Time is a flat circle.
So is a bicycle tire, so let’s get clear from the first shot that True Detective is reconnecting with its Season One glory days. The first line, delivered by Detective Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali), is “Of course I remember.” We’re about to set out on a major excursion into the nature of time and memory.
There is a case, the kind that rips a small town apart, Ozark-Gothic style, and leaves no one untouched. The kind in which anyone could be the murderer, and yet no one can conceive of something so ghastly. The kind that just won’t go away, that goes unsolved for ages, that finally results in a conviction—only for new evidence to come to light a decade later, invalidating the whole conclusion. The kind people write books and make documentaries about. It’s 1990, and “they” are trying to overturn a conviction. It’s 2015, and somehow this case is still at issue. It’s 1980, and it hasn’t happened yet. It’s 2015, and there’s a pistol in the nightstand drawer and Hays’ memories are not entirely stable. It’s 1990, and his wife is writing about the case that has defined his career and will ultimately define hers. He might or might not have a problem with that.
It’s 1980—November 7, the day Steve McQueen died.
Two children go missing in a small town in Arkansas. Everyone seems like a possible suspect. The father (Scoot McNairy) is in hysterics. There’s an interview. A deposition. Another interview. “I used to think, back then,” Hays says in 2015, “that it was Before Nam and After Nam. But boy, it’s Before the Purcell Case, and After.”
Hays is a Vietnam veteran and already gives off a fairly haunted vibe in 1980—by 2015, he’s also in the upsetting early stage of dementia in which you’re painfully aware that your memory is faltering. Hays is a terse, dignified sort of guy, someone whose ethics you’d never question. He has a gruff but affable relationship with his gruff but affable partner, Roland West (Stephen Dorff). He’s terse and speaks with the weary, slightly defensive tone of someone who is accustomed to swimming against the current. He has a certain edginess you sense he already had before he went to Vietnam, but he’s someone you trust. Increasingly, though, he can’t trust himself; in 2015, his memories are eroding, his wife is gone, his daughter’s whereabouts are unclear, and there’s some occult tension with his son (Ray Fisher). He is a person defined by loss and absence. It’s a stunning performance, full of shadows and subtleties and psychic pain; Ali brings a self-possessed eloquence to the tiniest facial expression and his transit through 35 years of life is spellbinding. (Kudos to the stylists, too, for subtle and extremely believable physical aging.) He has excellent foils in Dorff and in Carmen Ejogo, who plays Amelia Reardon, the English teacher he meets in 1980 and marries sometime during that decade, but as good as they are, this is Ali’s show, at least so far. He’s wonderfully set off by agonizing pacing, disjointed editing, bleary lighting and a visual palette that’s big on spent, faded dun and ochre tones and doesn’t shy away from frequent, lingering close-ups. It comes together really nicely, especially as the episode draws to its conclusion and we follow Hays into a claustrophobic little cave with a body posed in it like a grotesque doll.
If you go into this edition of True Detective for the actual crime story, you’re likely to be underwhelmed. It brings nothing particularly new or significant to the genre; as a murder mystery, most of its moves are familiar, even obvious. If you found the series’ previous seasons ponderously laden with literary references, be warned that you’re going to be dragged through Robert Penn Warren poems and Tim O’Brien stories. (The maiden name of the missing kids’ mother is O’Brien, in case you weren’t already thinking about The Things They Carried the minute Hays mentions Vietnam.) People will quote Einstein; hell, this episode shares its title with Paul Fussell’s masterwork of literary criticism. But if you’re interested in memory and its insidious betrayals, you’re in for a treat. Mahershala Ali’s tense, restrained performance is spectacular, and it manages to justify an arguably precious time-bending structure.
“The name of the story will be Time, but you must not pronounce its name.” Time is a flat circle. So is a bicycle tire. So is the harvest moon reflected in a mud-puddle, and so is a spotlight. And it’s hard to say whether the memories you can’t let go are crueler than the ones you can’t retain. According to this episode, it’s a toss-up.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.