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‘True Detective’ Review: Mahershala Ali Commands a Dear, Good Episode 4 That Goes Out With a Bang

"The Hour and the Day" doesn't feel nearly that long.

True Detective Season 3 Episode 4 Stephen Dorff Mahershala Ali

Stephen Dorff and Mahershala Ali in “True Detective”

Warrick Page / HBO

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “True Detective” Season 3, Episode 4, “The Hour and the Day.”]

You can tell “True Detective” is working well when the longest episode of the season doesn’t feel like it. “The Hour and the Day” clocks in at an hour and seven minutes, and even though it’s largely a transitionary entry — lots of leads that don’t pan out, and lots of character development left unresolved — it’s rich, engrossing, and smooth. It also spotlights a lot of what Nic Pizzolatto has done to make Season 3 an overall improvement over Season 2, and that includes bringing in David Milch to co-write this script.

For starters, let’s look at Patti Faber, a dear good woman. Early in Episode 4, detectives Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) and Roland West (Stephen Dorff) go interview the elderly dollmaker, who set off the black detective’s “hillbilly radar” before the two even met. And what do you know, upon further questioning, the “dear, good” Patti shows some barely veiled racism! When asked if the “negro man” she sold the dolls to was ugly or handsome, short or tall, the dear good Patti could only add, “like I say, he was black.” She’s yet another local who, upon seeing Wayne and is then asked to describe another African American, lumps the two together: “He’s like you!”

The look Wayne gives her before walking out is more than enough to correct any presumption of her inherent goodness, but it’s worth noting what kind of depth this interaction — and the others like it — add to the series and the case. Toward the latter, Wayne is constantly asked to do the same work as his white peers while dealing with this kind of intolerance. Not only does it add to his on-the-job stress, but it holds up the actual investigation. If Patti could see past her racism, maybe they wouldn’t have bothered Old Sam. Maybe then Roland wouldn’t have gotten his window shield smashed, and perhaps they’d have found another suspect during that first timeline. But this is the world they had to deal with, and including the racial tensions makes it a more accurate one. (Even Roland tacitly forgiving Tom for using the n-word — “he’s been called worse by people who meant it” — feels like something Roland would do, even if the scene and episode are too forgiving toward Tom overall.)

True Detective Season 3 Episode 4 Stephen Dorff

Stephen Dorff in “True Detective”

Warrick Page / HBO

Credit has been given to Mahershala Ali for pushing Pizzolatto to cast him as the lead, and thus change Wayne’s background, and that’s worked out well in every facet. As noted last week, the attempted progression of female roles hasn’t been quite as successful, and that struggle continued in Episode 4. Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo) is still a mystery, and no matter how much “cognitive dissonance” she displays, her attitude reversals during their fight feel forced; one minute she’s walking away, the next she’s telling him not to do the same thing. She’s bending to the needs of the script the whole way — it’s like all Wayne has to do is say “fuck” enough times and she’ll decide to drop her skirt.

Of course, when “True Detective” passes the Bechdel test is when it feels the ickiest. Amelia stops by Lucy Purcell’s place to drop off projects the kids had been working on at school, and Lucy invites her inside to open up, besmirching herself again and again: “I’ve got the soul of a whore,” Lucy says, memorably. Later, she adds, “What kind of woman hates the only things that have shown her love?” These statements seem to corroborate earlier accounts that Tom (Scoot McNairy) loved his wife even when she was unfaithful, and only go further to vilify the mother.

“I have done such terrible things. God forgive me,” Lucy says, which prompts Amelia to ask if she needs to talk to the detectives. When Lucy throws her out for the suggestion, it could mean that’s not the kind of confession she needs to give — so what’s all this for? If Lucy isn’t to blame for the kids’ death and disappearance, then why spend so much time emphasizing her terrible traits? All we know about her is that she’s not home much, cheats on her husband, and drinks a lot — and it doesn’t seem like there’s a redemptive shoe waiting to drop.

True Detective Season 3 Episode 4 Mamie Gummer

Mamie Gummer in “True Detective”

Warrick Page / HBO

While Pizzolatto’s female characters remain thinly sketched, he seems to be responding to complaints about overly colorful language through blunt, back-and-forth conversations — and it’s working. Remember in Season 2 when Colin Farrell told a 12-year-old kid, “I’ll come back and butt-fuck your father with your mom’s headless corpse on this lawn”? Pretty vivid, no? Then, no one could really call Colin’s character on his excessive intimidation tactics — his partner wasn’t really around, and it was meant to show just how gonzo ol’ Colin had become — but in Season 3, the crazy police are back. Just as Marty Hart served to be an onscreen bullshit detector for Rust Cohle, Roland is here to tell Wayne when he goes too far with a perp.

When Freddie Burns (Rhys Wakefield) gets pulled in for questioning after his prints are found on Will’s bicycle, Wayne quickly cuts to the bone. He calls him a “shit heel” twice — the second requested by Roland — but it’s when he goes back to the prison rape well that things cross a line. “I know brothers inside who will tear your guts up fucking you stupid,” Wayne tells the high schooler. Freddie starts crying and doesn’t stop for, well, a really long time. The cops are waiting for him to stop out in the hallway, and even when they think he’s done, he just keeps on going. Roland, always the sensitive one, asks Wayne, “That prison rape is a real go-to for you lately. Something you want to tell me?”

It’s important to note Pizzolatto isn’t treating Freddie as an overreacting or oversensitive child. Wayne is being put in the wrong for pushing too hard, too fast, and it’s something that could come back to haunt him in later years. He’s got his own damage to deal with, but that’s not an excuse to take it out on others. That Pizzolatto recognizes this is a step forward; he’s taking criticism and turning it into a strength. So far, Season 3 has done this fairly consistently overall, and now that we’re halfway through, it’s safer than ever to start looking forward to some real answers in the weeks to come.

Grade: B+

“True Detective” Season 3 airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

True Detective Season 3 Episode 4 Sarah Gadon Mahershala Ali

Sarah Gadon and Mahershala Ali in “True Detective”

Warrick Page / HBO

Case Notes, Episode 4: 

  • “The fuck is a ‘Donohue’?” — an instant classic line from Ali. Love it.
  • Wayne says in the first timeline he thinks the crime “was all about the girl,” and everything we’ve seen from the other timelines indicates as much. She’s still alive. The kids were going to see someone and lied about it. One doll was dressed as a wedding bride. The skeevy cousin who stayed with them went missing in the ’90s and then turned up dead. It all points to the girl, but who’s doing the pointing?
  • “How you gonna wear that badge?” “Got a little clip on it.” — another classic line. Wayne’s attitude is a way of life.
  • Wayne’s post-church conversation with the priest provides pretty clear insight into his soul, as well as why he can go so overboard. He starts by saying he couldn’t take the eucharist during mass because he hadn’t been to confession in a while. (Catholics aren’t supposed to take the Body of Christ without being absolved of their sins.) But when the priest volunteers to hear his confession, Wayne says, “I get to feeling penitent, I’ll let you know.” Wayne isn’t sorry for his sins, but he doesn’t see any way around them, either. What beautiful, harrowing conflict for a cop to work through.

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