This True Detective review contains spoilers.
True Detective: Season 3 Episode 1
“Yeah, of course I remember,” retired Arkansas state detective Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) says at the very beginning of True Detective season 3 episode 1, “The Great War and Modern Memory.” He is giving a deposition, dated May 12, 1990, on a case from a decade prior to that.
It was a full moon on Friday, November 7, 1980, the day Steve McQueen died. Hays and his partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff) were called to investigate two missing kids, a brother (Phoenix Elkin) and his sister (Lena McCarthy). The deposition scene follows an establishing shot of a kid’s bicycle tires, complete with a clothes-pinned baseball card rattling the spokes, happily careening up a quiet street on its way to what must be an unhappy destination. It also follows a flash-forward to the present, where the look on Detective Hays’ face makes it appear the memories are still coming.
It’s been three-and-a-half years since Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams and Taylor Kitsch shook the faith of the series’ fans chasing Vince Vaughn in True Detective season 2, and 35 years since a routine missing persons case became a community nightmare in the current season. The first episode, written as are all the episodes, by creator Nic Pizzolatto, and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, brings the series back to its roots as a mysterious police procedural. One of the deepest mysteries is whether the detectives can believe their memories, with or without help from the original case files.
Hays’ “whole brain is a bunch of missing pieces” as he moves forward to the present, speaking into a camera for a documentary on the original case. On the afternoon of the disappearance, Tom Purcell (Scoot McNairy) sent his kids off with a warning to be in before sunset. Many of the neighbors saw the kids bicycling off to see their friends’ new puppy, at least that’s what they told him before biking off. But Detective Hays and his partner know that everyone lies, even the best of kids. The pair was also seen by the neighborhood scrap collector, an ex-vet named Brett Woodard (Michael Greyeyes), and some teenagers in a purple Volkswagen Beetle.
The cops start narrowing down the suspects and judging what is true in the case long before they send plainclothes officers around the block canvassing the neighbors. The father is beyond distraught, and McNair does a good job of showing a man who was already damaged before the incident. He is afraid for his kids. He is afraid of his wife, Lucy Purcell (Mamie Gummer). He is an open wound and the questioning reveals he was that way long before the kids missed the curfew.
Hays was known as Purple Hays when he served in Vietnam. He was a long range tracker. His unit could “drop him in a jungle for a week and he’ll come out with scalps.” He has his own ways and goes his own way. On a case like this, his partner tells the parents he is the only person he would trust. Detective West is very progressive for a southern cop. He appears to genuinely like, appreciate and respect his partner, and is very forward thinking in how he interacts with working women. He proclaims himself a lifelong bachelor and is not too proud to pay for sex. He says he’s a feminist, and if they want to sell a piece of ass, he is not going to restrain their trade.
Ali and Dorff are a great pairing. They play off each other like Abbott and Costello at times. Dorff brings a jaded optimism into work with his coffee and donuts. Ali brings a dour straight face. Sometimes he looks like he’d love to start a fight, just waiting for the right trigger. But he does it with such a slow burn he lets the opportunities fizzle before the spark. Dorff’s Roland West isn’t spoiling for a fight, but you can tell he’d happily jump in if his partner so much as twitched an eyebrow. This doesn’t only apply to the people around them. Hays and West could go at it with each other, but not with malice, just to keep themselves in shape. Violence is a game and they are athletes.
The cops skirt the law, getting to the trash man’s place before he has a chance to ask for a warrant. They openly harass the citizenry. They even brag about it. They are flawed, possibly corrupt, and compelling. They are moving into an abyss and they seem perfectly suited to it.
True Detective‘s first season, which focused on Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s Louisiana State Homicide Unit detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, established itself as a satanic detective genre entry. The sophomore season merely hinted at the wealthy cabals of the demonically successful with aerosol Molly parties. Here in the Ozarks of season 3, devils abound as part of the natural geography, but among the locals the devils are hidden behind the details. One of the kids in the purple VW is wearing a Black Sabbath T-shirt. This is enough to prompt Detective Hays to ask the kid if he’s a Satanist. I admit I’m openly hoping for a little devil worship, but am not yet sure if this will be a retelling of the West Memphis 3 teens who were the subject of Joe Berlinger’s HBO documentary Paradise Lost. The confused look on the clueless kids’ face says the shirt is just a band advertisement.
The first season introduced audiences to “devil traps,” twig figure folk magic fetishes. “The Great War and Modern Memory” ends with Hays, who breaks off from the volunteers combing the woods for clues or worse, making some creepy and disturbing discoveries. One of these I won’t spoil, the other is a piece of folk art made of straw. It looks like a bride. It is creepy as hell and as exciting as an unexpected visit from an old friend.
The Ozark landscape is a very strong character in the season. An impressive backdrop, it is beautifully and menacingly shot. The cameras of True Detective finds spooky nuance in the middle of a sunny afternoon. Forget about the dried out grass under dead leaves and looming trees, every crack in the suburban sidewalk could hide a grotesque clue. The landscape is expansive, and we just know it’s going to get claustrophobic.
The moving between timelines is seamless in its storytelling. Hays’ mind puts the pieces together like he’s cutting film, between the holes in his memory and the sanctimonious prattle he and his son have to endure from the documentary interviewer. “The Great War and Modern Memory” establishes itself immediately with the acting, atmosphere and the promise of twists to come.