TV Review: ‘True Detective’ Season 3 Episode 1: ‘The Great War and Modern Memory’




Season Plot: Set in three different time periods (1980, 1990, and 2015), the third season of True Detective follows Arkansas state police detective Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) and his obsession with the disappearance of two children.

Episode Plot:

1980: Hays and his partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff) investigate the disappearance of Wil and Julie Purcell. Wayne interviews Wil’s teacher Amelia (Carmen Reardon) and becomes attracted to her. Locals admit to seeing the children riding their bikes at various times. Native American Brett Woodard (Michael Greyeyes) comes under suspicion. Hays uses his tracking skills and makes a harrowing discovery.

1990: Ten years after his most famous case, Wayne Hays is deposed when the family of the man accused of the Purcell crime reopens the case. A shocking revelation throws Hays for a loop.

2015: With a failing memory, Wayne is interviewed for a documentary called True Criminal, as Wayne’s son Henry (Ray Fisher) oversees the process.


Review: When the second season of True Detective concluded three and a half years ago (!), I believed that marked the end of the erstwhile television show. While the first season was a marvel, the second proved a convoluted mess with Colin Farrell’s performance being the lone highlight. Thankfully, it seems that HBO has learned from their past missteps as the third season marks a true return to form.

Ali impresses as Arkansas state detective Wayne Hays. It’s fascinating to see this character in three different timelines and how distinct the character is in each one. The 1980 Hays seemingly prefers things to be quiet in his position, yet as soon as the Purcell case presents itself he becomes a stalker, using his tracking skills from Vietnam. I got the sense that his talent for tracking was more curse than blessing, yet it is an ability he revels in. 1990 Hays comes off irritated that he’s being deposed again for a case he’s still very much obsessed with. And seventy year old Hays in 2015 presents a somewhat broken man, dealing with memory loss and the loss of his own wife.

“The Great War and Modern Memory” sets the table in a similar fashion to season one. There’s real chemistry between Ali and his partner Roland West played by Stephen Dorff. However, whereas Harrelson and McConaughey’s Marty Hart and Rust Cohle from season one had an antagonistic relationship, Hays and West seem friendly, if not precisely friends. An early scene where the two are shooting rats while drinking on the job presents an easygoing affability between the two. Indeed it almost shows them as lazy cops until the Purcell case drops in their laps. Then you see a dogged focus and attention to detail that marks them as two excellent detectives. Dorff is solid as Hays’ partner West but I’ll need to see more of him to truly invest in his character. Right now he’s a flashlight standing next to Ali’s sun.

Although we saw little of Hays’ love interest Amelia, it’s clear that Carmen Ejogo’s character will play a significant role in this season. Initially a school teacher, she goes on to become Hays’ wife and writes a book about the Purcell case that ends up a modern classic. Yet there’s a hint that her conclusions may have been wrong as the “True Criminal” interview of seventy-year-old Wayne implies. It will be interesting to see how that story line develops as the season continues.

Season three’s initial episodes set up several possibilities as to who committed the crime, everyone from Julie and Wil’s parents Tom (Scoot McNairy) and Lucy (Mamie Gummer), to a group of local high school seniors, to Lucy’s cousin, to the suspect most of the town gravitates to, Brett Woodard. Yet knowing True Detective I feel like most, if not all are red herrings, and the real culprit is far more sinister. No doubt as time goes by the issue of memory will play a huge factor. Whose memory of events do you trust if the primary investigator’s own memory is distorted by obsession and old age?

In classic fashion, True Detective’s first episode plays out in a slow burn. Much like season one, season three sets up a weird, ritualistic bent to the crime, as Hays finds a series of strange voodoo-like dolls in the woods just before discovering the dead body of Wil. While I’m a fan of this tactic, my only concern is that season three will end up mimicking season one too much. The show needs to stand on its own and not be a photocopy of before.

The 1990 and 2015 story lines get short shrift in “The Great War and Modern Memory,” especially 1990. The only significant and salient point to come out of that portion of the episode was that Julie is apparently still alive as her fingerprints were found at the scene of a robbery in Oklahoma. How significant this revelation will play into the season remains to be seen. I will admit what we got from the 1990 and 2015 portions was tantalizing and left me wanting more. Credit to creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto as the plot seems on point at least for the nonce.

I think the best thing that can be said about the opening episode of True Detective season three is that it feels like a callback to season one, and I mean that in the best possible sense. Season one set the tone for the type of series True Detective was meant to be. I’m glad to see PIzzolatto and HBO are going back to the well on this one. It’s a proven formula and the first episode left me intrigued enough that if possible I would have binged the rest of the season.

“The Great War and Modern Memory” proves an excellent start right out of the gate. Let’s hope this season can keep the momentum going.


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