True Detective Season 3 Episode 5 Review: If You Have Ghosts

True Detective drops the most balanced episode of season 3 so far with "If You Have Ghosts."

True Detective season 3 episode 5 Stephen Dorff

NOTE: This episode of True Detective is available now on HBO Now and HBO Go. It will air at its usual time on Sunday night, February 3.

This True Detective review contains spoilers.

True Detective Season 3 Episode 5

Detectives Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) and Roland West (Stephen Dorff) arrived on the scene last week just in time to see a local vigilante group trip a claymore in a cliffhanger endingTrue Detective season 3 episode 5, doesn’t offer a quick landing. “If You Have Ghosts” opens with the Purcell Task Force in 1990 dealing with the fallout from a nationally televised Donahue appearance by the state prosecutor. Law enforcement often reaches out to the public for tips on unsolved crimes, but in this case, the cops aren’t the only ones looking for Lucy, and she may slip further underground.

Lucy didn’t fare well after her son Will’s death and daughter Julie’s disappearance, in the 1990 timeline. She overdosed in the late eighties, and her cousin, who was once eyed suspiciously by the detectives, also fell of the map. Roland tells the task force it’s better to keep her ex-husband Tom in the dark about it because he’s barely keeping himself together as it is. Tom shows up shortly afterwards to illuminate the point. Scoot McNairy, as Tom, plays this scene at the edge of something deeper than tears. During a particularly apropos inner meltdown, the mics pick up a hard swallow to show us how deep the pain is. His breathing tells us he’s desperate, his teary eyes say he is frustrated, but the swallow is heartbreaking.

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Roland feels Tom’s pain and is desperate to get the still-grieving man as far away from the investigation as possible. Wayne, however, is persistent to the point of insubordination, and this isn’t lost on Roland. The pair still have a chemistry, because angry as he is, Roland knows it’s Wayne’s inner cop giving him tunnel vision. Whether they get along or not in a scene, Ali and Dorff dance when they’re together, sometimes verbally, but here physically. Wayne is deeply rooted to that floor, and Roland might as well try to uproot a tree.

It’s after all this we finally get a hint into the repercussions of what we only started to see last week: The Woodard Altercation of 1980. Hays admits to a fellow task force member he was “in that.” But his eyes make confession and with no hope of contrition. The scene starts with a photograph of the aftermath, and then shows us how it happens. The actual incident is truly a top tier action sequence. Set up with a small metal rectangle with the words “Front Toward Enemy” on it, it sizzles on a short fuse and then explodes. The shootout, and booby trapped end run, is over in just a shade over a minute, but the casualties are immense: The entire group of vigilantes, plus a federal cop who takes it in the head at a point which surprised me. Roland gets off easy, with a bullet in his leg, but also gets off one last shot of humor. He assures his partner he ain’t going nowhere while Wayne goes in for the kill shot.

The next scene builds on the characters as much as on the suspense. It is fraught with peril, but Purple Hays and the former vet connect, bond and reach full understanding. Then it messes with it again by surprising the audience with another unexpected split second turn. The scene says a lot in both words and actions. Woodard’s (Michael Greyeyes) knows he’s not giving Wayne a choice, and the detective really agonizes over how to take control of a situation so horribly lost.

True Detective Season 3 Episode 1: The Great War and Modern Memory. Read our review here.

The exchange is great. Hays didn’t have to take that job. His conscience wouldn’t have to take on the burden of killing a brother in arms who he respects if only because Hays knows he was given a pass on the battlefield of the guy’s front yard. And the whole time we never forget at least one of the guns is going to go off. Ali even gives Hays’ hands a tremor which telegraphs that he’s not afraid of using the gun, but he’s straining for an alternative even to the final nanosecond. The scene itself is short, but so much happens in the space between seconds it is as fun as it is agonizing to watch.

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Moving to the 1990s, when Tom and the state attorney general’s office have a press conference addressing the Purcell case, is no less agonizing. At least through the eyes of Hays and West, who watch as Tom pleads into a camera for his daughter to reach out, whether it’s safe to or not. Woodard’s family wants him exonerated from the conviction, but the attorney general’s office is not admitting a wrongful sentencing.

The teen who the detectives roused in the 80s does not have fond memories of the original interrogation. The Burns kid grew up with a chip on his bony shoulders and still has nightmares about prison ass raping following Hays’ patent-pending graphic description.

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The Hays couple’s relationship continues its disintegration, this time at Roland’s place, which he is sharing with the woman he met at the St. Michael’s Church police outreach. We don’t exactly know what is up Wayne’s ass, whether it’s jealous over Amelia’s impending book release or if he is just overtired, but the bubbles start rising to the surface when his wife asks about the Purcell case. Roland is no help, offering clues and suspects, and even a few details Wayne thinks are out of line. We know this isn’t going to go well, and that it’s going to get much worse. It does.

Hays’ problem might be that Amelia is actually a better detective than Hays. “Children should laugh” she writes in her book, as Wayne learns far later, and we learn he never read her book. At least they couple still abide by their daughter’s edict the family never goes to bed without saying “I love you.”

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The old file is missing the fingerprints by the 1990s reopening of the case. Hays also realizes a lot of the evidence taken at the time of the Woodard gunfight was either planted or tainted. No one was compelled to look too hard back then, Hays tells West as the two have to deal with a highly politicized investigation.

West and Hays also have to take Tom in to listen to what is probably the most painful evidence in the case, a recorded call to the state police. His daughter Julie saw Tom on TV. She wants her to leave him alone. The two detectives already learned from a runaway that Julie Purcell believes herself to be princess who was raised in a pink room. Julie Purcell is not her name, her disembodied voice says, and the man on TV is not her father, but he knows what happened to her brother.

Hays finally catches up to West in the contemporary setting as well. The former detective is spending his time looking after stray dogs in a house in the woods.

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The final confrontation is as revealing as the one between Hays and Woodard. Well into old age, West still likes his partner, enjoys his company even when he’s angry. But when 70-year-old Hays drops in to spread some of his insanity and dredge up old cop work, West has no interest. He’ll be there for his old partner, he’ll drink with him, watch a ball game and waste time doing stupid things. The old case is a hard sell, though. What comes through is how well the two really know each other. Hays, at the end of his rope, begs his partner to stir things up, an irresistible offer. West goes along for the laughs, ending the episode on a wholly deserved feel good note.

True Detective‘s “If You Have Ghosts” may be the most well rounded of the season’s episodes. It is at turns heartbreaking and heart-stopping. It plows some very deep pain, but closes with the biggest shot of hope the series has yet offered. We know it won’t last long. That’s too bad for the characters, but great for the audience.

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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 JFKRead more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.

Rating:

5 out of 5