True Detective‘s third season is grim-faced bummer TV. And like any prestige-bait drama shot in self-serious grayscale, it can be very funny when it doesn’t realize it’s going off the rails.
To be clear, Sunday’s sixth episode, “Hunters in the Dark,” had one legit great moment. As grieving father Tom Purcell, Scoot McNairy looks like an exploded electrical socket of pure trauma. In 1990, Tom’s the new hot suspect, interrogated by his own pal Roland (Stephen Dorff). Tom buries his face in his hands, a man discovering that the Hell he was living in was just the waiting room. His cry turns into a roar, and for a moment McNairy’s eyes look like two black holes.
Tom’s jailed for 24 hours while Roland and Wayne (Mahershala Ali) continue their investigation. Released, Tom runs up to Roland’s office. Lieutenant West’s not around. But hark, from down the hall, could that be the siren song of Policeman Loudly Revealing Important Plot Points?
POLICEMAN #1: “That was the Lieutenant! They just had lunch with our dirtbag. The uncle or whatever? Dan O’Brien? Met him at some diner. Says he had the whole story, wants a payout.”
Say now, this is some very important secret information Tom can use! Dan O’Brien (Michael Graziadei) was Tom’s mysterious brother-in-law, after all. Good thing these detectives are both speaking through megaphones while they describe recent events in precise detail. Tom approaches the door, which is cracked open just enough for anyone walking through this public corridor to overhear this conversation about a somewhat secret investigation into an infamously bloody local mystery.
POLICEMAN #1: “They wants us to get phone records. Diamond Cactus Motel in Paradise, Nevada. Two years back. Lucy’s phone records.”
Now, we can set aside the fact that this is a show where a young boy died in Devil’s Den and his mother died in a town called Paradise. (Perhaps there will be a final shootout at Purgatory Falls, New Hampshire?) And we can set aside the fact that some of these lines sound like painfully stapled-on ADR. Note how the camera cuts away from Policeman #1 as he piles exposition onto his exposition, not just “phone records” but “Lucy’s phone records,” that phrase “two years back” because when you’re crafting a timeline-shifting story with no confidence in your own narrative clarity you have to make every character constantly reference the chronology.
But on every level, this is raggedy storytelling. Grieving Dad Accidentally Overhears Crucial Information At The Police Station: That wouldn’t fly on Criminal Minds, and everything flies on Criminal Minds.
Also raggedy: This episode’s non sequitur revelation of Tom’s big secret. Wayne and Roland interrogate his old boss, and find out that some of Tom’s co-workers “saw him going into a queer club.” “Repressed Homosexuality” is a potentially fruitful plot point, especially given the period setting. Wayne gets more suspicious of Tom, declaring that “Devil’s Den was a homo cruising spot,” promising to “talk to somebody in Vice about the Queer Underground.” Investigating the Queer Underground would definitely improve this season’s music! And you can kinda believe, unfortunately, that a smart policeman circa 1990 would wrongfully equate homosexuality with all-purpose murderous deviancy.
But this is a weird return to a narrative well that already ran dry for creator Nic Pizzolatto. In season 2, he conjured up Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), a closet case who always felt beamed in from some 1970s morality tale. And at least Woodrugh’s melodramatic internal struggle was dramatized on screen! Whereas we seem to be learning this crucial information about Tom right as his story line comes to an end. He finds O’Reilly, beats him up, then follows a clue-direction to a Hoyt-looking mansion. There, poor Tom discovers an ACME™ Brand Murder Cellar, complete with pink walls. “Julie?” he says mysteriously, as local symbol of moral corruption Harris James (Scott Shepherd) sneaks up behind him.
I gather that most of the theorizing around True Detective this season has focused on all things Hoyt-adjacent. But “Hunters in the Dark” also featured a goofy appearance by one of this season’s hottest clues: The One-Eyed Black Man. Who is played by Steven Williams, a wonderful actor from everything (The Leftovers! The X-Files! The Chi!).
And if you thought the Halfway Opened Police Door Full of Plot was fun, wait till you see the Bookstore Reading Interrupted By A Tantalizing Soliloquy. Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) is reading some overripe prose from her non-fiction classic. And then she’s interrupted by a nameless man asking loud questions about the case. Or maybe he’s a super aggressive book critic. “You’re just making your money, and milking their pain,” he accuses Amelia. “Shame you on, woman!”
Now, this scene could only be a little silly. It’s disappointing that Amelia’s main subplot lately is Getting Excoriated By Dudes Mansplaining The Ethical Problem With Her Book. And it’s a bit of a contrivance for this man — who matches the description of a key red herring suspect — to just start blathering on mysteriously about this unsolved case in public.
But then you get to the final moment. A close-up on Amelia, her eyes remembering something, and then her climactic stage whisper: “Dolls!” Goodness, could this be the mythic cyclops who purchased those scary dolls all those years ago? Is the Pink Room pink?
I remain hopeful that this season will justify all the monolithic frowning with a fascinating and complicated final act. I also remain hopeful that they’ll figure out Stephen Dorff’s old-age makeup so 2015 Roland looks less like a werewolf mid-transformation.
But this episode bent over backwards to juice this season’s slow-paced plot towards a reckoning. At this point, I am mainly watching True Detective to root for Elisa Montgomery (Sarah Gadon), the 2015 documentarian. “Have you ever sat back at any point over the last two decades,” she asks Wayne, “and thought about the sheer number of fatalities surrounding this case?” She sounds incredulous. She can’t believe this crap, and neither can I.