True Detective – Season 3


What if there’s another story?

Main Cast: Mahershala Ali, Carmen Ejogo

Creator: Nic Pizzolatto

The first season of True Detective was incredible, with outstanding performances from both Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson (who both continue to serve as executive producers). We knew that it was an anthology so we were prepared for something entirely different for season 2 – and yet, were we really prepared? Despite a great cast and a good story, the difference in tone made the season fall flat for viewers. In this third installment, True Detective goes back to its roots (though without some of the weirdness) with a multi-era, complex case with a pair of mismatched but somehow effective detectives looking for two missing children.

The story takes place in three time periods – 1980, 1990, and 2015. Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) and Roland West (Stephen Dorff) are Vietnam War veterans and partners on the Arkansas State police force.  In 1980 we see them in their youth, restless and already cynical from time spent fighting in the jungle. When two local kids disappear while out riding their bikes the case goes to Wayne and Roland. It’s a case that will haunt the rest of their lives.

In 1990 the case is being reopened, and in 2015 Wayne is being interviewed for a television program about the now famous abduction and how the case was handled. Wayne is definitely the main character and it is on him that time takes its greatest toll. Throughout the season’s eight episodes we see him transform from an intense, principled young detective with excellent instincts, to a family man with a lot to lose, to a retired officer battling the early stages of dementia.

This progression is not linear. We hop back and forth from one time period to another and back as Wayne struggles to remember in the present and we see the slow case slowly unravel in the past. We meet the woman who will become Wayne’s wife (Carmen Ejogo), we meet his adult son, we get to know the parents of the missing children (Scoot McNairy and a nearly unrecognizable Mamie Gummer), and we see what time and pressure does to the careers of Wayne and Roland.

This type of storytelling is fraught with perils. It is so easy to lose the viewer and muddy the story that I am apt to turn up my nose at descriptions that include a non-linear timeline. Nic Pizzolatto and the rest of the True Detective showrunners could teach a master class in weaving the threads of the past and present together and using the fragmented result to heighten tension and add depth to characters. It’s brilliantly done, especially the sections cutting to and from Wayne desperately trying to piece together his own past as he is interviewed in the present.

Mahershala Ali is now officially an actor I will watch play any role (kudos also to the make-up department for his three very distinct looks that tell us at a glance where we are in time). This character has a lot of layers, from weary and scarred veteran to remarkably intuitive detective, from uneasy young husband and father to aging retiree with regrets, from intense and angry to resigned and exhausted. Ali meets every challenge and through every change holds onto the core of the character. We recognize that core, no matter where the character is in time. It’s a terrific performance.

The main supporting cast – Stephen Dorff and Carmen Ejogo – are also excellent. Theirs are meaty roles, without them Wayne’s complexity would have no context. I particularly like Ejogo as Wayne’s wife. She’s a real presence in his life, not just a paper cut out representing his family man phase. The rest of the cast is solid (especially Mamie Gummer) but don’t have a lot to do.

I really liked this third season of True Detective. The story is solid, the storytelling is fantastic, and there is a gnawing intensity to every episode that viewers will recognize from season one. It’s a great return to form and I look forward to season four. I suspect we’ll be waiting a while – this group does not do fast turnovers.

True Detective is an HBO series, so you can see it there with a subscription. Otherwise you’ll need to rent or buy the DVD.

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