Lost in the Movies: True Detective season 3 episode 4 - "The Hour and the Day"

True Detective season 3 episode 4 - "The Hour and the Day"

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. Incidentally, I'm going to switch to a first-name basis for the detectives to match other characters; it just flows better.

Mahershala Ali continues to flourish as the undoubted protagonist of True Detective. For whatever reason, his makeup/performance as the elderly Wayne feels slightly less convincing this round but he is still a strong presence in the younger sequences, an iteration of the Pizzolatto detective persona that feels fully lived-in rather than superimposed on the actor. And after an unassuming debut, Stephen Dorff is emerging as a fascinating character in his own right, sturdy in both eras in very different ways. After the last episode hinted at the outcome of his friendship with Tom in the 1990 timeline, the roots are excavated in "The Hour and the Days"' 1980 scenes; Roland discovers the grieving alcoholic father at his absolute lowest and something in him pities the man. Both actors are excellent, and both characters are quite compelling. However, I think my favorite so far, for both acting and writing (and the way the two element complement one another), is Carmen Ejogo as Amelia. In the wrong hands, the part could miss the mark but Ejogo crafts a convincing portrait of curiosity, confidence, and confusion - do I get an A for alliteration, Ms. Reardon?

Amelia has emerged as a prime suspect for many viewers but I think this misreads her individuality, perhaps because it's unusual in the annals of True Detective. Maggie Hart was a well-played character in season one, but she still slotted very neatly into the cliched, thankless role of the workaholic police officer's frustrated wife. Ani Bezzerides seemed like Pizzolatto's ambitious attempt to answer critics in season two, but in this case he basically slotted a female character into a troubled police detective template established in the first season, often struggling to find a place for her in the ensemble while saddling her with questionable tropes (one of which I thought the show handled well, while the other seemed an unnecessary handicap). Amelia blurs these roles in a way that presents an interesting new opportunity for the macho screenwriter; she is a policeman's wife but is also an amateur sleuth herself. In a sense she's Pizzolatto's onscreen avatar: an imaginative, ambitious writer peering in on this world of crime rather than a stoic professional enduring his duty anonymously.

And what are the amateur and the professional investigating? In "The Hour and the Day" the 2015 scenes push Wayne into a more active role than he's taken so far. Instead of responding to the interviewer's loaded questions or his son's protective demands, he takes the initiative by asking Henry (now a detective himself) to help him find Roland and then visiting Elisa in her hotel room, agreeing to continue speaking to her if she'll let him in on whatever her own research has revealed. With both younger characters, he lets them know that this isn't just about the ancient murder/kidnapping, it's about clinging to his own memory and sanity. A hallucinatory sequence in which he's surrounded by Vietnamese ghosts makes it clear that this may be a losing battle. The renewed 1990 investigation also places Wayne back in the driver's seat or, well, maybe just riding shotgun. Roland is the big guy now, trying to manage a complex and tenuous situation and walking a fine line between putting his one-time partner in his place and respecting their relationship (and Wayne's pride). The politics surrounding the re-opened case become clear when the detectives are told in no uncertain terms that their mandate is to validate the old conviction. Both seem much more interested in identifying Julie on the convenience store's surveillance camera.

Back in 1980, the case settles on a prime suspect, but detours are emerging before they can take him in. That suspect is Sam Whitehead (John Jelks), described by both the farmer and a craftswoman who sells those corn-husk dolls at the local Catholic church. Whitehead is an older black man ("like you," says the dollmaker to Wayne, who is not amused) with a dead eye, who lives in the downscale black neighborhood of Davis Junction, and works, notably, at the chicken processing plant where Lucy was once employed. When Wayne and Roland come to question him, he immediately reacts defensively in a way that reads as plausible - he and his neighbors have plenty of reason to be hostile toward the police - but also creates a convenient distraction from their line of questioning; they're just getting to the chicken plant when their windshield is smashed outside the trailer. By episode's end, the team's attention is elsewhere: Freddy Burns' prints have been found on Will's bike (after tormenting the teenager in interrogation, Wayne determines that he didn't do it) and Brett has rigged up his house as a confrontation with the local bullies looms (the episode ends with a boom as one of them kicks in the door).

Meanwhile, Amelia begins her own personal investigation first by casually (but intently) engaging with Wayne's admissions during a dinner out and then by bringing a box of Will's school items to the Purcells. She lends a sympathetic ear as Lucy descends into a dark place but then Amelia tiptoes out on a limb just a little too far, offering that she knows Wayne, he's a good man, and Lucy should entrust him with whatever she knows. Lucy quickly susses out that Amelia is using her, and attacks Amelia as both a pretentious snob and a "pickaninny." I imagine Wayne will be upset when he finds out, but for now things are going well between the couple (even jumping forward to 1990, their lingering marital spat resolves itself - for now anyway - in unexpected, passionate sex). The Hays' first date is a bizarre encounter in which mutual attraction weaves its way through a conversational minefield and both Ejogo and Ali navigate the scene with aplomb, allowing delivery, silence, and expression to do as much work as the written dialogue. There are pointed psychological observations and intimations of a dark past that speak to Pizzolatto's obsessions, but also a rhythmic bounce to the exchange, a self-aware, arch stylization that feels new in True Detective (aside from some of the playfulness that director and actors brought, apparently against the writer's wishes, to season one).

This is only the third True Detective teleplay in which Pizzolatto shares the writer's attribution; Scott Lasser, a novelist friend of Pizzolatto's who has no other publicized TV credits, co-wrote episodes 4 and 6 of the second season. This time, the collaborator has a much higher profile: David Milch is one of the great legends of TV history, co-creating NYPD Blue in the nineties with Stephen Botchko and operating as the auteurist showrunner of the beloved Deadwood in the zeroes. Knowing Milch mostly by reputation (I've seen many of his Hill Street Blues episodes but he's usually working with two or three other writers each episode), I can only suspect where he left his touch; that dinner date certainly matches with what I know about him. Perhaps even more compelling, at least from a True Detective standpoint, this episode marks Pizzolatto's directorial debut. Given his legendary clashing with previous directors and his dogged emphasis on what's on the page, I wasn't sure what to expect but he handles the episode with baseline competence at worst (some of early detective visits feel a bit perfunctory) and a deep understanding that only a writer-director can bring at best (there's no whiff of irony or distancing aestheticization in his presentation of Wayne's honorable loner persona, and the sincerity of Pizzolatto's faith in this world he's created is contagious). The visual filmmaking is not remotely as impressive as Saulnier, and the pacing of character interactions is not as assured as Sackheim, but his anticipatory build-up to Brett's literally explosive showdown packs a punch, while his direction of the more figuratively explosive visit to Davis Junction cultivates a truly dynamic energy in the ensemble.

Pizzolatto will direct the next episode as well, this time from his own solo script. We're about to reach the purest expression ever of his vision, and in an episode which has always proved a pivot point in True Detective seasons. My guess is that the 1980 investigation is coming to an abrupt close very soon, as we shift more fully toward 1990 and 2015 (if so, I'll miss the rich interplay of the three timelines). In the past week, I've read some theories which sound plausible; indeed, at least one was backed up by an unduly revealing on-set photo so I'll avoid sharing them here. Besides, this episode sustained its sense of plotty mystery but the characters are what really held my attention. I don't think season three is going to pull any Yellow King out its hat. Yet wasn't the first season really about the characters all along, crafting compelling histories, relationships, and personalities that were far more central to its dramatic shape than all of those conspiracy theories on the tack board? So far Pizzolatto is fulfilling that legacy quite well, from behind the keyboard and the camera too.

Next week: "If You Have Ghosts" • Last week: "The Big Never"

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