Episode 3 of ‘True Detective’ slows down pace as clues build up

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The following contains spoilers about season 3 of “True Detective”

The third episode of season 3 of “True Detective,” “The Big Never,” is a bit of a slowdown of pace after the spiraling, ominous two-episode premiere of the show last week, which drew viewers in with its precise world building and the set-up of the Purcell case. This episode rather focuses on the relationships between Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) and his wife, Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) and between Hays and his partner, Roland West (Stephen Dorff) — zooming in on both the things that drew these pairs together and the things that would drive them apart.

Episode 3 begins not with Hays as was the case in the first two but opens with our first glimpse of West in the middle timeframe, giving his own deposition and elaborating on the note received by the Purcells’ parents at the end of episode 2.

West had largely been absent besides his presence as Hays’ partner in the earliest timeline, with a few mentions of how they had lost touch. The reasons Hays and West have lost touch aren’t revealed, but his character is beginning to be fleshed out a bit more comprehensively in this flash-forward (plus he’s got a much better haircut).

The note that served as the big cliffhanger in the previous episode turns out to be a bit of a dead end, with no concrete evidence coming from the envelope or letter. As in the previous episodes, some of the most compelling scenes come from Hays finding evidence, the most important of which are the component parts to a game found in the children’s belongings. Meanwhile, a possible map, a series of cryptic notes and a telling family photograph are also puzzle pieces tossed into the mix of clues that is starting to build, but with little payoff. The big breakthrough, though, comes again with a discovery in the woods, as Hays stumbles upon objects connecting to the children’s game as well as the spot where Will Purcell may have been killed.

The surrounding members of the town are less of a focal point this episode, though two new developments show the ramifications of the case refracting in the community. One former suspect, Brett Woodard (Michael Greyeyes), is attacked by two trucks of men who think he is interacting with their children. Woodard fights back, denying the claims, and after getting beaten by the men, is last seen grabbing a large duffel bag weighted with something heavy, heading for who knows what.

Meanwhile, the relationship between Amelia and Hays is growing, the pair getting closer as the case develops. Their moments together are some of the few times Hays really smiles, breaking out from his intense focus on the Purcell case in each stage of his life. But these bright spots are limited, with cracks forming down the road of their relationship. In the middle timeframe, as Amelia is preparing her book (and conducting some investigative work herself) and the appearance of Julie Purcell’s fingerprints has come to light, tensions rise between the two. Amelia is invigorated by the new details of the case, chasing down clues, while Hays is resigned and withdrawn, the case having taken a dark toll on his life.

The dynamic between Hays and West is also highlighted more so in this relationship. West is seen on his own for a change in the middle timeframe meeting up with Tom Purcell (Scoot McNairy), who is now sober and religious, inviting West to pray for him on the news of Julie’s possible resurgence. Tom tellingly intones, “Let me never hold too dearly anything of this world. Amen.” West then meets up with Hays for the first time in what appears like a while, and the men have a terse back-and-forth that ultimately turns amicable. West invites Hays to a new task force, of which he is in charge, on the reopened Purcell case. This is a dynamic switch for the two, as Hays has clearly been the more effective detective in the Purcell case as we’ve seen it. Hays suggests this might be because of West’s “pigmentation,” but the issue is quickly brushed off, skirting around some of the deeper tensions that have surfaced periodically between the men.

In the furthest flash-forward, the elderly Hays is revealed to be in the earliest stages of a degenerative memory disease, fighting to keep certain memories afloat while seeming to be forcing some down. The documentarians interviewing him are slowly revealing possible ulterior motives, continuing to push Hays past his comfort zone. In the most chilling scene of the episode, the elderly Hays envisions a mirage of Amelia, appearing as she did when they first met, haunting him with her questions, the most pointed being: “Did you really think you could just go on and never once have to look back?” Hays then asks her: “How much do I have to lose?” to which Amelia responds: “Everything, same as everybody else.”

Episode 3 has continued some of the threads spun in the season openers but still leaves many questions hanging. There are still no clear suspects in the case, nor has anyone’s motives been made completely clear, from the detectives to the suspects to the spectators. Hopefully, next week’s episode will provide some answers for the many clues that have been dropped so far, as well as some clues into the connections between Hays’ past and present.

Camryn Bell covers film and television. Contact her at [email protected].