True Detective series 3 is a macho teenager trying hard to grow up
Review: The knotty-noir series is back, and so is the philoso-waffle of season one
True Detective season three: The disappearance of a young Arkansas boy and his sister triggers vivid memories and enduring questions for retired detective Wayne Hays, who worked the case 35 years ago with his then-partner Roland West
It doesn’t take long in the first episode of True Detective season three (Sky Atlantic, Monday, 9pm) to find suspects behind the disappearance of two children in 1980s Arkansas: a bunch of no-good teenagers.
“They’re kind of their own little group,” says their English teacher. “They posture a lot, but I’d say they’re mostly outcasts. Tough attitudes. Can’t talk to girls. That kind of thing.”
That may be true, but how does it make them any different from the cops on True Detective?
As Nic Pizzolatto’s knotty-noir anthology series returns, feeling like a reboot with each series, its one constant may be its adolescent, brooding sense of maleness. Full of chewed-up mumblings. Short on facial expressions. Hollowed out by horrors. Can’t talk to girls. That kind of thing.
The latest incarnations of Pizzolatto’s gloomy partners are William Hays (Mahershala Ali, bringing the gravity of his Oscar-winning performance in Moonlight and the charisma of his role in House of Cards) and Roland West (Stephen Dorff, bringing his trademark lack of effort): essentially, super-cop and his wingman.
Like his partner, Hays is a Vietnam vet, but Hays is a breed apart. In Nam he served as a “lurp” – a long-range reconnaissance something-or-other – super-competent, utterly self-sufficient, and quietly haunted by horrors you can’t imagine.
“He’s got his own thing,” West explains as Hays peels off from a mass search party to find major clues single-handed. A lurp’s gotta lurp.
For all the chewed-up machismo and unswerving self-seriousness, though, this season suggests that True Detective is valiantly trying to grow up. The convoluted, “time is a flat circle” philoso-waffle of series one is back, but less wearisomely.
“Give us your timeline of events,” Hays is asked during a deposition in 1990, to reopen the case of 1980, which he revisits in 2015. Like the non-linear narratives of Lost, Westworld or Fargo, chronology is the real victim of a modern detective show, the timeline brutally dismembered and scattered randomly.
For the 70-year-old Hays – investigating his history through a fug of dementia – this more than a narrative gimmick; it becomes an affecting fight against confusion, for a character whose mind has become a mystery to him.
Refreshingly, too, relationships here are more complicated than the usual trail of resentfully broken marriages and saintly dead wives.
Hays meets Amelia (Carmen Ejogo), the schoolteacher, while investigating the case in 1980; by 1990, they have a family and she has written a true-crime book on the case; and by 2015 he mourns her, a celebrated author, as he assists with a documentary.
There’s something more mature in the arc of that personal drama: for all the challenges to his relationship, this detective is true.
Whether the mystery at the story’s core amounts to much is another question –intrigued viewers have been burned by True Detective before. Nudged along by hints of occultism, paedophilia rings, Catholic Church abuses and political corruption at the highest level, the crime in True Detective always seems to be the Very Worst Thing Imaginable, with furious underscoring, but so misty within the narrative chicanery that it feels no more substantial than a MacGuffin.
“The distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion,” Amelia tells Hays in a later episode, quoting Einstein. Whether the same is true of this series, only time will tell.