Thrills and chills! Twists and turns! Mind-warping philosophical rants, past occult conspiracies, and the highly stylized dialogue of a million film noirs from another dimension!
These are the things that True Detective built its reputation on, the things that made its groundbreaking first season a prestige-TV alternative. And in this week’s episode — “The Big Never” — well, you’ll find none of those things here. Three episodes deep into its third season, the HBO anthology show may be back on the familiar sad Southern buddy-cop beat, but aside from the setting and the set-up it has shockingly little in common with either of its predecessors. This hour is so straightforward that it’s damn close to a tony network procedural.
In fact, the plot is simple enough to sum up in one quick paragraph per time period. In 1980, Detectives Wayne Hays and Roland West discover that Will and Julie Purcell had spent many of their afternoons playing Dungeons & Dragons with a mysterious adult “friend” rather than hanging out with their schoolmates. The suspect is a black man with a scar, who may drive a fancy brown car and occasionally travel with a white female companion. The partners also find a photo album featuring the dead boy posing on the day of his First Communion in the exact same way his body was arranged after death. They also discover a bag from the local poultry factory farm, which may indicate the involvement of the rich family that runs the place. None of this stops the townsfolk from damn near lynching Brett “Trashman” Woodard, the Vietnam-vet garbage collector who seems to be on the verge of snapping under the pressure of his neighbors’ misguided suspicion.
In 1990, Wayne is buckling under stress of his own. With the family of the mystery man wrongfully convicted for the crimes (the Trashman, we presume) filing a suit to have the conviction overturned and his wife Amelia turning her own experience working on the case into a soon-to-be smash-hit book, he can’t escape his painful memories. The cop freaks out in a Wal-Mart when his daughter wanders off; he picks a fight with with his spouse when she returns home tipsy from a fact-finding expedition. (She’d been grilling the cops who’d uncovered Julie Purcell’s fingerprints at the scene of a drug-store robbery; turns out the woman was most likely just a customer.) Meanwhile, after talking to both the lawyers and a now-sober Tom Purcell, Roland decides to form a task force to look back into the case, and invites his embittered but still friendly ex-partner to join in.
And in 2015, Wayne continues to struggle against his own misfiring synapses, which landed him at the burned-out ruins of the Purcell house in the middle of the night with no memory of how he got there. The documentarian who’s been interviewing him mentions the gaps in the investigation that point to the existence of a rogue “cop” — someone who’d gotten to certain key witnesses first. He also begins to hallucinate that his deceased wife is rattling on about how there’s “an infinite number of dimensions” and “past, present, and future are a persistent illusion.” And for some reason, what this figment of his senile dementia is saying has her husband fearing that “what he left in the woods” will be a bit harder to write off years after the fact.
Confused? We sure aren’t. When you get right down to it, this isn’t much more complicated than an episode of Law & Order: SVU: a crime with an unknown perpetrator, cops conducting interviews, the occasional red herring or false lead. There’s even interference from the authorities — in this case the local prosecutor’s office, which keeps muddying the waters by releasing information or agreeing to offer a reward for information funded by the chicken magnate’s in-house charity foundation. If Captain Cragen stepped in and told Wayne and Roland to “check out the chicken man, find out what he knows,” it wouldn’t feel out of place in the slightest.
The additional timelines don’t complicate things much either. Yes, we’re left to wonder exactly how Amelia died and how Wayne fell out with his daughter, or who was framed by the prosecutor for the killing and kidnapping, or how Roland got shot, etc. But you’d have to put in a whole lot of detective work yourself to come up with a way to spin this all into a Yellow King–style puzzle-box narrative. A reminder: Even that was much ado about nothing. Season One’s “clues” about a Lovecraftian entity went nowhere because creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto never intended them to. They were window dressing for what was also, in the end, a pretty cut-and-dried child-abuse/serial-killer story.
The real difference now is that the dialogue and performances line up with the relatively linear plot. Mahershala Ali, Carmen Ejogo and Stephen Dorff may play characters tied to a major crime investigation, but other than that they act like normal people. They drink a bit too much when they want to have a good time, or when they want to forget bad ones. They fall out of touch when they take different jobs (“Once we stopped working together, we just … stopped,” as Roland puts it) but are happy to reunite. They complain about the size of big-box stores, racial disparities in the state police, whether or not they spend enough time with their kids. West even holds Tom Purcell’s hand to pray as part of the recovering alcoholic’s surrender to his Higher Power. It’s hard to imagine Marty Hart or Ray Velcoro doing anything of the sort. Never mind the flat circles of time; what you’ve got now is a True Detective that’s shooting straight instead of weaving spirals.
Previously: The Dark Night Returns