You might say that tonight’s episode of True Detective — “The Hour and the Day” — goes out with a bang. Hunted by a lynch mob that wrongfully (and racist-ly) believes him to be a child-killer, Brett “Trashman” Woodard booby-traps his home using techniques he learned in ‘Nam. The landmine rigged to detonate the moment the goons kick open his front door blasts us right into the closing credits.
But the preceding hour-plus of television wasn’t explosive per se. Co-written by Nic Pizzolatto and David “Deadwood” Milch, with the former making his directorial debut, it’s simply another well-written procedural, funny where it wants to be — and ugly where it needs to be.
Some moments just feel a bit more, y’know, Milchian than others — Amelia dropping SAT words like “vicissitudes” on her husband Wayne Hays in 1990, for instance. (“Look it up,” she adds.) The entire fight-or-fuck exchange that follows could come straight from Seth Bullock and Alma Garrett. Their first big romantic date in 1980 is pretty hot stuff too.
There’s also the bit where the local Catholic priest tells Hays how much he’d love to hear his confession. Unpersuaded, the detective simply deadpans “I get to feeling penitent, I’ll let you know.” Very Reverend Smith and Al Swearengen, no?
But it isn’t just the rhythm and the word choice that meshes with Milch’s preoccupations as a writer. The subject of race, and how it’s an all-too-convenient weapon for white people to grab and wield against people of color, became a major aspect of his legendary HBO Western in its second and third seasons. Here it gets a complex and unflinching examination. The church-going woman who made the dolls found at the crime scene, for instance, is so casually racist in her description of the man who bought them that beyond saying he’s got one discolored eye. His blackness is pretty much the only detail she either remembers or feels is necessary to convey.
And when the detectives go to the guy’s home for questioning, he and his neighbors angrily protest that he’s being railroaded by a trigger-happy white cop. Wayne’s partner Roland West takes umbrage, but he doesn’t press the issue afterwards, even when the crowd breaks his windshield. He may act like one of the good ones, but he hasn’t drunk enough “I don’t see color” Kool-Aid to pretend there aren’t enough bad ones to justify the neighbors’ suspicion.
The thornier material here centers on Tom and Lucy Purcell, the estranged alcoholic parents of the murdered boy and missing girl. When Roland picks up the former from a bar where he picked a fight with a man that his wife slept with, he spits out the n-word to describe Hays; the black cop’s assignment to the case, he claims, proves that no one’s taking it seriously. But when West sticks up for his partner, saying he’s the best detective on the job, Tom apologizes, immediately and repeatedly — and digs deep into his own despair.
“I can’t be in that house, man,” he says, sounding like a broken man even before he adds, “I just wanna die all the time.” It’s an absolutely heartbreaking performance from Scoot McNairy — the fact that it begins with a racial slur and ends with him begging the cop not to reveal his shameful bigotry only makes it more so.
This is doubly true of Lucy, whom Amelia visits. The moment the teacher offers a shoulder to cry on, the grieving mom unleashes a torrent of self-loathing. “I’ve got the soul of a whore,” she says, lamenting her neglect of her kids. Her pain takes the form of rhetorical questions: “Children should laugh, right?” And: “What kind of woman hates the only things that ever showed her love?” Wishing she had the courage to use her gun on herself, she begins just straight-up bawling and howling “God forgive me.” Actor Mamie Gummer is so convincing here you want to cover your ears.
But when she takes poorly to her visitor’s suggestion that she reach out to Wayne with any information she might not have previously revealed, an entirely different sort of pain starts pouring forth. She immediately turns on the teacher, exploding in a sudden fireball of racist invective so intense that her visitor almost runs from the house. Anyone who says suffering is somehow ennobling is clearly fooling themselves.
Beyond that, the case proceeds apace. The 1980 task force pursues various leads: the church, the dolls, the one-eyed man, the teenage dirtbag whose prints are all over the missing boy’s bike (but whom they believe to be guilty only of being a bullying asshole).
A decade later, Roland, Wayne and company start looking for Lucy Purcell’s sleazy cousin Dan O’Brien — the man behind that peephole from Episode One. Hays also spots Julie as an adult on the security camera footage from the drugstore where her prints were found. Two ticking time bombs click away during this time period: The powers that be want them to vindicate the conviction of the man wrongfully accused the first time around, not clear it; and there’s the possibility that whoever took the girl is now hunting for her again.
And in 2015, Wayne asks his cop son with tracking down Roland to continue the investigation. He also demands that Eliza, the documentarian who’s been interviewing him (and, it’s implied, dating his kid), share whatever new info she has. She divulges that some skeletal remains have been found. It turns out they belong to Dan O’Brien, the aforementioned sleazy cousin who, we find out, had gone missing some time after the 1990 investigation.
As the aging Hays tries to collect his thoughts that night, he’s visited by a ghostly vision of all the men he’s killed (mostly Viet Cong and NVA soldiers … and, intriguingly, one American guy in a suit). And what’s going on with that mysterious car staking out his house from across the street? The question is clear: Before the case is closed, will this damaged man succumb to outside forces, or his own aching mind?
Previously: Just the Facts, Ma’am