This spoiler-free review is based on the opening three episodes of True Detective’s third season.
“Steve McQueen died,” observes Hays (Mahershala Ali) near the start of True Detective Season 3. It’s 7th November, 1980, and he and his police partner, Roland West (Stephen Dorff), are sitting not at their desks but in a junkyard with beers, taking pot shots at the local vermin. The death of McQueen, the uber-cool hero of the silver screen, matters because it doesn’t matter, because a glimmer of that idealised icon of masculinity has fallen beneath the horizon, and the world has continued spinning – and away from the glare of that macho heroism is the unspoken darker side of its toxic effects, as men posture for others around them, repressing their guilt, their fears, their vulnerability.
It’s an exchange that puts us right back into HBO’s crime anthology, and signals that creator Nic Pizzolatto has returned to the form that made Season 1 of True Detective so effective. Pizzolatto’s heavy-hanging series has always been concerned with hidden male angst and the dangers it poses, but True Detective’s initial success came from fusing that with a cocktail of other ingredients – as well as manly men swaggering through internal implosions, it fused a genuine crime puzzle with a beautifully dislocated location (the festering underbelly of Louisiana), a dose of existential dread and a large slice of occult-tinged terror. Season 2, on the other hand, retained the machismo but swapped the rest out for unsubtle noir stylings and over-cooked dialogue, resulting in an uneven drama that was bogged down in self-pity.
Season 3, though, sees Pizzolatto refine and retune True Detective, as we once again return to a rural corner of America (the Ozarks) and find ourselves entangled in a layered multi-mystery. But where Season 1 framed its case through the lens of a flashback (courtesy of an internal investigation), Season 3 goes one step further: in the 1980s, two children have gone missing, prompting Hays and West to launch a town-wide manhunt; in the 1990s, the case has been reopened, as the retired Hays struggles to recount what has since become an acclaimed book; and in the recent present, the now-elderly Hays is sitting to be interviewed (by the always-excellent Sarah Gadon) for a true crime documentary looking back at events.
It’s no surprise to say that Hays’ memory only gets worse with each passing decade, but what’s remarkable is how much that feeds into the rest of the season. His unreliable narration drives the overall mystery, leaving us – like him – uncertain of whether his telling of events is accurate. During his police inquiry, he pores through his case notes; before his TV Q&A, he swats up on the book about the kids’ disappearance, penned by none other than his wife, Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo), a schoolteacher he met while on the case.
Editor Leo Trombetta (Mad Men, Narcos) blurs the lines between the three timelines to jaw-dropping effect, as Hays turns around to look at something off-screen, only for us to find him looking at himself in the future, or questioning himself in the past. It’s a disorienting device that, like much of True Detective, feels familiar but is nonetheless well executed, to the point where it seems like Hays is walking through his own mental puzzle, and the rest of the programme is just falling into place, unseen, around him.
That reliance on a single character brings something new to True Detective, at a point where it could have relapsed into self-imitation. “I’m a feminist,” chuckles the appalling West, a drink in hand. “If a woman wants to sell me her ass, I believe she has a right to do so.” But their dynamic goes beyond two men and exploring harmful social attitudes, because something else puts an insurmountable barrier between them. “I know where I am in a way you never could,” Hays retorts during one heated argument about duty, identity and, most of all, race.
While our odd couple detectives are a central focus, though, it’s Ali who gets our attention and understanding, and we join him as he goes off on his own to track clues and follow his instincts. They lead him to Reardon, played with a heap of insight and compassion by Ejogo. “How is it here?” he asks, before adding: “You know.”
As the season continues, that undercurrent bubbles up more and more, with one local junkman – a Native American – appearing as a possible suspect, not least because of the suspicion he’s subjected to from the local, white population. That over-hanging division dovetails with the aftermath of the Vietnam War, with the ensemble stuffed with veterans from the conflict, each one dealing with the lingering effects. It’s particularly painful for Hays, an African-American cop trying to protect a community, after serving a nation at war, and yet remaining, in the 1980s, an outsider in a profession where racism is systemic.
Ali was initially asked to play the part of West, but persuaded Pizzolatto to recast him as Hays, and that suggestion proves the smartest thing that True Detective could have done, making the third season a dramatically potent, layered collision of ideas, tensions and people, and distinguishing this story of personal trauma in backwater America from HBO’s recent masterpiece, Sharp Objects – the Oscar winning actor is as much a creative force behind the show’s current incarnation as Pizzollato, director Jeremy Saulnier (who helms the opening two chapters) and Deadwood creator David Milch (who consulted and co-authored an episode).
With all of this hanging on Ali’s shoulders, you could be forgiven for expecting a larger-than-life performance expanding to occupy the frame. Mahershala, though, goes the opposite way, and wonderfully underplays the entire thing. He’s a listener more than a talker, a character who goes through all the stages of a marriage in front of our eyes, a natural hunter who’s not yet sure what he’s hunting, even decades after the fact – all of which we get from the slightest way in which Ali changes how Hays walks or looks. Just to confirm his talents have no end, he even makes old-age make-up look convincing.
He’s allowed not to take up that space by a generous supporting cast, including the impressive Dorff, who leans into period stereotypes of his sexist cop with a lot of enjoyment and a hint of nuance, and the brilliant Scott McNairy as the missing kids’ father, Tom. “You think they’re lying? I mean, they’re lying – you think it’s regular teenage lying or something else?” asks West, as they try to piece together the puzzle of how Tom’s son and daughter cycled down the road one afternoon, only not to return. How best to canvas the neighbourhood without scaring off the culprit becomes as important as some creepy dolls that keep popping up, but it’s the people that keep you watching more than the crime itself – and, specifically, the impact all of this has had, cumulatively, upon Hays.
Jeremy Saulnier, who dazzled with Green Room, helps bring a sinister streak back to the series, from the chilling woods on the edge of town to the shadowy streets at nighttime. He repeatedly places Hays as a silhouette against the atmospheric backdrop, a gap in the narrative beckoning us to fill him in. It’s echoed gorgeously by the opening credits (once again created by Antibody, who made the titles for Daredevil, Game of Thrones, Westworld and American Gods), which see a blazing sun shine out from between Hays’ eyes, before we plunge into an ominous, moonlit sky. Steve McQueen’s dead. “We should do something,” Hays muses. He doesn’t know what.
True Detective Season 3 premieres at 2am on Monday 14th January on Sky Atlantic, and is available on-demand following its broadcast. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it legally on NOW TV, for £7.99 a month, with no contract and a 14-day free trial. Season 1 and 2 are available on Sky Box Sets and NOW TV.