Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): True Detective season 3 episode 5 - "If You Have Ghosts"

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

True Detective season 3 episode 5 - "If You Have Ghosts"


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.

As with previous episode fives, "If You Have Ghosts" places us in an "after" position on the central case. We now know what happened to the original investigation - crime scene evidence (planted, as it's later revealed) linked Brett Woodard to the missing kids and so, conveniently, he was posthumously convicted of their murder. The drama of the middle period is in full swing too, having established the basic scenario against which the partners will be torn apart and a family may be separated. In the almost-present, we're shifting from a reflective look back toward a full-on investigation; Wayne reunites with his partner and makes a crucial realization, that Lucy herself wrote the ransom note (he connects the dots after finally reading his wife's book). So far, so familiar as True Detective story structures go. There are some neat quirks to the storytelling: this season's 1990 scenes combine aspects of both the middle and late periods from season one, and, closer to season two, the older characters re-unite to pursue a non-professional investigation at the end of this episode, rather than waiting for the sixth. And of course, we now have a significantly expanded time span to work with (three and a half decades vs. half that time in the original season). Despite these and other small variations, Nic Pizzolatto prefers a certain loose formula and it works quite well here, lending the episode a good deal of its dramatic satisfaction. However, the episode's more profound impact stems from something new.

After a teasing pause, episode 5 returns to where we left off in episode 4. The inevitable showdown at Brett's compound is shockingly quick - over within a few bloody seconds, except for its drawn-out, equally inevitable conclusion. Brett massacres not only the locals who came to attack him but the police who've shown up to defuse the situation; heads and guts explode in the crazed crossfire between three hostile groups and then Wayne is inside the house pointing his gun at Brett's back. Brett reveals that he left the fellow veteran alive on purpose, a clear case of suicide by cop. He promises to kill Wayne after counting to three and despite begging him not to turn around, Wayne is forced to fulfill Brett's dying wishes. At the hospital, soaked in blood, he's visited by Amelia and it's initially difficult to tell (probably for him as well) whether he's turned off or turned on by her aggressive concern. Seems it's very much the latter: they depart for her place, where they worldlessly undress and stumble into the bedroom, their steamy passion barely restrained after embracing in the kitchen.

Have we seen the last of 1980? I'll miss it, if so - the initial Purcell case was our gateway into season three and this was the material over which Jeremy Saulnier's spooky style had the strongest direct and indirect influence (the most visually distinctive filmmaking since Cary Jo Fukunaga in season one). I love how each period has its own very distinct flavor: 1980 with its eerie quiet, characterized by brown-hued portraits of rural isolation; 1990 with its brighter, more bustling presentation, anchored in the professional environs of a less downscale-looking police department and the comfortable, if often tense, domesticity of the Hays household; 2015 with its tidy, maybe ever-so-subtly sterile sheen, a future of digital cameras and shiny SUVs through which the crisp but weary Wayne wanders like a refugee from a scrappier era. More than just the appeal of the '80 vibe, I'll miss the interweaving of three distinct experiences. However, we've learned everything we need to know about why the case was so quickly resolved at that time. We also seem to have reached the decisive moment for Wayne's and Amelia's coming-together; if we stick around for anything else, my guess is it will be the development of Amelia's independent interest in the mystery, sparking the journey that is finally fulfilled in 1990. Otherwise, I'm not sure what we have to gain from witnessing more details of their blossoming romance or the abrupt end of the official investigation.

This is especially true given how much 1990 material there is to mine - indeed, how many potential riches are introduced just in this episode alone. Poor Tom, who took so many years to dig himself out of his hole, experiences a series of shocks; first when he discovers Julie's surveillance picture on the station wall and then when, following a televised press conference begging Julie to come home, he is forced to listen to his grown daughter's voice recorded off a police hotline, begging him to leave her alone because she hates him. The agony spills over into the detectives' personal lives when Wayne and Amelia visit Roland and his girlfriend (they met outside the church in one of the 1980 scenes and will be long-separated, it seems, by 2015). They have an embarrassing argument about the case and her book at the dinner table and back at home Wayne lets her know what he really thinks: she's a voyeur, thrilling at the pain of others. If this time period has riches to mine, those riches are traumatic for the characters onscreen and it's hard not to hear Pizzolatto confronting not just his audience but perhaps even himself as Wayne calls out Amelia's curiosity. Is there more going on here as well? Theories about Amelia's guilt remain remarkably consistent, and apparently Vanity Fair has an article on the subject which the Guardian considers a "game-changer" (though podcasts will probably force me to hear it, I'm avoiding it for now, having already experienced a potential spoiler via a behind-the-scenes photo, which I won't reveal here).

The biggest imminent reveal about the 1990 case, however, is only hinted in 2015. As Wayne continues the interview with Eliza, whose amiable encounter with him in the last episode has not dampened her confrontational approach, he is shown a photo of a policeman who vanished twenty-five years ago. He's evasive on the subject but later dialogue, as well as the knowledge that this is probably the guy who planed evidence at the Woodard crime scene, suggests that Wayne and Roland had something to do - okay, quite a lot to do - with his disappearance. How much of this does Wayne himself remember? The episode closes with a powerful two-hander as the two aged detectives, long estranged, engage, argue, and start to tiptoe toward making amends (it's hard to believe the actors are only in their forties, particularly in Ali's case). Something terrible haunts their mutual history, but a more diffuse ache troubles them too: the passage of time itself. As tears stream down his face, Wayne reveals that he can't remember much of his own life, his wife and family slipping away in the fog of time; for someone who has always struggled to live his life with a semblance of honor and dignity, the spectacle of watching himself slowly die is painfully humbling. Pizzolatto, who wrote and directed this scene alone (along with the entire episode), has proven himself a more than capable filmmaker, as patient with the nuances of performance as he is loyal to the vision in his own mind. This is one of the best scenes in all of True Detective.

The same concerns with age and loss are expressed in more surreal fashion when the seventy-year-old Wayne stumbles around his empty house, calling for his wife and young children who are (one way or another) no more. When he reaches the room where he hears a voice, the door opens to reveal a younger version of himself sitting on the bed with Amelia, Henry, and Becca as they read from The Jungle Books. Around a line about Shere Khan stalking his prey, forty-five-year-old Wayne looks up to see the door drift open as if pushed by some unseen presence. Whose point of view are we sharing? His gaze shifts over to the window where he appears to observe the thirty-five-year-old Wayne, hair longer and clothes bloodied. It's a wonderfully eerie effect, echoing the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey in reverse (there's also a touch of Matthew McConaughey's other major 2014 event, Interstellar), expressing the strongest and most innovative element of True Detective. Much has been said about how this season returns to the roots of the season one, and how this wise move is also kind of playing it safe. But the way Pizzolatto plays with time in 2019 is much bolder than the more standard framing devices of 2014, illustrating ideas that Rust Cohle merely articulated. It's quite something for a work to suggest both the inexorable, debilitating march of years and the slipperiness of distinguishing between multiple pasts and presents. Profoundly, we can never be certain who are the ghosts are who are the ones being haunted.


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