‘True Detective’ Season 3, Episode 3: Lighten Up, Dad
Season 3, Episode 3: ‘The Big Never’
Because “True Detective” has no narrative continuity from season to season, it is united instead by a set of distinguishing elements — “auteur stamps” to put it kindly, “clichés” to put it less so.
Broadly speaking, every season is about hard-boiled detectives working the case that will define their careers and alter their lives, leading to a confrontation with unfathomable evil in the outside world and personal demons from within. There is also a refreshing of rotating elements, like whatever brooding song T Bone Burnett unearths for the opening credits, and the big-name actors in the lead roles. The one constant is the voice of Nic Pizzolatto, whose robust interpretation of the noir procedural is unmistakable, for better or worse.
In this week’s episode, a few more specific elements asserted themselves, starting with the detective’s broken relationship with his children. Detective Hays doesn’t have kids yet in the 1980 timeline because he is only just meeting Amelia, their future mother. But his relationship to the Purcell children is already coloring his approach to fatherhood.
The Purcell kids, we learn, have been hiding something from their parents — and from everyone else, for that matter. When they were alive, they claimed to be playing with a schoolmate named Boyle a few times a week, but when Hays and West interrogate the kid, he claims to have spent little time with Will Purcell. And when asked about Boyle, Will’s father, Tom, is struck by the fact that Boyle was supposed to be a close buddy but he never remembers that boy ever spending time in their home.
Even though the Purcell children are the victims here, no matter the circumstances, the fact that they were lying to their parents and perhaps had a “secret friend” who may be responsible for their abduction plays on Hays’s mind. The lesson for him is that children are never safe outside his watch, for one, but also that they’re as capable of deception as grown-ups. That feeling of powerlessness over a child’s fate was a dominant — and at times, laughable — element of “True Detective” last season, when Colin Farrell’s absentee dad made several heavy-handed attempts to have a relationship to his son but often erupted into anger and violence. When the boy got bullied in school, his answer was to drive over to the kid’s house and beat his father to a pulp on the front lawn.
One of the most crucial sequences this week’s episode, which is devoted mostly to picking up bread crumbs, catches Hays at a Wal-Mart in the 1990 timeline with his two children, Henry and Becca (Isaiah C. Morgan and Kennedi Butler), who are still of elementary school age. He demands they stay by his side, despite their antsy desire to visit the toy aisle, and when Becca wanders off as he’s picking out toilet paper, he quickly loses his cool.
He dashes through aisles with his son, has customer service call for her over the public address system and even demands that they lock down the entire store to keep anyone from getting out. When she turns up, his reaction is maybe 20 percent relief and 80 percent fury, and he terrorizes her just as Farrell terrorized his already put-upon son last season.
Back home, he barks at his wife for acting too giddy over a piece of good information she picked up from the police about Julie Purcell’s reappearance at the drugstore robbery. He barks at her again to check on the kids, and gets reminded that she spends far more time looking after them than he does. The difference between Hays and Farrell’s character, however, is that the big case is about children, so his unhinged rants around and about them cannot be chalked up to garden-variety cop-on-the-edge behavior. We don’t know everything that has happened in the decade between the Purcell case breaking and the scene at Wall-Mart, but we know enough that his fear over what can happen to kids — and his knowledge that they can lie — has poisoned his thinking.
And although we also don’t know why the grown-up Becca is estranged from him in the 2015 timeline, his temperament suggests the answer.
Still, it’s disappointing to see Hays slurping from a bottle of Jack Daniels and carping at his wife, because it brings him right in line with the detectives on previous seasons. It shouldn’t be too much to expect Pizzolatto to make some tweaks and perhaps define Hays a little differently, especially since we’ve seen how calmly and methodically Hays can work a crime scene or question suspects and witnesses.
Although the mystery has unfolded compellingly on this season of “True Detective,” with the three timelines relating to each other elegantly, it’s a shame to think of Hays as a carbon-copy of detectives past, particularly given his racial differences and his seemingly more sober process. “True Detective” wouldn’t be “True Detective” without a case ruining its hero’s life, but it’s fair to hope that Pizzolatto will ruin Hays’s life in less expected ways.
• One of the fascinating side effects of multiple timelines is that they stand in for lapses in memory. We don’t know what happened between 1980 and 1990, or 1990 and 2015, but our minds fill in the blanks anyway, depending on whatever narrative or behavioral cues Pizzolatto supplies. It is particularly interesting to imagine what happened to Tom in the years after his son was murdered and his daughter went missing — how he found God and got sober, what bottom looked like for him before he quit drinking and how he secured a warm relationship with West.
• Extremely relatable that Hays would lose track of his daughter when considering what kind of toilet paper to pick up. Charmin currently has Ultra Soft and Ultra Strong rolls sitting side-by-side at the grocery store. Surely there’s a difference, but who can know right away which to choose?
• Hays finding multi-sided Dungeons & Dragons die in the wood recalls the little-remembered 1982 made-for-TV movie “Mazes and Monsters,” starring Tom Hanks in his first lead role. What notoriety the film does have, beyond being a footnote in Hanks’s career, lies in its fear-mongering over role-playing games like D & D and their effects on the psychologically susceptible.
• Having Will’s hands positioned as they were in his First Communion photo is right on that edge between creepy and exploitative. It suggests a line is about to be crossed.