‘True Detective’ Season 3, Episode 4: Cognitive Dissonance | Modern Society of USA

‘True Detective’ Season 3, Episode 4: Cognitive Dissonance

‘True Detective’ Season 3, Episode 4: Cognitive Dissonance

“True Detective” has fallen off the wagon.

For the first two episodes of Season 3, the show had been taking a conservative, back-to-basics approach to the procedural that seemed like a correction to the indulgences of the previous season, which got lost in the tangled psychology of four lead characters who were the same brand of “edgy.”

Those two episodes, directed by the genre wizard Jeremy Saulnier (“Green Room,” “Blue Ruin”), evoked the poverty and fear of its small-town Arkansas backdrop, but they also did the unglamorous work of moving the story forward. Two kids were abducted. One is dead. The other is still missing. The urgency of that situation should be the engine that moves “True Detective” forward, even in the two later timelines, when the cold case has once more become hot.

But now it has run completely aground. Developments in the case are so slow-moving and diffuse that it’s hard to keep track of them, and most of them are probably red herrings anyway. Dead ends are to be expected in the middle of an eight-hour whodunit, but that doesn’t absolve the series’s creator, Nic Pizzolatto, from the responsibility to keep plugging away. It’s not just the detectives in “The Hour and the Day” who are losing their sense of direction — it’s as if the show itself had unscrewed the cap on a bottle of Jack Daniels and gone for a swim. Maybe it will wake from its stupor and start working the case again, but for now it’s passed out on the couch. And it’s dreaming about the Viet Cong.

This week’s episode was Pizzolatto’s inauspicious debut as director, though the problems here are mostly with the script, which is credited to him and David Milch, the trailblazing showrunner of “Deadwood” and “NYPD Blue.” It’s impossible to say how much influence Milch wielded, but many of Pizzolatto’s weaknesses are on display here: grossly overwritten dialogue, a leaden understanding of domestic relationships and a tendency to brood alongside his characters.

Of the many sins committed by this episode — up to and including a scene in which about a dozen VCs haunt the elder Hays in his office — the worst is that it’s boring. At 67 minutes, it’s the longest of the four so far, and a brief “previously on” would be enough to capture all that is really learned from it.

What detective work does get done in this hour sets up a few suspects who will probably be knocked down later. Hays and West head out to the Catholic Church where the First Communion photograph of Will Purcell in “prayerful repose” was taken, which the detectives believe inspired his killer to position the boy’s corpse in the same way. The priest says the image signifies “innocence and rebirth in Christ,” suggesting that perhaps the perpetrator was readying him for the hereafter.

Being in church is uncomfortable for Hays, a lapsed Catholic who later refuses to take the Eucharist because he hasn’t been to confession for years. West is more blunt about it: He doesn’t like the priest because the vow of celibacy is unthinkable to him.

The bedroom is a battleground for Pizzolatto, a place where fighting and lovemaking are so closely associated that one inevitably leads to another, no matter how absurd the circumstances. There’s a note of self-awareness in the stormy exchange between Hays and Amelia in 1990, when she calls him out for the sort of listnessless that is dogging the case (and the show). “Everything’s just happening to you,” she says. “You’re a grown man with no agency of your own.”

The throwdown to come is bad enough for Hays to turn up the volume on the television so the kids don’t hear it, but all that spirited yadda-yadda leads to an abrupt sex scene that tables the argument more than resolves it. Dysfunction is a continuing condition of Pizzolatto relationships, leavened occasionally by a good shag.

The episode does touch on a theme about the regrettable inheritance children sometimes receive from their parents, despite good intentions. Hays and Amelia’s kids will absorb the tensions in their marriage; we know this because Hays’s daughter, Becca, is no longer speaking to him in the 2015 timeline. That sentiment carries over to a conversation Amelia has with Lucy Purcell, who bitterly regrets the unhappy home she and her husband Tom built around their now-absent children. She feels guilty that their turbulent marriage caused Will and Julie to retreat somewhere else — somewhere potentially unsafe — for comfort, rather than seek comfort in the adults who were supposed to be protecting them.

“Children should laugh,” she tells Amelia. “There wasn’t a lot of laughter around here.”

That’s a heartbreaking sentiment, unifying many of the grown-up characters in “True Detective” this season, who are all failing their children to varying degrees. Yet Pizzolatto steps all over it by having Lucy say lines like “I got the soul of a whore,” which goes far beyond her (or anyone’s) capacity for self-assessment, or lashing out at Amelia by calling her a “pickaninny.”

The show had played subtly with race earlier in the season, when Hays and Amelia addressed her standing in the mostly white community in coded language. But a term like “pickaninny,” paired with Tom Purcell’s invocation of the N-word earlier in the episode, is a provocation that Pizzolatto can’t be trusted to handle. He’s like a kid playing with matches.

Flat Circles:

• Part of the “True Detective” formula is the midseason spasm of violence, which manifested itself in the first season with the famed six-minute tracking shot of a violent melee in the projects and in the second with a daylight ambush that wiped out dozens. This episode ends with Brett Woodard (Michael Greyeyes), a garbage collector and Vietnam veteran, hunkering down against the posse of redneck vigilantes who threatened him for talking to children. Fallout to be continued …

• “You got some major cognitive dissonance.” There are moments when Pizzolatto does seem to be aware of how ridiculous some of these situations can be, but they pass quickly.

• Hays and Amelia’s relationship soured over time, but in retrospect, Hays’s likening of a vagina to a holster should have raised a red flag.

• In his demented state, Hays has been haunted by his late wife and the Viet Cong. I shudder to imagine who his next imaginary guest might be.

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