Editor’s note: This week’s episode premiered early on HBO’s streaming platforms; it will broadcast on HBO at its normal time Sunday, February 3.
There comes a point in every season of a television series attempting to tell one long, sustained story when it becomes obvious whether the show has a story that needs a certain number of episodes to be told, or whether those running it are trying to stretch a story that could be told much more swiftly over a set number of episodes. With, say, one of Netflix’s Marvel shows, this point usually arrives early, with mid-season drag setting in as early as the third episode. With other series it takes a while. Unfortunately, we seem to have reached it with “If You Have Ghosts,” the fifth episode of True Detective’s third season, which parcels out little bits of narrative between moments of character development that either don’t work as well as they should or repeat moments we’ve already seen. The bits that don’t feel clumsy stir a sense of déjà vu.
It also features a plot turn that I did not see coming, but mostly because it seems like such a stretch. We already knew that Wayne and Roland were convinced that the wrong person took the blame for the Culver murder/kidnapping in 1980. We didn’t know, however, that it was Woodard, who ended the last episode pursued by a mob and retreating to a booby-trapped house for a heavily armed standoff. Woodard has seemed so obviously, demonstrably not guilty, but in a detail introduced and then dismissed in short order, we learn that some of what appeared to be the Culver kids’ belongings were found at the post-shootout crime scene. (An incident that’s come to be euphemistically referred to as the “Woodard Altercation” by 1990.) Except, as Wayne realizes ten years too late, these could have been planted, and Will’s backpack wasn’t Will’s backpack at all. “Motherfucker,” he says. Motherfucker, indeed.
Things being not quite what they seem, or people believing they’re not what they seem, serves as a recurring theme this episode. In 1990, after Tom wanders dazedly into a room filled with evidence that Julie’s alive, he makes an impassioned plea on television for her to come forward. When she eventually calls in, she makes repeated references to “the man on TV acting like my father,” saying she knows what he did. If the runaway who Wayne and Roland question is telling the truth, the woman they believe is Julie now goes by the name Mary July and seems to have cultivated a fantasy world in which she is a princess who belongs in the pink rooms. So what’s going on? Has Julie Purcell/Mary July been brainwashed into believing Tom is not her father? Or could it be something else?
We also know, thanks to the late-episode reunion of 2015 Wayne and, making his first appearance, 2015 Roland — now a pot-bellied, country-dwelling dog enthusiast — that some stuff that they’d rather not come to light went down in 1990, stuff related to a missing-persons investigation involving Cousin Dan, he of the stash of Playboys and (possibly) the drilled peephole. His body turned up in a quarry and Wayne and Roland clearly know more about this incident than the series has let us know. Apparently related: the disappearance of Harris James, one of the officers who processed the Woodard Altercation scene. He disappeared in 1990, as Elisa Montgomery tells Wayne during one of their True Criminal interviews. “Who?” he replies, but he could be playing dumb, or the memory might have disappeared as a part of his dementia. TBD, but as Elisa notes, “A lot of people around this thing are dead,” which tends to happen when a crime is much bigger than it initially appears.
It’s all fairly intriguing, but it’s hard not to feel strung along. The performances from Ali, Dorff, and Ejogo remain strong, but much of what they’re given to do is starting to feel like filler, never more than in the 1990 segments, which keep flat-circling over themes and moments the season has already explored. Wayne and Roland question a now-grown Freddy, who’s no less the self-pitying a-hole than he was before. “If you think there’s something you can do to me, you might want to take another look at my life,” he tells them; though, to be honest, his life doesn’t look all that bad. Wayne agrees, later saying to Roland, “Please explain to me all the hardships and tribulations being a white man in this country,” then going off on the kids these days being, shades of a Clint Eastwood quote, “a generation of pussies.”
Later, over dinner at Roland’s house (with Lori, the woman he was flirting with outside church in 1980 in the previous episode), Wayne goes off again on Amelia, the argument following them home where he all but says out loud how emasculated and passed over by life he feels. At this point, it’s hard not to feel frustrated when 1990 Wayne starts in on another one of his rants. “This will shock you,” Amelia tells him, “but I have bigger dreams than just making a house for you to brood in.” Yet sometimes it plays as if that’s why Pizzolatto built this season of True Detective.
Still, the moments that work make the effort seem worth it. From the start, season three has played with the flow between past and present. Sometimes it’s done this clumsily. Other times, it’s been quite lyrical, as when 2015 Wayne wanders his house looking for the wife who’s no longer there and the children who’ve all grown up and moved away, only to be drawn into a memory of togetherness when they all read The Jungle Book together. Such moments forgive a lot, and if the solution to the mystery proves worth the wait, that will forgive even more. But we’ve got a ways to go before we get there, and the terrain is starting to get a little too bumpy for comfort.
Intriguing Leads and Red Herrings
• Though it baffles Wayne, Roland’s fate of hanging out by himself in the country, drinking, and giving dating advice to dogs makes a fair amount of sense. Whatever his skills in the professional field, and however domestic he looks with Lori in 1990, he doesn’t seem the type to be able to make a settled life for himself.
• Besides, something he and Wayne did clearly unsettled him big time at some point. Piecing it together, they seem to have killed Cousin Dan O’Brien. And the day after, Wayne spoke to Hoyt — presumably the aforementioned “big man” at Hoyt Foods — but never told Roland about the conversation. This all clearly means something, though what it means remains unclear.
• Does it have something to do with why Wayne and Roland haven’t spoken in 24 years? Presumably. But Wayne can’t remember, and the scene where Henry preps Roland about his father’s memory loss gives the episode its most poignant moment.
• Finally reading Amelia’s book, Wayne realizes that Lucy wrote the note about Julie because of “things the mother said.” Was it last episode’s roundly criticized “soul of a whore” phrasing?
• This week’s episode is again directed by Nicholas Pizzolatto, but it looks as if Daniel Sackheim, who directed the third episode, will direct episodes six through eight.