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Rest easy: It’s not season 2. But it’s also not season 1.
Close to four years and countless dream pairings later, True Detective season 3 returns and finds some form in its void.
CREATOR: Nic Pizzolatto
The long-awaited third season gets off to a promising start.
This season again jumps between decades, as in season 1, but adds in a third timeline: We first see former detective Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) in 2015 as an elderly man. In this reality, a reporter (Alias Grace’s Sarah Gadon) is interviewing Hays for a new documentary on the case of two children who disappeared in Arkansas circa 1980, but his memory is fading; Hays uses recordings to help him remember the case and other details about his life. Though it’s never explicitly stated in the first five episodes available for review, Hays has dementia, which makes new case details presented by the interviewer even more frustrating. Still, it is an interesting vessel into 1990, the year the case is reopened, and then 1980, the year Will and Julie Purcell disappeared.
While season 1 was more about place and literary allusion, season 3 is about memory, as noted by first episode “The Great War and Modern Memory,” directed by Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room, Hold the Dark). It lays out all the major players and parallel plots and introduces us to Hays’ partner, Roland West (Stephen Dorff), as well as the parents of the missing kids, played by Scoot McNairy and Mamie Gummer. There’s some stunning cinematography in episode 1, and Saulnier inventively cuts between the three time periods, most notably midway through the episode where Hays follows a trail into another decade, his jumbled memories spilling out.
Contrast Hays with Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, who was cursed to remember everything, and season 3 feels a little lighter. It returns to the South, a smart move considering the Los Angeles-based season 2 was pretty much panned, and no one could figure out why it existed. But season 3 also stands out for how it addresses race. Hays is a Black detective (a role Ali reportedly had to fight for) in small-town Arkansas, where Black and white residents are both poor but still divided. A scene in which Hays and West interrogate a Black suspect in front of his home, as a group of neighbors assembles to defend him, shows how Hays has to be complicit in racism, even as he deflects it from superiors and colleagues.
This season also explores Hays’ relationship with his wife, Amelia (Carmen Ejogo), whom he meets during the initial investigation in 1980. She tempers his more hardened edges and even writes a book about the case. The show presents her as an equal to Wayne, but he still minimizes her for trying to be more than just a wife, and we don’t get to know as much about her backstory. Similarly, Gummer’s Lucy does an admirable job conveying her pain and despair, but offers curious lines like “I’ve got the soul of a whore” as an explanation for her lot in life.
True Detective has often struggled to shape complex female characters. In season 1, Michelle Monaghan’s Maggie, wife of Woody Harrelson’s Martin Hart, was written into a similar trap as the long-suffering wife; in season 2, Rachel McAdams gave detective Ani Bezzerides some welcome edges, but the character got lost in the Colin Farrell-Vince Vaughn macho-mumble haze. Amelia is given a little more agency, but after three seasons, True Detective should have some women writing these characters (show creator Nic Pizzolatto wrote or cowrote all episodes) to balance out the well-worn Man Haunted by His Past.
Are seasons 1 and 3 connected? There’s at least one detail in episode 1 that echoes season 1’s first episode, and both seasons take place in the South, where religious iconography and folk art are often tied to something more sinister. If they are connected in some way, it would make a retread into a potentially Satanic subplot more interesting, but the show also likes to indulge misdirection.
In the three-and-a-half years that True Detective’s been gone, the surreal true-crime TV drama has evolved, and so has the way we consume it. The first half of season 3 is promising, if a bit stiff, and anchored by Ali, who turns the Man Haunted by His Past into something a little different.
Audra Schroeder is the Daily Dot’s senior entertainment writer, and she focuses on streaming, comedy, and music. Her work has previously appeared in the Austin Chronicle, the Dallas Observer, NPR, ESPN, Bitch, and the Village Voice. She is based in Austin, Texas.