Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): True Detective season 3 episodes 1 & 2 - "The Great War and Modern Memory" & "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye"

Monday, January 14, 2019

True Detective season 3 episodes 1 & 2 - "The Great War and Modern Memory" & "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye"


This True Detective viewing diary is being written while the new series airs. As such, future readers need not worry: there are no spoilers for upcoming episodes.

If "The Great War and Modern Memory" - the first half of True Detective's return to HBO after a three and half year hiatus - is at pains to establish one virtue above all others, that virtue is maturity. Having made a splash as the intense wunderkind behind the first True Detective in the winter of 2014, series writer/creator Nic Pizzolatto flamed out spectacularly with a rushed second season the following summer. Abandoning most of the qualities that made the first season so popular, Pizzolatto's ambitious sophomore slump received a widespread backlash targeting not just the messiness of the storytelling but the hubris of Pizzolatto himself, whose offscreen interviews and on-set domineering rubbed many critics the wrong way. Just shy of forty when the show ended, his rising star looked more like a shooting one, which had burned out much more quickly than expected. HBO dragged its feet commissioning a third season and Pizzolatto disappeared from the public eye. There were hints that perhaps HBO would seek another project from him and then, little by little, word got out that True Detective was slowly and surely assembling a third season after all. Now, in a surprisingly different cultural moment, that third season arrives with a confident but relatively muted rollout, as if to announce that the newly middle-aged showrunner has been humbled without losing his identity. That's the background. But what do we see onscreen?

Unlike the first two seasons, we meet this mystery's victims before they are murdered (or, it seems, one murdered and one kidnapped). In an extended sequence establishing the Arkansas setting, the ensemble, and the general mood that will settle over the investigation, two siblings - twelve-year-old Will (Phoenix Elkin) and ten-year-old Julie Purcell (Lena McCarthy) - bike out of town toward the ominous woods. Along the way they pass friendly classmate Mike Ardoin (Corbin Pitts) waving from a playground, quiet offbeat teen Freddy Burns (Rhys Wakefield) driving out to the wooded Devil's Den to party with his friends in a purple VW (shades of the West Memphis Three?), and lonely junk collector Brett Woodard (Michael Greyeyes) chugging along in his cluttered jalopy. There's something unnerving about the calm, determined fashion in which the children pedal toward their fate; they seem less like unsuspecting kids snatched in a shocking turn of events than initiates in some secret society, heading toward a prearranged meeting. This suspicion is emphasized later in the episode, when we learn that they may have met the killer/kidnapper earlier, on Halloween, and when a letter, assembled from magazine cut-outs, arrives at the Purcells' doorsteps after Will's body has been found and Julie remains at large: "Do not worry. Julie is in a good place and safe. The children shud laugh. Do not look. Let it go."

Detective Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) is the one who finds the body, using tracking skills honed in Vietnam as well as the eerie presence of homemade dolls (crafted out of corn husks) strewn along the path. All alone, he reaches the cave where Will has been left behind, head bloody, hands folded, laid out across a slab of stone. A couple episodes in (last night HBO paired the first two episodes for a feature-length premiere), Hays is already being assisted by several individuals, over a span of crosscut decades: his partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff) who mostly plays the straight man, despite his more scruffy appearance, to Hays' subtly eccentric sleuth; his wife Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo), a schoolteacher-turned-author whom we see him meet as a schoolteacher in the early eighties (she will later craft a bestselling work of nonfiction about the case); attorney Jim Dobkins (Josh Hopkins), who has re-opened the case in the early nineties in the interest of exonerating the convincted killer; and TV journalist Elisa Montgomery (Sarah Gadon), who visits Hays as an old man to record his story and scratch at old wounds. There are FBI agents and local officials as well, but they are either peripheral or outright obstructionist, and so far even those closest to Hays take a backseat: this is clearly his story above all else.

The first hour of the premiere, while establishing the back-and-forth nature of the narrative, adheres to a more-or-less straight line whenever it returns to the original investigation. Its pace is measured and cool, leading us slowly toward the discovery of Will's body near the end of the episode (meanwhile the ten-years-later deposition climaxes with the revelation that a now-adult Julie's fingerprints have been found at the scene of convenience store robbery). The second hour of the premiere, technically episode 2 ("Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye") echoes the second episodes of both earlier seasons by delving into the nitty-gritty of the investigation. We spend time with the detectives as they question various suspects or witnesses and we begin to explore the personal life of its central character. The ne'er-do-well parents of the children, Tom (Scoot McNairy) and Lucy (Mamie Gummer) stumble through their grief - Tom in particular is hardhit, making a scene before quitting his job and shuffling like a zombie through the town's streets, begging the detectives to tell him if they're going to find Julie because he can't go on like this. Hays and West keep some crucial information not only from the parents but also the subject himself - while staying with the Purcells for several months, Lucy's cousin Dan O'Brien (Michael Graziadei) created a Peeping Tom hole in his bedroom wall in order to spy on his prepubescent niece. The detectives also question Brett, a fellow veteran offended by even the slight suggestion that he might have harmed the children who passed him on the road that fateful day.

Meanwhile, with Amelia's assistance, they learn from Mike that Julie probably received one of those strange dolls while trick-or-treating. With the FBI, they plan a slow-boil stakeout of the neighborhood to squeeze the community until the culprit tumbles from his suburban nest. Unfortunately, the nervous District Attorney Greg Larson (Brett Cullen) blows their cover by announcing the discovery on TV, which not only messes up Hays' case but also his first (quasi-)date with Amelia (in which it's established that he is a conservative hunter and veteran while she's a liberal who used to be affiliated with the Black Panthers, both also harbor strange fixations which they find more amusing than offputting). Nonetheless, we know things will work out for them; we meet their family as children and then young adults, and in the present day we learn that Amelia has passed away - a loss that haunts Hays as much as the lingering mystery he opened thirty-five years earlier. Indeed, in every era we glimpse, Hays is weighted down by memories: even long before he grieves his wife or re-opens the case, he is already marked by his war experience (he tells one interviewer that he used to mark time pre- and post-Vietnam, but now the Purcell case has begun to seem like the more significant dividing line). And the slipperiness of these memories is never far from being the central theme - the elderly Hays uses a tape recorder to jog his memory, and the second episode ends with a quick cut from the safety of his dinner table to an empty street corner where he stands in his bathrobe, as unsure as we are of how he got there.

Even at its most aberrant, True Detective has always been about characters haunted by the past. The first season foregrounded this concern by employing a back-and-forth timeline: two characters being interviewed about an old case, with the screenplay alternating between the relatively fresh-faced protagonists in 1995 and their more grizzled incarnations in 2012 (later an interim period - when the two partners broke up in 2002 - would also be depicted). Although the second season strove to break away from this format and establish its own rhythm, its characters too articulated traumatic memories. By returning to the latter-day interview framing device (now the interrogation scenes are set in 1990, ten years after the 1980 case), and adding a further framing device with 2015 scenes of the main character as an old man, questioned now by a TV documentarian rather than state investigators, the third season is saturating itself not only in the characters' memories but in the viewers'. It's been five years now since the initial Matthew McConaughey/Woody Harrelson season premiered, and both Pizzolatto and the wider world have been on quite a roller coaster since then. True Detective returns to us now with a meta-subtext; will not just the characters but the series itself find a way out of the hole?

After biting off more than he could chew in season three, Pizzolatto pointedly adopts a calmer pace and more focused narrative (despite the slippery timescape). He also makes a pronounced return to form on several fronts, which adds to the sense of reassuring familiarity after a long break. Like season one, and unlike season two (which re-located itself to a noirish Los Angeles) season three anchors itself in the eerie atmosphere of the late twentieth-century rural South. Like season one, and unlike season two (which focused on a sex ring involving corrupt politicians), season three's crimes involve ritualistic murder and child abuse, evoking a sense of almost supernatural dread more than worldly power plays (the first season eventually incorporated the latter too; we'll see if this season follows suit). And perhaps most importantly for its sense of clarity, like season one, and unlike season two (which scattered its sprawling narrative across four different characters from four different worlds), season three sticks to a duo of police investigators - only one of whom commands our attention so far.

That said, this is not simply a reiteration of the first season. Notably lacking is the wry humor of the McConaughey/Harrelson banter; that touch was apparently due to improvisations of the actors and director Cory Jo Fukunaga, with Pizzolatto preferring a more somber ambiance. Indeed, Fukunaga's singular presence across every episode of that first season (one of its most praised elements, and a sore subject for detractors of the subsequent Pizzolatto-controlled season) has not been duplicated in season three. Although paring down the number of directors somewhat from the scattershot season two, this season will still avoid a singular voice present for every episode. Jeremy Saulnier, who lends the two-part premiere (especially the first half) a graceful, assured sense of patient contemplation, will not return again; Daniel Sackheim, who directed a couple of the very earliest and most notable episodes of The X-Files, will pick up the reigns next week and then return for the final three. In between, handling that crucial episode four/five arc (where the previous two seasons have pivoted) will be Pizzolatto himself, making his directorial debut.

So the trend of season two, away from a singular filmmaker imposing their own vision on the material and toward Pizzolatto's assumption of full auteur status over not just the content but the look and feel of the season, appears to only be escalating. Indeed, news of Saulnier's contentious departure during production - a confusing development, given the way the credits are allotted - suggests this remained a real sticking point for Pizzolatto. Nonetheless, it's hard not to feel echoes of Fukunaga in the third season's texture. Now digital instead of celluloid (the first season seems destined to be one of 35mm's last hurrahs), the photography emphasizes the same alternation between unsettling emptiness and tense clutter that marked the initial True Detective aesthetic. Certainly much of the early acclaim greeting the premiere is motivated by atmosphere as well as narrative. Embedded in the praise are suggestions the series is missing a certain flair that was so captivating in the first season; although I've avoided reading any reviews so far, the quotes I've caught seem pleased without being delighted. Nonetheless, the thinkpieces, recaps, and clue-parsing breakdowns have already begun in earnest and I'll probably be checking them out as the weeks go by, weaving some of the broader audience's thoughts with my own. For now, I decided to stick mostly to my own impressions.

I also anticipate some rejections of the show's ethos, especially since the teleplay seems to delight in tossing out the occasional hint of ostensibly Hollywood-defying Trumpism. The series' stoicism, superficially at least, couldn't be further from the dominant cultural mode of contemporary conservatism, but if Pizzolatto thinks he can tease political incorrectness and tough-on-crime values without the taint of the president on viewers' minds, he's kidding himself. More generously, he may plan to foreground the political tensions he's already established, most notably between the starring couple, in a more nuanced way than initially suggested by the second episode. My own take, for now, is that Pizzolatto's obsession with mythologizing beleagured but resolute lone-wolf masculinity may be worth criticizing both politically and aesthetically (at its best, is resonates as all deeply-rooted cultural myths do; at its worst, it approaches narcissistic self-parody). But ultimately this is baked in to his vision to the point where you have to take or leave the whole project; either you decide to go on this journey or you determine that you're tired of humoring right-leaning law enforcement narratives, in which case this show is probably not for you.

The first episode is a bit stronger than the second, which - aside from a less compelling throughline - contains a few missteps reminding us of Pizzolatto's penchant for forced heavyhandedness. They also tend to be the show's most overtly political moments thus far; in the worst (a cloying lowball), Pizzolatto has the young female reporter babble a world salad about "intersectional oppression in authoritarian power structures" to show how out of touch she is with the with the authentic, down-to-earth black cop and his lack of concern about racism in the police force. (Another throwaway line works a bit better, although it's anachronistic - Hays jokes, "Don't tell me you're a Democrat," to Amelia after she says she's a vegetarian and former Black Panther, even though in 1980 the South still mostly voted for conservative Democrats aside from presidential elections). The most jarring gesture, however, and one I'm still not sure what to make of, comes when Hays and West get frustrated with the D.A.'s sabotage and restless with their stalled investigation. They look up local sex criminal Ted Lagrange (Shawn-Caulin Young) and "bring him in for questioning," by which I mean they kidnap and brutally torture the man before locking him, gagged, bound, and bloody, in the trunk of a car.

While the victim - a racist child molester - is made resolutely unsympathetic, Hays and West come off more like Mafiosi than cops in this sequence. Perhaps that's an accurate depiction of law enforcement, but the random and one-sided nature of the attack doesn't gel with the rest of Pizzolatto's sympathetic portrait. It's unclear if Pizzolatto himself views police torture with a shrug; the way the sequence unfolds as a relatively casual aside, character color more than plot fulcrum (for now), suggests that he may. If so, it feels like a misstep: Hays has mostly been by-the-book and in previous episodes of True Detective when cops took the law into their hands it was also for a clear purpose with high stakes. On the other hand, if this minor (to him) "waste of a day" comes back to bite Hays and West in the ass, it could play out in interesting ways - not least because his wife is bound to see the situation differently. One of the most compelling and promising features of the double episode is the relationship between Wayne and Amelia (or "Hays and Reardon" - notably, the characters are credited with different last names). While much of the cast is notably less colorful than past seasons, these two - while very much down-to-earth - command our attention as readily as the evocative landscapes (and accompanying soundscapes) or the sinister clues scattered among them.

Next week: "The Big Never" • Back in 2015: "Omega Station"

(For my overall thoughts on seasons 1 & 2, you can read this post-finale analysis)


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