True Detective Review: Memory Fights a Losing Battle in "The Big Never"

(Episode 3.03)

TV Reviews True Detective
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<i>True Detective</i> Review: Memory Fights a Losing Battle in "The Big Never"

I’d just like to note at the outset that this show is officially giving me panic attacks about aging.

The smarmy 1990 legal team has descended on Detective West (a hairline-challenged Stephen Dorff). West’s memory is sharp, and so is the contrast between this encounter and the deposition of Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) to which we keep returning. This one’s curiously devoid of a certain taut, racially freighted discomfort and aggression. “I’m a little fuzzy,” West says, calmly and pointedly. “Wayne probably has a better memory.” Cut to 2015 and a neurologist looking at a CT scan. Ouch. And as they discuss his crumbling memory, the scene takes on the same tight, defensive tone as the deposition scenes—his medical condition is somehow becoming part of the Purcell case.

Hays conveys the impression that he’s a man who never had any intention of being especially introspective and isn’t enjoying the excursion into his own mind. It’s a tenuous balance, and it pervades all his conversations, in all three time periods. By contrast, his wife, Amelia (Carmen Ejogo), seems to have a more uncomplicated forward thrust (though she’s a little disappointing in her tendency to believe all conflicts can be solved with sex—c’mon, fellas, get a woman into your writers’ room at least to consult, huh?). As the two sit in their car in 1990, ruminating on the recent news that Julie Purcell’s fingerprints have appeared in a pharmacy, the car seems especially metaphorical, in the sense that they’re sitting in the dark with the engine off. But where Wayne’s instinct is to refrain from asking potentially troublesome questions now that it’s not his case, Amelia is keen to go in (tarted up as a sexpot, natch) and do her own asking, as the author of a bestselling book about the Purcells.

In 1980, Amelia helps the detectives to see what the other kids might know about the day the Purcell children disappeared. The neighbor kid, Ronnie Boyle (Lennon Morgan, in a striking, vivid performance for such a minor role), contradicts the story that he was with them, that night or in general. (Why were Will and Julie lying about where they were?) The harrowed parents (Scoot McNairy and Mamie Gummer) just don’t get it. Hays and West look through their things and find maps; a bag of dolls; ominous, cryptic notes.

1990 West still thinks of Hays as a good friend and seems regretful that they’ve drifted apart. 1990 Hays loses track of his daughter at Wal-Mart and loses it. 1990 Amelia is making good on her idea of flirting her way into some answers from the police. Julie’s fingerprints were located such that it doesn’t seem she was involved in the robbery.

1980 Wayne and Amelia go out with a search party to walk the park. They talk about the war, and the Robert Penn Warren poem he’d heard her discussing with her class. “You separate yourself from something when you name it,” she says, “and we can’t separate ourselves from time.” Hays counters, “I thought it was like the name of God, like the Hebrews weren’t supposed to say God’s name.” (Both interpretations seem to work here.) Hays asks her out. She hesitates.

1990 Wayne is definitely not comfortable with Amelia’s “investigation” of the case. Tempers flare.

In 1980, Hays finds dice in the woods, and then a messenger bag full of toys, and then blood on the weathered granite boulders. It’s clearly where Will was killed. A nearby farmer says he saw the Purcells a few times, and once, a couple of adults in a brown car, a black man and a white woman. He isn’t OK with them searching the property.

In 2015, Hays says to the documentarian that he believes the canvassing of the neighborhood was adequate. Her information says otherwise. She reads a comment from someone in the neighborhood who claimed to have seen a nice brown sedan that afternoon, and that no one took his statement at the time; several other witnesses had bits of information that didn’t make it into the official report. Like the report has holes in its memory, too.

This episode veers out of Hays’ POV quite a bit more than the first two: That Native American trash-picker (Michael Greyeyes) is not having a good day, and West visits Tom Purcell to talk about the reopening of the case, the fingerprints, and sobriety (Lucy seems to have died of something that happened in Vegas). We return to 2015 and find Hays still struggling to put the puzzle together. It feels like a losing battle. Not to mention he’s hallucinating that Amelia is standing in the office, quoting Einstein at him. “Did you confuse reacting with feeling?” she asks him. “Did you mistake compulsion for freedom?” Hallucination-Amelia notes that he’s obviously worried “they” will “find what you left in the woods.”

And there’s a creepy clue in a baby photo album.

In the final scene, Hays and West meet in a bar. West is obviously fond of Hays; Hays is… inscrutable. There’s a new task force. West is in charge. “Promotion for merit?” Hays asks drily, “Or did it come with the pigmentation?” Hays has made any number of world-weary references to racial tensions, but this time it’s really hard to tell if he’s pissed off or just yanking his ex-partner’s chain. West counters that, unlike some, he doesn’t have “a big fucking mouth.” “Hell,” he says, “with affirmative action you could’ve been my boss by now.” It’s a beautifully wrought little scene, absolutely packed with backstory and super subtle in how it unspools it. What’s clear is that Hays is in some pain and has been for a hell of a long time. Probably for multiple reasons. West doesn’t mind fielding a few drunken barbs because he cares about Hays. Both of them are haunted by the Purcell children, and both have lost sleep and probably lots of other stuff since this case landed in their laps. In the end, Hays concedes that the “race bit” is at least partly tongue in cheek, but you can see that at the same time, it really isn’t, or at least that it’s complicated. These men respect each other, whatever else is going on. They’re at home with each other. For Hays, who never seems especially comfortable anywhere, that’s got to be a real oasis. Even if it means he might be pulled back in by the still-missing Julie Purcell.

Read our other reviews of True Detective Season Three here.

Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.