Wwhile 2014’s first season of True Detective was a critical darling, 2015’s follow-up was viewed far less favourably. A casting meme is probably more memorable than creator Nic Pizzolatto’s attempt to replicate the initial success of his anthology crime series. The McConaissance, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s distinct directing style – including an audacious six-minute tracking shot – and a mystery that had viewers theorising as if they were watching Twin Peaks or Lost, were all key, arguably unrepeatable, factors. With season three, Pizzolatto has clearly attempted to get some of that debut magic back. But has it worked?
The first thing to note about True Detective season three is the return of the multiple timeline format. As the action weaves between 1980, 1990 and 2015 we follow Mahershala Ali’s Detective Wayne Hays, our narrative tether and the anchor to the story. Hays was originally conceived by Pizzolatto as a white man, but after Ali read the scripts, he lobbied for the lead. It’s a good thing he did, because he is the heart of the first two episodes. Furthermore, race factors into the story in a way that would have been impossible without Ali in the role; despite being in a position of authority, Hays’ voice is not always heard.
Playing the same character across a 35-year period is no easy task (particularly as Hays is revealed to be suffering from dementia) but Ali wears the scars and lines of this case in more ways than old age makeup and a grey wig. Hays is defensive during the 1990 interactions, as his memories are called into question. When his mind is failing, he continues to be guarded. He is haunted in all three periods, by his experiences during the Vietnam War, the probable wrongful conviction and because the woman he loves is no longer by his side. In these moments, True Detective sings again.
A burgeoning romance in the earliest timeline sets this story apart from other weary cop tales. Season one played the cliché of broken marriages and affairs. In comparison, Hays’ interactions with teacher Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) are a breath of fresh air, even if some of the dialogue is overwrought at times. Amelia’s voice matters to Hays – hopefully in the following episodes she won’t simply fade into the helpful girlfriend/absent wife territory, which often takes up so much space in this kind of narrative.
The case that haunts a detective years after the fact is another tried-and-tested narrative, as is one that involves missing children. When one adolescent boy is questioned in the first episode, he has to defend his choice of Black Sabbath T-shirt; a reference to the “Satanic Panic” in the 1980s, which dominated the trial of the West Memphis Three. Season one of the podcast In the Dark focused on the Jacob Wetterling kidnapping – a case that went unsolved for 27 years – and the disappearance of the Purcell kids in the first episode bears some of the hallmarks of this. It is hard to do something new in this genre, particularly with the glut of true crime podcasts, documentaries and books currently available.
A brief reference to “crooked spiral” imagery might have some viewers wondering if this will all tie back to season one. Time is a flat circle, after all. But this seems to be more Easter Egg than a major clue. There are plenty of other unanswered questions at this early juncture, including where Hays’ former partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff) is, the identity of the person (or persons) originally convicted of the crime and what went down with Tom Purcell (the excellent Scoot McNairy). Some of this withholding of information makes sense, as no one wants all the answers by episode two, yet this sometimes comes across as concealing details for contrivance sake. There is teasing out loose threads, but some of these conversations are vague to the point of ridiculous.
The extraordinary high that comes with first season success is often swiftly followed by closer scrutiny and eventual backlash. It would be unfair to measure the first two episodes of season three against the show’s halcyon McConaughey/Harrelson days, but with Mahershala Ali at the fore, True Detective has become compelling viewing once again.
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