‘True Detective’ Episode 4: Wayne Hays Searches for Salvation (RECAP)
“The Hour and the Day,” which marks the midway point of True Detective Season 3, opens with a church service and a priest reading from Matthew 16:25. “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it: but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it,” he recites to the attentive members of his youth church group. “Now, what is this about?”
If those kids had been watching this season of True Detective, they’d know the answer. It’s about Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali), isn’t it? This whole series is about Wayne Hays. Moreso than anyone or anything else. Moreso than his skirt-chasing partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff). Moreso than the slow-moving whodunnit murder mystery. Moreso than the Purcell children, who are merely avatars of grief rather than fleshed out victims.
The mileage you get out of this series depends almost entirely on how invested you are in the plight of our forlorn detective. For me, I’m in deep, mostly because of Ali’s magnetic performance. He makes me care about the character in each timeline. Whether he is awkwardly flirting in 1980 or having a domestic meltdown in 1990 or completely losing his grip on reality in 2015. Ali is one of those actors that can express so much with just a few words or a faraway look.
It’s not just Ali though, the acting across the board is fantastic. Dorff makes his somewhat limited material work. Roland’s relationship with Wayne feels genuine; there is a respect between the pair even in their misunderstandings. Scoot McNairy, too, totally embodies the role of Tom Purcell, the grieving father on a downward spiral. McNairy and Dorff are both incredible in the scene following Tom’s drunken bar fight, where the apologetic father breaks down and asks for forgiveness for referring to Wayne as a racial slur.
Then there is Carmen Ejogo’s captivating turn as Amelia Reardon, easily the best female character Pizzolatto has ever written, as in she is more than a mere sex object (Alexandra Daddario in season one) or the put-upon wife (the tragically underused Michelle Monaghan, also in season one). Amelia has a confidence and assertiveness that demands she be taken seriously. There is a fizzling chemistry every time Ejogo and Ali are on screen together, and this episode, in particular, puts Amelia and Wayne’s relationship at the forefront. It is the common thread tying each of the separate time periods together.
The dinner date scene is a great example of two cautious individuals feeling each other out. Amelia and Wayne both have baggage, some of it is out in the open, other parts are left unspoken. “I used to be something of a mess,” Amelia admits. Wayne, meanwhile, doesn’t put all his flaws on the table because he wants to “pretend to be normal,” so he can surprise her later. Their dynamic is an odd mix of sexual chemistry and dark tension, not helped by the fact their conversation keeps slipping back into talk of the investigation.
One thing that is clear from this dinner scene is that Amelia is very much the one in control. She leads most of the conversation. She makes the first physical contact, reaching across the table to take Wayne’s hand. “I have no idea what I’m doing,” the awkward detective confesses. This is reflected a decade later when the two are married and hurling insults at each other in earshot of their two young children.
The intense argument is an excellent complement to the tentative dinner scene later in the episode. Wayne still has no idea what he’s doing, and he looks to Amelia for guidance. She calls him a “grown man with no agency,” someone who can’t take responsibility for his actions and thinks fate has just dealt him a bad hand. When he calls her out for using the Purcell tragedy to excel her writing career, and always trying to move on to better things, she says at least she has a drive.
Wayne is so lost and out of control that the only thing he can think to do is start crying. He doesn’t know what Amelia wants from him. It’s no wonder he is so confused in 2015 without Amelia there – and he is still relying on her for guidance through her book! She was his anchor. Or to steal a phrase from Lost, his “constant,” the one person who can help him from becoming unstuck in time.
All of this comes back to something Wayne told Roland in the season premiere, about not wanting to get married and start a family because he wouldn’t want to subject his personality on his loved ones. And yet that is what happened. Little Henry and Rebecca hear all the fights and name-calling and the wall-shaking make-up sex sessions. The older Wayne blames himself for tearing his family apart. “I felt like I made ya’ll sick… like I poisoned you,” he says to himself during one his hallucinations.
It’s interesting how parallels are drawn between the Hays family and the Purcells. When Amelia makes a neighborly house call to Lucy Purcell (Mamie Gummer), the emotionally shattered mother opens up about how her actions of sleeping around and fighting with Tom negatively impacted on the kids. “This wasn’t a happy home,” she says, “there was no laughter.” Lucy wants to take her gun and end it all, echoing a sentiment her husband shared earlier in the episode: “I can’t be in that house… I just wanna die all the time.” When Wayne has his memory attack, he looks across at the revolver on the table, as if also considering death as a way out.
In the 1990 timeline, we know that Lucy died in Vegas, and we know that Tom found God and seemingly saved his life. Wayne is still trapped in limbo, selfishly chasing a decade-old investigation at the expense of his family and losing them and himself in the process.
As for the case, this episode doesn’t exactly provide us with any forward momentum. The show is holding its cards way close to the chest and I can see that becoming frustrating from some viewers who are more in this for the mystery elements than a character study. It’s particularly aggravating that the show is still playing coy with who is locked up for the crime in 1990. We’re four episodes in; that feels like it should have been answered by now.
In 1980, Wayne and Roland question church parishioners and track down the oft-mentioned “dead-eyed back man” at a local trailer park. It’s an arresting scene – and one which effectively highlights racial tensions (“If it’s in the papers, it’s white children.”) – but it doesn’t shed any new light on the investigation itself. The man denies having anything to do with the Purcell kids and accuses the detectives of trying to set him up as a scapegoat.
The only other significant development in 1980, outside of Trash Man (Michael Greyeyes) blowing up his local harassers, is Freddy Burns (Rhys Wakefield) being arrested after his fingerprints are found on William’s bike. But we knew this was coming because we’d previously seen Freddy messing around on the bike back in the first episode. The heavy-metal-loving teen, who completely breaks down during his interrogation, admits to bullying Will and stealing his bike, but rejects any notion that he was involved in the murder/kidnapping.
Things move even slower in the reopened 1990 investigation. Attorney General Jeff Kent (Brett Cullen) advises the newly formed Taskforce to pursue the original conviction (again, doesn’t say who was convicted); advice which is immediately discarded by Wayne and Roland. Two detectives are sent to track down Lucy’s cousin Dan O’Brien (Michael Graziadei), while Wayne and Roland comb through hours of security camera footage from the grocery store where Julie Purcell’s prints were found. Wayne eventually spots who he believes is the older and very much alive Julie.
In 2015, Wayne continues to piece his life back together by going through the old case. He takes the bus to the local police station to talk to his son, Henry (Ray Fisher), who it turns out is a cop. Maybe we already knew this? If so, I don’t think it was made explicit until this scene. Anyway, Wayne asks his son to look up some names from old Purcell case files, as well as Roland, who he hasn’t seen in god knows how long. He also visits Elisa Montgomery (Sarah Gadon) and makes a deal to continue the documentary if she shares what she knows about the case – she reveals that Dan is dead and his remains were found.
However, none of this info really moves the narrative along. It’s like we’re stuck in a holding pattern. Sifting through the same details over and over again hoping to find a different answer. But maybe that is the point. Maybe we’re not able to find out what happened. Just like Wayne. He is literally trying to save his life and his memories by doggedly going after this case. But as the spirit of Amelia told him last week, and what the priest said this episode, in trying to save his life, he will lose it. That’s the same for us viewers, we just have to let go and enjoy the ride.
Extra Case Notes
-Did anyone else get the vibe that Henry is maybe having an affair with Elisa? Wayne spotted two wine glasses in her hotel room, even though she said she was alone, and Henry seemed weirdly adamant that Wayne stops taking part in the documentary. I could be reading too much into that, but just a vibe I picked up.
-I knew Trash Man’s duffle bag would be full of weapons! That trip-wire plan was genius. However, while it was satisfying to see him get revenge on those knucklehead vigilantes, I can’t imagine him getting off lightly with this.
-During his conversation with Elisa, Wayne says that whatever happened in 1990 was more “haunting” than what happened in 1980. With teases like that, I can see why some viewers might find the series frustrating.
-As for Freddy Burns, there’s no way he did it. That seems way too on the nose. I just think he’s a “dirtbag,” as Wayne called him.
-“How you gonna wear that badge?” “Got a little clip on it.” Sarcastic Wayne is my favorite Wayne.
True Detective, Sundays, 9/8c, HBO