The phenomenon of True Detective is primarily based around its flawless first season, which was widely regarded as a modern-day classic of crime drama (and we agreed – it was the winner of our Top Crime Dramas of 2014). The inspired casting of its lead actors Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey combined with a labyrinthine narrative that was shot through with gothic sensibilities electrified viewers. Everybody remembers holding their breath for what seemed like an eternity through that six-minute single tracking shot as Cohle escaped the crack house. It was bravura television of the highest calibre. Series creator Nic Pizzolatto was lauded as the second coming and all considerations were that this was the start of something special.
Then the hotly anticipated second season premiered and the reviews were universally derisive. Partly because of the high bar set by the first season, partly because everybody’s expectations were therefore set equally – and impossibly – high, and partly because people weren’t accustomed to a series that left its characters behind with each season and reacted accordingly when Hart and Cohle didn’t return. Whatever the reason, the intricate slow burn of a story about three cops brought together over one crime was widely panned. The irony is without the shadow of such an exceptional debut over it, that second season would have been considered a great success.
The level of vitriol directed against that sophomore season was so widespread that Pizzolatto claimed he was done with the show – and with mounting offers from Hollywood he wasn’t short of future work. But time has been increasingly kind to both series of the show and as its legacy grew, rumours filtered through that a third season was in the works. Not only that, but the producers had doubled down on their intentions by bagging an Oscar-winning actor in the guise of Mahershala Ali in the lead role. So with the popularity of the first season and the lessons learned from the reception of the second, was this new series to be a remix of both into something familiar or a bold new direction?
The answer is somewhere in the middle. From the visually gorgeous opening credits (since ripped off by a hundred other shows) set to the wonderfully maudlin soundtrack supplied by T Bone Burnett, we’re immediately in familiar territory – you know you’re in for an hour of quality television. Set against a muted tonal palette of deep greys and pale blues, the location for our mystery this time is situated in the heart of the Ozarks with sprawling overhead shots of imposing woodland encroaching on tiny, rusting settlements where the only unifying element is abject poverty.
Like the first season, the mystery is unpicked over a series of time periods and is recounted in retrospect by its lead protagonist – in this case Detective Wayne ‘Purple’ Hays (Ali). In 1980 he is assigned to be the lead detective in a case of missing persons alongside his partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff). Hays is a Vietnam veteran – a pathfinder – and somebody who like Cohle before him has a sense of ‘otherness’ about him that distinguishes him from his colleagues. He’s an outsider.
Ten years later, we find Hays at an interview surrounding his deposition. A challenge to the conviction brought from the case’s outcome has been raised by the accused’s family. He’s clearly not happy his former work is being dismantled but it seems both Hays and the detectives questioning him implicitly know that the person in prison was wrongly convicted. They allude to Hays suffering from ‘memory problems’ – something that becomes clearer to us as we jump to 2015 and see him as an older man (Ali in some impressive prosthetics), about to face the cameras for a TV documentary on the case. Hays employs a dictaphone to record his more lucid moments, directing himself when he forgets what he’s doing – a sort of aural version of Memento.
Pizzolatto deploys a subtle palette shift for each period so we don’t feel immediately lost and the narrative is clear and concise, abandoning the glacial momentum of the second season for something implicitly more procedural and direct. The case itself seems simplistic on the surface – two local siblings, Will and Julie Purcell, go missing one cold November afternoon in 1980 and a raft of potential suspects are quickly introduced as we watch them disappear on their autumnal bike ride. The series always excels at adding import to clues that may or may not have an impact on the case – a peephole in a room, a littered Ranger’s station, dusty pornographic magazines – and the lingering attention it pays to these devices is designed to draw you into continually questioning what you are seeing, adding layers of misdirection to the mystery.
Each period comes complete with its own set of traumas, hidden plain in sight. In the second episode, there’s a revealing conversation in 1980 between Hays and a suspect, two men equally broken and bonded by the legacy of Vietnam and the devastation it brought back home to fester in the heartland of America. In 2015 Hays fights another battle with the silent torture of encroaching dementia, beset by the ghosts of a past he can barely remember. It’s this kind of dedication to broadening characterization that Pizzolatto specializes in which enriches the show and elevates it above the standard procedural. Like Season One, the case is really a vessel that holds a larger commentary on the social and political undercurrents that bind America for better or worse.
Ali is a revelation in the role of Hays. He has his work cut out portraying the same character at different emotional points across a 40-year span of time, but executes it impeccably. He’s a man who has clearly seen unspeakable violence at war trying to walk back his emotions in line with a society that isn’t really prepared to support a man of his skin colour in a role of authority. The racial tone is never implicit, just simmering under the surface much like in reality. Equally, Dorff excels as West, his gruff throwback of a partner who represents his window into the white man’s world (“you can say something and they’ll listen to you – I’m not part of your tribe” Hays tells him directly at one point). The pair are more than a match for Rust and Marty, and their dialogue underpins a large majority of the show with crackling dry wit and an imposed sense of brotherhood. It’s a joy to watch.
Pizzolatto also isn’t afraid to revisit the motifs of that debut season for dramatic effect either. The development of the investigation into long-haired malcontent Freddie Burns and his teen friends has more than a smack of the West Memphis Three about it, right down to the awkward interrogation of his friend’s Black Sabbath t-shirt (“what is that, some kind of satanic mass?”) and it’s a pointed reminder to the power of the ‘satanic panic’ era in 80s America as well as a callback to the first season’s exploration of rural paganism. The woven artefacts from that season also make another appearance in the form of straw dolls in this season, cast as markers in the undergrowth leading Hays to discover Will’s body, cold hands clasped in prayer. The spectre of the Bible always looms large in this show, an amoral phantom that speaks as much to the ambivalence of evil as it does good.
The show also knows how to deliver a thrilling cliffhanger and the legacy of the show is packed full of them. The first episode of the new season especially is no different when Hays is told in 1990 – a decade after the original case – that Julie’s prints have surfaced in a burglary not some two months ago. She’s alive. It floors him and also the audience – we are now provided with the foresight he will be on a fruitless search for her back in 1980. It’s the kind of brain-busting chronological twist we’re used to in this show and signifies Pizzolatto is leaving nothing to chance this time round. The lingering question is whether the show can deliver something more than a reductive story wrapped in a clever narrative construct or transcend that trap to provide something as magical as that glorious first season.