now there’s work to be done.
Intriguing Leads and Red Herrings
• One element that’s starting to emerge: Not all of the unreliable narration comes from Wayne’s dementia. In the interrogation scene that opens this episode, we see Roland elide over the fact that he and Wayne were shaking down a local perv — a dead end, as it turned out — as the ransom note arrived at the Purcells. Is the absence of witnesses talking about a brown sedan an oversight — which seems unlikely — or a detail they’ve erased from the record? Roland’s questioners demand a full accounting, but who’s responsible for the first accounting for being less than full?
• As Wayne’s son, Ray Fisher hasn’t had that much to do yet. But he’s prominently billed and a relatively big name — he’s Cyborg in the DC Comics movies — so that seems likely to change. He’s been good so far, but he also hasn’t had that much to do beyond trying to corral his dad.
• With Jeremy Saulnier out, TV veteran Daniel Sackheim steps in to direct. He’s fine, too. Even if we don’t get quite as few memorable compositions, he helps bring a creepy tension to the episode, particularly in the scene where Roland and Wayne search the Purcell house. There’s one shot of Lucy reflected in a mirror, as she watches Wayne then looks away when he catches her, that could say a lot about what’s to come. (Or it might say nothing.) The moment in which Wayne finds Will’s First Communion photo and is struck by the similarity between his praying hands and his death pose is a standout as well. The episode doesn’t linger on the photo. It just lets it make a disturbing impression and then moves on.