Lost in the Movies: True Detective season 3 episode 3 - "The Big Never"

True Detective season 3 episode 3 - "The Big Never"

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.

From the chaotic details established in the premiere, a story is beginning to coalesce in the detectives' minds. While the big picture remains foggy, at least one thing now seems clear: the Purcell children had a "secret friend," likely an adult, with whom they were meeting and communicating. They didn't just lie to their father about meeting a classmate on this particular day - the children hadn't hung out together for months before the disappearance. This dawning realization, stretching from a conversation between Hays and West early in the episode to the discovery of a photo album (with a first communion snapshot echoing Will's death pose), lends the 1980 sequence one of its primary throughlines. Another important element reveals itself when Hays stumbles across the probable crime scene in the woods (a stash of toys and a bloody rock suggest a meeting and a murder - or accident?), and then he proceeds to a dirt road where a not-entirely-trustworthy farmer (Mike Hickman) lives. The man claims he's already been visited by police and mentions an interracial couple who used to show up nearby in a brown car, but not on the same days he'd spot the children wandering by.

Meanwhile Hays and West look into the Hoyt Foods corporation, where Lucy worked at the chicken plant and the company's affiliated charity (shades of the first season?) has involved itself in the search for the missing children. Having found some cryptic slips of paper in the Purcell home, the detectives wonder if Lucy's children - or Lucy herself? - was receiving messages from a co-worker. Aside from the police work - or rather in the midst of it (they chat while meticulously searching a field with a mix of police and volunteers) - Hays and Alicia draw closer together, while Brett is attacked by locals who want the quiet Native American out of their community. Of course, 1980 is only one of three timelines and time itself, both unstoppable in its passage and unyielding in its lingering memory, is an even more pronounced theme this week.

The 1990 storyline also coalesces around a couple key points: we meet the ten-years-later version of West, now a state police lieutenant and rising star who wishes he could help his old, disgraced friend, but can't seem to find a way in. West later visits Tom, who is now a reformed alcoholic, signified by coffee on his counter, a crucifix on his wall, and sunlight pouring through the window of his clean home. (And it doesn't hurt that he's lost the sad-sack moustache.) They pray together and West feels encouraged to approach Hays in a veterans' bar; after a barbed back-and-forth, Hays agrees to return to detective work under his old partner. Hays has been nursing resentments and frustrations with his wife too; after encouraging her to flirt with local police to get more information on the Julie Purcell "robbery" (looks like she was a customer at the Walgreen's, not the thief), he lashes out at her...an explosion spurred, it seems, as much by her literary success with his old case.

Finally, in 2015, Hays and his son struggle, at times with a doctor and TV interviewer as proxies, at times strictly between each other. It's clear that Hays is in the early grip of Alzheimers, despite his attempts to keep the diagnosis vague ("we can say what it almost certainly is," the doctor counters him, without naming the disease - which gives the confirmation extra dramatic punch). Elisa reveals that many people weren't questioned at all in the supposedly thorough investigation thirty-five years earlier (she also mentions a "brown sedan" that triggers some kind of slippery association for Hays). Later, as he tries to retrace the case in his stumbling mind, Alicia appears to Hays in a hallucination - relentless as he pleads "please, not like it this" with her, himself, and/or the universe. That's a lot of summary, but there's a quite a bit narrative to unload in episode 3, probably the most so far. We're diving into the thick of the mystery and a compelling picture is forming (even if we can't be sure how reliable it is - much like the sky spirals our first true detective envisioned several years ago).

Visually, however, "The Big Never" is not quite as compelling as the first couple episodes. The photography feels more perfunctory, limiting itself to standard procedural two-shots and a slightly flatter aesthetic. It would be easy to pin this on the departure of Jeremy Saulnier, who is credited only for the first couple episodes. However, I find it hard to believe production was divided up so neatly that when Saulnier quit (following reported fights with Nic Pizzolatto) he left two fully intact episodes behind, each containing distinct locations, makeup jobs, and cast members which overlapped more with material from other episodes than the scenes they're intercut with. Nonetheless, a shift is definitely noticeable; not only are the shots less striking, more functional, but the patient, even glacial pacing of performance, and the distinct, free-floating air of environmental menace have also been dialed down. This isn't to knock Daniel Sackheim, a veteran TV director who brings his own charms to the episode; if the opening two-parter (especially the first episode) enveloped me in a world, "The Big Never" absorbed me in dramatic momentum and character relationships.

I was particularly struck by Tom's transformation. We learn that his wife died in Las Vegas a few years earlier, and sense that he is still struggling with life even though he's found a sort of peace to cling to. His talk, and then his prayer, with West is a good moment for both of them - the sort of glancing but deeply-felt character sketch Pizzolatto excels at, unafraid to dip into familiar tropes while imbuing them with the conviction that these touches are true-to-life. This is certainly the strongest episode for West yet; he's beginning to emerge as a real character in his own right, not simply a background figure on "The Wayne Hays Show." I'm intrigued by the idea that this more low-key personality eclipsed his more obviously talented partner (the 1990 Hays, a far cry from his 2015 refusal to talk race, isn't afraid to suggest why that might be). That said, West's rise and Hays' fall don't appear to be due entirely to departmental politics - the moment between West and Tom, in which Tom thanks him for saving his life a few years earlier, suggests a kind of connection and investment in the community that Hays doesn't have (that too, of course, can have a racial component). For us watching, Hays is clearly the star of the story but we're starting to realize that not everyone in the story views things that way.

I also really appreciate the deft intercutting between the three storylines which manages to be thought-provoking without appearing pretentious, dense without getting us lost. As fun as the first season's framing device could be, what Pizzolatto is attempting (and so far achieving) in this season is far more ambitious. In that story, the depositions of Hart and Cohle drew a clear line between the present (detectives sitting in a room going over an old case) and the past (detectives out on the job, enacting what their latter-day selves were describing). The timeline didn't move on to 2002 until 1995 was all wrapped up, and the 2012 sequence didn't take on a life of its own until concluding its look back at the entire sweep of the past. Here, by contrast, three distinct but interlocked stories are being told simultaneously, each set in multiple locations with multiple threads. Yet each retains its own flavor, through obvious touchstones like Hays' hairstyles but also - I suspect (I haven't really dug deeply into this yet) - different approaches to cinematography and set design. This is at least in part a directorial accomplishment, but it's rooted in Pizzolatto's storytelling on the page (plus he will be stepping behind the camera himself in the next couple episodes).

Watching these scenes thread themselves together, an impressive tapestry emerges in which each narrative works on its own but is also enriched by its proximity to the past - recalling the work of Alain Resnais and other auteurs who have taken a similarly loose approach to memory and the passage of time. There's something powerful about viewing the elderly Hays, helpless to stop his life from slowly slipping between his fingers, and then cutting to the much more assured, but still troubled, version of himself from the early nineties. And when we return to Tom in 1980, still a shaky drunk lost in a haze of grief, it both strengthens and subverts his fragile stability in 1990 - if time can move backwards as well as forwards, is this a liberating dream or a punishing nightmare? True Detective once famously described time as a "flat circle," but in season three it's always moving, a serpent endlessly devouring its own tail, retaining its distinct shape in any one section but impossible to place boundaries around.

Maybe there's something to the psychic lady's dream about a Huntsville snake farm after all...

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