REVIEW: True Detective – “The Great War and Modern Memory”

This is a recap and review of the season premiere of the third season of True Detective — Expect spoilers for the episode.

In the first episode of the third season of True DetectiveThe Great War and Modern Memory — we are introduced to detectives Wayne Hays (played by Mahershala Ali) and Roland West (played by Stephen Dorff) as they investigate the Purcell-case. The Great War and Modern Memory was written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Jeremy Saulnier.

And it’s back! Just like in the very first season, we are following our lead character in multiple time periods. In one of the first scenes, we see Ali’s character — Wayne Hays — with a full grey head of hair, and then we flashback to a younger Hays, in 1990, responding to deposition questions about what happened ten years earlier. Then we find out the original case took place in the 1980s, and then we switch back and forward. This is True Detective the way we’re used to it, and, based on this episode alone, it is a strong reboot.

The central case, as it is presented in this episode, revolves around the Purcell-siblings who were both once missing before Hays and West made their first important find. In 1980s Arkansas, the Purcell-siblings — children of a somewhat broken home — went missing on a day when they were out on their bicycles near their home town. At the end of this first episode, Hays’ discovery confirms that our worst fears were true.

But, a decade later, Hays is informed that he and West got the wrong man, and the remaining missing child may be alive as her fingerprints were found at the scene of a new crime. In 2015, Hays is suffering from memory loss, his wife — who wrote a non-fiction book about the Purcell-case — is long gone, and he has agreed to appear on an episode of a true crime documentary.

Wayne Hays is a Vietnam war veteran during which time he served in a long-range reconnaissance patrol. Like Rust Cohle, Hays seems to be the gifted detective whose perspective on the central case seems to be the main point of focus for the third season. When the Purcell-case search is happening, he is looking for tracks on his own far away from the search-party led by his partner Roland West. West, though not nearly as fleshed out thus far, is more akin to the first season’s Marty Hart.

So, other than the disturbing hole in the wall and the corn husk dolls, what clues thus far do we have to go on? Well, I’m intrigued by Wests’ nickname for Hays — “Purple,” but even more interesting is the fact that there was a clear effort made to make us appreciate and notice the blindingly vibrant purple-colored Volkswagen that the three male teenagers, who West and Hays later interview, were driving around in at the time of the Purcell-siblings’ disappearance. I think it’s just a red herring, but, one thing is for sure, Pizzolatto and Saulnier want us to notice them.

Much more interesting to me is what we hear on ‘Hays circa 2015’s’ audio recording. Hays has reminded himself that he needs to figure out what the documentary crew knows, which feels almost like he is trying to protect something or someone. Also, something is clearly up in this time period, as Hays has also reminded himself that he can always turn to his nightstand, in which there is a gun. What is Hays hiding?

Anyway, like any other season of True Detective, the cast truly is spectacular. This season we are met with actors like Scoot McNairy, Carmen Ejogo, and Stephen Dorff, who all, in any other show, could claim to be the highlights, but I am so amazed by Mahershala Ali’s work here already just one episode in. It feels like he’s playing three different characters, so much so that you feel how time and the events have changed this man.

‘Hays circa 1980’ is a passionate man with a lot of heart. From what we’re seeing thus far, ‘Hays circa 1990’ is much less green and much less passionate — he seems to have lost all sense of purpose in his day job, and, more than anything else, he also seems fairly world-weary.

Finally, ‘Hays circa 2015’ is a sight to behold. True Detective has previously had fun with make-up and hairstyling on its main characters. Rust Cohle’s look changed dramatically and almost comically. But the make-up effects for Ali are very convincing, his voice sounds remarkably aged, and Ali also plays his character with the right amount of confusion and passivity.

The first thing on my mind as the first episode of the season came to an end was for what reason we are only focusing on Wayne Hays. Sure, like previous seasons of True Detective, this is a partner story. But even though Dorff’s character is by Ali’s’ side for a large part of the episode, this third season is an undeniable unreliable narrator from one character’s perspective (2015-events bleed into the flashbacks in a startling way). This will likely serve the season well as it has a more recognizable focus, but I am curious about why Dorff’s character is absent from what we’ve seen in the 1990s and 2015 thus far.

Though it certainly feels more like a reboot than an original new idea, The Great War and Modern Memory was a strong return to form for True Detective in its long-awaited third season. The central case is presented with fascinating twists. Saulnier’s imagery is haunting and, as we would expect, Pizzolatto’s narrative allusions are as grim and dark as they’ve ever been.


– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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