The absolute least interesting thing about this season of True Detective is the Purcell case. I’m just saying.
The 1990 Purcell task force is looking for Julie, and already seemingly beset with thorny stuff. Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) looks tired, and only more so when someone sees him staring at pictures from 1980 and recalls that Hays had been at Bret Woodard’s house that day in 1980. We follow him into a flashback, to the moment last week’s episode cut to black, just before the angry mob set off that mine and Woodard (Michael Greyeyes) took out half a dozen guys. Hays tries to talk him down. Woodard isn’t having it, and Hays has to shoot him.
At this point, everyone who’s touched or been touched by the Purcell case is tainted, haunted and thoroughly screwed. The children’s father (Scoot MacNairy) is a bottomed-out alcoholic. Their mother (Mamie Gummer) is dead of an overdose. Bret Woodard has been tormented, threatened, beaten, hounded into very elaborately defending himself, killed by the police in a scary standoff, and posthumously convicted of the Purcell abduction/murder. Even the conviction itself is filthy. Hays is having marital problems that seem pretty directly related to Amelia’s (Carmen Ejogo) forthcoming book on the case. Freddy Burns (Rhys Wakefield), whose entire connection to the case seems to have involved loitering in a park and taking Will Purcell’s bike for a joyride, is looking like 40 miles of bad road and he’s maybe 27. He’s pissed off at Hays, and out of all the stuff Hays could be letting get to him Freddy Burns seems like a hell of a trivium, but isn’t it always something stupid that puts people over the edge? “Explain to me the trials of being a white man in this country,” he growls at Roland West (Stephen Dorff). “When I was his age I was in the fucking jungle. I make him skip college?”
2015 Hays is still talking to the documentarian. Even Amelia’s book is one of his ghosts now. He reads a passage in which Amelia quotes from her horrible confrontation with Lucy (Mamie Gummer), when she’d said, “This wasn’t a happy home. Children should laugh… there wasn’t much laughter around here.” Agitation takes him over; he paws through the old documents until he finds the letter the Purcells had gotten saying Julie was fine and not to look for her. “Children shud laugh,” it says. Hays is stricken, as much as anything by the cost of having refused to read his wife’s book. In 1990, though, the resentment is overwhelming. It’s not clear if he even understands it himself. He calls her a tourist, says she uses people to make herself feel more important. Their arguments don’t last long. On the other hand, they don’t really resolve anything.
Nothing resolves. Hays knows Will Purcell’s backpack was planted at Woodard’s house, but it doesn’t exonerate the man. He’s finally ready to read his late wife’s book and she’s not there to talk to about it, nor is there much he can do with the revelations in it, or the revelation that in some ways Amelia had been the better detective. The cops field a phone call from 1990 Julie Purcell, and she’s begging to be left alone. Putting this together with the fact that the “children shud laugh” note was likely assembled by Lucy Purcell, and the revelation that Lucy’s relative “Dan O’Brien” was also found dead in Las Vegas under suspicious circumstances, raises more questions than it answers. In 2015, this 35-year-old case somehow just keeps getting worse. And while for the viewer the case itself doesn’t feel especially pressing or interesting, the effect it has had on the people who have been connected with it is entirely real. And vicious.
We spend a lot of time in 2015 in this episode, which has the peculiar effect of thrusting us deeper into the past. The focal point of the episode, in many ways, is a long scene between Hays and West in 2015. They haven’t seen each other in some time. They’re both battered. They’ve got their grudges. West drinks way too much; Hays is sinking into dementia. They’ve each got reason to feel let down by the other. But each is also all the other has in some ways, and their fundamental respect for each other is too deep to really disappear. Hays wants West to join him in working this case one more time. West is not having it. At all. But Hays kind of wears him down. By the end they’re both weeping and laughing and almost letting on how much they miss each other.
Time might or might not be a flat circle. What’s 100% clear is that it’s a bitch.
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.