“You feel like maybe being a detective again?”
True Detective this season is very much Mahershala Ali’s show—he is elevating this material, infusing a combination of fragility and brittleness, and showing us that he can navigate three decades and sell us a man in three different portions of his life. But Stephen Dorff steps up in third episode “The Big Never,” demonstrating the kind of man Roland West is and filling in his edges a bit more than the preceding two episodes allowed.
West holds a grudge: He’ll let you know he remembers what you did with a smirk and a strongly worded admonishment. He can be compassionate: Consider his interactions with Scoot McNairy’s Tom in the 1990 storyline, when he allows the man to take his hand in prayer, even though it’s been demonstrated over the past few episodes that West isn’t religious in the least. And he’s still a product of his time and his place: His affirmative action barb at Ali’s Wayne Hays while they drink in the VFW bar isn’t outright racist, I don’t think, but insidious. He knows that Hays has been wronged by the police force and the prosecutor’s office, and he’s tried to fix it, but he also seems to resent Hays for not trying on his own, too. What do these men owe each other? What secrets do they share?
A lot of stuff happens in “The Big Nothing,” so let’s run through this bullet-point style:
• In 1980, Hays and West search the Purcell home again and learn that mother Lucy used to work for Hoyt Foods, on the chicken line, and that a foundation affiliated with Hoyt Foods, the Ozark Children’s Outreach Center, is offering a $10,000 reward for info about the children. The foundation says they made the prosecutor’s office aware of the reward—although the prosecutor didn’t then let Hays and West know, another sign of them seemingly working against the detectives instead of helping them—and that the head of Hoyt Foods has been out of town for weeks on safari. But think of what Tom’s mom said—that they didn’t think Julie was Tom’s daughter. Could Julie’s biological father be connected with Hoyt Foods?
• Who were the kids hanging out with in 1980? Aside from the Hoyt Foods tote bag, Hays finds a series of notes with messages like “It’s okay” and “I’m always here”—who were the children seeing when they told their father they were with the boy with the puppy? Who was writing them notes? Where is the pink room that Julie drew?
• Also in 1980, Hays and West find Will’s dice in the forest, along with a bag of other toys (including Han and Leia action figures!), which aren’t recognized by Tom and Lucy (heartbreaking moment: when Tom insists, “I’m the one who bought ‘em toys”). They speak with a man whose farm butts up against the forest, who claims that he saw people using his road to go back there, including a black man and white woman in a brown sedan. (Note Mahershala’s Paddington-like hard gaze when the man calls him “son.”)
• The way Will was posed when Hays found him in the cave? It mimics his pose in his first communion picture—fingers clasped together, arms at a 90-degree angle, eyes closed. Who saw that picture? Who would pose the boy that way? And why?
• In 1990, West is called in for the deposition, but in a moment very similar to True Detective season one, he defers questions about holes in the paperwork. “Read the report,” he insists, but we already know Hays and West are lying—they never shared that they kidnapped that child molester and tortured him for information. Pretty sure that’s not in their official account of events!
• Also in 1990, West is placed in charge of opening up the case again, and he finally has the opportunity to pull Hays back in, moving him from his shitty desk job to true detective work. But what will the men find in 1990 that they overlooked in 1980? And when they meet in the VFW and Hays alludes to West being shot—when the hell did that happen?
Finally, in 1990: that Walmart trip! This is where we see Hays’s fears become real, the suggestion that he could go from being an onlooker to the losses of other people to a participant. I’ve been that kid who was lost in a gigantic store before, before cellphones could pinpoint you in a second, and it’s an increasing sense of panic that reaches a fever pitch of anxiety. Ali nails the flipside of that here, as a parent who gets caught up in anger and terror and who snaps at his child because of it.
To see the normally even-keeled man—who up until that point had been in pure Dad mode with his very flat “no” whenever Rebecca or Henry asked for a toy—burst out with “Don’t fucking do that, Rebecca!” was a shocking moment indeed, but fits with who we’ve seen Hays to be: very straight and narrow, until the situation calls for something different, and then a hint of darkness comes out. Think of his prison rape threats while interrogating, or how he snaps at Amelia later in their home. The Purcell tragedy effectively ended his career as a detective while jumpstarting hers as a writer, and there’s a disgust lingering underneath Hays’s supportive-husband surface. He finds Amelia’s writing of Life and the Death and the Harvest Moon distasteful, but she won’t back down. She’s not going to stop writing the book, and we already know from the 2015 storyline that her work becomes a true-crime classic.
And oh yeah, speaking of 2015 … whoo man, so much goes down in 2015! First: Should we trust Eliza? The filmmaker seems determined to poke holes in the investigation, and in particular Hays’s work. She brings up accounts from people who lived in the Purcell neighborhood who said they were never interviewed. She asks why they never followed the lead about the brown sedan. And she seems to have a certain familiarity with Hays’s son, Henry—the way they address each other, by first name, suggests a comfort with each other that Hays notices, too.
Second: Hays is seeing ghosts, another sign that he may be suffering from early dementia—or is it something else? Guilt, maybe? His interaction in 2015 with Amelia from 1980 spooked me the hell out, and is the most Rust Cohle-like dialogue we’ve seen yet this season. I’m just going to transcribe it here, so we can puzzle over it together:
“Scientists now theorize an infinite number of dimensions outside our own. Einstein said past, present, and future are all a stubbornly persistent illusion. And are you waking up to that illusion? Now, while things fall apart? Are you starting to see them clearly? And at the end of all things, are you awakening to what you withheld? Did you confuse reacting with feeling? Did you mistake compulsion for freedom? And even so, did you harden your heart against what loves you most?
“Not like this. Not like this.”
“Oh, sweetheart. Did you think you could just go on and never once have to look back?”
“Please, I, I don’t deserve this. Whatever’s happening, I don’t deserve this.
“No, you don’t. But it’s happening anyway. I’m so sorry.”
“Where is it? How much do I have to lose?”
“Everything. Same as everybody else.”
“I lost Becca.”
“No, you didn’t. Not the way you think. You’re worried what they’ll find. What you left in the woods. Finish it.”
So! What the hell is all that? My working theory is that there are some elements of what Hays can’t remember in 2015 that he and West may have been involved in back in 1980 and 1990; as he notes in 2015, they knew about the sedan in 1980, so why didn’t that come up in the paperwork? But there are things that Amelia suggests that are open questions: Is Becca dead? Is that why Henry is uncomfortable talking about her with his father? The woods have been a place of discovery for Hays in the 1980 timeline—what could he have overlooked? Or been responsible for?
“The Big Never” ends not with that spooky moment from 2015, but from a narrative switch in the 1990 storyline, from a focus on the depositions to the fact that Hays and West reopen the case as part of West’s task force. What will they find? And what, in 2015, will Hays remember?
Some odds and ends:
+ 70-year-old Hays does not have time for other people’s coddling: “I know my son loves me, Doctor, but thanks for walking me through that.” I would be embarrassed if someone said that to me! Hot damn!
+ The 1980 and 1990 versions of Hays’s and Amelia’s marriage are still so curious to me: In 1980, there’s still friction between the two regarding his service in and her opposition to the Vietnam War, and their varying interpretations of the poem Amelia was teaching seem to capture different ideas about art and about life. How did they end up married? And in a marriage that seems to revolve around using sex to solve problems that are insurmountable?
+ Amelia pretending to be a different person to get in with the police in Sallisaw, Oklahoma, isn’t that different from pretending to be different people in St. Louis, as she mentioned to Hays during their bar conversation last week.
+ Dorff has some great lines this episode: His “I’m making a point, son,” was an excellent rejection of the lawyer’s attempt at controlling the deposition conversation, and I enjoyed his acknowledgment that he takes his coffee “like a dessert.” Um, me too, Stephen! Twins! Also great: His delivery of “Every day of my life” when the VFW bartender asked if he served.
+ The captions for this episode claim that Hays said to Amelia after the Walmart trip, “The kids are fine,” but I feel like he said “Your kids are a fine,” as a subtle dig into her behavior with the Sallisaw police. He later says “your kids” another time, so I feel like his resentment would make him use that phrasing more than once.
+ Things with Michael Greyeyes’s Brett Woodard continue to be terrible, and demonstrate the racism this community will revert to in times of panic or fear. The men who jump him, call him “boy,” and threaten him away from their children by shoving a gun in his face have no respect for his service in the Vietnam War or the fact that he put his life in danger for theirs. Huh. Sounds familiar.
+ My partner said 1990 Dorff looks like Luke Perry with his slicked-back hair and aviators, and I AGREE. Although I still think the 1990 versions of Dorff, Ali, and McNairy all look younger than their 1980 versions.
+ Other facts we learn: Lucy overdosed in 1988 in Las Vegas; Tom’s faith in 1990 seems tied to his sobriety. AA, I’m guessing.
+ In 1980, who was the “man in a suit, showed me a badge” who interviewed the farm owner? Is there someone else running around the town conducting an investigation? Or maybe covering up something?
+ I noted in last week’s recap that Hays in 1990 has limited patience for the lawyers leading the deposition, and he acts the same way with West at the VFW, jumping first into a commentary on whether West’s current high status in the state police was “for merit, or does it come with the pigmentation?” What the hell happened in 1980 that derailed Hays’s career so thoroughly, and allowed the racists in charge of the police and the state’s attorney’s office to push him aside?
Next week: We recap episode four, “The Hour and the Day.”
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