Season 3, Episode 2: ‘Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye’
The cases in all three seasons of “True Detectives” are horrific, all-consuming miasmas that devour the attention — and occasionally the lives — of those haunted souls condemned to investigate them. It’s not just that they’re exceptionally hard to crack or that they reveal the human potential for evil, they’re also rife with conspiratorial obstacles.
Last season, as the three detectives started asking questions around the murder of a Southern California power broker, they wound up kicking a hornet’s nest of municipal corruption involving politicians, gangsters and corporate honchos. Forget about justice: Solving the mystery meant signing their own death warrants.
These first two episodes of the third season raise some of the same problems, including a future state attorney general whose election-year priorities run contrary to sound investigative tactics. But Episode 2 strongly suggests that racial issues will be significant factor, too.
[Read a review of Season 3 by the Times TV critic James Poniewozik.]
The 2015 timeline makes the theme amusingly plain when Elisa Montgomery, the documentary filmmaker who is rekindling Hays’ interest in the case, says the following sentence out loud: “I’m interested in the intersectionality of marginalized groups within authoritarian and systemic racist structures.” (Sarah Gadon, the wonderful actress who plays Elisa, reads the line with a smile, as if she knows it’s a little much.)
Hays isn’t the type to entertain academic theses, but some of those words do seem to apply here. He’s a marginalized figure within an authoritarian and systemic racist structure. And practically speaking, it keeps him from doing his job.
Back in the 1980 timeline, for example, Hays and West get their first huge break in the case when one of the victims’ classmates recognizes the dolls that were found in the forest near Will Purcell’s body. The boy tells them that Will and Julie found similar-looking dolls in their trick-or-treat bags on Halloween, and he outlines the neighborhood that they walked that night. Hays and West come together on a plan to surveil the neighborhood for a couple of days, search the homes of those willing to comply and see if anything shakes loose.
The trouble with the plan, from a political standpoint, is that Arkansans don’t like having their privacy and property rights infringed upon. Any evidence gleaned from these searches, the detectives are told, won’t hold up in court. Hays makes the argument that winning a court case isn’t as important as finding the missing girl.
He loses that argument. The one card in their hand is revealed in a news conference that succeeds mostly in alarming the community. Knowing that a potential killer may lurk in any one of the 114 households outlined by the victims’ friend, parents simply stop sending their kids to school. The morning bus travels down the usual stops, but no kids are aboard. (Shades of the Zodiac Killer, who terrorized the Bay Area with a letter stating: “School children make nice targets, I think I shall wipe out a school bus some morning. Just shoot out the front tire + then pick off the kiddies as they come bouncing out.”) For Hays and West, the decision is deeply unhelpful, potentially alerting the perpetrator and sowing fear and suspicion among the people of West Finger.
Hays lashes out at his partner for failing to be more persuasive. “I knew they wouldn’t listen to me but you should have stopped that,” he says, adding: “They ain’t my tribe, man.”
What’s striking about that moment is that Hays carries no illusions about racial barriers within the police department and within the government at large. He wholly expects that his opinion will be minimized, if not discarded altogether, so his anger is directed instead at West, whose whiteness grants them what little leverage they have. Hays’s posture among his all-white superiors is deferential, bordering on passive, and he is more inclined to work the case than engage in any politicking. He recognizes that speaking up is more likely to undercut his goals than bring them to fruition.
“Did you ever feel your leads and theories were discounted because of your race?” Elisa asks. The implied answer is emphatically “yes.”
This being “True Detective,” the leads start to take them to deeply unsettling places, suggesting the work of either a pedophile on parole or a large-scale pedophile ring, something more expansive than the peephole in Will’s closet. Hays and West’s off-site interrogation session with Ted LaGrange (Shawn-Caulin Young), a pedophile ex-con, show their willingness to paint outside the lines, but they don’t seem satisfied by his answers. They mostly just give the man a beating because they think he deserves it. The best they can do is make sure he doesn’t volunteer to read at a local day care again.
If “True Detective” sticks to form, the culprit may be unmasked eventually, but the search itself will unleash forces that are much bigger and more difficult to comprehend. Pizzolatto believes that entrenched systems often act deliberately to deny comprehension, and this season those systemic problems expand to race. That may not be all that’s leaving a 25-year-old case mystery unsolved, but it’s a start.
• Hays’s interview with the garbage collector brings up his two tours of duty in Vietnam, which are presumably where he perfected those thousand-mile stares. He doesn’t seem to fit into any of the expected boxes: He’s a Republican and a hunter who volunteered for the service. The suspect asks: “Why punch in? Why the suit?” But he doesn’t have an answer.
• Scoot McNairy is doing his usual fine work as Tom, the victims’ father, who traipses right on the border between understandably distraught and scarily unhinged.
• The scene at the community center is an early indicator that public patience over solving the case will be limited, which again connects it to “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills.” Hays and West seem like competent professionals, but an overall rush to judgment is certain to lead to mistakes.
• The skeevy uncle Dan (Michael Graziadei), who stayed with the Purcells for six months, offers an alibi for the night of the kids’ disappearance, though Hays and West choose not to press him on the hole in Will’s closet. He does confirm that the kids were living in a hostile domestic environment, which may have led them to retreat to unsafe options outside their home.
• Powerful final image of the elderly Hays in his pajamas, standing in the darkened wreckage at the corner of Shoepick and Briarwood, where it all started. It doesn’t take great interpretive abilities to figure out how he’s feeling, but it’s a striking window into that ill-lit corner of his brain.