This True Detective review contains spoilers.
True Detective: Season 3 Episode 3
For a full accounting of the case at the center of True Detective season 3, episode 3, “The Big Never,” begins with Detective Roland West, played by Stephen Dorff. We haven’t seen the decade older middle era version of the Detective Hays’ (Mahershala Ali) partner yet. This reviewer was wondering if the now-Lieutenant lived to see the second part of the timeline. Glad he did because he brings the paperwork. It’s the first thing he does at the May 19, 1990, deposition. West sees nothing wrong with how it all came down back in the fall of 1980. At least, that’s the confidence he shows in the face of accusations the investigation was faulty.
West lights a cigarette and gets comfortable. But there is something in the way he leans into his memory that implies he’s ready for a fight. He is giving them everything they need. But Dorff infuses every word with a veiled take it or leave it threat, and his body language says he is fully prepared to back it up. West takes up the story from last week, which ended when a note was sent to the parents’ home, telling them not to worry, their daughter Julie was safe and that children should laugh. The note, which is written with letters cut out of different magazines and was mailed from a fairly major hub, is extremely important. It presents a view into the mind-set of the abductor. It implies an inner knowledge of the Purcell family life.
The Purcells were not a happy family long before they were hit with the tragedy. They blame each other, they blame themselves, and the detectives are looking for blame on Lucy’s cousin. He’d cut out a spy-hole to where his nephew slept while he was a long-term house guest.
Memory is at the center of the third season of True Detective, as it is in the investigation of every crime. People remember the way they remember and they can purposefully or inadvertently forget important details. West’s memory “gets a little fuzzy” when he asked why it took so long to take a call in the neighborhood if he and his partner were doing neighborhood surveillance. It’s not a big town. Of course, he knows Hays will also be a little fuzzy on why it took them so long to rouse and cart off a pedophile off the record. Sometimes, the law itself is a little fuzzy. Sometimes it’s better to crush an ember before it grows into a fire. A true detective can see when this is necessary. It goes outside law, and it is more than enforcement, and internal affairs would have a field day with it, but Hays and West believe it is justified. They have a kind of pact about it.
For all his confidence, the most telling insight into West is when Lucy asks him what he’s looking for after he wants permission to go through the kids’ things again. He just doesn’t know. There is a kind of resigned not-quite-desperation attached to looking for clues on a second go around. He knows he and his partner will have to put their heads in a different state just to be open to it. He’s hopeful, but Dorff puts very real concern into it.
Hays is so laser focused so much of the time his wife Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) has to remind him they can just drop everything and have sex all night in an anonymous motel. He is reluctant to let his life partner edge her way into his investigative partner, and it’s the only thing that makes him lose his focus. Hays is also subject to extreme bouts of jealousy. Amelia winds up being pretty good at getting clues from recalcitrant cops, and it bugs him to distraction. Ali is as focused as Hays on the job, this comes out most clearly when Hays gets distracted outside the job.
The scene where Hays’ daughter goes missing in a Wal-Mart is wrought with tension, suspense and an all-too relatable fear, which is only deepened by where the series has taken us. If she’s missing, is it related to the case? Are people watching the detectives? Any number of conspiracies spring to mind as we see Ali completely lose himself in Hays’ haze. This is not purple, even though he goes into immediate tracking mode. When he finally grab his daughter and she cries at his fear, the relief is painful. It is a beautifully horrific scene.
The very next scene in the episode, at the Ozark Children’s Outreach Center, gets Hays back in focus with a wonderful one-two punch delivered between West and the camera. Speaking to the head of firm which funds the center, a processing plant where the missing kids’ mom used to work, West hears the head honcho is out on safari and says, good-naturedly, that his partner is a bit of a hunter himself. The camera, and the music, then focus on Hays, and the message is clear: he is hunting the company’s ass. If the kids were chosen because the mother worked in that plant, it will be grass. He will be happy to mow it down.
The spooky element comes out more in the “The Big Never.” In the contemporary timeline, Hays sees Amelia as a ghost. In the nineties timeline, he finds a photo of the dead boy at his communion where his hands are folded exactly as they were when he was laid out dead in woods. He finds a backpack filled with frightening connections and tries to figure out a mysterious, but deadly, game without the dice. West sits for a prayer with the newly converted Tom (Scoot McNairy), father of the children. The specter of a couple, a white woman and a black man with a scar, steps out of the tread marks of a brown sedan. A different kind of community outreach reaches out to the ex-vet scrapper Brett Woodard (Michael Greyeyes), as locals beat him and warn him to stay away from children. He unpacks an arsenal and we know the neighborhood is about to go to war.
The first two episodes of True Detective season 3 felt like pincers were closing on an elusive target. “The Big Never” ends leaving us with the feeling like scissors are opening up for another bite.
“The Big Never” was written by Nic Pizzolatto, and directed by Daniel Sackheim.
True Detective season 3 airs on Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.
Keep up with everything you need to know about True Detective season 3 right here.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.