My favorite moments of True Detective, regardless of which season we’re discussing, are those that find an artful way to play with the storytelling devices. Very few television series even attempt something besides linear narrative, but at times ‘Tec goes beyond just a standard bookend flashback structure. At the outset of the first season, “The Long Bright Dark” seemed content to tell a 1995-set story framed by grainy camcorder footage of two characters recounting their experiences in 2012. But by the end of the episode our 2012 lens separated itself from the camcorder, and from that point on the first season had two timelines running with equal weight on both.
The third season has three of those timelines, more of a challenge in maintaining the feeling that each of them is as important, and “If You Have Ghosts” wobbled ever so slightly in juggling all of that. 1990 Wayne may always have been predisposed to snapping into an argumentative holier-than-thou rant, but his fuse in those segments of the story is now almost comically short. “Ghosts” felt like the longest episode of the season (which was actually last week’s 75-minute “The Hour and the Day”), partially because we’re inescapably at the threshold of a big break in all three timelines. We know the Woodard Altercation is linked to the Purcell case in 1980, we know Wayne and Roland do something bad in 1990, and we know 2015 Wayne will experience a revelation in what he does and does not remember about his life’s work. The fact that the specifics of that knowledge are still being withheld is still mostly tantalizing, but slightly frustrating in an episode as “long” as this one.
…but damn, that transition from 1990 to 2015 when Wayne is moving through the hallways of his house was really, really cool. Using the shifting timelines to further the story is exactly how smart this series can be, and rather than just watching three separate Waynes we get to really feel one singular character navigate his fractured memories. In the second episode “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” we had a similar transition, with the camera fading from 2015 Wayne sitting in his home to…2015 Wayne again, lost, wandering down the street. In a Pavlovian way we’ve been trained to expect ‘Tec transitions to jump around in time, to include a different haircut for all involved, to discombobulate us slightly as we take a moment to latch on to where exactly we are in the story. When that transition in “Goodbye” didn’t shift time periods but was still discombobulating, we effectively had a gap in our memory that mirrored Wayne’s beautifully.
Christopher Nolan’s Memento and even Dunkirk do this: use structure to evoke the experience of the characters. There’s an episode of Lost (Season Four’s “The Constant”), too, that came to mind during “Ghosts” as Wayne climbed those stairs into the future. The first transition is a match cut from 1990 to 2015, a snap of the fingers launching Wayne 25 years forward. But the bleeding-time sequence that follows is nearly heartbreaking. We’re with 2015 Wayne as he watches his younger self with his family, reading The Jungle Book; it’s a shard of memory that has returned to him not because it necessarily holds a vital clue, but simply because the sight or smell or sound of that room brought it rushing back.
But then we pivot seamlessly to 1990 Wayne, when he sees the door swing open (heck, speaking of Christopher Nolan, this was a very Interstellar). It recalled a similar moment in the first episode when 1980 Wayne looks at the camera and stops the flashback from within it, or in that same episode when the 1980 moon flickers and becomes the white umbrella light in 2015. But again, this instance in “Ghosts” is all about Wayne’s state of mind, about one character from three perspectives. In that sequence multiple timelines, transitions, adjustments and haircuts ceased to matter. This is one character in the same way that ripples in the water are one phenomenon, expanding out from a single point, chasing each other, chasing itself.
Scenes like the final scene of “Ghosts” carry more weight because of this sympathy with septuagenarian Wayne’s experience, so while the transition devices are undeniably slick they do first and foremost serve a purpose to the story. As mentioned, “Ghosts” felt like a long episode partly by virtue of where we are in the story. I think the fact that “Ghosts” swung around a lot tonally might also contribute to how long it felt, moving from emotion to emotion within the hour. The shootout at Woodard’s was thrilling and then tragic, the double dinner date in 1990 was awkward and painful, and the Tom Purcell scenes from that same timeline were pure gut shots (Scoot McNairy is unreal). And then Wayne and Roland meet again as old men and run the gamut from masculine posturing to resentment to sorrow to understanding to let’s-stir-some-shit-up. Whew!
There were a few curiosities case-wise, including Julie’s recorded message about “the man pretending to be her father”, the planting of Will’s backpack at Woodard’s house, and an odd exchange where Wayne calls Amelia out on the way she smells. Of course everyone and their septuagenarian partner-in-crime is running a piece about these clues, what they mean, whodunit. “Ghosts” was more about emotion and character, and while it felt drawn-out at times that’s still where ‘Tec derives its power from. With three episodes remaining I’m eager to stir some shit up with one character, three different Waynes, expanding out from a single point, haunting each other, haunting himself.
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