We tend to look at parent and child relationships as inverse connections. Fathers and daughters, mothers and sons – daddy’s girl and momma’s boy. In my experience, there’s a surprising amount of truth to that, but the strength of those opposing bonds can also mean a deeper divide when the bonds rupture. There are two allusions to this in True Detective’s second episode. At dinner with his son, an elderly Hays’s memory problems have either blocked out or completely removed his estrangement from his daughter, maybe somewhat deliberately. Meanwhile, as evidence uncovered in both 1990 (fingerprints in a robbery) and 1980 (a crude kidnapper’s note) points to Julie Purcell being alive, there’s a brief mention of something happening between Tom and his daughter in 1990, suggesting Julie hasn’t been missing all this time.
Stories of cruelty and crimes against children can hit incredibly hard when you have your own kids. It’s impossible for anyone with a working sense of empathy to watch something like The Missing, Little Boy Blue or True Detective and not place themselves in the parents’ shoes, trying to imagine that crippling pain while simultaneously trying to stop yourself from imagining it, something that even as a hypothesis opens up a dark pit in your stomach. Is this what crosses Hays’s mind when he returns from finding out about Julie’s fingerprints and sits, lost in dark reveries, staring at his own daughter at the table? Is it the pain he sees in Tom Purcell that causes the crack that widens to a chasm between him and his own daughter? Is it that chasm that leads Hays’s daughter-in-law to be so protective of her own daughter when her brother teases her? That gentle stroke of her head feels tender but fiercely protective. Fear is a remarkably potent and dangerous thing in parenting.
Hays feels like a man unmoored from himself and from time in this episode. Whichever time period he’s in, he’s somewhere else. When he turns up outside a destroyed Purcell house at the end of the episode, it’s hard to even tell if he’s really there. True Detective has always been transfixed by time and the way these first two episodes have explored the connection (or disconnection) between time and memory is stunning. Memories aren’t chronological, the mind makes connections that can be hard to decipher and jumps back and forward. It makes sense, even if it doesn’t seem to make sense. The feeling is that the answers are all already inside Hays’s head, he just might not know where they are.
Mahershala Ali’s performance has truly elevated this season over its first two episodes. In our review of episode one, he’s the focus, pulling the camera towards him in every scene. That’s not to say that the rest of the cast isn’t doing sterling work (McNairy and Ejogo are particularly superb), but Ali embues Hays with a quiet authority and confidence that leaps off the screen. His superiors and colleagues might suffer from deeply entrenched racist views that cause them to dismiss or question him, but Hays is a man who would never doubt himself because of that. Between this, Green Book and Moonlight, the evidence is all there to suggest that Ali could well be one of the finest actors of this generation and many more to come.