An odd couple of cops catches a disturbing murder case. The victim is posed in ritualistic fashion, with handmade pagan symbolism left at the scene. Their investigation leads them into dark and depressive corners of the downwardly mobile American South. Years later, questions arise about whether the real killer had ever been caught. And in the present day, the more soulful side of the partnership fights painful memories as he revisits the case for one last stab at justice.
We promised ourselves we weren’t gonna say “Time is a flat circle.” But if the disc fits …
Yet there’s more to True Detective‘s round three than the storyline and structure it shares with its breakout inaugural season. Granted, the anxiously — and we’re using every sense of “anxiously” here — anticipated return of Nic Pizzolatto’s crime anthology does read like a full-scale retreat to the Southern Gothic style of the show’s first outing. Starring Matthew McConaughey as philosophizing cop Rust Cohle, it drove fans wild with theories about the Yellow King’s identity, soldified the McConaissance and made its creator one of the buzziest names in Hollywood.
That changed with Season Two, set amid the freeway sprawl of Los Angeles and pitting Colin Farrell and Rachel McAdams against a corrupt police force. The backlash that followed (perhaps unfairly) was so strong that the very future of the series seemed in doubt. Small wonder the writer-showrunner would return to safer stomping grounds.
But based on tonight’s two-episode season premiere from Green Room director Jeremy Saulnier, it’s the differences rather than the similarities that are the most striking … and potentially the most revealing.
Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali stars as Detective Wayne Hays, a Vietnam veteran (his nickname overseas was “Purple” Hays) with a quiet disposition. In 1980, Hays, his partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff) and schoolteacher Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo) hunt for a murderer who killed 12-year-old Will Purcell and kidnapped his 10-year-old sister Julie.
Flash forward to 1990: Wayne and Amelia are married with children. She’s about to release a highly acclaimed book about the case. But the suspect seems likely to have been the wrong man and fingerprints matching the missing girl have turned up at the site of a drugstore robbery.
Jump ahead again to 2015. Wayne — still played by Ali, in some eerily convincing old-age makeup — is now a widower, cared for by his son and estranged from his daughter. He’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, losing some memories and finding that others blur together with the present day. The maker of a true-crime documentary interviews him about the murder, and a later incident between Julie and her father Tom that seems to have ended with their house burning down … which we learn when the elderly Hays awakes from sleep-driving to the ruins in the middle of the night.
Already you can see that this isn’t just Season One Redux. Like McConaughey’s tortured cop, Wayne is lonely. But he’s just a bachelor, not a guy who sleeps in a bare room with a crucifix above his mattress. He’s a drinker, but just ties one on a few times a month rather than pounding a six pack during a deposition. He suffers from mental illness as an older man, but it’s not, uh, whatever makes you see spirals in the sky and say stuff like “time is a flat circle” to homicide detectives.
Wayne’s partner Roland is a less well-defined figure at this stage in the season than Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart was during his. But so far, despite playing the straight man/good ol’ boy role in the partnership, he isn’t half the sexist shitkicker his predecessor proved to be. What’s more, Roland trusts his mercurial counterpart implicitly, defending the unorthodox tracking technique he picked up in ‘Nam when the local fuzz takes issue with it. That whole “one guy says something insanely profound (or profoundly insane) and the other guy tells him to shut the fuck up” dynamic is nowhere to be found.
Nor are the one-dimensional, do-nothing female characters from Season One. Ejogo’s Amelia is a full-fledged person, a welcome development that follows McAdams’ talking point last season. The show still isn’t perfect on this score — the documentarian is an oblivious do-gooder whose talk of intersectionality and oppression we’re clearly supposed to find baffling and laughable — but we’ll take it.
The sense that everything has been toned down a few notches extends to Pizzolatto’s dialogue in this two-part premiere, too. The Lovecraft-zen aphorisms and the hardboiled noir-speak are A.W.O.L.; everyone just talks like people, or people on a cop show at any rate. This does more than make the whole affair less stylized and easier to swallow. It also enables moments of comedy and tragedy to shine through. In shades of the real-life West Memphis Three debacle, they start talking about Satanic masses in response to a teenager’s Black Sabbath t-shirt: “I think it’s just their name,” the kid stammers. When they ask another suspect “Do you like kids, generally?”, he responds by yelling “What the fuck’s the right answer to that?!”
Even when they’re brutally working over a pedophile — the show’s ickiest sequence so far — dark comedy lightens the mood. “You entertain fantasies of tying white men to posts?” the ex-con asks after Wayne strings him up. “Now and then, yeah,” Hays replies. “Really?” asks Roland, taken aback. An odd thing to think about as a laugh line, but there it is.
But sadness seeps out of the dialogue as well. Mamie Gummer plays the missing kids’ mother Lucy, a party girl stifled by her shotgun marriage. When she confronts her husband the night they go missing, she defends her absence by shouting “I’m entitled to a life” not once but twice. The repetition tells you all you need to know about both her problem drinking and her emotional isolation.
And as the kids’ father Tom, Scoot McNairy seems absolutely crushed by his failure to protect them and his desperation to find his daughter. He causes a scene by returning to work immediately after his son’s funeral, since he simply has nothing else left. Sobbing, he tells Wayne and Roland that if they’re not gonna find his daughter again, he just needs to know it. Hope is too much to bear.
Even side characters like Brett Woodard, the so-called Trashman whose hustle of picking through other people’s junk makes him an early suspect, feel fully formed. “I salvage trash that I can sell,” says this lonesome Vietnam vet. “You don’t need to make it sound any better than that.” It’s a complex, humane performance by actor Michael Greyeyes in what could otherwise be a throwaway burnout role.
That’s the kind of thing that makes us optimistic about what’s to come. No high weirdness, no convoluted California noir — just a bunch of (mostly) well-drawn characters doing their best, even if their best isn’t very good. People aren’t going to freak out about this the way they did about the first two seasons, for better or for worse. But judging from the Season’s Three opening one-two punch, they’re apt to quiet down and listen.