Season 3 of True Detective is a Brilliant Return to Form

I watched the first two episodes of True Detective Season three at an advanced screening at Alamo Drafthouse and let me tell you, all the backwater mind-fuckery you loved about the first season is back in full force.

The Basics

It’s readily apparent from the first establishing shot that the series is taking several pages from how Season one was organized. The narrative is familiar, two buddy, but sometimes not so buddy, detectives are trying to solve a missing persons case regarding two missing kids.

The flashback narrative structure is back. Mahershala Ali’s character, Wayne Hays, dips back in time to when he was working the case as he’s speaking in a deposition. Just like in Season one there’s been an update in the case, and prosecutors need Wayne’s help to put the right person behind bars.

There are three time periods in this story: 1980 when the kids went missing, 1990 when the deposition took place and there was an update to the case, and 2015 when Wayne is being interviewed about the case for a television program. We learn that Wayne’s memory has been fading and that he is suffering from dementia or Alzheimers, losing time and sometimes repeating himself. It’s made clear that he may not be a reliable narrator, which even just typing those words gets me far more yoked up than it has any license to.

(I mean really how dare they. I felt like I was watching Westworld again and that just brought back all my Westworld Reddit theory mongering PTSD. I have a family Pizzolatto they need me, I can’t spend my entire January holed up reading every single thread on r/TrueDetective.)

It feels good to be back in a more earthy, lower socio-economic environment for this season, after departing for the city of Vinci last season. Season one had the Louisiana bayou and swamps, a place with something to hide, with forgotten decaying landmarks and polluted waters. Season three is in Arkansas, and the woods of the Ozarks serves a healthy portion of southern gothic creepiness.

I like that True Detective focuses on poorer places. Places in the country where people may not want to look for too long. Places that people forget, or never knew about in the first place. I think that as an audience member it makes me uncomfortable to be in these places, and to watch a detective have to dig into the underbelly of a place that I as a middle-class American would rather not step into. I attribute a lot of True Detective’s success to how it has always made the setting of its story a character of its own. One that changes and grows.

At one point the woman interviewing an aging Wayne in 2015 tells him about how several pedophile rings have a symbol or a sign, “Like the crooked spiral.” Anyone who remembers the first season will remember seeing spirals appear throughout the story.

Obviously I didn’t think we were in some sort of multiverse comic book type story, but it’s interesting that they purposefully made the connection to Rust and Marty’s case. Thinking more on that it stands to reason that the Fontenot murder case got blown wide open and that perhaps more of the pedophiles that Marty and Rust were unable to nab got their due in the years leading up to 2015.

Wayne’s dementia means that we can’t always trust him with what he’s telling us. It will be interesting to see how this might turn the narrative on its head in future episodes.

A funny exchange happens between Wayne and a lawyer from the DA’s office which might foreshadow what we can expect from this story (I don’t have the transcript so I’m doing this from memory, forgive me if it’s a bit off):

Wayne: “Well why don’t you just tell me what you know.”

Lawyer: “Well we don’t know what you know. So how can we tell you what we know if we don’t know what you might not know?”

The show keeps its gritty noir attitude while finding just the right moments to make us laugh. There were several moments of good wordplay or awkwardness that got good laughs from the audience that I otherwise wouldn’t have caught if I wasn’t in a group setting.

Mahershala does a great job because of course he does. He plays Wayne straight, never delving into the archetype of a tough street-smart detective. Of course, Wayne is a tough street-smart detective, but Mahershala’s a great enough actor that his performance feels original and organic without it coming across as forced. He makes it look easy and he was a brilliant choice.

Of course the same can be said for the entire cast, but as the leading man Mahershala shines. Wayne’s partner Roland, played by Stephen Dorff, has a completely different air about him, almost sinister, that plays well off of Wayne’s level-headedness. I’m excited to see how the relationship builds between them.

Jeremy Saulnier directed the first two episodes before having to leave the project due to scheduling conflicts, so I’ll be very interested to see how the other episodes feel comparatively.

This season is getting started on the right track, and I’m optimistic about the future of the series. True Detective has found its groove by returning to old forms, but rather than feeling like a copy of the first season, this feels like a fresh take on a genre that True Detective redefined in the first place.

René Castro is an amateur professional writer and a recreational charlatan. He hopes to one day escape his loop because time is a flat circle. Yell at him on Twitter @Rene4591 and don’t forget to hit the applause button!



Writing about beer, storytelling, manhood, and culture. Yell at me on Twitter: @Rene4591

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René Castro

Writing about beer, storytelling, manhood, and culture. Yell at me on Twitter: @Rene4591