In the third season of HBO’s True Detective, Mahershala Ali plays Arkansas state cop Wayne Hays, investigating the same child murder case across three eras: as a hotshot detective in 1980 whose troubled service in Vietnam is close in the past; as a family man looking to resurrect his career in 1990; and as a retired widower battling dementia in 2015 while a TV documentarian reopens the investigation. As people keep asking why the elderly Hays wants to revisit such ugliness, he explains that going over the details of the story again and again is helping him to fill in the widening gaps in his memory, and to focus in on who and what he used to be.
This is more or less what True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto is trying to accomplish with this belated third season. (It debuts January 13; I’ve seen the first five episodes.) The new story is blatantly structured as a kind of Pizzolatto Plays Season One’s Greatest Hits album. There’s a brilliant-but-tortured investigator played by a great actor coming off an Oscar-winning performance. The mystery spans three eras and features the main characters being interviewed in the later periods about what happened years earlier. The killer even leaves primitive sculptures made of natural materials (sticks then, corn husks now) near the victims’ bodies. It’s as if Pizzolatto wants us to block out all memory of the disastrous second season with Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn and recall only the mostly beloved debut year with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson.
It’s a sensible, if somewhat cynical, choice. Season Two played as Pizzolatto’s response to the criticisms of Season One, with a bigger and more complicated plot, more main characters, more prominent female characters and all the other things people said the McConaughey/Harrelson iteration was lacking(*) in the wake of an underwhelming finale. But it turned out his initial creative instincts were the right ones — for him, at least. For all of the first year’s flaws, it emphasized the things Pizzolatto did well by focusing on his two drippingly masculine leads at the expense of all other plot and character concerns. In Season Two, he had much looser command of narrative sprawl, writing for women (and, in the case of Taylor Kitsch’s character, gay men) and all of the other tweaks to the formula. So he’s gone back to what worked (at least until it didn’t) in a bid to resurrect a brand many would have been okay with staying dead.
(*) Ultimately, the franchise’s most important creative voice has turned out not to be Pizzolatto, nor any of his famous stars, but Cary Joji Fukunaga. He directed all of Season One and infused what was, in hindsight, a very thin story with such stunning, unsettling imagery that it all felt deeper than it turned out to be. (Time may be a flat circle, but all circles are flat, you know?) Seasons Two and Three have shifted to a multiple-director model (including Pizzolatto himself this year) and are much less visually impressive.
As Hays and his partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff, solid in an underwritten role) investigate the murder of young William Purcell and the disappearance of his sister Julie, Pizzolatto gets to keep reaching back into his old bag of tricks. We hit all three of the story’s eras within the premiere’s opening five minutes, with two different interview setups(*) to evoke the framing device where Rust Cohle and Marty Hart once talked circles around two younger cops. Hays’ idiosyncratic brilliance is framed less as a copy of Cohle’s nihilist intuition than a remnant of his days doing long-range reconnaissance in Vietnam — “He’s got his own thing,” West explains to another cop when Hays wanders away from a search party — but Hays and Cohle belong to the same tradition of damaged, brooding male hero types. (“I remember it was the day Steve McQueen died,” 1990 Hays recalls of the date the Purcell siblings went missing. Of course a Pizzolatto lead loves McQueen.)
(*) The 2015 documentary crew — working for a series called True Criminal — adds a layer of meta to the proceedings, but the show can’t seem to decide whether to take the director, played by Alias Grace‘s Sarah Gadon, seriously, or to roll its eyes at her as she says things like, “I’m interested in the intersectionality of marginalized groups within authoritarian and systemic racist structures.”
Ali, as you might expect, is excellent playing all three iterations of Hays, though the 2015 old-age makeup winds up being more convincing than his 1980 hairpiece. Because West is just a straight man (he’s like the “regular type dude” Marty Hart mistakenly claimed to be), the third season quickly turns into a solo show for Ali, albeit with periodic duets opposite Carmen Ejogo as Amelia Reardon, a local teacher who falls for Hays. (Though the show largely views her through her husband’s eyes, Reardon is the closest the series has come to presenting a fully three-dimensional female character. Rachel McAdams was good in Season Two, but that role could have been played by a man with minimal alterations.) It’s less of an event for Ali — who’s had regular or recurring roles on seven previous series, as recently as Luke Cage in 2016 — to do TV than when McConaughey played Cohle. But it’s also the first thing he’s done for the medium since his elevation from That Guy to Oscar winner and magazine cover subject, and it’s the kind of high-profile star turn he never got before Moonlight put him on the A-list. He’s great — simultaneously charismatic and vulnerable, kind and self-destructive, in every era — and the Hays/Reardon relationship allows Pizzolatto to do some interesting and relatively nuanced work about growing up black in a place where you’re always looked at as something alien. (When Hays asks a white female witness if an African American suspect was handsome, she replies, puzzled, “Like I said, he was black,” as if the two are mutually exclusive to her.)
But the vibe of the role is, like True Detective as a whole, pretty damn grim — Hays telling Reardon that he likes to laugh is what passes for a joke here (and he says it a few scenes before threatening a suspect with prison rape that will make him “bleed black cock”) — and familiar. (Ditto Scoot McNairy, strong in a stock role as grieving, alcoholic father Tom Purcell.) In lieu of Season One’s supernatural red herrings about the Yellow King, we get hints of PTSD-induced nightmares for Hays and for Woodard (Michael Greyeyes), a Native American vet who now picks up trash in a dune buggy. This allows Pizzolatto to still dabble in surreal imagery without setting up the audience to be annoyed when the mystery’s monsters turns out to be utterly human. The many echoes of that original story are at first reassuring, as if lessons were learned from the Farrell/Vaughn mess. But in time, Ali’s performance is the only thing disguising how rote this all feels, and how much the series keeps repeating itself, within seasons as well as across them. There are periodic moments that pulse with life — or, at least, that feel like clichés done right. (Deadwood and NYPD Blue creator David Milch co-wrote the fourth episode with Pizzolatto, and there are several scenes where it’s easy to imagine Al Swearengen or Andy Sipowicz delivering the dialogue. In a good way.) And then there are others where it all feels like antihero-drama karaoke in an era when TV has mostly moved away from these overused tropes.
As Hays insists on extending the search for Julie Purcell at the end of a long day, West tells him, “It’s too dark, man.” “I don’t care,” Hays replies, the exchange capturing the ethos of True Detective, past, present and maybe future.