When it aired its first season in 2014, “True Detective” was a phenomenon, with its philosophical musings and bravura Matthew McConaughey performance winning over critics and viewers alike. Following its second season the following year, it became a laughingstock, a cautionary tale of hubris gone horribly wrong. Having been newly humbled, writer/creator Nic Pizzolatto has returned with season three.
Pizzolatto could’ve just played the hits from the first time and people likely would’ve gotten back on his side, but he’s crafted something much more interesting than a reprise. The language is plainer, the editing is more artful, and the performances are less show-boaty. The end result is still not perfect, but it does enough good that it doesn’t really matter.
Two children are abducted in a small Arkansas town in 1980, and one is found dead. Detective Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) and his partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff) are assigned to the case, but a decade passes before the missing child is discovered during a robbery of a Walgreens. Twenty-five more years pass before an addled, confused Wayne is interviewed about the case for a crime TV show, and he becomes newly obsessed with it.
Much like the first season, this season intercuts the action in the past with present-day interactions. This season, however, they’re more artfully blended into the meat of the show, blurring the lines behind the past and the present. This could just be needless trickery if not for Hays’ worsening dementia in the 2015 timeline, making the show an artful illustration of his fractured mental state. One minute, he’s invested in the past, and the next, he’s a scared old man in the present.
As much as it is a standard police procedural, this season is a study of the effect of memory on both the individual and the world. The murder is so firmly in the public consciousness that shows are being made about it 35 years later, but it especially holds sway over Wayne. He admits he can barely remember his wife’s face, and yet he can recall the specifics of the crime like they occurred yesterday.
But as interesting as that material is, the show does still need to have a plot that it develops over eight episodes. The episodes that spend most their time developing the mystery over developing themes tend to be a little slow-going, like table-setting before the meal, but even they have scenes as unexpected and fascinating as old Wayne talking to his wife’s ghost, who speaks in the same florid language that made everybody sick of Pizzolatto in the first place.
The first two episodes of this season are directed by Jeremy Saulnier, whose films “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room” are among the most suspenseful and beautiful of the decade. He crafts some gorgeous, nerve-racking imagery in his two hours; an ominous purple Volkswagen standing out against the browns of its surroundings, a search party occurring in a fog bank.
Saulnier left the show on contentious terms, and the subsequent direction, including three episodes directed by Pizzolatto himself, isn’t quite as inspired. The compositions are a little less memorable, the lighting is a little flatter, and even the background performances aren’t as well-modulated; the kid-actor hamminess of Wayne’s daughter feels out of place with the grim tone of everything else. But this is more a speed bump than an issue, especially when the direction services such an excellent lead performance.
The burden of keeping this season afloat rests largely on Mahershala Ali, and he proves more than up to the challenge. In a year when he’s likely to win an Oscar for his fine enough performance in “Green Book,” this is much more convincing evidence of his talents.
Ali’s depictions of the three different Waynes are clearly the same person fundamentally altered by time; his straight-down-the-middle attitude in 1980 hardens into closed-off paranoia in 1990, and his 2015 self is a frightened shell. But he never overplays his hand or begs for sympathy in any of the timelines, simply existing as this character rather than playing him.
Ali is backed by an impressive supporting cast, including Carmen Ejogo as his wife and Scoot McNairy as the missing child’s father, but Dorff is best in show. Dorff has spent the last decade wasting the promise of his work in Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere,” but here he’s terrific, matching Ali’s sturdy professionalism while adding just a hint of a smart-ass side.
“True Detective” season three may not capture the zeitgeist as the first season did, but it’s a great watch anchored by a terrific performance. If Pizzolatto churns out a few more of these, he’ll be firmly back in the public’s good graces.