Third time’s a charm for True Detective
True Detective’s first season was one of the peaks of 2014’s television landscape, and one of the shows people point to when discussing the current golden age of the silver screen that the last half-decade has ushered in. By many accounts the second, dishevelled and unfocused season lost much of the goodwill the first fostered… but the third makes amends thanks to superb casting and pacing, and nuanced takes on themes of money, memory and morality.
Not-so-sweet home Alabama
Set in the Alabaman Ozarks over three timelines, True Detective S3 does a wonderful job of creating strong senses of both time and place. As with previous seasons, this is a tale of a small-town tragedy, the detectives tasked with investigating it, and the regular folk surrounding it whose lives all too often position them as helpless to defend themselves from the whims of the wealthy and powerful.
The single best reason to watch True Detective this time around is Mahershala Ali, who delivers an absolutely show-stopping turn as Detective Wayne Hays. Young Hays is imposing and intense, despite being quiet and contemplative rather than brash, and some of Ali’s finest moments come from his masterful use of body language and facial expressions.
Hays, along with partner Detective Roland West (Stephen Dorff), is tasked with investigating the disappearance of two children, and their on-screen chemistry is a joy to behold, as is their witty repartee, though we could’ve used subtitles for some of it given their molasses-like drawls.
Second fiddle still sings
The irresistible pairing of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson combined with director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s noir sensibilities made the first season of True Detective a binge-able treat with stars it was tough to choose favourites between. That’s not the case with this instalment.
While Stephen Dorff’s performance is so assured we fully expect it to reinvigorate his career, it’s nonetheless very much a supporting role. Unlike Harrelson and McConaughey’s near level-pegging, the clear star of True Detective S3 is Ali. And the show is better for it. Thanks to tight narrative focus – and incredible make-up – we get to see Ali’s Hays in 1980, 1995 and 2015, and the toll the case takes on every aspect of his life over the 25-year period during which it consumes him.
If there’s any criticism to be levelled at this season’s characters, it’s that its female players don’t get the sort of screen time or development they deserve, or that’s hinted at up front. Carmen Ejogo plays Amelia Reardon, a local teacher who taught the missing children and who becomes Hays’s love interest, and who goes on to write a bestselling true-crime book about the case. Despite being pivotal early on, her arc falls by the wayside as things progress.
Mamie Gummer, meanwhile, is decidedly underutilised as the missing children’s extremely troubled mother, Lucy Purcell. Both she and Ejogo start out seemingly destined to play far larger roles in the narrative than they eventually do, and it’s a pity given the strength of the characters and the obvious talent of the actors playing them.
Nothing’s black and white
Pay too much attention to True Detective S3’s trio of chopped-up and rearranged timelines and the holes in the plot become pretty stark. Like the first season, despite lofty ambitions, the denouement of this season is problematic and fails to deliver on the promises of its early episodes. But, thankfully, it doesn’t really matter… because there’s so much else that makes it worth watching.
Aside from Ali’s astounding performance, there’s incredibly deft handling of complex issues like ageing and memory, what morality looks like in a world with inherent imbalances of power, and how power and wealth combine and clash with issues of race. More superficially, there are also great cliff-hangers that make it tough not to hit play on the next episode, even when you should’ve been in bed two episodes ago.
Both Hays and Reardon are people of colour with status and stature in a predominantly white, but impoverished, community. They inevitably face casual and institutional racism alike, but it’s somewhat muted in virtue of their respective standing. Even the relationship between Hays and West is affected by their racial differences, and the show manages to tackle the issue with both sensitivity and subtlety.
Meanwhile, there’s the Native American Vietnam veteran Bret Woodard (Michael Greyeyes) who’s repeatedly on the receiving end of the worst sorts of prejudice small towns (and minds) are known for. It’s him, rather than the African American characters, who is set up to earn most of our sympathy, and our ire.
There’s always been the sense that True Detective’s various seasons are non-overlapping tales nonetheless set in the same universe. The third season removes any ambiguity of this and sets the stage for the possibility of a broader story down the line that might tie some of the seasons together, however loosely.
Like its predecessors, this season of True Detective is imperfect and more than a little frustrating, but an incredible cast, brilliant dialogue and remarkable handling of multiple timelines ensure it remains necessary viewing for any fan of a good old-fashioned whodunit.
All seasons are available to stream on Showmax.