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‘True Detective’ Review: Episode 3 Shows Why Relationships Matter More Than the Case

Nic Pizzolatto builds up two relationships in "The Big Never," and both matter more than the many clues dangled by detectives.

True Detective Season 3, Episode 3 Mahershala Ali

Mahershala Ali in “True Detective”

Warrick Page / HBO

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “True Detective” Season 3, Episode 3, “The Big Never.”]

Hoo boy, a whole lot happened in “True Detective” this week! Turns out the Purcell kids didn’t go over to Ronnie’s house as many times as they say they did — so who were they seeing? The evidence in William’s recovered backpack points to an adult — who else would buy all those toys for him? How does the communion photo figure into all this, given Will’s body was left in a similar, praying pose after his death? And what about the dice, the bloody rocks, and the house near the suspected murder site? Speaking of the woods, what did Wayne (Mahershala Ali) leave in the woods? Amelia’s ghost seems to think he’s covering something up, so it’s not just the aging detective’s deteriorating memory that’s holding up the investigation. Plus, now there’s a mysterious black man with a scar and a suit who’s hanging around Devil’s Den? Who’s that? Why didn’t Wayne know about him? What does it all mean?!

[shrugs] Meh. What happens with the case each week can be intriguing, and yes, all these developments and more should generate some pretty far out theories — who’s thinking Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) died before certain scenes in the middle timeline starts? — but what made Season 1 so addictive was the atmosphere and partnerships; two aspects of a cop drama no one had seen before, not like this, and two attributes Nic Pizzolatto has proven himself to be very, very good at developing.

As far as the ambiance goes, there’s plenty of evocative moments to choose from: the glowing red Walgreens light that casts an intensity — maybe even a romantic intensity? — over Wayne and Amelia’s stakeout; the overstocked shelves of a busy Wal-Mart contrasting with Wayne’s panicked, tightly-framed search for his missing daughter; the blurry image of Amelia sitting behind Wayne in the present, as he imagines what his wife might say to him now, if she could.

But let’s look at a relatively simple set-up instead. It’s worth noting Episode 3, “The Big Never,” was supposed to be Jeremey Saulnier’s third episode, before “scheduling issues” prevented him from completing his original commitment. Daniel Sackheim (“The Leftovers,” “Ozark”) stepped in and did a remarkable job under pressure — well, he did a remarkable job period, but the episode looks even better when you imagine his limited prep time and tight shooting schedule. Check out the shot of Wayne looking down over the Hoyt Foods factory, as Roland says, “My partner is a bit of a hunter himself.” There’s a pitch black shadow cast over his right shoulder that matches the black tie he’s wearing, but the brown lines on that same tie are the same tone as his skin. It’s simple yet beautiful composition, highlighting the work of everyone from costuming to lighting, cinematographer to director.

True Detective Season 3 Episode 3 Stephen Dorff

Stephen Dorff in “True Detective”

Warrick Page / HBO

And while we’re on one of the episode’s better lines, just look at how far Roland came this week. Sure, he seemed like a decent good ol’ boy during last week’s two-hour premiere, but the loyal, sharp-tongued, everyman cop also felt like Marty Hart Lite — a character similar to Woody Harrelson’s Season 1 detective, but with less charisma and distinctive features. After Episode 3, he still feels like a beer crafted at the Hart Distillery, but it’s a richer, stronger, and more drinkable beverage than before.

Take the opening scene, when viewers first meet Roland in the middle timeline. Sitting across from the same investigators who set Wayne off, Roland has nothing but good things to say about his former partner. Sure, they haven’t been hanging out since the case wrapped up (initially), but he has a clear sense of right and wrong that won’t be altered by time. “Y’all fucked a good detective there,” Roland says. “Feels like we should stay on point,” the interrogator counters, but Roland persists. “I’m making a point, son.”

That’s a good line; the kind of line that wins points for defending the right guy and for doing it with a razor wit. Episode 3 amps up Roland’s Southern charms to an energizing level. There’s a reason the last scene of the episode is just the two of them in a veteran’s bar, reconnecting. Ostensibly, Roland is there to bring Wayne back to the case, but Pizzolatto knows he’s built up both characters enough by now that ending on their reunion is enticing enough to bring viewers back for more. You like their dynamic just as much as you like each man individually. “Nine years and still talking about your dick?” “I don’t mean to, but it just keeps coming up.” This isn’t “Michael Jordan of bullshit”–level banter, but it’s the kind of fun missing from Season 2 and an endearing element for both men.

Women, however, remain a sticking point for the writer. Wayne and Amelia’s relationship is given more attention in Episode 3, as well, but you can see Pizzolatto struggling to make her a more well-rounded female lead than Maggie Hart (Michelle Monaghan). Instead of being just a wife and mother, Amelia is a schoolteacher who helps with the investigation early on and later becomes a revered true crime novelist because of what she finds. That gives her more autonomy while researching the case, but it’s still Wayne’s case — he’s the one haunted by it, he’s the detective tracking it over decades, he’s the one left to solve it when Amelia dies.

True Detective Season 3 Mahershala Ali Carmen Ejogo

Mahershala Ali and Carmen Ejogo in “True Detective”

Warrick Page / HBO

Moreover, a lot of Maggie’s personality is derived through her trying to please Wayne. Amelia suggesting they go to a motel and “drink and have sex all night” is a memorable line that doubles as a fantasy for plenty of husbands out there. But it’s meant to show just how important the case is to Wayne, not Amelia; that he’d say no to that idea shows his commitment/obsession, while her pushing him to take a break for one night indicates she’s less passionate (or at least more practical) than he is.

It’s also her idea to go to the cops herself to dig up new details about the case, just as it’s her idea to flirt with them in order to extract even more information. It feels like viewers are supposed to think, “Wow, what a cool thing for a wife and mother to do,” whereas if another cop made the offer — like, say, Ani Bezzerides, it would be normal. Here, it feels like she’s doing Wayne a favor (instead of pursuing something that’s just hers) and inviting an argument; an argument that tells us more about Wayne than Amelia. Their fight is meant to show how unreasonable Wayne is becoming — how the case is ruining his relationship, his happy home, and his life in general.

So much of what we know about Amelia stems from Wayne and the case, which on the one hand, is fair, since he’s the lead and the show’s plot revolves around the case. But look at Roland. He’s Wayne’s partner. He’s working the case, too, and yet the episode emphasizes his sense of humor and evokes a bigger personality. He’s cracking jokes; he’s saving Tom Purcell from that drunken dark hole; he’s a man of faith; he’s loyal, sharp, appreciative, respectful, and he likes to talk about his dick. These are things that distinguish him from Wayne, whereas so much of what we know about Amelia mirrors Wayne. It makes sense for a couple to share common sensibilities, but too little has been done to make Amelia stand out on her own.

What this boils down to is the viewer leaves the episode liking Roland (and Wayne) a little better, while there’s no real change for Amelia. For those just tracking the case, that may be OK. They can go study the timeline and theorize all the same. But those looking for a compelling human narrative may feel a little cheated.

Grade: B-

“True Detective” airs news episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

True Detective Season 3 Episode 3 Ray Fisher Mahershala Ali

Ray Fisher and Mahershala Ali in “True Detective”

Warrick Page / HBO

Case Notes, Episode 3:

  • Wayne’s threat to “off himself” if his son (Ray Fisher) tries to put him in a nursing home sure hit hard. Ali can deliver a bone-chilling warning with the best of ’em.
  • “Stores aren’t supposed to be this big,” Wayne says inside the ’90s era Wal-Mart. You’re damn right, detective. Damn right.
  • There’s a strange shot of an old photo showing Wayne with his two kids, but Amelia is nowhere to be seen. Did she take the picture, or are we meant to start thinking about when she died? Maybe it’s earlier than Old Wayne claims…
  • It’s never going to happen — the timelines don’t really add up — but I would already be incredibly down for a “True Detective” crossover season where Wayne and Roland enter into a joint investigation with Rust and Marty. Just watching the similar characters mirror each other would be worth it. Maybe the Emmys can bring them together for the intro video or something.

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