HBO’s release strategies for their flagship series have always been carefully planned, and the one-two punch of the first two episodes of True Detective’s new season is no exception. The hooks were in after the first episode, “The Great War and Modern Memory,” but the character depth provided by “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” all but guarantees a return audience next week. The eight episode season will take us to the end of February, when the hype train for April’s Game of Thrones will be full steam ahead. And then, though there’s no official release date, look for HBO’s Watchmen to premiere right around the end of Thrones.
The premiere placement of “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” was smart on another level, though, because it got to the heart of what made ‘Tec great in the first place. Both episodes unfurled a twisty and time-jumpy mystery, but “Goodbye” had a particular focus on family that heightened investment in the whole affair. Complicated family dynamics are what the first season had and what the second season lacked, and the characters of this third season — Hays and the Purcell Family for sure, but even “minor” characters like Woodard — are better for having to balance a home life with their work.
Though one supposes it’s time to stop comparing the seasons of ‘Tec, pitting them against each other, looking for obvious parallels or pitfalls. Wayne Hays already stands on his own as a fascinating character, so much so that he’s nearly three fascinating characters in 1980, 1990 and 2015. Mahershala Ali has been on a tear since winning an acting Oscar for Moonlight, and while he may be up for another statue for Green Book his work here in True Detective is his most compelling to date. Rumor has it that Ali was originally approached to play Roland West (Hays’ partner, played by Stephen Dorff), and that Hays was originally a white character. Ali apparently convinced Nic Pizzolatto to reshape Hays, and the actor’s level of commitment and involvement comes through in the final result.
“Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” fleshed out Hays through a kaleidoscope of small moments, having already established his effectiveness as a detective and his intense backstory as a tracker in Vietnam throughout the first episode. One instance comes in an interview with a young classmate of the Purcells. West might be joking when he tells the kid that Hays “loved” Star Wars, but Hays’ engagement with the comment — swinging a pretend lightsaber — is what gets the kid to loosen up. It’s a moment of levity that at the very least shows Hays is able to read another person as easily as he can read terrain. Then again, Hays later tells his Lit-Crit wife-to-be that he likes “Batman and Silver Surfer,” so maybe he’s actually a nerd after all.
He also tells her he doesn’t ever want to get married, and she agrees. We know they both change their minds, partially because we’re privy to their futures and partially because that’s just how love works. They make a family together, despite their intentions to the contrary, and it’s probable that Hays’ militaristic approach to his detective work is compromised by the family lifestyle (or vice versa).
That said, Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) is clearly a vital player in both the 1980 and the 1990 timelines this season. Her role isn’t simply to complicate things for Hays, or to make the male lead of the show more compelling. She does do that, but she’s actively involved in the investigation as well; she even garners the first major clue in the hunt for the Purcell kidnapper, connecting the dots through to Halloween night. In much the same way as we glimpse Hays’ outer life — we know he’s at least seen Star Wars — we glimpse Amelia’s, too, in something as quick as a half-second shot of a guy in a sedan coming to pick her up at the Community Center.
This is True Detective, so at times these moments play out suspiciously. Are we supposed to remember the Sedan Guy’s face? Did he do it? Is it suspicious that Amelia seems so enraptured by the wicker doll, and by the case in general? One of the primary suspects this season is the Purcell patriarch Tom (played by the fantastic Scoot McNairy). In “Goodbye” we see him return to work the day after his son’s funeral, to the shock and surprise of his coworkers. “I’ve been working full-time since I was fourteen years old,” he snaps when questioned. In the context of a detective show, this scene would be suspicious. Why show it otherwise?
The reason, of course, is that this detective show is more effectively about the broken people engulfed in crime than about the crime itself, or who perpetuated it. “I can’t go to sleep and I can’t wake up,” Tom says later. He’s striving for normalcy, which might be what Hays and Amelia both do as they draw toward one another despite their aversion to marriage. Even Woodard, when it becomes clear that he’s a suspect as well, says “I’ve got kids” as if such a normal state of affairs must therefore absolve him of any abnormal wrongdoing. With such a focus on family instilled in the third season so far, it’s exciting to see that True Detective recognize its real strengths aren’t at all where you expect them to be.