Mahershala Ali is doing a lot while saying little in season three of True Detective, which reaches its midpoint with this fourth episode, even though the end of the mystery still appears to be nowhere in sight. Given a lead from the priest of the Purcells’ church, Wayne and Roland track down Patty Faber, the “dear, good woman” responsible for the straw dolls — “chaff dolls,” if I heard correctly — associated with the Purcell disappearance. She recalls selling them to a black man with a dead eye but otherwise can’t recall if he was handsome or ugly. “Like I say,” she replies. “He was black.” Wayne first shoots his partner Roland a brief, “Can you believe this shit?” look, but it’s tame compared to the death glare he gives Patty on the way out. Any connection she has to the Purcell crimes is almost certainly limited to that transaction. He’ll never have to see her again, so he gives her a brief glimpse of how he really feels.
It’s scary, but not nearly as scary as the moment toward the end of the episode when Wayne arrives to question Freddy, the “shit-heel twerp” ringleader who stole poor Will Purcell’s bicycle and chased him into the woods. Wayne arrives with a smile on his face that’s clearly calibrated to inspire fear — and succeeds in doing just that. It does not, however, crack the case open. Freddy confesses to bullying, but not kidnapping or murder, and for all the echoes of the West Memphis Three case in this particular wing of the investigation, it looks like Freddy and the other metalheads won’t be charged with the crime.
Ali’s giving such a strong performance that it’s all the more alarming when the material lets him down. Similarly, Ali and Carmen Ejogo have such incredible chemistry in the 1980 scenes that it’s too bad that the 1990 scenes can’t sustain it. On their first date in 1980, Wayne is flirtatious but cautious, throwing out a suggestive line then retreating with an apology. He’s not very good at dating, that’s clear, but he also reveals himself to be a bit of a romantic with no use for casual hookups. “I have a mental handicap,” he tells her. “That other stuff don’t seem to work for me without this,” meaning romance in general, for sure, but maybe also her in particular. Maybe he knows already that he loves her.
Flash forward to 1990, and Wayne and Amelia can’t stop fighting. She’s, in his eyes, insufficiently happy about him being asked to join the reopened Purcell investigation, still sore about the resentment he expressed toward her as she continues on her inquiries as her book is on the verge of publication. “I’m sorry I haven’t expressed better how inadequate and useless I’ve been made to feel,” he tells her, and as in last week’s episode, 1990 Wayne’s male angst feels a bit too generic and the conflict still feels too manufactured. We haven’t yet seen what takes Wayne and Amelia from point A (falling in love as they obsess over the Purcell case in 1980) to point B (in a souring marriage troubled by the same case in 1990), and the gap between them feels a bit too wide. “You’ve got some major cognitive dissonance,” he tells her as their fight turns into midafternoon lovemaking. This season has a bit of that as well.
At least that scene works better than what’s starting to feel like the season’s obligatory 2015 hallucination scene, as Wayne looks outside, thinks someone might be spying on him, mumbles a bit, and finds himself surrounded by imaginary Viet Cong fighters from his wartime experiences and one figure in a suit. It seems a bit like the climactic scene of an experimental play, and not a particularly inventive one at that.
All this raises a question: Is this season of True Detective’s fractured chronology working for it or against it? The cryptic 2015 and 1990 references to what went on before sometimes deepen the mystery. Yet while it’s intriguing to learn, for instance, that 2015-Wayne doesn’t know if Roland is currently dead or alive, the depiction of some relationships often suffers from what we don’t know. When did Wayne and Amelia start to drift apart and what did it look like? Why do Wayne’s kids feel so, at best, ambivalent about him? It’s starting to feel like much of the backstory is being withheld for the sake of withholding it, not because it’s what the story requires.
That’s starting to be a weekly frustration in what’s previously been a pretty compelling season, and one not afraid, this week at least, to end the episode with a literal bang. While Roland and Wayne question Freddy, who’s reduced to sobs by Wayne’s graphic descriptions of what awaits him in prison, a local mob decides to direct its paranoia toward poor Brett Woodard after the Vietnam vet/scavenger known as “Trash Man” is seen having an innocent conversation with some kids. They get more than they bargained for, however, when they charge his house and find it booby-trapped with a Claymore mine with helpful “Front Toward Enemy” instructions printed on the front. Woodard, it seems, has been preparing for just this moment. The locals’ hatred of him is entirely unfounded, but the paranoia he’s apparently been nursing since the war now seems justified.
The Woodard subplot doesn’t seem to have anywhere to go from here, at least not as it relates to the primary mystery, but then, dead ends are very much a part of True Detective’s M.O. The priest raises Roland’s suspicions, but then so apparently do all priests. (“Man signs up to go without fuckin’ for life. Either he don’t know himself for a liar or he’s some type of limited-edition psycho. I mean, everybody’s fuckin’ somethin’.”) He also has an alibi for the crime. Their talk with Mr. Whitehead, who would seem to match the description of one of the suspects, does little but touch off a racial incident at a trailer park.
This also puts Roland on the defensive. In his view, Whitehead’s accusations of racism are way out of line and, if anything, he showed more sensitivity because Whitehead and those he called in to defend him were black. He might be right, but this season also hasn’t shied away from how white privilege benefits even those who aren’t racist, sometimes to the point where the feelings in their hearts don’t even matter anymore. In 1990, Roland has advanced while Wayne has stalled out. Wayne’s condescendingly told that this is his chance to “redeem an unfortunately stunted career” — and, again, it’s worth asking whether this line is more or less powerful because we don’t know exactly what led to it — but later Roland is not much less condescending to his former partner when meeting with some other cops. He’s the boss now, sure, and he wants everyone to know it. But though he may not be racist himself, he’s also not much interested in dwelling on whether he’s been put in his current position by a racist system.
Wayne gets the grunt work of going through Walgreens security footage, but his obsessive tendencies pay off with a glimpse of the long-lost Julie Purcell. That’s not a dead end. Nor, back in 1980, is Wayne’s sense that Henry is the incidental victim, that whoever snatched the Purcell children were more interested in Julie all along. And, elsewhere, Amelia and Roland separately open up leads by exploring the Purcell marriage. Amelia talks to Lucy who, while drunk again, agonizes about having the “soul of a whore” and questions, “What kind of woman hates the only things that ever shown her love?” Meanwhile, Roland rescues Tom from the back room of a bar and he later mentions Lucy having an affair with her boss. And in 2015, Wayne talks to True Criminal producer Elisa Montgomery (Sarah Gadon) who shares her own discovery: that the body of creepy cousin Dan O’Brien turned up in a quarry. Wayne, and those around him, are inching toward the truth across three timelines. But, like the mob that takes on poor Brett, it seems like something deadly and explosive could await behind each newly opened door.
Yet though the episode ends with a moment that makes it hard not to want to know what happens next, it’s also hard not to be annoyed at much of what preceded it. Maybe Lucy going on about having the “soul of a whore” will be revealed to be a key moment, but that doesn’t make it a good scene. And Wayne’s barroom rescue of Tom, and subsequent discussion of racial slurs, doesn’t really add anything and seems a bit shoehorned into an episode that’s already filled with better discussions of racism. Will this pay off or end up feeling like padding? That’s a big TBD, but one that could ultimately shape how this season is remembered.
Intriguing Leads and Red Herrings
• True Detective is ultimately Nic Pizzolatto’s show, as evidenced by director Jeremy Saulnier’s exit after the first two episodes. News of his departure came accompanied with news that Daniel Sackheim would take over helming duties for the rest of the season. This episode is directed by a young up-and-comer making his directorial debut, one Nic Pizzolatto. He does a solid job, but the episode again misses some of the visual flair of Saulnier’s episodes, and the climactic showdown at Woodard’s place feels a bit punchless.
• On the other hand, this is the first episode in which Pizzolatto shares a writing credit, and with no less than NYPD Blue and Deadwood vet David Milch. I won’t venture to guess where Pizzolatto’s contributions end and Milch’s begin, but there’s a particular attention to the language in Amelia and Lucy’s scene that stands out. (That, and I’d venture that this episode has more uses of fuck than any preceding episode.)
• Roland’s short flirtation with a churchgoer named Lori might seem like a comic grace note, but it’s not. That’s Jodi Balfour, late of Cinemax’s Quarry. (She also played Jackie Kennedy on The Crown.) She’ll have a recurring role for the rest of the season, in what’s been described as a “long-term love interest” to Roland. (I’m not watching ahead, so I don’t know how major a part that will be, but she should make a fine addition to an already impressive cast.)
• One other notable detail from Wayne and Amelia’s first date: Wayne knows more than Amelia, a teacher, about how abusers behave toward and feel about children. That probably wouldn’t be the case now, but makes sense for 1980. Like Mindhunters, this season of True Detective captures how much we’ve learned about how serial killers, abusers, and predators behave over the past few decades.
• “I took his bike. He was a nerd.” Prison might be too good for Freddy.