As we discussed in our review of last week’s episode “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye,” the macro-level focus of True Detective has eschewed a mere whodunit? in favor of complex, haunted characters embroiled in ever-shifting family dynamics. When the two switch places — when plot overrides character, or when the plot twists at the expense of character development — it doesn’t necessarily make True Detective into a bad show so much as it makes it an atmospheric version of every other police procedural on TV. Working out a case is fun as a viewer, but it’s far more compelling to tag along as a well-crafted set of characters works it out (or doesn’t).
…that being said, the case unfolding in the third season of ‘Tec is a very, very compelling one. What started as a cut-and-dry kidnapping case was already more complicated by the end of the first episode, but “The Big Never” threw several big wrenches into the mix. In 1980, Wayne and Roland look into a possible connection with the local grocery plant and chase down an angle concerning the Purcells’ “best friend.” In 1990, Roland gives a deposition that paints both of those developments as important revelations. And in 2015, Wayne desperately clings to the facts of the case in an effort to finally solve it.
The unique drive, of course, stems from the fact that these are three “A” storylines playing out simultaneously. Each timeline could theoretically serve as the main story, and we could theoretically be watching only one of the three and still understand the case at hand and be entertained by it. 2015’s storyline, like the “present day” of the first season, is actually the one with the primary whodunit. In 1990, the drive now stems from Wayne and Roland reteaming to find Julie Purcell, armed at last with consequential proof of her survival. And in 1980, interestingly, the question of how and why their detective work failed has become the driving force. Instead of the present simply framing the past in flashback, each time period stands on its own.
Which does perhaps negate the unreliable narrator idea that some (us included) asserted as a probable twist borne of Wayne’s broken memory. In “The Big Never” we get some new terrain from True Detective: a “flashback” that holds important information to which the main characters are not privy. When Woodard rips his shed door open and removes what appears to be a body wrapped in a tarp, we get evidence that no character has at that point. We’ve leapfrogged the 1980 version of Wayne in what he knows, and that version of Wayne was previously the one most confident in his own knowledge.
We know how the 1980 storyline ends: Wayne and Roland make an arrest, though they eventually learn it’s the wrong guy. Allusions to the thing that happened with Woodard are peppered throughout the 2015 storyline, and those two items alone are enough to suggest that it’s Woodard who gets wrongly accused. His repeated line “I’ve got kids,” employed twice as a defense against the suggestion that he’s the kidnapper, somehow smacks of guilt. And his status as an Army veteran would make him a good foil for Wayne, who also finds himself struggling to balance his experience at war and his experience as a parent. They’re both intense, just in different ways.
And still, for all the exciting plot possibilities brought to the fore throughout “The Big Never,” for all the suspicion thrown onto Woodard and even onto Tom Purcell, for all the dark discoveries of bloody stones and family photographs, the strongest sequence in the episode starts in a relatively-tranquil Wal-Mart. 1990 Wayne loses sight of his daughter for a few minutes, flies into a panic, orders the store locked down and then drops an F-bomb on his little girl once she finally returns. It’s a scene solely intended to highlight Wayne’s state of mind, one that bears zero relation to the whodunit of the case, but damned if it isn’t an effective way to show how that case has clung to this man.
The experience leads Wayne to snap at Amelia once she returns home, and it’s a similar scenario here: the marital spat might not bring any reveals or raise any suspicion as far as the kidnapping is concerned, but it somehow still carries the same weight as the more action-packed scenes of the episode. This, in short, is what separates ‘Tec from almost every other crime show on television.
…but, again, the whodunit? is mighty compelling, too compelling to resist stabbing at it. With eight episodes a season, it’s likely we’ve met the person responsible for the central evil at hand. There are a zillion subreddit-esque theories floating around, many of them corralled into episodic rundowns like this one at Polygon. But it’s worth remembering that we should mine the characters for worth in the same way, searching for cracks in their relationships and motivations and, where possible, their memories. The truth is just as likely to reveal itself there. Happy hunting.