By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – January 13, 2019)
EPISODE 1-2: THE GREAT WAR AND MODERN MEMORY / KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE
Whether you loved it or hated it, I have a hard time believing anybody who watched the two episode Season 3 premiere of True Detective didn’t find it much more approachable and engaging than its predecessor, which was a garbled mess that thought it was smarter than its audience and nearly torpedoed a promising anthology series as a result.
I’m still not entirely certain I trust Nic Pizzolatto to tell me a coherent story from start to finish that doesn’t just play with me, dropping various references and allusions to throw me off the track of what may well end up being an extremely straightforward conclusion without much chutzpah behind it. However, the early stages of the Purcell case remind me much more of year one than year two, which is certainly a good thing.
Just as Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson owned the screen the first time around, Mahershala Ali immediately dominates the third installment, and though he’s not alone, with Stephen Dorff, Scoot McNairy, and a smooth performance from Carmen Ejogo among the highlights, this is a well-deserved showpiece for Ali in many respects. He’s already got an Academy Award, may earn another nomination in a few weeks for Green Book, and he’s had the respect of his peers for years. In True Detective, Pizzolatto asks him to play Wayne Hays in three different decades, spanning across two centuries, and the results are incredibly impressive.
In 1980, Hays is 34, which is where we will spend the brunt of our time with him, at least until it’s time to actually execute the climax and whatever reveal is awaiting us at the end of the trick-or-treat route we’re on through the end of next month. 1990 Hays is, of course, 44, and 2015 Hays, riddled with dementia and fragmented memories, is 70. The latter might be the best of the three, because Ali has to play a tender sympathy within a strong man who desperately wants to get the answers to the case that has been with him for 35 years. Through the process, he’s able to recapture some of the times with Amelia, reading her true crime novel based on the case. It’s allowing him to relive that part of his life, but also dredging up the stressors that have dogged him, which doesn’t please his son, Henry (Ray Fisher).
Amelia Reardon (Hays) – and this comes courtesy of Joanna Robinson of Vanity Fair, who always does such a fantastic job of digging out the details – is partially based (we think) on Mara Leveritt, who has penned numerous books on Arkansas murders that bear resemblance to the Will and Julie Purcell disappearances. More obvious, however, is Amelia’s parallel to Truman Capote, with Life and Death and the Harvest Moon: Murder, Abduction, and the Community it Destroyed being her In Cold Blood. That one’s not as difficult to spot, as the show makes its inspiration clear.
Part of the True Detective experience is the guessing game and going along for the ride, attempting to figure out what’s coming in the end. It’s what drove Season 1, along with the two lead performances, and the scores once we arrived at the last stop were mixed, with some disappointed and others satisfied. That’s likely to happen here, also, but my curiosity is more with how many people will watch this story unfold. I believe it will do well, provided it STARTED well. Those that watched had to be pleasantly surprised that what HBO presented actually made sense.
I can’t stress enough what a disaster Season 2 was as a product.
So, what do we have so far? We have one dead 12 year-old boy, a missing 10 year-old girl, a broken marriage completing that now decimated household. We have two detectives, neither squeaky clean but neither particularly heinous either. We have local politics, particularly District Attorney Gerald Kindt, played by Brett Cullen, who can do slimy opportunist as well as anybody on TV. We have three shady teenagers, one of whom gets caught up in the satanic panic that was propagated at the time, which also was a primary factor in the prosecution’s case against the West Memphis Three, chronicled in the three Paradise Lost documentaries that remain some of the more engrossing hours I’ve ever experienced in any medium.
We’ve got Julie Purcell alive in 1990, maybe? That shakes 1990 Hays and all of us in the process, maybe even more so than the praying gesture Will is posed in when Wayne finds his body in the cave. We’ll have to wait on that Walgreens footage to be sure of Julie. But we know it will be at the corner of happy and healthy. It may also come with a plastic jug of cheez balls for four bucks, so that’s a nice bonus.
But I digress…
What else? Well we’ve got these creepy straw dolls that are so True Detective it hurts. Looking back to the first season, we were lured into the idea of a supernatural force with The Yellow King and all sorts of misdirection. In the first two episodes of Season 3, we have these straw dolls given out on Halloween night and we’ve got a Dungeons & Dragons role playing guide in Will’s bedroom. Robinson posits the title of the book, which is fictitious, could correspond to H.P. Lovecraft, which would definitely fit the bill for Nic Pizzolatto. The very next shot after we see the book on the desk is maybe the most aesthetically strong visual thus far, with the fog-covered field and a very Stranger Things or Castle Rock kind of vibe.
And, if you’re looking for another tie to the satanic panic, there it is, because D&D got the wrap for a while as well. I remember being told never to play it or be around anyone who played it, in much the same way as some kids aren’t allowed to read Harry Potter because it’s witchcraft. Anything can be good, anything can be bad, depending on what someone is doing with that thing. But the mania surrounding devil worshippers kidnapping and sacrificing kids was real – meaning the MANIA was real.
As it has to be in a show such as this, everyone we meet along the way has some idiosyncrasy or potential “off” trait that keeps our eyes trained on them for just a few seconds longer. It’s the mark of a good mystery. Keeping as many people viable as possible is crucial to maintaining the interest of an audience, and in the first two hours, my attention stayed with West Finger, Arkansas and this case.
If you’re looking for a theory, you’ll have to give me a few weeks. Right now, I’m just watching Mahershala Ali depict Wayne Hays, because ultimately, that’s what each True Detective season is about…the detectives whose lives are irreparably altered by the case we see unfold through time. A few suspects seem to be ruled out, including Brett Woodard, the “Trash Man,” who drops one of the two best lines of the season:
You ever been at a place you couldn’t leave, but you couldn’t stay, all at the same time?
Take it away from Woodard and apply it to Hays, who can’t let the case go, but for his sanity almost needs to, and who as a 70 year-old man in 2015 can’t simply die on command but where life doesn’t add up anymore. He doesn’t remember everything, and it’s getting worse, as he repeats the same question even after hearing the answer seconds before, leading Henry to walk away from the dinner table in frustration. Take the above line and add this one to it, the other of the two lines I just mentioned:
I can’t go to sleep, and I can’t wake up.
That one was Tom in the car with the detectives after quitting his job, where he begs the two men to tell him if they’re not going to be able to find his daughter, because he can’t live as he has been. Again, taking that very appropriate line for Tom’s circumstance and marrying it to Hays, at age 70, he lives in a HAZE…although I don’t think that’s why Pizzolatto picked the name. He’s half-awake, with a brain that plays tricks on him to the degree he has to use a voice recorder to try and document basic information. He hasn’t been able to truly sleep since 1980, but the only way to be fully awake is to put the case to bed, which would then enable him to rest again as well.
The fact Roland West likes to call him “Purple” Hays would indicate Pizzolatto might be aware of the portions of the character that would lead to cloudiness in mental faculties.
The chemistry with Wayne and Amelia is apparent from the first conversation in the classroom, and Ali and Ejogo work beautifully together. That part of the story works from moment one, and it’s fitting Hays mentions to the television reporter his late wife’s book was as much about the two of them as it was about the crime. That’s also going to be true for the season, so it’s something you need to get comfortable with now. This show is about them more than anything. The mystery is great, but I could find myself enjoying the season if THEIR story succeeds, even if the big villain turns out to be something too simple or any brand of letdown. The conversation at the bar was extremely well-developed, with dialogue that illustrated two people ready to cut through the clutter and erase the veneer of vulnerability by crossing the line into familiarity immediately.
The payoff for the crime may be really good as well, but I like the people involved in the run-up to whatever’s coming, and thus I’m okay with the possibility of something underwhelming later.
Racism is touched upon, as expected and necessitated by an Arkansas setting in 1980 and 1990, perhaps even in 2015, but the idea that Hays wouldn’t be taken quite as seriously when issuing various theories isn’t surprising. It just adds another layer, especially when the task force arrives and Kindt has the option to dismiss the local opinions if it’s better for his political future. It’s also briefly mentioned in respect to Amelia teaching English at a predominantly white school, and as we’re there, let’s discuss these two poems. Both of the poems we’re given in the opener come from Robert Penn Warren.
Tell Me a Story
Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood
By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard
The great geese hoot northward.
I could not see them, there being no moon
And the stars sparse. I heard them.
I did not know what was happening in my heart.
It was the season before the elderberry blooms,
Therefore they were going north.
The sound was passing northward.
Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.
In bold above is what stood out because of Wayne Hays’ mental state, which also aided PIzzolatto in the name of the episode itself, taken from a Paul Fussell book on World War I, entitled The Great War and Modern Memory. Nic says it refers to Hays being a long range reconnaissance soldier in Vietnam, explaining his tracking capabilities in 1980, but the deterioration of his mind as time continued to pass. The season, told entirely by Hays, is “three dreams in one dreamer,” in this instance trying to put them together to get to the truth of what happened…and who he is.
And the second poem, which we hear at the very end of the premiere episode:
IV: Love and Knowledge
Their footless dance
Is of the beautiful liability of their nature.
Their eyes are round, boldly convex, bright as a jewel,
And merciless. They do not know
Compassion, and if they did,
We should not be worthy of it. They fly
In air that glitters like fluent crystal
And is hard as perfectly transparent iron, they cleave it
With no effort. They cry
In a tongue multitudinous, often like music.
He slew them, at surprising distances, with his gun. Over a body held in his hand, his head was bowed low,
But not in grief.
He put them where they are, and there we see them: in our imagination.
What is love?
Our name for it is knowledge.
Love. Affection. Memory. Imagination. Dreams. And the two words that rang out to me: BEAUTIFUL LIABILITY. If that’s not the perfect amalgam for humanity after the fall of man, where we were created in the image of God, but exist in a broken world because of our own sin. The mind itself is such a wonder, but it often becomes a terror, an enemy, and a destructive force, always battling with our heart, and sometimes leaving us at the corner of an important road in the middle of the night in our pajamas, staring at something we used to understand, but now leaves us confused, anxious, afraid, and frantic.
Pizzolatto said Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, the second title, was taken from the title of a Horace McCoy noir novel, and is more of a “poetic sentiment” referring to Wayne’s memory disintegrating in front of our eyes as time continues to tick away.
Two hours in, I’m in. Nic lost me big time in Season 2, but I’m giving him another chance. Mahershala Ali is going to WALK to another nomination, this time an Emmy nod, and he’ll have a shot to win. That performance is just superb. I didn’t speak as much about Dorff, but that’s assuredly to come, as he was also very good, among the others already discussed above. The Purcell case has my interest as do these characters. This was a good start. There’s hope again, which is all I could ask for out of a premiere. I’m looking forward to taking this journey with you every week here at the B6B.
If you have theories, hit me up with them…but wait a week or two. Let’s not get ridiculous here.
I’m @JMartZone. I’m pretty easy-goin, but go away already.