More than three years since HBO’s True Detective aired its kind-of disastrous second season, creator Nic Pizzolatto has finally regrouped and retooled the show for a third run of episodes. Will fans come back and give him another chance, or has the light already dimmed too much on a series that burned so brightly when it first premiered?
Because True Detective is an anthology, the third season has an all-new storyline with a new cast of characters. The mystery this time is primarily set in November of 1980. Oscar winner Mahershala Ali leads the cast as Wayne Hays, a former Vietnam vet now working as a police detective in the fictional small town of West Finger, Arkansas. On an otherwise quiet, lazy night, Hays and his partner, Roland West (Stephen Dorff), are called to the house of blue collar machinist Tom Purcell (Scoot McNairy), who’s in a panic because his two young children, named Will and Julie, are missing. The kids were last seen riding their bikes to a playground, but never came home for dinner.
As they investigate, Hays and West hope to find the children alive, even as that seems increasingly unlikely. Among the suspects are the father, his estranged wife (Mamie Gummer), the wife’s cousin who stayed in the house about six months earlier, a local Native American trash salvager whom most of the community eyes suspiciously, or a group of teens who hung out in the park drinking and listening to heavy metal music. Potential clues include some dirty magazines hidden under the boy’s bed and a peephole in his closet with a view to his sister’s room. It isn’t clear yet whether Will drilled that hole, or if the wife’s cousin did when he stayed in that room. Helping the case is Will’s teacher (Carmen Ejogo), whom Hays is drawn to more than just professionally.
The first episode culminates with a major search party effort, during which Hays (who was a LRRP during his time in Vietnam) goes off on his own and discovers some strange straw dolls in the woods, which lead him to a cave where he finds Will’s body, lying on his back with his hands posed as if in prayer. There’s no sign of his sister at the scene.
Returning to the structure of Season 1, this storyline is intercut with flash-forwards to years later. Complicating things, we actually have three timelines to sort through: the original investigation, Hays being deposed about the case a decade later when new evidence surfaces, and an elderly Hays being interviewed in 2015 for a TV documentary called True Criminal. During the latter, we’re told that Hays has memory problems, though he seems to still have most of his wits about him.
In the second episode, Hays and West learn that the boy died of blunt force trauma from a broken neck. As they continue to search for the girl, they face political resistance from the town mayor, who nixes their plan to put surveillance on the neighborhood and divulges too many sensitive details that might scare off the killer during a press conference on the news. The FBI comes in and forms a task force. The teacher, Amelia, questions her other students about the straw dolls, and is told that Julie received one from someone in the neighborhood while trick-or-treating on Halloween.
West gets a tip from a Vice detective about a local pedophile. He and Hays abduct and beat the man, then trump up charges about a parole violation to send him back to prison. Unfortunately, they don’t believe he’s responsible for these crimes. Tom Purcell later receives an anonymous note telling him that Julie is safe and he should stop looking for her.
In 1990, Hays (who’s married to Amelia with two kids) becomes obsessed with the case again, to the detriment of his family. He’s informed that the person who was convicted of the crime (we’re not told whom that is yet) is about to be exonerated, to which Hays does not seem surprised. Even more importantly, Julie’s fingerprints turned up in connection with a pharmacy robbery. The girl is alive, but still missing.
In 2015, Hays believes that revisiting this case again is good for his memory. His son (Ray Fisher from Justice League) may not agree. The documentary producer lays out a conspiracy theory about the straw dolls being connected to a pedophile ring, but Hays isn’t convinced.
It’s kind of obvious that at least some of this season’s storyline is inspired by the West Memphis Three, a group of Arkansas teens who were convicted of murder based on little more than the fact that they listened to “Satanic” heavy metal music. That story was famously recounted in the trio of Paradise Lost documentaries as well as another doc called West of Memphis. Fortunately, the details of the True Detective version are different enough that they don’t feel overly familiar and I’m not sure yet where the story is going.
By far the biggest failing of Season 2 was its impenetrably convoluted plot, which rarely made sense and was enormously frustrating. Thankfully, even despite juggling three separate timelines, the third season is much more coherent and I’ve had no trouble following the story so far.
Mahershala Ali is a compelling lead, and all of the other performances are excellent as well (even Stephen Dorff’s). The first two episodes, both directed by Jeremy Saulnier of Green Room, are slow and moody but filled with enormous tension and an unsettling feeling of dead.
Although the season may not have characters quite as indelible as those in Season 1, the year seems to be off to a strong start. The challenge, of course, will be following through for the rest of the season.