Season 3, Episode 6: ‘Hunters in the Dark’
There’s a confusing and contradictory tension developing in this season of “True Detective” between the personal and the broadly conspiratorial. On one hand, we’re getting a better and better sense of what life was like for Will and Julie before their abduction. They were held captive by their parents’ dysfunction, which frightened and alienated them so much that the peephole in Will’s closet, the one we assumed was carved by a leering pedophile, was actually a place where the two children could pass notes to each other.
On the other, the case has opened up to the larger, more powerful forces represented by Hoyt Foods, were Lucy Purcell once worked. Whatever role Hoyt Foods and its executive class played in the case has the effect of minimizing the domestic conflict among the Purcells. Now everyone is the victim, not only Will and Julie but also Tom, Lucy, Dan O’Brien, Freddy Burns and Brett Woodard. The whole gallery of suspects.
It seems to be Nic Pizzolatto’s instinct to make “True Detective” a big show, about simple crimes that open up into expansive indictments of the shadowy networks that make them possible. The whodunit aspects tend to grow less important over time, to the point where a cabal of industrial and municipal power brokers was the true villain of the second season, and the inciting murder was resolved with a shrug.
That’s a compelling choice on Pizzolatto’s part, supported by plenty of neo-noir classics like “Chinatown” and “The Long Goodbye.” But there are dramatic consequences, too. It not only produces enough red herrings to stock a deli counter, it also threatens to minimize the characters. When a situation is larger than they are, that’s another way of saying that they’re shrinking.
In the 1990 timeline, the fallout over the hotline call from Julie — or someone presumed to be Julie — puts Tom firmly in the cross hairs of the investigation. Hays and West are castigated for dismissing Tom as a suspect too quickly, despite the fact that he didn’t have an alibi after 6:30 on the night of his kids’ disappearance.
The caller’s claim that Tom was not her real father gets some support from the revelation that he is a closeted homosexual. His old boss tells the detectives that Tom’s job was already in jeopardy before the kidnappings because he’d been caught drinking on the job and asking for loans, and that his relationship with his co-workers had deteriorated after he was seen slipping into a gay club.
Hays and West are given a search warrant for Tom’s place, where they find a pamphlet on conversion therapy. But Tom’s sexuality isn’t an indictment. It’s more a complication signaling that he hasn’t been forthcoming with the authorities, especially about his blood relationship with his children.
With the focus shifting to Tom, this week’s episode attempts something hugely unconventional: It presents critical events from his perspective. It is exceedingly rare for a procedural like “True Detective” to veer off the investigative trial because it gives the audience information that the gumshoes don’t have. We know from Hays and West’s meeting with Dan O’Brian at the diner that Dan might have some important and dangerous news to share about the people behind Will’s murder and Julie’s disappearance. But it’s Tom who follows up on it after overhearing a couple of other investigators in the station. (They really do need to keep that door closed.)
And so we’re privy to Tom’s solo mission to beat the goods out of Dan at the motel. And we’re with him in the final moments when he discovers the “pink castle” in a Hoyt executive’s mansion, crept up upon by a man who appears to be Hoyt’s security chief, Harris James (Scott Shepherd).
For the time being, “True Detective” has put viewers in a situation where we know more than the investigators who have spent decades following the case. The fan theory that Hoyt Foods is funding a pedophile ring now has some support, which brings the show back to a familiar theme about the unspeakable perversions of the ultra-elite and the powerful networks that sustain and protect them. People of lesser means, the detectives included, are likely to get chewed up by the machinery.
None of this absolves some of the key players from culpability in the crime, much less their sins as parents and caregivers, but their destinies aren’t entirely their own to determine. Lucy will overdose in Las Vegas under mysterious circumstances. Dan’s remains are discovered at the bottom of a Missouri rock quarry. And things aren’t looking so great for Tom at the moment.
For Hays and West, it has meant chasing a more unknowable and elusive evil all these years — and helplessly watching as the casualties pile up along the way.
• Based on the Pizzolatto-isms we’ve heard so far, Amelia’s book seems like a tough read, but one passage from her book event in 1990 stands out: “Negation is deeper. It is the knowledge that every room you enter in the rest of your life, they should be there, and are not. Your memories become totems to that absence. A lost child is a story that’s never allowed to end.” In an episode given over to executive conspiracy, her words are a touching reminder of the human stakes still present for the Purcells and the community.
• To introduce Devil’s Den as a known “cruising spot” this late in the season doesn’t suggest a well-considered take on Tom’s sexuality and how it figures into the larger story. Perhaps it will pay off down the line.
• “He rested on the seventh. I always thought He should have put the extra day in, instead of half-assing it.” Hays has put God on notice.