But is time still a flat circle?
It goes without saying that Season Two of True Detective isn’t held in the same high regard as the first season. While I enjoyed Season Two, I will admit that I don’t find it as memorable as the first one. Part of that has to do with the second season’s difficulty in balancing multiple storylines. Though the performances were great, in particular from Vince Vaughn, Colin Farrell, and Rachel McAdams.
That was in 2015. It’s been over three years since the second season of True Detective aired. While there was radio silence from HBO, the series had not been cancelled. So it had to have still been on the network’s radar. Then news and casting started to trickle out in 2017 and the third season of True Detective seemed to more and more to come together.
I say all this to say that, like Season Two, there were a lot of expectations coming into this season. Were all of those feelings satisfied? Well, let’s head back into the world of crime with the Season Three premiere of True Detective: “The Great War and Modern Memory.”
The season begins Detective Wayne Hays, played by Mahershala Ali, getting ready for the day as we flash back to his younger self discussing a case on the deposition date of May 12, 1990 and speaking to two Fayetteville attorneys: Alan Jones, played by Jon Tenney, whom he knows, and Jim Dobkins, played by Josh Hopkins, whom he does not know, about a case from 10 years ago.
As for the job itself? It’s still there. He gets to spend more time with the wife and kids since he hasn’t had any major cases, Jim brings the conversation back into focus and tells Wayne that he needs him to go back over the Purcell case. Alan’s good with that, or he wouldn’t be here otherwise. But why contest it now, 10 years after the fact?
Before we can get an answer to that, we jump back to 2015 as an older Hays listens to his voice on a recorder from the 19th- today’s the 20th. He has memory problems. His son, Henry, is coming by with some television folks. Wayne’s plan is to figure out how much the detectives know, since he doesn’t need any surprises this late in the game. Look at the pictures, take notes, and remember the nightstand if he needs it.
There’s a knock at the door. In enters Wayne’s son, Henry, played by Ray Fisher, who tells him that everything is set for when he’s ready.
Back to 1990 with Hays talking to Alan and Jim about the case. Jim thinks that it’s a strong case, and it happens to be a case about which Wayne’s wife is writing a book.Jim asks Wayne to walk them through the events of November 7, 1980 and his timeline of events.
So Hays takes us back to that Friday. He remembers it as the day that Steve McQueen died. We flash back to the Purcell kids: Will, played by Phoenix Elkin, and Julie, played by Lena McCarthy, asking their father, Tom, played by Scoot McNairy, if they can go to the playground since their friend, Ronnie, is bringing out his new dog. The kids can go as long as they’re back by 5:30. Sounds simple, right?
As for when Mom’s coming home, Tom has no idea yet.
As Will and Julie head off on their bikes, they pass by some other kids and wave. As this happens, Wayne tells us in 1990 that Will and Julie left their home at 4 P.M. based on multiple statements. We also briefly meet a couple of teens pick up a friend of theirs in a Purple Volkswagen. Who are these teens? We’ll get to that later.
Will and Julie continue riding on by, passing various other neighbors, and we see some other kids setting off fireworks. The teens in the Buggy then spot the kids and eye them menacingly. Well, that seems menacing.
Back to Wayne, he was with his partner at the time, Roland West, doing his regular shift and following up on a series of thefts.
Bullshit. In actuality, Wayne and West, played by Stephen Dorff, were shooting off at rats at a junkyard. They discuss Steve McQueen’s death before Wayne says that they should do something. Roland suggests Miss Minnie’s, but it’s apparently out of Wayne’s price range. It wouldn’t apparently hurt to pay for a piece of ass, though.
Roland asks Wayne if he sees himself getting married, but Wayne doesn’t see himself as big enough of an asshole to put a woman and children through that.
Then Roland raises his gun as he spots a fox…but Wayne stops him. Foxes are predatory, but Wayne won’t have Roland shooting it. Instead, he suggests they go around for a ride, maybe even find someone they can beat the shit out of. Sounds like a plan, am I right?
That evening, Tom is still fixing his car, but Will and Julie still have not come back home yet. He steps into the road and waits.
He calls Ronnie’s father to ask if his son has seen the kids, but Will and Ronnie never stopped by. Ronnie did say that the two could see the new puppy, but Will never mentioned if today would be the day when he and Julie would visit.
Tom hits the road in search of his kids and we revisit the rowdy teens setting off fireworks and riding some very distinct looking bicycles.
Elsewhere on the road, Roland and Wayne talk about eating boar meat. Well, Wayne is into it, anyway, as he recalls tracking one in the past. He’s something of a hunter, we learn, as he’s also hunted deer as well. Only with a bow, though. The two get a transmission from dispatch in regards to a Missing Persons case in West Finger. Well, shoot. And the two almost had a clean night.
So Wayne and Roland arrive at Tom’s home and learn that Tom’s kids never arrived home.
From here, we briefly jump back to 2015 as an older Wayne is on set of a documentary called “True Criminal.” He recalls again that Steve McQueen had died and there was a full moon out. Wayne certainly has a fondness for Steve McQueen, doesn’t he?
Alright, back to 1980. Tom talks with Wayne and Roland about his missing kids and how they were supposed to be back by 5:30 pm, but their friend never saw him.
In 1990, Jim and Alan ask Wayne if he thought that Tim was lying. The general rule for an officer is to assume that everybody’s lying, but on first impression, Wayne did not believe that Tom lied about this.that yes, it’s instinctive to believe that people lie, but then, Wayne had no reason to believe that Tom was lying.
Wayne finally turns off the tape recorder and asks Jim and Alan what this is really about. He wants to know if they know something that he doesn’t, but they don’t know what he knows. So they can’t answer that. At least, that’s the impression that we’re getting here. With that, Jim turns the tape recorder back on.
In 2015, he explains that the Roland family tried to get the conviction overturned in 1990. That’s what led to a reopening of the case and when Wayne’s wife published her book. To Wayne, he used to see things before and after Vietnam, but now it’s before and after Purcell.
The reporter, Elisa Montgomery, played by Sarah Gadon from Alias Grace, notes that the book is now considered a classic of literary nonfiction. But the wife is long gone now. Wayne admits that the two of them had made plans a few years back.
Back in 1980, Wayne asks Tom if his wife is expected to return home tonight. No, and there’s no chance the kids are with her- she’s a waitress down at The Sawhorse. Sounds appropriate for a small town restaurant. He hasn’t spoken with her since this morning, and she’s out with her friends, so Tom can’t reach her. Wayne asks for as many detectives as possible to search the woods, hills, and everywhere.
Tom wants the FBI, since that’s what they do on television, but you have to wait 72 hours for that. Perhaps Tom watches too much television. The detectives want to check inside for clues and to consider all possibilities. This enrages Tom, but Wayne promises Tom that they will get this handled. Tom gets a bit arrogant, but he does finally agree to take the two through the house.
Indeed, Tom takes the detectives through their homes and shows them all of the rooms inside. They explore Julie’s first, with Roland theorizing that maybe Mom took the kids and left. Wayne hopes that Roland is right, and that way maybe Mom will call by tomorrow morning if that’s the case.
In fact, in a quick jump back to 1990, Wayne explains to Jim and Alan that he figured Mom took the kids and just didn’t tell Tom. Perhaps the marriage wasn’t in a good place.
Two minutes later, Wayne dropped this theory.
Why? Because then Mom, Lucy, played by Mamie Gummer, showed up in a rage when she learns that her kids are missing. Wayne asks her if the kids may have stayed with friends or relatives, but apparently the Purcells don’t have any nearby relatives. Tom and Lucy are practically at each other’s necks, but Wayne and Roland tell the two to cut this shit. Their kids are missing.
Outside, while Roland goes over a map of possible locations with some officers, Wayne enters detective as he examines Will’s room. He uncovers a stack of Playboys and later examines Will’s closet. There’s some cement on the ground that, upon further investigation, came from a hole that looks directly into another room.
If I was a betting man, I would say that this is looking into Julie’s room.
Anyway, Roland and Wayne show the Playboys to Tom, who has never seen them before. He reads Playboy, yes, but these are old issues. The detectives want to ask Lucy if the kids are missing any clothes, but Tom figures that she’s not in any shape to talk right now. Plus, Tom is adamant that his kids didn’t run off. All the same, Wayne and Roland would still like to talk with Lucy.
He shows the Playboy magazines to Tom, who claims to have never seen them before. It’s not unusual. As for anything else, the detectives haven’t found anything else. So they want to talk with Lucy, though Tom figures that Lucy’s in no condition to talk. He’s confident that the kids didn’t run off, but all the same, Wayne and Roland need to talk with the wife.
After Roland takes a look at the peephole, the two speak with various neighbors with different pieces of the story: some recall seeing some teenagers in a Purple Volkswagen, which belongs to a Freddy Burns, others saw the kids riding towards the park, and others recall that the teenagers love to hang out at Devil’s Den. Oh, and there’s a Trash Man fella, too.
With this information, the two return to Tom and Lucy, who tell them that the Trash Man’s last name is Woodard. He’s been picking up trash and selling it at the scrap yard for years. Lucy never liked the fact that Trash Man goes through people’s trash. Not sure what she expects a trash man to do, but whatever.
Then the detectives ask how long Tom and Lucy have been sleeping separately- apparently it’s been for about six months because Dan left in May, which is when Tom took the touch. This Dan, last name O’Brien, is Lucy’s cousin who stayed here for a few weeks last spring. He lives in Springfield, MO right now, but it’s been awhile since he’s seen the family. He stayed in Will’s room while Will slept on the couch.
As for Will’s friend, Ronnie, he hadn’t seen the kids since school and was at home since 3 P.M.
Following this, as 2015 Wayne begins to narrate, we follow 1980 Wayne as he goes after a muddy trail. See, everyone else went home, but he stayed out to find some sort of trail. He happens upon a set of shoe prints in the mud and in for a closer look when the…moon suddenly goes out?
We should probably stop.
Nah, turns out that a light just went on the fritz in 2015, but it soon comes back on in no time. Wayne continues to tell Elisa Montgomery that 15 officers helped out on the first night. But daylight would give them better odds and an opportunity to get the news to help. Indeed, the next day, the news does report on the disappearance.
At West Finger Public School, we meet an English teacher by the name of Amelia Reardon, played by Carmen Ejogo, as she reads to her class. Wayne and Roland speak with her and learn that Will was a student of hers. And the aforementioned Freddy Burns is also a student in this class. as well. Oh, and Wayne has taken a particular interest in the quote that Amelia read.
The detectives speak with Freddy, played by Rhys Wakefield, who tells them that he and his friends, Ryan Peters and Jason Lampanella, just went down to the radio tower around 4:30 to mess around. And there was no drinking. After seeing a photo of the missing kids, he remembers seeing them on their bikes around 4:15, before the teens got to the park. And the Purcell kids weren’t at the tower.
They then speak with Ryan Peters, played by Brandon Flynn, who confirms that they left the park around 9 P.M. They also inquire about his Black Sabbath shirt, asking if it’s Satanic, but it’s also just the name of the music group, too. After seeing a photo of Will and Julie, he remembers seeing them, and other kids, at the park, but they weren’t at the tower. There were younger kids running around, but the teens didn’t talk to them.
Wayne asks Ms. Reardon about Will and any friends of his, and Amelia tells Wayne that Will is very polite. and advanced in English. But she doesn’t know much about his parents. He has a sensitivity, and you always worry about the sensitive ones. Some boys make it harder on the younger ones, but Will never got that kind of treatment. Apparently he didn’t get noticed much.
Amelia has been teaching at this school for quite some time. Wayne asks how it is here, and it’s just okay for Amelia. It’s good for what it is. The people all around here are mostly poor. She’ll hear a word in the hallway every now and then, but the students are careful around her. As for Freddy, Ryan, and Jason, they hang out in a group. They posture, but Amelia believes they’re just outcasts.
Oh, and Will reads at a 12th grade level and pays attention in class. He’s a bit shy as well. Amelia, turns out, is a Fayetteville local, as is Wayne. The two shake as Amelia pleads for Wayne to find the children. Wayne even manages to get her number. You know, in case something comes up.
Back on the road, Wayne and Roland wonder if the teens are lying. But they at least figure that the teens lied about the beer. Naturally. They decide to put a couple of officers on Burns and Peters to tail them before hitting up the address for this trash man guy, Woodard. They can come back for the teenagers later, if necessary.
Back in 2015, Wayne explains that he and Roland did indeed visit the Trash Man’s home, who goes by the full name of Brett Woodard, but he wasn’t home. When the two arrive, they find the door open. Upon examining a group photo, they conclude that Mr. Woodard must’ve been a soldier. Roland knows, based on experiences with his friends, that many soldiers have trouble when they come back.
For example, one of his buddies is on the streets in Shreveport, and another went to prison in Oklahoma after killing a guy in a bar fight. The two decide to put out an APB on Mr. Woodard.
In 2015, Wayne immediately decides to stop for the day, even though Ms. Montgomery has a few more questions. Nonetheless, he asks Henry to escort Elisa and her team out. Wayne then returns to his quarters and examines a few things before we flash back to 1980.
The detectives, now with dogs, are still on the search, though some detectives asks Roland why Wayne is off doing his own thing. But Wayne has his own long range reconnaissance. If Wayne wants to explore on his own, Roland is fine with that. Indeed, Wayne does end up noticing some tracks in the dirt. He ends up climbing the tower and heads up to find it littered with bottles and cans of alcohol.
When he heads back down, Wayne heads further into the woods and finds an overturned bicycle in the water. After snapping a photo of it, he explores some more and finds a tiny, straw figurine. Further examination leads him to yet another little figurine.
He finally winds up in a cave and happens upon the body of Will Purcell. Stunned, he heads back and radios to Roland to inform him that he’s located Will.
As Amelia reads to her class, we jump forward to 2015 as we see Wayne holding the book that his wife wrote. Henry enters as he tells his father that the reporters are gone.
Back in 1980, more detectives have joined Wayne at his location. Wayne, in the middle of smoking a cigarette, tells Roland that he felt like he was being led to this location because of those straw dolls. Will’s head looked injured. No sign of the girl yet, though, but there’s still hope that she could be out there.
Flash forward to 1990 as Wayne tells Jim and Alan that he’s done for the day. They finally tell him that it was the wrong man 10 years ago. No shit, but why? They bring up Julie and explain that her prints went into the system when the database was established. An after-hours burglary two months ago at a Walgreens in Sallisaw, OK.
Someone broke into the pharmacy. Police swept it for prints, but only set hit: and they belonged to Julie Purcell.
Yes, Julie Purcell is still alive.
But let’s jump back to 1980. Wayne tells Roland that he’s headed back out there to find Julie. Even though it’s too dark, Wayne doesn’t care. The hunt goes on.
Hell, where do I even begin? Well, to start, this is a fantastic beginning for the new season of True Detective. The key word that I took from this is “tension.” Tension from start to finish as we jump across three timelines to tell this overarching story.
I won’t harp on Season Two because there’s a lot about that run that I do enjoy. What I mostly took from this season is that it feels like the folks behind True Detective realized that less is more. We don’t have multiple protagonists this time around. We’re back to a pair of detectives, mostly focusing on Wayne, and three separate timelines all focused on telling a singular story.
The pacing, storytelling, and cinematography instantly reminded me of the Season One days with Rust and Marty. Perhaps that was intentional. If you’re going to invoke prior True Detective vibes, why not invoke vibes from the season that was better received than the season that came after? But again, there’s a lot I enjoy about the second season, so this isn’t going to be a constant comparison game.
The nonlinear storytelling and the interview portion in 2015 are good framing devices that help draw viewers into the tale that we then see play out when we flash back to 1980. I like how there seem to be certain points set up for taking us to another time period. When Wayne seemingly breaks the fourth wall and addresses the camera, we realize that this is just him talking during another period of time.
We easily could’ve just jumped to another time, but I like that dialogue from one period is placed within another, thus setting up the moment when we do change points in time. Every line of dialogue carries weight outside of the period in which its presented. When we hear older Wayne tell himself that he has memory problems, it’s played well against his sharper instincts when he’s first working on the Purcell case.
Actually, let’s just talk about Wayne right now. First off, Mahershala Ali is stellar in the role. He feels and moves like a seasoned detective and that’s made all the more evident when we see him in motion. Like Roland says, if Wayne wants to explore on his own, that’s perfectly fine. We see that pay off when Wayne finds the hole in the wall, as well as him first discovering Will’s body.
You could get rid of almost every other officer on the investigation and Wayne would probably be able to solve this disappearance all by himself. He’s methodical in his approach and it’s nice to see him and Roland so meticulous when they’re on the hunt for Will and Julie.
By the way, Stephen Dorff is equally fantastic in his role. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen Dorff in a lead role like this, but he brings a level of experience to his character just as Ali does. I’m glad that both of these characters are equal on the playing field. Sure, Wayne is the sharper of the two, but we don’t sacrifice Roland’s character as a result. Plus, I do enjoy their occasional banter and small talk.
As the premiere continues and things continue to unravel, the episode sheds a light on certain aspects while making you question others at the same time. By the time we head to 2015, we see how consumed Wayne has become by the case, but why? What happened between 1990 and 2015 that led to this? When Wayne is speaking to the attorneys in 1990, why isn’t Roland present as well?
There’s also a bit of meta commentary with how modern society loves to glamorize the past, as seen with Elisa Montgomery’s program. Hell, it might as well be an episode of Cold Case at that rate. Also, we learn that Julie is alive in 1990, so what was the end result of the search during the 1980s? The premiere takes its time to fill in some blanks without answering other questions that we as an audience no doubt have.
This is the end result of great storytelling and direction, but also a very slow burn. Despite jumping from one period to the next, the storytelling never felt rushed. It’s very clear who is where and lines from one period do a great job at setting up happening at another point in time.
We’re in the definition of a small town and this feels very reminiscent of both prior seasons of True Detective. Everyone knows everyone and there’s some creepy person that makes folks uncomfortable. Though hopefully the Mr. Woodard doesn’t end up being anything like the Yellow King.
The rest of the cast is excellent in their roles. Ray Fisher is great as Henry. We don’t see much of him, but Henry feels like he’s responsible for helping center his father. Not that Wayne is losing his marbles, but as his old age, he needs some help, and Henry fills that role quite well. He’s not some loafer or someone who is just helping out of obligation. There’s a real bond between the two that’s carried on for years.
Plus, as muscular and jacked as Ray Fisher is, I wouldn’t be surprised if he literally tossed Ms. Montgomery and her crew out of the house. Way to go, Cyborg.
Scoot McNairy, who I always enjoy and who was fantastic recently in the third season of Fargo, is very good as Tom. He’s not a deadbeat dad- he’s just a concerned father hoping to find his kids. The relationship between Tom and Lucy shows their fractured history, but at the end of the day, they both want the same thing in finding their kids. And luckily, Tom and Lucy being at odds doesn’t hinder the investigation.
Like Ray Fisher, we don’t see a ton of Carmen Ejogo in the episode, but she makes a great start when we’re first introduced to her. Given that Amelia and Wayne end up getting married, you would want it established early on that they get on well. And we get just that in their brief scenes together. But it’s not flirtatious. Both Amelia and Wayne maintain a level of professionalism.
Both of them understand what it’s like to live in a small town like this, but they aren’t merely finding solace in one another’s presence. It’s a nice way to set up what will turn into a blossoming relationship that unfortunately ends in tragedy when we meet Wayne in 2015 and Amelia is dead.
There’s a lot to unpack with the premiere of True Detective. Some of it I’ll get to with the next episode since both of these episodes premiered on the same night, but rest assured that this is definitely reminiscent of Season One. The leads are great, the tension is stellar, and the multiple timelines help slowly unravel this case. This is a great start for the third season of True Detective and it’s great to have the show back.
Onward to episode two.