So far in this season of “True Detective,” the show has, in its draggier sections, felt like an excuse for men to talk in gruff voices, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. Episode 4 feels like the season’s getting its footing in a new way. We’re also edging away from a meditative gaze into the soulful navel of the gothic South and moving toward more of a beach-read, a page-turner. We’re getting there because for the first time, multiple characters are jousting to control the narrative.
Take, for instance, the rising ambitions of Greg Larsen (Brett Cullen). In ‘80, the prosecutor blindsides the detectives on the Purcell murder/disappearance by appearing on “Donahue.” In ‘90, as Arkansas’ attorney general, he visits now Lt. Roland West (Stephen Dorff) to put him and Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) on notice that the newly re-opened Purcell investigation should reaffirm the conviction they got for the boy Will Purcell’s murder. No longer are we all searching for the truth; now we’re fighting over whose truth will win out.
On the walls of Roland’s office, you see pictures of him glad-handing Bill Clinton, and with that spectre of the state’s realpolitik hanging over the scene, Larsen turns the screws on Hays, who has been at a desk for the past decade. Hays later asks Roland: “We’re not going to do any of that shit they just said, right?” The reply comes: “Wasn’t planning on it.”
The church is in the picture, too: Wayne and Roland press the kids’ pastor for leads, while the pastor nudges Wayne for a confession and Roland makes sure he cocks his badge out on his belt long enough to get a cute parishioner’s digits. We’re starting to see how writer/director Nic Pizzolatto will bring God to bear on this story: as a way to frame Mahershala Ali against sunlit stained glass, and as a final arbiter of justice. (Just a guess here, there ain’t going to be much to go around in this life.)
We’re also seeing more of Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) and Wayne together. He’s dropped just a bit of his guile in ‘80, and on a fancy date, we get maybe the longest unbroken conversation between any two characters so far in the series. We see them genuinely falling for one another, and a decade later, falling apart. By ‘90, they’re pecking at one another: he’s amped to be back on the Purcell case, and she’s still smarting from his dismissing her amateur sleuthing. “Stop talking shit about me,” he says, gripping her arm in the bedroom, as the kids watch cartoons downstairs. “Or what?” she shoots back. A pause. “Or I’ma start crying,” he says. Wall-rattling make-up sex isn’t far behind.
They’re becoming more of a three-dimensional couple, we’re also seeing Amelia grow into the stealth detective she’s got to be to write the book on the Purcell case. We learn that Lucy Purcell (Mamie Gummer), the kids’ mom, doesn’t make it to 1990, and in ‘80 she’s a full-blown alcoholic meltdown. Amelia, Will’s English teacher, visits to bring some of the boy’s things from school and finds Lucy morose and wine-chatty. As Amelia pries tactfully, Lucy spills that she was a terrible mom, that the children never had a happy home, that she hated the kids, and that she has done … something. She chases off Amelia before revealing more. It might be the best scene in the season so far for both characters and, for what it’s worth, might also be the first that passes the Bechdel Test.
Lucy accuses Amelia of “working” her, echoing the verb we hear in 2015, when the true-crime show host asks a relatively lucid Wayne whether he’s still working the case. He’s struggling to navigate Fayetteville on his own, but he’s clearly trying to use her research to turn up dead leads. The series hasn’t given Ray Fisher just a ton to do as Wayne’s grown son, but we do get a tender moment when the doddering father visits the son at work (Arkansas state cops, just like his old man) and calls in a couple of favors — including tracking down Roland.
Getting the band back together a second time portends a harder look at the ‘90 timeline. The second half of this season promises three endings, at least two of which will be deeply flawed. The race in 2015 is on to recover the past before Wayne goes all to pieces. A tense visit from the memory of Amelia now seems quaint compared to the ghosts who find him late at night, contemplating the pistol on his desk: enemy combatants and villagers from his time in ‘Nam, the first strong intimation that his deteriorating mental state has an element of PTSD.
Oh, and speaking of, we see now what was in the dufflebag that the veteran trashpicker Brett (Michael Greyeyes) had in his shed, and it wasn’t a body. Surprise, it’s weapons, and the cliffhanger at the end leaves us right as a redneck hits a tripwire. We’re off and racing now, with a momentum that was dragging a week ago. Lucky you if you’re watching this show in the future, when you can keep turning pages.