‘True Detective’ Season 3, Episode 7: Missing Pieces

Season 3, Episode 7: ‘The Final Country’

The documentary-within-a-show in this season’s “True Detective” has served as half illumination and half meta-commentary, a way to tease new thoughts from Detective Hays’s addled mind while taking shots at the current wave of true-crime docs, which have a tendency to dally around unresolved tragedies.

Its director, Elisa Montgomery, may speak loftily about “the intersectionality of marginalized groups,” but she is passing through Hays’s life like a tourist, gawking at 35 years of dead ends, bad breaks and unfortunate lapses in judgment. And at the end of her stay, all Elisa can do is express disappointment over her visit: She knew he shared her skepticism over how the case was resolved, but he couldn’t provide her with “a missing piece.”

“Young lady,” he replies. “my whole brain’s a bunch of missing pieces.”

That sounds like a typical Nic Pizzolatto line, another salty lament from the bottom of the bottle. It’s a feature of the show that Pizzolatto’s detectives are broken people, because of either defining incidents from their past or their obsessions with the one big case that got away from them.

Yet when Hays describes his brain as “a bunch of missing pieces,” it accounts for the entire design of the third season, which reflects how memory works. Over three timelines, the show has given us pieces of a puzzle that have never fit to Hays’s satisfaction, prompting him to circle back over assumptions and conclusions that haven’t stood up under scrutiny. By 2015, there are no borders in Hays’s mind between one time period and another: his visitation by the Viet Cong; his late-night wandering to the Purcells’ old neighborhood; and, in this episode, his memory of burning a man’s clothes in the backyard to cover up an interrogation gone wrong.

For Elisa, interviewing Hays has been a frustrating act of excavation, as if she were spelunking into the dark, cavernous reaches of his mind to discover some elusive gem. She’s ticked that she doesn’t find it, but Pizzolatto suggests that she hasn’t earned it: This case has inspired her curiosity, but she hasn’t lived through its cascading tragedies and disappointments, so she doesn’t have the right to see it through.

The nifty little twist in “The Final Country” is that Hays and West are using her for information, taking her theories on the case and following through on them after the shoot. The one-eyed man whom they had originally questioned about buying the corn husk dolls in 1980 — the same man who castigated Amelia at a book reading a decade later — is identified as a possible “procurer” for a pedophile ring. That leads the elderly partners to interview a former domestic worker at the Hoyt estate, who describes a one-eyed man who worked closely with Hoyt and the secretive goings-on that led to her departure.

By now it’s clear that some unseen hand has been dictating where the investigation has gone. In 1980, the planting of Will’s backpack under the floorboards on Woodard’s deck was enough to close the case and pin both murders on the dead scavenger, despite Julie’s body never turning up. In 1990, Tom’s apparent suicide at Devil’s Den is staged to accomplish the same goal of putting the case to rest with the deceased. And when Hays and West tried, as free agents, to torture the truth out of Harris James, the gambit backfired so horribly that they couldn’t look into it any longer. A man in a black sedan has likely made certain of that.

The bigger picture is starting to come into focus. Through Amelia’s sleuthing in the 1990 timeline, we discover that cousin Dan had some discussions with the one-eyed man at the bar where Lucy once worked. Through phone records and flight logs we also discover, again in 1990, that calls were exchanged between Lucy and a Hoyt number, and that Harris flew to Vegas the night before Lucy was found dead from an overdose.

The dots are not quite connectable yet, but Hoyt, Harris, Lucy, Dan and the one-eyed man are all playing roles here, and no one, not least Hays and West, have had the power and political will to get to the bottom of it.

The past few episodes of “True Detective” have busied themselves with unpacking this horrific conspiracy, but this week’s episode was especially effective in measuring the bruising cost of it — not just to our ragged heroes, but to the community at large.

An incidental moment from the 1990 timeline hits the hardest: After Amelia visits one of the Purcell’s neighbors and procures a photograph of Will and Julie on Halloween, she asks the woman if she has ever thought about moving to town, away from this cursed place.

“Why would I?” the woman replies. “Somebody’s got to stay. Somebody’s got to remember.”

There are more mundane reasons that people continue to live in towns and neighborhoods like this after those communities have collapsed. But home is home, even when staying feels like tending a graveyard.

Flat Circles:

• One mystery that hasn’t been addressed is why Hays is estranged from his daughter Becca, but leaving that an open question makes her continued presence in his life more affecting. Here Hays is focused on a point of departure — first in a flashback when he drops her off at college, later when his dementia leads him to mistake a witness’s daughter for his own — and it seems possible that this may have been his last happy memory of her.

• Amelia’s dropping a mention of “In Cold Blood” signals Pizzolatto’s own ambitions, for better or worse. “True Detective” was intended to be more than just another gruesome police procedural, even if it buckles under the weight of this pretension half the time.

• This season has been building around the existence of a pedophile ring, but it has shown blessed restraint by not getting too explicit about it. The show hasn’t always favored leaving humanity’s ugliest impulses to the imagination.

• So yes, the third season and the first season do exist in the same televisual universe. Let’s hope the Marvel-style crossovers end there.

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