‘True Detective’ Season 3 Review: An Engrossing Return that Learns from the Past

There has been much hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth since the advent of True Detective’s mostly derided second season after the heights of its first, leading to a very fair and natural question of where its third season might fall on that spectrum. So let’s go ahead and address this right away: True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto has taken the right lessons from the successes of Season 1 and failures of Season 2 to pen a highly engaging whodunnit, one which borrows heavily from the show’s debut season to great effect.

Let’s also get those more specific comparisons out of the way: yes, Season 3 is about two detectives working a difficult case in a southern gothic setting. There is a strong partnership, a falling out, and a coming back together to finally put this haunting mystery to rest. The story also travels through three timelines (more on that in a moment), and provides plenty of ammunition for imaginative viewers about what the truth of the case might be.

Image via HBO

The case is thus: In 1980, in the Arkansas Ozarks, two children disappear. A pair of state detectives, Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) and Roland West (Stephen Dorff), take the lead in the investigation, one that completely destroys the small community and leaves a wave of death in its wake. The case is revived in 1990 with a potential new lead, but most of the time is spent is in ’80 and then around 2014, where a 70-year-old Wayne, battling dementia, is interviewed by the host of a true crime series (Sarah Gadon). With the case being reconsidered in light of new information, Wayne moves through the past that he can remember with fresh insights, hoping he can finally close the book on this tragic tale and be at peace.

For fans of crime series, True Detective’s third season is a really engrossing mystery, bolstered by outstanding performances from its leads. Ali is fantastic as a man grappling with his faults and mistakes of his past through three timelines, making each iteration of Wayne distinct while also providing a clear throughline. He’s is a focused and principled man — as becomes evident immediately through a conversation between him and Roland regarding his personal ethics hunting animals — but he’s not without feeling. Wayne is haunted in every timeline, for different reasons, and Ali is truly magnetic in his exploration of that.

The season also spends a lot of time showing us how Wayne’s marriage to school teacher Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) ebbed and flowed with the case. Rectifying a few of the issues Pizzolatto has had in the past with writing fully-developed female characters, the emotionally intuitive Amelia is presented as a woman who rightfully pushes back against her husband’s desire to control her and minimize her work on a popular book based on the case, one that is a flashpoint between them. And yet, she also falls into too many noir cliches, including a constant assertion that sex solves just about anything.

Image via HBO

Dorff, as Wayne’s partner, is a staid and affable presence, comfortable with an Arkansas drawl and providing the only source of humor in the series (low-key though it is). Scoot McNairy also makes a powerful impression as the father of the missing children, whose life is completely undone by the crime and its aftermath (he too nails the accent, which is crucial to the setting).

Season 3 isn’t as visually inventive as its first, and the cold, gray sky of the Ozarks differs quite a bit from the Louisiana summer sunsets of Season 1. But the narrative is just as compelling, if not even more so, as it weaves the story of the investigation through Wayne’s personal and professional life. The season also cautiously dips a toe in addressing the fact that Wayne is a black cop investigating a case through small towns, and yet, doesn’t make that a focus. And it shouldn’t; it’s acknowledged, but allows Wayne’s story to be defined by the choices he made with the case and with his relationships over anything else.

Unlike Season 1, there isn’t an overarching mythology to the potential perpetrator in this new season, and yet, there are creepy elements (like straw dolls) and some hints to a larger conspiracy peppered throughout the first five episodes (out of eight) available for review. Each episode ends with a very fine cliffhanger, but the overall pace is slow and rich, building an interesting, layered, and very personal story. The turning points of the case aren’t dragged out — there’s no time, so the narrative dolls things out at a reasonable pace — and T Bone Burnett’s soundtrack is again a perfect, twangy accompaniment that sets a gloomy, uneasy mood. It may not be as arresting or iconic as the first season, but time is a flat circle. True Detective has come back around with a true return to form.

Rating: ★★★★

True Detective Season 3 premieres Sunday, January 13th on HBO.