Sunday, January 13, 2019

REVIEW: 'True Detective' - One Case Changes Wayne Hays' Life in 'The Great War and Modern Memory' & 'Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye'

HBO's True Detective - Episodes 3.01 "The Great War and Modern Memory" and 3.02 "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye"

The disappearance of a young boy and his sister in 1980 triggers vivid memories and enduring questions for retired detective Wayne Hays, who worked the case 35 years before with partner Roland West. As attention focuses on two suspects - Brett Woodard, a solitary vet and trash collector, and Ted LaGrange, an ex-con with a penchant for children - the parents of the missing kids receive a cryptic note from an anonymous source.

There was a lot of uncertainty over whether or not True Detective would return for a third season on HBO. The first season was a massive success for the network. It seemed like it would start a successful new franchise for the premium cable outlet. And then, the second season came out to middling reviews that made everyone wonder if series creator Nic Pizzolatto was as capable a storyteller as the first season made it seem. The negative response from the second season forced an indefinite hiatus for the series. That season aired back in the summer of 2015. At the start of 2019, a new season of True Detective debuts. It's clear that HBO and Pizzolatto have learned their lessons of trying to rush production in order to get the series on the airwaves every year. This is a franchise that requires a unique perspective and story in order to function. The second season was so demonstrably different from the first. It expanded its ensemble to numerous characters and made the plot much more complicated and large spread. Those changes didn't work in its favor though. As such, it shouldn't be surprising to see these opening episodes of Season 3 follow a much more contained narrative. It's fundamentally the story of one man's life as told through his recollection of this one specific case. The Purcell case has completely defined Wayne Hays' life. That took him by surprise even though the audience is being told this story through the lens of the initial investigation in 1980, a new inquiry being launched in 1990 and a producer taking another look in 2015. It's equal parts helpful and tragic that this case is so consuming to Hays as well. People ask him if this is something he wishes to keep going back to over and over again. In 2015, he insists that it is because it helps line up everything in his memory once more. It's clear that he's not the best husband, father or investigator. He is able to see things that others have not. But he remains tormented because answers seem to be elusive to him. That makes this a character study for him instead of an ongoing mystery as to who took these children and what happened to them.

However, the structuring of this season should make the audience wary of everything that Hays is saying. When he is being interviewed in both settings (first in 1990 and then in 2015), the people asking the questions note that his memory isn't as good as it used to be. Those are just subtle references at this point. It's much more obvious in the moments where he is all alone and trying to come to terms with the life that he has lived. That's so compelling. He understands that he is estranged with his daughter. And yet, he still proudly blurts out that he would like to see her again sooner rather than later. He doesn't understand how someone could not thrive in this Arkansas setting. He sees so much beauty in this place. It's where he met Amelia. It's where they raised their family. This is where their careers started and thrived. Sure, Hays fought in the war. He had a dangerous job of being a scout who was frequently all by himself roaming the jungles gathering information. That has really aided his investigative skills in this case. It means it's no big deal when he just wanders off because he happens to notice something that regular people just completely miss. That proves that he has such a powerful and perceptive mind. He can follow the tracks of the bike in the hopes of finding the missing children. He is the one who makes the startling and shocking discovery that the boy was killed. He finds him up there in the rocks. He understands the symbolism of this being a crime of intense passion and mystery. He just doesn't have all of the pieces coming together just yet. It becomes increasingly clear as well that he is still trying to come up with new theories as to what happened in this case. He is given the new information in 1990 that Julie is still alive and her prints were found on the scene of a bank robbery. That fuels a new investigation. One that ultimately leads to him leaving the force. But Hays is also obsessed with getting an update from the producer in 2015. He hopes that she brings something new to the case even though his son, Henry, has the wise perception of this probably just being an exploitive piece that won't uncover anything new.

The desperation of all of this is still profoundly felt by Hays though. It's enough for him to seemingly walk in and out of his life. He believes he has a strong hold over his sanity. And yet, he's also recording messages to himself to remember key details. He wakes up in the middle of the street in his pajamas. He remains haunted by all of this. Mahershala Ali carries that fear of the unknown in so many different ways throughout the generations as well. When Hays makes the initial discovery of the body, it's so completely devastating. Until that moment, there was hope that both children would be found alive. In that instant, Hays' heart sank with the reality that none of this was going to end happily. The Purcell family would be torn apart even further. Tom and Lucy were never a happy couple. They have always had a ton of problems. That lends some creditability to the idea that the children just ran away from home for a potentially better life. Once the body is found though, the investigation intensifies because it's clear that someone did this to the children. Someone is now teasing the investigation and the family. The person behind all of this sends a cryptic note saying that Julie is better off where she is now. That may actually be true given the audience's awareness that she is still alive in 1990. Those scenes set 10 years after the fact prove that Hays and his partner, Roland West, may not have gotten it right the first time around. They had a suspect that they arrested for the crime even though they didn't solve all of the lingering questions. Those still loom far into the future which open this new line of questioning upon the discovery that Julie is still alive. But 2015 also teases that all of this will only end in further tragedy. The aged Hays carries all of that in his face. He is searching for clues but only sees new potential avenues to explore.

All of this has put such a weight on Hays' family as well. This case brings them together in the first place. This season presents race in a central way for the first time. It's interesting to see how Pizzolatto is capable of handling that after some horrible characterizations outside of straight white men in the previous two seasons. It remains a mixed bag in these opening two episodes as well. The connection between Hays and Amelia is electric. At first, she is just as obsessed with this case. She sees herself as providing valuable insight. The narrative proves that to be true. She can tell the detectives what these children are like. Moreover, she can get the student who saw Julie with the doll to talk. It brings everything together to Halloween night where the criminal first made contact with the children. That could widen the investigation further. Hays just struggles in getting his ideas heard because the lead attorney doesn't want anything to jeopardize his perception in this community. That's an idea that is very fascinating to the producer in 2015. She wants to understand the struggle of people in positions of power not being heard because of the systemic racism in these professions. Hays suggests that it wasn't a big deal with this case. The second episode proves that he was just as toxic and problematic as his white counterparts on the force. He kidnaps a man and demands he confess to this crime just because he was previously convicted for pedophilia. In that assault, he paints a vivid picture of prison rape which shows that the writing may not have a subtle touch when it comes to race. However, that doesn't take too much focus away from what the overall story is trying to do. It shows the complexities of this man and the toll it took on those around him. Amelia also rose to fame because of this case. She became a successful author because of her non-fiction book. That just happens to come out right before new information is released in 1990. In that moment, Hays also reveals himself to be growing more and more distant even though he yearns for her once more in 2015.

But again, all of this is told through the prism of Wayne Hays' memory. There are moments - especially in the first hour - where the fourth wall breaks as things seem to happen in 1980 that are actually just changing the way Hays is telling the story in the future. These narratives may actually conflict with one another. As such, the audience should question everything that is going on. In his 1990 deposition, Hays says that everyone lies. As a detective, he believes he has a good sense of when people are telling him the truth. He knows that not everything lines up. He also understands that there are many reasons to lie. He understands because he also participates in them. He has withheld information. He has kept some things close to the vest in order to fuel his obsession with this case. He needs to understand everything that happened during that fateful day in 1980. Some things he remembers so clearly - like it being the day Steve McQueen died or that there was a full moon. But there are other details that also haunt him much more - like the discovery of the body or the way his life completely shakes up upon realizing that Julie is still alive. He calls West right away regarding the initial and devastating break in the case. That completely ramps up this investigation and even brings in the FBI to help with the kidnapping angle. And yet, he doesn't tell Amelia about the new information even though the galleys of her new book have just been delivered. In 1990, Hays finds himself in a new environment. One that he didn't quite expect for his life. In 2015, he's happy to have children around to care for him. But again, he may present as nothing more than a burden because of his strong hold on this one particular element of his life. He has been unable to let go which is bound to only increase the tragedy the more things are revealed across this season.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Great War and Modern Memory" was written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Jeremy Saulnier.
  • "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye" was written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Jeremy Saulnier.
  • Mahershala Ali is the "star" of the show this season. However, the ensemble is truly stacked as well with some terrific actors. Scoot McNairy and Mamie Gummer are the parents of the missing children. Ray Fisher is Hays' adult son. Josh Hopkins and Jon Tenney are the people deposing Hays in 1990 with different styles. Brett Cullen is the public face who is running for reelection. And Brandon Flynn is one of the shifty teenagers clearly hiding something.
  • It's not long before the town isolates two suspects just because of their outward perceptions. Brett Woodard is targeted simply because he collects trash in the hopes of selling it off. And yet, Hays and West have compassion and understanding for him because he too is a fellow war vet. Meanwhile, they have nothing but contempt for Ted LaGrange because he's an ex-con for the most heinous crime and trying to hide from it.
  • Of course, Ted LaGrange is just way too obvious a suspect for the central crime. The show really lays it on thick when it comes to him being a despicable human being despite him coming across as a genuine guy when Hays and West pick him up. He is still putting himself in environments with children too. However, the 2015 producer notes that there are many pedophilia rings in this area at the time.
  • Right now, Hays is the only character of importance with this investigation who is seen in the 2015 timeline. That's a completely separate story where Hays is the only one who gets to tell what happened. He wants to see what new evidence there is. And yet, there is no passing reference as to what happened to West or the Purcell parents or some of the other people involved with this particular case. Hays is the only one who matters at that moment in time.
  • It's definitely going to be fascinating to see if Mahershala Ali can pull off Oscar and Emmy wins in 2019. He certainly has the vehicles to do so in the same calendar year - with Green Book at the Academy Awards and True Detective at the Emmys. And yet, both projects have seemingly been generating more conversation about the behind-the-scenes antics than the onscreen quality. That could impact both races. And yet, Ali seems like a frontrunner for his performances in both as well.