One unifying feature in coverage of this third season of True Detective is the collective relief in seeing the show return to former glories (of course, your mileage may vary on the strength of that ill-fated sophomore run). Despite sadly dwindling audience numbers, it reflects well on showrunner Pizzolatto that he cares enough about his creation to make supposed amends in the first place, with a show so connected to his own rise to fame that emerging reports of him battling studio executives regarding the agreed running time of this season’s finale even whilst the show is currently airing aren’t surprising – it’s this level of commitment that elevates the anthology above the common procedurals that mimic its format.
That level of quality is reflected in how comfortable Pizzolatto is in letting these episodes unfold at a leisurely pace, with most of this fourth episode being devoted to the slow burn of detailed character development across languorous duologues with only a smattering of police work in between – and it’s all the better for it, because halfway through this run he has you fully invested in these characters and their issues.
Hays and West head to St Michael’s (“Church of the Ozarks”) to speak to the pastor about the image of Will they found in the Purcell’s family album. His office is packed full of children’s communion photography, but only Will’s shows him with his eyes shut. The Pastor explains to the detectives how Julie was excited about meeting her aunt – except she doesn’t have one. He also knows where the dolls come from – they are ‘chaff’ dolls made by local churchgoer Patty Faber for the town’s harvest fair. One swift interview later and she reveals all of her dolls were bought at the previous fair in October by a black man with a dead eye.
Whilst West surmises the pastor should be considered a suspect, Hays proposes that the case was never about Will – instead, he was killed in the act of defending Julie from some unknown perpetrator. The detectives head to the poorest part of town to navigate local businesses in a bid to uncover who the person that bought the dolls was. One misidentification later and they find themselves knee deep in trouble at a local trailer park as they attempt to interrogate an elderly man called Sam Whitehead about the case, which only results in West getting a plant pot directed at his head and a brick through their car’s windscreen.
The case breaks open when a fingerprint owned by Freddie Burns (“Black Sunday” as one detective quips) turns up on Will’s bike, but his tearful confession only reveals that the child was alone and looking for his sister when he found Freddie, who unhelpfully bullied the boy and stole his bike. However, it does indicate the children were separated prior to their disappearance, but it’s slow progress that isn’t helpful to the Purcells – with a dejected Tom being picked off a bar floor by West and a suicidal Lucy lashing out at Amelia in a drunken stupor.
The spectre of damaged relationships looms over our second time period as well, as Hays is buoyed by his return to the Purcell case – but at the cost of his marriage, which is rapidly disintegrating as Amelia finds greater independence in the research of her book about the original case. Mahershala Ali and Carmen Ejogo are electrifying in these scenes, caught between the shifting frustrations of a fading love affair. “You’re a grown man with no agency of his own” she spits at him, and his definition in authority with no true autonomy leads him to weakly retort “Then give me my orders”. It’s a beautifully played scene that is juxtaposed by a similarly nuanced exchange between the two as the potential lovers spark off each other over dinner in the previous decade, highlighting just how talented these two leads really are.
The case is reopened by West but Attorney General Greg Larson is adamant their mandate is to uphold the original conviction only, regardless of any new evidence that has arisen. This increasingly feels like an intelligent interpretation of the recent fascination in American miscarriages of justice, as reflected in the modern timeline of the show with a documentary maker voraciously searching for legal anomalies in the original case.
Either way, both detectives have other ideas about what this second chance to examine the case will be, immediately travelling to the scene of the robbery where Julie’s prints were found. Hays spends hours reviewing footage before finding frames that show an adult woman stealing groceries – could this be Julie as an adult? Hays’s reaction seems to be sure it’s her. But where has she been all this time?
Hays visits his local police station, where it’s revealed his son Henry is also a cop. He asks him to help locate West so Hays can fill the increasingly large gaps in his memory – “This is my way of staying alive” he pleads with his son. But Hays isn’t just doing this for his declining health – he’s also using his dementia as a shroud to obscure the fact he is re-investigating the case on his own terms, at the hallucinatory behest of his dead wife.
To this end, he tracks down documentary director Elisa at her hotel room to trade information. She tells him that one of the key discoveries from their research is the human remains of Lucy Purcell’s cousin Dan O’Brien being found – who went missing shortly after Lucy’s fatal overdose in Las Vegas eight years after the original case was closed. The significance of finding one of the case’s original suspects is not lost on Hays, who warns Elisa not to advise his son they met.
Throughout the episode, the malevolence of the mysterious couple in the Sedan is always just slightly out of our mental view. As Hays records his thoughts from the day into a dictaphone and is surrounded by terrifying visions of murdered Viet Cong from his military service, he scrambles to the window for air. Through the slats, he sees he is being watched by a dark Sedan… but is he dreaming? The blurring of memory and reality is becoming more prescient with every passing episode.
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FOR OUR EPISODE THREE REVIEW CLICK HERE