Unsurprisingly, David Milch (who co-wrote this episode) and Nic Pizzolatto work well together. They have a similar view of humanity as neither innately good nor beyond redemption, an ability to create characters that skip over any contemporary question of “likable” or “sympathetic” and go directly to “interesting,” and a sense of language that’s both well suited for drama and distinct enough to become its own dialect. (There’s a near-quote from Deadwood in this hour.) “The Hour and the Day” has slightly more happening than “The Big Never,” but it gets its power from the tension between and within its characters, and how that gets expressed in the words and the blocking.
Pizzolatto took over directing here, and he uses a strategy all through where characters stay at a distance from each other, and closing that distance isn’t a good thing. (This becomes scarily literal in the last second.) Early on, we get a long argument between 1990 Amelia and Wayne (and a dark, funny reveal of the lack of distance between them and their children) that ends with them fucking, and no resolution. That’s matched by a longer scene in the middle of one of their early dates, where they’re revealing themselves to each other, but never completely; and when Amelia touches Wayne it means they’re not talking anymore. A 1980 conversation between Amelia and Lucy Purcell (Mammie Gummer) gets close to the point of Lucy revealing. . .something, and then Amelia brings Wayne into it and Lucy chases Amelia out of the house; and an attempt by Wayne and West to talk to a black suspect gets threatened by all the neighbors closing in, and by West’s presence as a white detective. Keep your distance, the images say; come to close to people and they can only hurt you.
We learn more about Amelia and Wayne here, and like another married couple on another cop drama, these two may be too like each other to be good for each other. For both of them, they’re always working, which means every conversation with someone else is some kind of interrogation. When Amelia accuses Wayne of being too passive, we can see how that comes not so much from being a black man in Arkansas, but from a temperament that’s always about hanging back and observing, waiting for people to incriminate themselves. (He and West do some good waiting at the end of this episode.) Ejogo also shows how Amelia always has a scent of a story; in her conversation with Lucy, she keeps showing Amelia getting interested, and almost immediately trying to hide it. “My whole life, I speak, I regret,” sez Amelia, one more writer’s trait: the desire not to use words until they’re perfect.
Ejogo and Ali are well-matched as actors, because they both bring this kind of subtlety to their performances, and they’re anything but one-note. (Something to pick up on: watch how Wayne continually moves to reveal his badge or gun when he’s threatened.) In all three of True Detective‘s times, Wayne has to deal with some kind of threat; we see a man who lives with fear all the time, and a 2015 scene where he sees himself surrounded by Vietnamese soldiers–and one white man in a suit–suggests that this has been going on long before this story began. That’s why it’s heartbreaking when he responds to Amelia’s “or what?” with “or I’m gonna start crying.” Wayne needs his vulnerability much more than any kind of toughness, one more way in which Pizzolatto and Milch create character textures that hold one’s interest.
Also interesting, and it’s been going on all through this season, is the racial negotiation between Wayne and West. It would have been too easy a move to make West hate on Wayne for daring to be both a good detective and black, and it would have made their partnership implausible. Ali and Dorff play something different; there’s a wariness to both of them, because they genuinely like each other and have each other’s backs (we saw that in their first scene together) but they’re unsure how to approach the other’s world–the moment in “The Hour and the Day” where West explains why he’s more likely to shoot a white man than a black one is a neat distillation of that.
The shifts between time frames, suggestive of Wayne’s fading but formidable memory, are another compelling aspect of this episode. (That seems appropriate, since 2015 Wayne is having a good day in terms of both memory and detecting–notice what he picks up on in his visit to the director.) A slightly out-of-focus picture on West’s desk in 1990 becomes, I’m pretty sure, the church-going woman he chats up in 1980. (Stephen Dorff is having the time of his life with this performance; never not sympathetic, he’s as smart as Ali but doesn’t try to match his subtlety. I would watch a version of Green Book with these two and less Oscarbaiting.) We also see, in 1990, a picture of West and then-Governor Bill Clinton, whose political ambitions get reflected in the showboating, slimy prosecutor-who-becomes-Attorney General (Brett Cullen). (Cullen plays exactly the kind of guy who would direct his detectives to reinvestigate for the sole purpose of reaffirming the earlier verdict, or execute a man who didn’t understand he was being executed.) A reference to a dead body shocks a brief flash of memory into Wayne, and possibly that one white man among the soldiers; we’re getting clues that Wayne might have gone way the fuck past putting an innocent man into jail.
Finally, those who’ve been sensing that Woodard (Michael Greyeyes) was much more of a threat to the men who roughed him up than vice versa got the payoff here, or rather, “To’hajiilee”-style, the setup to the payoff, as Woodard goes full First Blood and sets a trap for them, complete with assault rifles and Claymore mines. The Vietnam War was a fixture in 1980s American pop culture, usually as the War We Should Have Won, and it’s largely fallen out of attention in the last twenty years or so. 1980, though, was only five years after the fall of Saigon, and Ali’s and Greyeyes’ haunted performances–and the suggestion of a bloodbath in the next episode–remind us that war is another thing that never gets forgotten.