It was August of 2015 the last time True Detective was on, so its season 3 return requires a bit of commentary on television, the history of the show, and some other things I’d want to touch on before I shift into a more reviewing/recapping/investigatory gear regarding the two-episode premiere last Sunday. Just in time for episode 3, which I will be reviewing night-of or on Monday morning, it’s time to talk about True Detective.
The first season of the show might be one of the most lightning-in-a-bottle instances of TV in history. Although HBO has undeniable cultural reach, I don’t think anybody had any idea how magnetic Matthew McConaughey would be in the role of Rust Cohle investigating cult murders in Louisiana with a cynical Woody Harrelson. The Yellow King/Crooked Spiral story came from a novel several years in development and it showed in the plotting, characterization, and dialogue.
It also came out at the same time as Rick & Morty‘s debut, and there are a lot of similarities between Rust and Rick as characters. Drunk, misunderstood genius white men, previously fueled by a passion towards their work acting as a mask to hide the personal tragedies that really drive them. Vulnerable nihilists just waiting for a little prodding to drop the facade, abusing substances, engaging in ultraviolence, and detaching themselves from meatspace’s reality to hide from their feelings.
They’re two characters that I feel get interpreted wildly differently depending on who is watching it, sometimes for the absolute worst, but for people with similar characteristics and outlooks, it was damn near jarring the sudden level of representation of not just the misanthropic outlook and behavior, but the philosophical frame of reference. Big-N nihilism is not something you see on television very often. “Losing your religion” without a church being involved, as both Rust and Rick have, and watching the fallout of failed idealism, self-destruction, the second-guessing, is something that I think hit the “No Child Left Behind” generation pretty hard. The bleak, post-Katrina Louisiana landscape, framed so well by season 1 director Cary Fukunaga, underscored why I think the series resonated with that coveted 18-35 demographic at the time. Despite the age difference and throwback to the early 90s as a setting, people saw a lot of Rust in themselves, or at least they thought they did.
To have to follow that up a year later was going to be a struggle. You’ve reinvented an actor in a way nobody this side of Tarantino can and ushered in a whole new phase of an underrated but arguably typecast career that they had to call it “The McConaissance.” Season 2 is met with middling reviews. Colin Farrell, in almost a rebuke to the soused superhero Rust Cohle, is even more broken, but not in a way anyone would want to identify with. Rachel McAdams, a good protagonist, channels the same coldness as the first series’s wife but it’s obvious creator Nic Pizzolatto might have listened to criticism that the female characters were too foil-y and thin (Taylor Kitsch is also the boys do cry anti-machismo CHP war veteran) and she’s (rightfully) criticized as a Mary Sue due to some hamfisted arc plotting. Vince Vaughn, running neck-and-neck with Farrell for the breakout, career-redefining role, comes across as wooden, but it’s integral to the story and character and I feel like he was unjustly panned.
It’s sophomoric and seems a little rushed, but once it ties together in the end, it felt a little unfair from a critical perspective. The week-to-week mystery solving pacing wasn’t there, Los Angeles didn’t have the swampy, nearly Eldritch-horror atmosphere of Louisiana, and a story about railway zoning, a dead city manager, and institutional corruption didn’t hold a candle to The Yellow King. It shouldn’t have had to, but with season 1 making such a splash, it was inevitable that in an anthology series, that second season had to be really strong. They tried to do something different with it, likely in an effort to prove they weren’t a one-narrative-gimmick show, and it fell flat with audiences. Standing alone, it’s very much watchable, well-acted and directed, but lacked the iconoclastic, page-turning clout that carried the first season.
Season 3 episode 1 & 2 spoilers after the jump!
Cue nearly four years later, True Detective is back. We’ve returned to what very much seems like the original recipe: time jumps, an era without cell phones, the rural south, a pairing of two seemingly at-odds detectives driving around and musing about Big Picture things, ritualistic killings, and an almost unrecognizable former 90s heartthrob playing swaggering and caustic. Mahershala Ali (Moonlight, Luke Cage) anchors as the lead, Detective Wayne “Purple” Hays, a Vietnam recon veteran and expert tracker next to Stephen Dorff (WHAT?) as Detective Roland West. Jeremey Saulnier, of Blue Ruin and Green Room fame, directs the first two episodes in a two-hour premiere.
In 1980 small-town Arkansas, two young siblings, Will and Julie, go missing after departing their home on bikes. Hays and West, drinking beer and shooting at small animals in a junkyard, are dispatched to investigate, finding the parents of the children hard-drinking blue collar workers with no love left between them in their marriage but equally distraught over their missing children. Searching the home, Hays find a small hole drilled into a closet wall, presumably peering into the children’s bedroom, and old Playboy magazines under Will’s mattress.
The show’s format follows Hays through the initial investigative work in 1980, being called back regarding the case having thus-far unnamed convictions overturned in 1990 and the reveal that Julie’s fingerprints were found after a pharmacy robbery, and Hays being interviewed for “True Criminal”, a docuseries, in 2015, as Hays is mourning the recent passing of his wife and experiencing the end-stages of a disease that has decimated his memory. Evidently this disease began early and it’s suggested that his reason for leaving the police force in 1990 is due to having lapses in memory and difficulty keeping track of time.
This is an excellent expansion on the time-jumps in season 1, a narrative trick that wasn’t utilized in season 2. Much has been made about how television has widely employed this novelty since, particularly in Maniac, season 1 helmsman Fukunaga’s latest television project. Hays doesn’t just struggle with memory, he struggles with time and his physical relation to it.
Hays discovers the body of Will in a cave surrounded by strange dolls, his hands crossed. He meets his future wife as a schoolteacher, having to pull some metalhead kids who saw the children before their disappearance out of class in a nice nod to the era’s “Satanic Panic” as well as a possibly sinister allusion to the real-world West Memphis 3 case. The leader of the trio of Black Sabbath fans, driving a purple Bug and showing great concern for the seat leather, is seen later at a hangout for miscreant teens that light fireworks, listen to loud music and throw back a couple of beers, where he is riding what is obviously Will’s bicycle.
The television show Hays interviews with in 2015, the initial period in which “wokeness” began to come into the lexicon, has a producer concerned with “marginalized people within authoritarian power structures,” something Hays doesn’t seem to openly concern himself with in 1980 and 90. Amelia, the schoolteacher that becomes his wife and publishes a book on the case in 1990, was in some kind of Black Panther auxiliary in the Bay Area before “something went bad” and she fled back to Arkansas. It’s subtle, but Hays is routinely ignored by white police officers and by his white superiors before West asserts and reiterates his points and strategies. Whether or not Hays brushes this off or internalizes this dynamic remains to be seen, but I’m certainly interested in how it plays out, especially seeing as Amelia strikes me as a very intelligent and political woman and it’s so far vague as to whether or not she’s disillusioned with her former life in radical movements.
In the end of episode 2, Hays and West essentially kidnap a convicted sex offender they suspect has information about Julie, whom multiple states are searching for clues of, and the murder of Will. This is pretty indicative of the extralegal lengths Hays and West seem to cavalierly engage in. He’s beaten and threatened with rape in prison before the episode closes out an a now-elderly Hays ending up on the corner where the Purcell house was, the neighborhood now all but abandoned and the house lying in shambles.
The television show makes reference to the “Crooked Spiral” cases that happen chronologically later, making it abundantly clear that the world of season 1 and 3 are shared, although I don’t think the show would be so brazen to connect both of these cases despite geographical proximity. Just as in the first season, it’s unlikely we’ll know the true culprit of whoever got Will and Julie, because ultimately the show is a character study about the investigators. Making predictions this early on, as the narrative threads are just beginning to weave, is a fool’s errand, but in subsequent recaps I’ll at least try and parse out my suspicions.