Time may or may not be a flat circle, but the success rate of Wayne Hays and Roland West sure is. This week’s True Detective — “If You Have Ghosts” — comes straight from series creator Nic Pizzolatto, who shows our heroes working together diligently to solve the mystery of Will Purcell‘s murder and Julie Purcell‘s disappearance. In fact, these partners try to tackle the case in three different decades … and find themselves in dead ends each time.
In the 1980 timeline, when Brett Woodard‘s landmine booby traps go off, the whole case goes up in smoke. The firefight between the isolated Vietnam vet, the racists attempting to lynch him for a crime he didn’t commit and the policemen who put a stop to it all leaves half a dozen men dead. Roland gets clipped in the leg by one of the good ol’ boys, and Wayne is forced into a kill-or-be-killed situation by the so-called “Trashman,” who’d rather commit suicide-by-cop than go into the system.
“You’re gonna put this on me, are you?” Hays asks, desperate not to have to kill this poor guy and furious that he’s gonna have to. But Woodard persists, dragging them both into a lethal confrontation almost politely. Actors Mahershala Ali and Michael Greyeyes play the scene as if it’s the final battle in the war they never truly came home from — it’s as tragic as it is tense. And by the time it’s over, the powers-that-be have a perfect patsy, since a dead man can’t defend himself.
In the 1990 timeline, the duo’s luck has not improved. By now it’s crystal clear Woodard had nothing to do with the murder or the kidnapping, and the pain that the wrongful blame has caused his now-grown children is written all over their faces. There’s a great bit where Wayne looks at them, seems on the verge of heading over to apologize, but instead retreats into his decade-old anger at their dad: “Motherfucker made me carry his water.”
Continuing their tour of the wrongfully accused, the detectives pay a visit to Freddy Burns. Back when he was a teenager who’d picked on Will the day of his disappearance, they’d brought him in for questioning and threatened him with prison rape; his only crime, however, was being an asshole. Now married with children, he still bears the psychological scars of that traumatic experience. Beneath his rage and racism toward Wayne is a bitter truth: He wasn’t the only bully in that interrogation room. He was just the only one without a badge.
His accusation stings worse when you see how Wayne is behaving toward his wife Amelia. Sulky and nit-picky, he resents her for her pending success as a writer, perhaps realizing she made more sense out of the case with her book than he ever did with his police work. He’s so bitter, in fact, that he doesn’t even read the thing until 2015, thus missing a key piece of evidence: Lucy Purcell, the kids’ mother, sent the “CHILDREN SHOULD LAUGH” note that they’d believed was from the kidnappers in a misguided attempt to ease her estranged husband Tom‘s pain.
Speaking of Tom: In a shocking development, he winds up the lead suspect. A cryptic phone call to the police hotline by Julie makes it sound like her father was responsible for the crime, and they’re close to believing it. Either they’ve got the wrong guy again, or Mr. Purcell has been delivering an Oscar-caliber performance as a grieving, alcoholic father for a decade. Scoot McNairy’s pain when he first sees his daughter in a surveillance-camera photo (“Is this my baby girl?”) and his confusion when both she and the cops he thought were his friends turn on him (“What’s she sayin’? … Lieutenant West? Roland?”) both burn hot through the screen.
That leaves the partners’ long awaited reunion in 2015. It’s endearing to watch these two old men (with Stephen Dorff sporting age makeup nearly as good as Ali’s) attempt to bury the hatchet, even though Wayne doesn’t even remember why they stopped talking. But if you listen to their dialogue, it sure looks like our heroes are conspiring to keep covering up two murders they themselves committed: the creepy cousin of the kids’ mom and a fellow officer who may have planted the evidence used to frame the Trashman.
What makes this not just ironic but fascinating is that Hays and West are easily the least weird, least corrupt, least abusive protagonists that showrunner Nic Pizzolatto has created yet. They like each other. They’re capable of long-term romantic relationships with intelligent women who have lives of their own (even if those relationships eventually end). They’re dedicated to solving the case, even if it means defying the higher-ups. Sure, they’re gruff and have a tendency to play bad cop/bad cop when interrogating suspects, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen in like two dozen Law & Order characters. You could even say that they are [drumroll] … true detectives!
And yet the case is as much of a mess as the hunt for the Yellow King. Why?
The answer is rooted in the previous seasons, and not because of various subreddit-worthy clues indicating they occur in a shared universe. Whether Matthew McConaughey or Rachel McAdams were in the lead, those stories left the power players behind their central crimes untouched, even if individual mysteries got solved.
You don’t need to believe in Carcosa to understand that there are evil forces at work in the world that no murder investigation can eradicate. Poverty, race, class, alcoholism, political corruption, misogyny, people just plain being shitty — they all conspired to commit this crime. Catching the killer won’t stop any of those factors from destroying more lives. Not even a keen-eyed Vietnam War tracker and his trusty by-the-book companion can stop that destruction. The best they can hope for is to preserve the peace, along with some of the pieces.
Previously: Pride and Prejudice