For the highly anticipated third season of True Detective, That Shelf and our friends at Everything is Scary are teaming up to examine the scarier elements in what we agree to be a landmark of horror television. Welcome to the True Detective Horror Diary for episodes three and four: “The Big Never” and “The Day and the Hour.”
Wayne Hays needs an exorcism. The old Vietnam war veteran, ex-detective and subject of a forthcoming true crime docuseries is haunted by ghosts as he tries to piece together the narrative pieces of the homicide case that defined his life and marriage. In episode three, “The Big Never,” Hays (Mahershala Ali) is visited by the spectre of his dead wife, Amelia, who makes like Rustin Cohle with the relativity physics, dissolving the poor old man’s sense of linear history. Later, in episode four, “The Hour and the Day,” a legion of ghastly Vietnamese soldiers crowd around him, silently torturing Hays with their disregard for the laws of space and time. Hays needs an old priest and a young priest to wield the power of Christ and banish these demons. Good thing he’s Catholic.
True Detective season three set itself apart from its predecessors in a significant way over the course of its first four episodes with its earnest treatment of religion. Learning about each character’s’ personal relationships with Christianity is devoid of the cynicism previous seasons led us to expect through their curated language of pop-nihilism. In the 90s timeline of this season, Tom Purcell (Scoot McNairy) is five years sober and invites Roland West (Stephen Dorff) to pray with him, a request that West obliges with respect and tenderness. West himself, it turns out, was raised Baptist, and we learn Hays is a semi-lapsed Catholic (who used to be an altar boy), letting his sins pile up a bit before confession but still respecting sacramental traditions. At no point is the faith of these characters questioned, except maybe by their own personal doubt, and that’s an important thing from a horror standpoint.
Catholicism is a pillar of occult horror. The Christian sect serves as a storytelling gateway to the supernatural, since even modern Catholic teaching leans heavily on mysticism, miracles, angels, saints, and demons. Rosaries, holy water, crucifixes, and communion are the light side from which we understand the iconic evil of noted anti-Catholics like Dracula, Hannibal Lecter, and the version of Satan from End of Days. Even Ghostbusters is heavily influenced by Dan Aykroyd’s Catholic upbringing. The Exorcist is a Catholic horror film, as is The Conjuring, its sequel, and its myriad spinoffs featuring evil dolls and nuns. Exorcism isn’t proprietary of the Vatican, but the Pope’s version of demonic expulsion is definitely the name brand in popular culture.
The supreme power of the divine is the name of the game in Catholic horror. Evil enters the protagonist’s lives, and in order to drive it away, God’s power must be invoked by a person of faith. The tension never comes from the question as to whether the Holy power of Christ will defeat the demonic forces, but rather from the question of if the human body can survive the metaphysical battle for their corporeal form. The horrific power of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit can banish the evil Pazuzu, but can the exorcist stand in the demon’s presence long enough to complete the ritual? Can Linda Blair’s body survive all that spider walking and self-mutilation? God will help those in need, but on His timetable. It’s up to us to endure until then.
The God of True Detective 3 is this God of horror, and we can understand this through the prayers and sermons of “The Big Never” and “ The Day and the Hour.” When Tom Purcell prays with Detective West, they sit and beseech that God simply allow them to weather the pain of life as He works his mysterious ways. “Lord, guard what I hold dear and let me never hold too dearly anything of this world,” says Purcell.
In “The Hour and the Day” Hays and West visit a Catholic church twice, and both times the priest describes a divine framework that reduces human agency in the face of God’s omniscience. Reading from the book of Matthew, the priest outlines God’s role in the fight for good:
For whoever desires to save his life will lose it. But whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. I will never leave the gathered regiment nor flee from any battle. And I give them eternal life. And they shall never perish. Neither shall anyone snatch them out of my hand.
Later, reading from Malachi he underscores our subservience and inadequacy in the face of divine matters. “Justice is not ours to deliver,” he says. “Justice is not in our power. It is in His.”
Just like the God of exorcism, the deity invoked in these passages is one who adheres to His own schedule. His power can be requested, but it can’t actively be wielded. And that’s appropriate for the series. True Detective has only ever flirted with the supernatural. In season one the metaphysical was implied through spiral patterns appearing in nature, symbolizing Rustin Cohle’s tortured insignificance. In season two, we saw the threshold of the afterlife in Ray Velcoro’s near death experience and Frank Semyon’s hallucinatory final hike into the desert, but neither of them understood what was happening. In the same way, it seems unlikely that any true supernatural elements in season three will comprehensible or controllable by the characters. In True Detective 3, the Catholic God serves as a symbol of the unattainable knowledge of the divine, and of rewarded toil in the face of futility.
In the 2015 timeline of season three, as Hays attempts to set his life straight, recovering his memories and narrative to save his life from the terrible void of his deteriorating memory, God will not help him. For exorcism to work, old Hays must let go of his precious narrative and learn to not hold things too dear. He must trust that the Lord, in his justice dealing, will leave him with all he needs. Cosmic justice must play out on its own timeline. For whoever tries to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life of God’s unfathomable sake, will save it.