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True Detective forces confrontations and falls a little flat

Ray Fisher, Mahershala Ali
Photo: Warrick Page/HBO
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In 2015, former detective Wayne Hays stands in his former police station, waiting for his son. He uses every tool in his possession to get what he wants from Henry, who is a detective just like Dad. He first tries charm (already demonstrated on the desk sergeant), asking his son, once so hungry for dad’s approval, “Where else am I going to go than Detective Hays?” He tacitly puts himself in his son’s hands, asking “You think I ought to walk around with a note? Whatever you think.” He tries to persuade his son the research is good for him, “for my head, I mean.”


Finally, face to face with Henry, he makes a plea. “It’s me. It’s my life. I tell myself the story, I tell the case in steps, and I remember… remember my life.” As in Robert Penn Warren’s Tell Me A Story, the poem Amelia was teaching when he first set eyes on her, he lives inside the story as the story lives inside him. “I’m being straight with you,” Wayne continues, “man to man, knowing I had a place here as you do. This right now is my way of staying alive.”

“Staying alive” is exactly—and only—what he’s doing. Sitting alone in his study, surrounded by books (including his wife’s) and a lifetime of research he can’t remember, Wayne Hays clings to life with an ever more tenuous grip. The gun from his nightstand now accompanies him during his nightly ritual of recording his thoughts for his morning self. And he has more frightening company still.

There’s nothing new and plenty clichéd about the story of the ’Nam survivor dogged by ghosts. But the effect of those figures quietly, swiftly flooding the room, their ready postures, their ease and silence, made my stomach drop with dread. And Ali’s portrayal of a man barely clinging to reality, trying to keep his increasingly random experience of time and memory in any sort of order, is as frightening as it is sad. With delicacy and power, he shows the interior experience, the deeply personal terror, the gut-gripping immediacy of it. This isn’t an old man to be felt sorry for; this is a man fighting tooth and nail to retain his memory, and himself, against a world where nothing remains stable, not even time.

The alarming crowd gathering around him in his imagination has long roots in Wayne Hays’ memory. It mimics the crowd that collects, then presses in, as he and Roland West speak to a suspect in Davis Junction, and another crowd of would-be vigilantes storming the home of Brett Woodard, who’s been seen speaking to children again, and suspected of worse. Each is awash in racial tension, and each tries to gin up its own peculiar form of dread. But the silent, imagined throng in Wayne’s study is more frightening than the actual, and ultimately underwhelming, groups pressing in around them in real life.

Candyce Hinkle
Screenshot: True Detective/HBO

Patty Faber (Candyce Hinkle)— “a dear, good woman,” the priest calls their witness, and Hays echoes him ruefully—makes not, as the detectives have been saying, straw dolls, but chaff dolls. It’s a small distinction.


When asked about the man who bought her dolls, Patty Faber is can make no distinction between him and any other black man, except for his “dead” eye. “He was a Negro man, like yourself,” she tells Hays. He prompts her: Was the man handsome? Ugly? “Like I say, he was black,” that “dear, good woman” shrugs, bewildered that she’s expected to distinguish between one black man and another. She assumes the man who bought her dolls lives, along with his imagined nieces and nephews, “over the tracks in Davis Junction, with rest of them,” with all that implies about who is “them” and who is “us.”

The folks on the other side of the tracks make assumptions about race, too, but theirs are canny and necessary, learned from hard experience. When the detectives question Sam Whitehead (John Earl Jelks), a black man with one cloudy eye, about some children in the newspaper, their newest suspect doesn’t have to guess. “White children. If it was in the papers, it’s white children.”

“Just a couple of questions,” Det. Hays tells him, calling out to the thickening crowd. ““Be cool, y’all. It’s nothing. So far.” When West starts talking tough, Hays shuts him down. “Shut the fuck up with that shit,” he tells West, because that tough-guy cop talk can spark trouble. Irrevocable trouble. It’s a situation anyone familiar with American policing in black communities can imagine—has to imagine—going wrong in a hundred different tiny ways. But the scene itself is blunt, even flabby.

John Earl Jelks, Mahershala Ali
Screenshot: True Detective/HBO

The confrontation at Woodard’s home is inevitable, and I credit Michael Greyeyes—especially his swift certainty of gesture—with making it as tense as it is. From the moment Woodard kicks off his boots to run, heedless of his bloody feet, he doesn’t waste a movement. FRONT TOWARD ENEMY, Woodard’s Claymore mine reads on its face, and “The Hour And The Day” (written by Nic Pizzolatto and David Milch), with its many face-offs, could wear that as its motto.

But “The Hour And The Day” also highlights the quiet manipulations an investigator exploits to extract cooperation or information. In the church, rather than having the priest introduce them as he announces their request for voluntary fingerprinting, Hays and West prowl the aisles, scanning faces with visible suspicion. As the unwilling confidante of Lucy Purcell, Amelia asks probing questions where someone else might offer empty reassurances. In the corridors of the West Finger PD, West parades Freddy Burns (Rhys Wakefield) past his friends in their interrogation rooms. And in 2015, Wayne Hays uses everything in his arsenal—now fading, but once formidable—on both his son and on Elisa, the documentarian working on the Purcell case.

Lt. West’s superiors are experts at double talk. Welcoming Hays to the 1990 task force, both West’s major and the AG linger over how hard Det. West had to work to convince them of Hays’ usefulness, and how little they expect from him. These two powerful men spend the meeting being as insulting as possible (“I hope your involvement does not portend to any damage to his reputation,” one says) while saying nothing that would sound inflammatory in a transcript. Whatever they know or believe of Wayne Hays that we do not, it’s discouraging if they believe justice is best served by snide deniability.

But, as the priest of the Purcell’s former church says in his sermon, “Justice is not ours to deliver. Justice is not in our power.” That’s a lesson to be learned from scene after scene in “The Hour And The Day,” and a lesson Wayne and Amelia Hays could profit from. It’s no good storing up snubs and returning them. It’s no use being “as happy for you like you were happy for me.” Their resentment and contempt for each other is as much a piece of armory as any of the booby traps Woodard sets up.

“The Hour And The Day” reveals an odd, but not surprising, gap in True Detective’s sympathies, and in Nic Pizzolatto’s. While Det. West drives him home from a bar fight with Lucy’s boss (and lover), Tom Purcell lashes out at everyone and everything, including “the one [racial slur] cop on the job,” only to repent. “I’m so sorry I used that word. Don’t tell him.” When West reminds him Hays has heard worse, from people who meant it more, Purcell offers the heartfelt response, “I’m sorry for that, too.”

Television tries to sell us unlikeable, difficult, bigoted men all the time. The cops of The Wire boast chasms of emotional and ethical emptiness. Tony Soprano throws around slurs like those slices of capicola he’s always poking into his maw, and so do his capos. But Tom Purcell does something different, and Scott McNairy, that inhabitor, makes every word of Tom’s remorse eloquent. It’s too easy, too simple, but it’s a glimpse of change, and of remorse, as something within reach.

Carmen Ejogo, Mamie Gummer
Screenshot: True Detective/HBO

But not for all. In a parallel scene, Lucy Purcell first confides in her son’s teacher, then chases her out of the house, yelling “you pickaninny bitch, you snooty cunt!” In a tirade of explicitly racist, sexist invective, she shows that in Pizzolatto land, at least for this episode, redemption is for long-suffering men, not the women whom they suffer.


This season, the writing and directing fall into a cadence that’s almost numbing. The one-two punch of literal violence and emotional violence is repetitive, even a sing-song rhythm. It’s impossible to know which trickles of misery—the Purcells’ vitriol, their neighbors’ explosive suspicions, the grinding poverty of Davis Junction, the smarmy contempt of the attorney general—are crucial to the story and which are mere filler, misery as texture. The acting is transcendent; the action is almost immaterial.

Stray observations

  • In 1990, Roland West has a pronounced limp.
  • “Would you have done it?” Hays asks his partner calmly, almost contemplatively. “Would you have shot one of them?” Roland West’s answer is no… but it’s a no that means yes. “If I thought it was between him and me? Then no. I could give a fuck what color he was.”
In Wayne’s crowded study, there’s one figure in a suit and tie, and I wonder if this is the figure responsible for his “preoccupation” with being strangled by his own necktie.
  • Her iffy uncle is long dead, but Julie Purcell is alive–and the image of her mother.

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About the author

Emily L. Stephens

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Emily L. Stephens writes about film, television, entertaining, gender, and cake. A lot about cake, really.