Nic Pizzolatto's prestige detective drama returns to the time-bending aspirations of its first season, aided by strong turns from Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff.
Holding onto our memories is an exercise in heartbreaking futility. We grasp at them and clutch them to our chests, but it’s like trying to hold smoke. We think they belong to us, but they belong to time, and time will determine what you can keep, and what will be taken away. If you’re lucky, you might be left with the good times, but if you’re Wayne Hays, the protagonist of season 3 of True Detective, you’re left trying to piece together the fragments of a three-decade-old murder mystery, in the hope that finally closing it will give you some peace.
After stumbling with season 2, creator Nic Pizzolatto returns to some of the same elements that gave season 1 such a devoted following, spanning multiple timelines and centering around a murder-kidnapping that involves some vague occult-religious symbolism. It also returns to the bleak, working-class South, Arkansas this time, in a town so tiny and dead that the local police don’t have anything better to do with their evenings than hang out at the local dump shooting at rats. What it doesn’t have this time is a lot of philosophical psychobabble. If anything, Detective Hays (Mahershala Ali) wouldn’t listen to that “time is a flat circle” nonsense for a moment, let alone his partner, Roland West (Stephen Dorff). Vietnam vets, partners, and friends, they’re both badly shaken by their latest case, but too buttoned down to admit it, much to their detriment in the future.
The first timeline, 1980, is when 12-year-old Will Purcell, and his younger sister, Julie, disappear. Will is later found dead; Julie is never found. The second, 1990, is when the case is reopened, following both a motion to overturn the posthumous conviction of the man accused of murdering Will and the discovery of shocking new evidence. The third is the present (or rather, 2015), and the most emotionally moving, when Hays, now in his seventies and fighting a losing battle with dementia, is forced to recount the details of the original investigation for a TV series called True Criminals. Looking like he emerged from the womb gruff and serious, he’s always dignified, even when he starts losing the thread of a simple dinner table conversation, but you can see the bewilderment in his eyes. It’s the same kind of bewilderment when, back in 1980, he discovers the body of young Will—he doesn’t know what’s happening, and, more importantly, he doesn’t know why it’s happening.
We also follow the trajectory of Hays’ relationship with former hippie turned schoolteacher Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo), from their awkward first date to their strained marriage a decade later. Amelia writes a book about the Purcell case, and though Hays is initially supportive of it, as it gets closer to publication resentment sets in. “You’re a tourist,” he tells her during one argument. “A voyeur, lifting yourself up on people’s bad luck.” It’s a searing observation of the strange trend of true crime fandom, but Hays isn’t really one to talk either. He’s taken the opposite approach, letting the case drag him down even long after he’s stopped working on it, and using it as a convenient excuse to withdraw from his everyday life. Even when Hays is an old man they’re still there, the dead boy and the gone girl, taking up real estate in his memories that should rightfully belong to his wife and children.
The first five episodes of season three, directed by Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room) and Daniel Sackheim (The Americans), slowly (perhaps a little too slowly, for some viewers’ tastes) and methodically set up dual mysteries, using the idea of the unreliable narrator in a clever and unsettling way. Hays trying to grasp for what he can remember about the case makes for some gripping imagery, particularly when scenes from past and present overlap each other, as when the reflection of the moon in a mud puddle in 1980 turns into a spotlight in 2015. What True Detective always does well, even if the storylines are occasionally meandering, is tone. While this doesn’t reach season one’s level of Gothic spookiness, there are still some unnerving moments, like a search party’s flashlights cutting through a thick late night fog, or a school bus door opening onto an empty street, after panic has taken over the town.
It goes without saying that Ali, who plays every role with quiet strength and thoughtfulness, is great, but the real surprise here is Dorff. Child actor turned indie poster boy turned e-cig spokesman, Dorff often seems like he’s an actor because he couldn’t think of anything better to do. Here, however, handsomely weathered and speaking in a gravelly drawl, he’s terrific as he journeys from Hays’ wisecracking partner to a reluctant, almost embarrassed company man to a tired and lonely senior citizen. He’s not the most stand-up guy, picking up women while doing reconnaissance at a local church service, but he also looks after Tom Purcell (Scoot McNairy, also great), father of the Purcell children, who becomes unglued in grief and rage, though there isn’t a lot to suggest he was ever that glued in the first place.
Unfortunately, Pizzolatto still struggles with his female characters, not giving them much to do other than fuck or fight with the male characters. The only other major female character in season three besides Ejogo’s is Mamie Gummer as the Purcell children’s hard-partying mother, and both characters are dead in the present timeline. A third woman is often spoken about though not yet seen by the end of the fifth episode; presumably, her eventual appearance will be pivotal to the remaining episodes of the season. This is still, above all things, a show about male pain, and how men stoically deal with trauma, usually by either drinking and/or alienating the people who love them. At least here, there are consequences in the present: West lives alone out in the middle of nowhere with his dogs, Hays is estranged from his daughter. They’re still both stoic, but time has allowed them to show a few cracks in the surface.
Hays’ memory is a Polaroid in reverse, as he works to finally close the Purcell children’s case to his satisfaction. There’s a chance he may not, and he might hold on to the pain and confusion it caused for the rest of his days, even if he no longer remembers what caused it in the first place. There is no pain like the kind we can’t explain, after all, when we don’t know why things happen, or if there was anything we could have done to stop it. When an elderly Hays begins to hallucinate his late wife, looking young and beautiful when they first met, he protests “I don’t deserve this.” “No, you don’t,” she says, gently, with sympathy. “But it’s happening anyway.”
True Detective Season 3 digs through your memories starting Sunday, February 13th on HBO.